|Statue of XERXES I, National Museum of Iran
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Xerxes I (Khashayar Shah – c. 518 – August 465 BC), commonly known as Xerxes the Great, was the fourth King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire, ruling from 486 to 465 BC. He was the son and successor of Darius the Great (r. 522–486 BC), and his mother was Atossa, a daughter of Cyrus the Great (r. 550–530 BC), the founder of the Achaemenid empire. Like his father, he ruled the empire at its territorial apex. He ruled from 486 BC until he was assassinated in 465 BC at the hands of Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard.
King Xerxes I is notable in Western history for his invasion of Greece in 480 BC. His forces temporarily overran mainland Greece north of the Isthmus of Corinth until losses at Salamis and Plataea, a year later, reversed these gains and ended the second invasion decisively. However, Xerxes successfully crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon. Xerxes also oversaw the completion of various construction projects at Susa and
Tom Holland’s book (Persian Fire: The First World Empire, Battle for the West) describes how, in 480 BC, Xerxes, the King of Persia, led the invasion of mainland Greece. Its success should have been a formality. For 70 years, victory – rapid, spectacular victory – had seemed the birthright of the Persian Empire as they swept across the Near East, “shattering ancient kingdoms, storming famous cities, putting together an empire which stretched from India to the shores of the Aegean.” As a result of those conquests, Xerxes ruled as the most powerful man on Earth. Yet somehow, astonishingly, against the largest expeditionary force ever assembled, the Greeks of the mainland managed to repel the invading Persians, and Greece remained free.
Xerxes is identified with the king Ahasuerus in the biblical Book of Esther, which some scholars (including Eduard Schwartz, William Rainey Harper and Michael V. Fox) consider was a historical romance. However, there is nothing close to a consensus on what historical event provided the basis for the story.
A Bad Reputation
Much of Xerxes’ bad reputation is due to propaganda by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 BC), who had him vilified. The modern historian Richard Stoneman regards the portrayal of Xerxes as “more nuanced and tragic in the work of the contemporary Greek historian Herodotus.” However, many modern historians agree that Herodotus recorded spurious information. Pierre Briant has accused him of presenting a stereotyped and biased portrayal of the Persians. Many Achaemenid-era clay tablets and other reports written in Elamite, Akkadian, Egyptian, and Aramaic are frequently contradictory to the writings of classical authors, such as Ctesias, Plutarch, and Justin.
Although most famous for his failure to conquer Greece, King Xerxes is perhaps one of the most notorious Achaemenid Persian kings, with a reputation for harsh punishments, womanising, and living extravagantly on the Persian empire’s coffers. He increased taxes considerably and built immense palaces and other projects at Persepolis, leaving his mark on the history of both Europe and Asia.
King Xerxes was around 35 years old when he came to power and had spent over a decade as the satrap of Babylonia. His predecessors had honoured Babylon as a special part of the empire, acknowledging themselves as “King of Babylon” or “King of the Lands” However, Xerxes I abandoned the title, instead referring to himself as “King of the Persians and the Medes.” His division of the Babylonian satrap into smaller provinces and increasing taxes, combined with his spurring of the city’s prestige, appeared to incite a series of revolts. Before these revolts, Babylon had occupied a special position within the Achaemenid Empire, the Achaemenid kings perceiving Babylonia as a somewhat separate entity within their empire, united with their own kingdom in a personal union.
Xerxes I occupies an infamous place in the annals of Greek history due to his massive invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Xerxes sought revenge for his father’s defeat at Marathon a decade earlier. After a naval victory at Artemisium, the Persians annihilated the forces of Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae. Xerxes’ army then ran amok in Greece, and Athens was sacked.
King Xerxes I’s bad reputation comes from the fact that many scholars who wrote about him were Greek. Xerxes had invaded Greece and conquered a large part of the mainland. As would be expected, it made the Greek historians biased against Xerxes I and more likely to view his actions in a bad light. Some modern scholars opine that Xerxes I was no better or worse than other Persian emperors.
