Updated: Jan 17, 2022
Xerxes I (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 first Achaemenid king. Like his father, he ruled the empire at its territorial apex. He ruled from 486 BC until his assassination in 465 BC at the hands of Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard.
Xerxes I is notable in Western history for his failed 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. Roman Ghirshman says that, "After this he ceased to use the title of 'king of Babylon', calling himself simply 'king of the Persians and the Medes'." Xerxes also oversaw the completion of various construction projects at Susa and Persepolis.
Xerxes is identified with the king Ahasuerus in the biblical Book of Esther, which scholars generally consider to be fictional.
Xérxēs (Ξέρξης) is the Greek and Latin (Xerxes, Xerses) transliteration of the Old Iranian Xšaya-ṛšā ("ruling over heroes"), which can be seen by the first part xšaya, meaning "ruling", and the second ṛšā, meaning "hero, man". The name of Xerxes was known in Akkadian as Ḫi-ši-ʾ-ar-šá and in Aramaic as ḥšyʾrš. Xerxes would become a popular name among the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire.
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 reports of classical authors, i.e. Ctesias, Plutarch and Justin.
Parentage and birth
Xerxes' father was Darius the Great (r. 522 – 486 BC), the incumbent monarch of the Achaemenid Empire, albeit himself not a member of the family of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the empire. Xerxes' mother was Atossa, a daughter of Cyrus. Darius and Atossa had married in 522 BC, with Xerxes being born around 518 BC.
Upbringing and education
The "Caylus vase", a quadrilingual alabaster jar with cuneiform and hieroglyphic inscriptions in the name of "Xerxes, the Great King". Cabinet des Médailles, Paris
According to the Greek dialogue First Alcibiades, which describes typical upbringing and education of Persian princes; they were raised by eunuchs. When reaching the age of 7, they learn how to ride and hunt; at age 14, they are looked after by four teachers of aristocratic stock, who teach them how to be "wise, just, prudent and brave." Persian princes were also taught on the basics of the Zoroastrian religion, to be truthful, have self-restraint, and to be courageous. The dialogue further adds that "Fear, for a Persian, is the equivalent of slavery." At the age of 16 or 17, they begin their "national service" for 10 years, which included practicing archery and javelin, competing for prizes, and hunting. Afterwards they serve in the military for around 25 years, and are then elevated to the status of elders and advisers of the king.
This