- the building of the Gate of All Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, which are the palace’s largest and most imposing structures.
- the completion of the Apadana, the Tachara (Palace of Darius) and the Treasury – all started by Darius – and had his own palace built, which was twice the size of his father’s.
Xerxes’ architectural taste was similar to his father’s, although on an even more gigantic scale. He had colourful enamelled brick laid on the exterior face of the Apadana. He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate, and built a palace in Susa.
Upbringing, Education and Religion of Persian Princes
According to the Greek dialogue First Alcibiades, which describes the typical upbringing and education of Persian princes, they were raised by eunuchs. At age seven, the princes learned how to ride and hunt; at age 14, they were taught by four teachers of aristocratic stock, who taught them how to be “wise, just, prudent and brave”. Persian princes were also taught the basics of the Zoroastrian religion, to be truthful, to have self-restraint, and to be courageous. The dialogue further added that “Fear, for a Persian, is the equivalent of slavery.” At age 16 or 17, they began their “national service” for ten years, which included practising archery and javelin, competing for prizes, and hunting. Afterwards, they served in the military for around 25 years and were then elevated to the status of elders and advisers of the king. Families in this time, including Xerxes’, would intermarry.
While there is no consensus on whether Xerxes and his predecessors had been influenced by Zoroastrianism, it is well established that Xerxes was a firm believer in Ahura Mazda, whom he saw as the supreme deity. However, Ahura Mazda was also worshipped by adherents of the Indo-Iranian religious tradition. In his treatment of other religions, Xerxes followed the same policy as his predecessors; he appealed to local religious scholars, made sacrifices to local deities, and destroyed temples in cities and countries that caused revolts and disorder.
Xerxes’ Accession to the Throne
While Darius was preparing for another war against Greece, a revolt was spurred in Egypt in 486 BC due to heavy taxes and the deportation of craftsmen to build the royal palaces at Susa and Persepolis. Under Persian law, the king was required to choose a successor before setting out on dangerous expeditions. When Darius decided to leave (487–486 BC), he (Darius) prepared his tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam (five kilometres from his royal palace at Persepolis) and appointed Xerxes, his eldest son by Atossa, as his successor. However, Darius could not lead the campaign due to his failing health and died in October 486 BC at age 64.
Xerxes was the son of Darius I and Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus; he was the first son born to Darius after his accession to the throne. Xerxes was designated heir apparent by his father in preference to his elder brother Artabazanes. When his father died, in 486 BCE, Xerxes was 32 to 35 years old and had already governed Babylonia for a dozen years.
At first, Artobazan had claimed Darius’ crown as the eldest of all the children; while Xerxes, on the other hand, argued that he was sprung from Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus and that it was Cyrus who had won the Persians their freedom. Xerxes was also helped by a Spartan king in exile who was present in Persia at the time (Eurypontid king Demaratus) who also argued that the eldest son does not universally mean they have a claim to the crown, as Spartan law states that the first son born while the father is king is the heir to the kingship. Some modern scholars also view the unusual decision of Darius to give the throne to Xerxes resulted from his consideration of the unique positions that Cyrus the Great and his daughter Atossa enjoyed. Artobazan was born to “Darius the subject”, while Xerxes was the eldest son born in the purple after Darius’s rise to the throne and whilst Artobazan’s mother was a commoner, Xerxes’s mother was the daughter of the founder of the empire.
Xerxes was crowned and succeeded his father in October–December 486 BC. The transition of power to Xerxes was smooth – partly due to the great authority of Atossa, Xerxes’ mother. Xerxes’ accession and assumption of royal power was unchallenged by any person at court, the Achaemenian family, or any subject nation.
At the time of Xerxes’ accession, trouble was brewing in some of his domains.
A revolt occurred in Egypt, which seems to have been serious enough for Xerxes to personally lead the army to restore order, allowing him to begin his reign with a military campaign. Xerxes suppressed that revolt in January 484 BC and appointed his full-brother Achaemenes as satrap of the country, replacing the previous satrap Pherendates, who (reportedly) was killed during the revolt. The suppression of the Egyptian uprising depleted the Persian army, which had been mobilised by Darius over the previous three years, requiring Xerxes to raise another army for his expedition into Greece, which took four years to put together.
There was also unrest in Babylon, which revolted at least twice against Xerxes. The first revolt broke out in June or July of 484 BC and was led by a rebel named Bel-shimanni. Bel-shimmani’s revolt was short-lived; Babylonian documents written during his reign only account for a period of two weeks. Two years later, Babylon produced another rebel leader, Shamash-eriba. Beginning in the summer of 482 BC, Shamash-eriba seized Babylon and other nearby cities, such as Borsippa and Dilbat, and was only defeated in March 481 BC after a lengthy siege of Babylon. The precise cause of the unrest in Babylon is uncertain, but it may have been due to Xerxes’ swingeing tax increases.
Using texts written by classical authors, it is often assumed that Xerxes enacted a brutal vengeance on Babylon following the two revolts. According to ancient writers, Xerxes destroyed Babylon’s fortifications and damaged the temples in the city. The Esagila
was allegedly exposed to great damage, and Xerxes allegedly carried the statue of Marduk away from the city, possibly bringing it to Iran and melting it down (classical authors held that the statue was entirely made of gold, which would have made melting it down possible). It is doubtful if the statue was removed from Babylon at all, and some have even suggested that Xerxes did remove a statue from the city, but that this was the golden statue of a man rather than the statue of the god Marduk. Though mentions of it are lacking considerably compared to earlier periods, contemporary documents suggest that the Babylonian New Year’s Festival continued in some form during the Achaemenid period.
Dealing with Greece
Xerxes had a score to settle with Greece, where he was known as The Warrior; his massive army invaded Greece in 480 BCE for a variety of reasons, including:
- Revenge for his father’s humiliating defeat ten years previously in 490 BCE (Xerxes’ father had abandoned the Persian invasion of Greece after an embarrassing defeat at Marathon in 490).
- The prompting of his general and cousin, Mardonius, who wanted to be the satrap of Greece.
- The vengeful encouragement of the banished Athenian tyrant,
- The self-serving prophecies of another Athenian expatriate, Onomakritus (Onomacritus).
The only man to tell Xerxes not to invade Greece was his uncle, Artabanus. Xerxes first quelled the rebellious Egyptians and Ionian Greeks along the coast of Asia Minor; he then proceeded with his plans to subjugate Greece; the army he assembled to march on Greece was immense, consisting of perhaps as many as five hundred thousand men, not counting the support personnel; this figure is disputed because the only evidence is the word of the historian Herodotus, but regardless of the actual size of the Persian army, the Greeks were heavily outnumbered by an overwhelming margin.
The Second Persian Invasion of Greece
The second Persian invasion of Greece (480–479 BC) occurred during the Greco-Persian Wars, as King Xerxes I of Persia sought to conquer all of Greece. The invasion was a direct, albeit delayed, response to the defeat of the first Persian invasion of Greece (492–490 BC) at the Battle of Marathon, which ended Darius I‘s attempts to conquer Greece. After Darius’s death, his son Xerxes spent several years planning for the second invasion, mustering an enormous army and navy. The Athenians and Spartans (as Allies) led the Greek resistance. About a tenth of the Greek city-states joined the ‘Allied’ effort; most remained neutral or submitted to Xerxes.
The invasion began in the spring of 480 BC, but there were challenges along the way. The Persian army crossed the Hellespont and marched through Thrace and Macedon to Thessaly and journeyed to the Dardanelles (Hellespont) Strait, separating Asia from Europe. To get his army quickly into Greece, Xerxes ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge across the 1300-yard strait. But before his army could cross the waters, a storm blew in, and the bridge was destroyed. It was too much for Xerxes to bear: adding to his other bizarre actions and infuriated with what had happened, Xerxes and his men imposed punishment by whipping the sea with chains 300 times as his soldiers watched and shouted curses at the water. Xerxes also ordered the beheading of the bridge engineers.
The Persian advance was blocked at the pass of Thermopylae by a small Allied force under King Leonidas I of Sparta; simultaneously, the Persian fleet was blocked by an Allied fleet at the straits of Artemisium. At the famous Battle of Thermopylae, the Allied army held back the Persian army for three days before they were outflanked by a mountain path and the Allied rearguard was trapped and annihilated. The Allied fleet had also withstood two days of Persian attacks at the Battle of Artemisium, but when news reached them of the disaster at Thermopylae, they withdrew to Salamis. After Thermopylae, all of Euboea, Phocis, Boeotia and Attica fell to the Persian army, which captured and burnt Athens. However, a larger Allied army fortified the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, protecting the Peloponnesus from Persian conquest. Both sides thus sought a naval victory that might decisively alter the course of the war.
The Athenian general Themistocles successfully lured the Persian navy into the narrow Straits of Salamis, where a huge number of Persian ships became disorganised and were soundly beaten by the Allied fleet. The Allied victory at Salamis prevented a quick conclusion to the invasion, and fearing becoming trapped in Europe, Xerxes retreated to Asia leaving his general Mardonius to finish the conquest with the elite of the Persian army.
The following spring, the Allies assembled the largest-ever hoplite army and marched north from the Isthmus to confront Mardonius. At the ensuing Battle of Plataea, the Greek infantry again proved its superiority, inflicting a severe defeat on the Persians and killing Mardonius in the process. On the same day, across the Aegean Sea, an Allied navy destroyed the remnants of the Persian navy at the Battle of Mycale. With this double defeat, the invasion was ended, and Persian power in the Aegean severely dented. The Greeks moved to the offensive, eventually expelling the Persians from Europe, the Aegean islands and Ionia before the war ended in 479 BC. Although beaten back twice by the Greeks, Xerxes later captured northern Greece for some time, only to lose it again a year later in the battles of Salamis and Plataea.
After failing to subjugate Greece, Xerxes I started work on a lavish construction program in Persepolis at great expense to his subjects. He built a new palace and began work on the monumental Hall of a Hundred Columns.
Xerxes should be familiar to biblical students since he appears in two books of the Old Testament:
- in the book of Esther he is called by his Hebrew name Ahasuerus; and
- in the book of Ezra (4:6), he is mentioned in relation to an accusation lodged against the Jews in his reign.
The most important source is the Histories written by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 480– c. 429 BCE), a Greek historian who described the expansion of the Persian Empire from Cyrus to Xerxes.
Family and Death of King Xerxes I
The Wives and Children of King Xerxes I
|By Queen Amestris
Amytis, married to Megabyzus.
Darius, the first-born son, murdered by Artaxerxes I or Artabanus
Hystaspes, murdered by Artaxerxes I
Artaxerxes I, successor to Xerxes I
Achaemenes, murdered by Egyptians
|By Unknown Wives or Mistresses
Artarius, satrap of Babylon.
Arsames or Arsamenes or Arxanes or Sarsamas, satrap of Egypt.
Other children are believed to be: Ariabignes, Ariomardos, Artobarzanes, Gobryas, Hyperantes and Masistes.
Xerxes I was murdered in August 465 BC by Hazarapat (“commander of thousand“) Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court, with the help of a eunuch, Aspamitres. Greek historians give contradicting accounts of events. According to Ctesias (in Persica 20), Artabanus then accused the Crown Prince Darius, Xerxes’s eldest son, of the murder and persuaded another of Xerxes’ sons, Artaxerxes, to avenge the patricide by killing Darius. But according to Aristotle (in Politics 5.1311b), Artabanus killed Darius first and then killed Xerxes.
After Artaxerxes discovered the murder, he killed Artabanus and his sons. Participating in these intrigues was the general Megabyzus, whose decision to switch sides probably saved the Achaemenids from losing their control of the Persian throne. Although Artabanus bore the same name as the famed uncle of Xerxes, a (Hyrcanian), his rise to prominence was due to his popularity in religious quarters of the court and harem intrigues. He put his seven sons in key positions and had a plan to dethrone the Achaemenids.
Quotations by Xerxes I
From: The Daiva Inscription: Trilingual, on stone tablets
- By the favour of Ahuramazda, these are the countries of which I was king; Media, Elam, Arachosia, Armenia, Drangiana, Parthia, Aria, Bactria, Sogdiana, Chorasmia, Babylonia, Assyria, Sattagydia, Sardis, Egypt, Ionians, those who dwell by the sea and those who dwell across the sea, men of Maka, Arabia, Gandara, Sind, Cappadocia, Dahae, Amyrgian Scythians, Pointed-Cap Scythians, Skudra, men of Akaufaka, Libyans, Carians, Ethiopians.
When that I became king, there is among these countries which are inscribed above (one which) was in commotion. Afterwards, Ahuramazda bore me aid; by the favour of Ahuramazda, I smote that country and put it down in its place.
- And among these countries, there was (a place) where previously false gods Daevas were worshipped. Afterwards, by the favour of Ahuramazda, I destroyed that sanctuary of the demons, and I made proclamation, “The demons shall not be worshipped!” Where previously the demons were worshipped, there I worshipped Ahuramazda and Arta reverent(ly).
And there was other (business) that had been done ill; that I made good. That which I did, all I did by the favour of Ahuramazda. Ahuramazda bore me aid until I completed the work.
- The man who has respect for that law which
Ahuramazda has established, and worships Ahuramazda and Arta reverent(ly), he both becomes happy while living, and becomes blessed when dead.
From: OP and Akk. on limestone tablet simulating a clay tablet
- When I became king, I built much excellent (construction). What had been built by my father (Darius I), that I protected, and other building I added. What moreover I built, and what my father built, all that by the favour of Ahuramazda we built.
- My father was Darius; Darius’s father was named Hystaspes; Hystaspes’s father was named Arsames. Both Hystaspes and Arsames were both living at that time – thus to Ahuramazda was the desire – Darius, who was my father, him he made king on this earth. When Darius became king, he built much excellent (construction).
- Other sons of Darius there were, (but) – thus to Ahuramaida was the desire – Darius my father made me the greatest after himself. When my father Darius went away from the throne, by the will of Ahuramazda I became king on my father’s throne. When I became king, I built much excellent (construction). What had been built by my father, that I protected, and other building I added. What moreover I built, and what my father built, all that by the favour of Ahuramazda we built.
Quote about Xerxes I
- Shall I pass by and leave you lying there because of the expedition you led against Greece, or shall I set you up again because of your magnanimity and your virtues in other respects?
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 Sources: (1) Lazenby, J. F. (1993). The Defence of Greece, 490–479 B.C. Aris & Phillips. ISBN 978-0856685910., and (2) Carey, Brian Todd; Allfree, Joshua; Cairns, John (19th January 2006). Warfare in the Ancient World. Pen and Sword. ISBN 1848846304.
 Tom Holland’s book, Persian Fire: The First World Empire, Battle for the West, is available from Amazon at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Persian-Fire-First-Empire-Battle/dp/0349117179/
 Sources: (1) Fox, Michael V. (2010). Character and ideology in the book of Esther. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock. p. 145. ISBN 9781608994953, and (2) Harper, William Rainey (October 1889). “The postexilic history of Israel”. The Old and New Testament Student. 9: 227–8. ISSN 0190-5937.
 Sources: (1)“Book of Esther | Summary & Facts”, (2) McCullough, W. S. (28th July 2011) [15th December 1984]. “Ahasureus”. Encyclopædia Iranica. There may be some factual nucleus behind the Esther narrative, but the book in its present form displays such inaccuracies and inconsistencies that it must be described as a piece of historical fiction. (3) Meyers, Carol (2007). Barton, John; Muddiman, John (eds.). The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press. p. 325. ISBN 9780199277186. Like the Joseph story in Genesis and the book of Daniel, it is a fictional piece of prose writing involving the interaction between foreigners and Hebrews/Jews. and (4) Hirsch, Emil G.; Dyneley Prince, John; Schechter, Solomon (1906). Singer, Isidor; Adler, Cyrus (eds.). “Esther”. Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 25th April 2020. The vast majority of modern expositors have reached the conclusion that the book is a piece of pure fiction, although some writers qualify their criticism by trying to treat it as a historical romance.
 Sources: (1) Briant, Pierre (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns. p 57. ISBN 9781575061207, and (2) Radner, Karen (2013). “Assyria and the Medes”, P454. In Potts, Daniel T. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199733309. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerxes_I
 Source: Briant, Pierre, as above, pp. 158, 516.
 Source: ibid. Explanation: A satrap was a provincial governor or local ruler in the ancient Persian empire, serving as viceroy to the king, though with considerable autonomy.
 Source:Fergusson, James. A History of Architecture in All Countries, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day: 1. Ancient architecture. 2. Christian architecture. xxxi, 634 p. front., illus. p. 211.
 Source: Herodotus VII.11
 A eunuch is a man who has been castrated. Throughout history, castration often served a specific social function. The earliest records for intentional castration to produce eunuchs are from the Sumerian city of Lagash in the 2nd millennium BC. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eunuch
 Explanation: Zoroastrianism or Mazdayasna is an Iranian religion and one of the world’s oldest organised faiths, based on the teachings of the Iranian-speaking prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zaraθuštra in Avestan or as Zartosht in Persian). Sources: https://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/zoroaster-i-the-name and https://www.britannica.com/biography/Zarathustra Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism
 Source: Stoneman, as above, p.28
 Ibid, p.29
 Ibid, p.29
 Source: Malandra, William W. (2005). “Zoroastrianism i. Historical review up to the Arab conquest”. Encyclopaedia Iranica. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerxes_I.
 Source: Shabani, Reza (2007). Khshayarsha (Xerxes). What do I know about Iran? No. 75 (in Persian). Cultural Research Bureau. p. 120. ISBN 978-964-379-109-4. Referenced at: https://en.wikipeia.org/wiki/Xerxes_I
 Source: Dandamayev, Muhammad A. (1993). “Xerxes and the Esagila Temple in Babylon”. Bulletin of the Asia Institute. 7: 41–45. JSTOR 24048423. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerxes_I.
 Source: Deloucas, Andrew Alberto Nicolas (2016). “Balancing Power and Space: a Spatial Analysis of the Akītu Festival in Babylon after 626 BCE” (PDF). Research Master’s Thesis for Classical and Ancient Civilizations (Assyriology). Universiteit Leiden. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xerxes_I.
 Explanation: Hoplites were citizen-soldiers of Ancient Greek city-states who were primarily armed with spears and shields. Hoplite soldiers used the phalanx formation to be effective in war with fewer soldiers. The formation discouraged the soldiers from acting alone, for this would compromise the formation and minimize its strengths. The hoplites were primarily represented by free citizens – propertied farmers and artisans – who were able to afford linen armour or a bronze armour suit and weapons (estimated at a third to a half of its able-bodied adult male population). Most hoplites were not professional soldiers and often lacked sufficient military training. Sources: Neer, Richard T. (2012). Art & Archaeology of the Greek World: A New History, C. 2500-c. 150 BC. New York: Thames & Hudson. p. 95. ISBN 9780500288771. OCLC 745332893 and Gat, Azar (2006). War in Human Civilization. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 295–98. ISBN 978-0199236633. Referenced at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoplite
 Read about Histories at: https://theconversation.com/guide-to-the-classics-the-histories-by-herodotus-53748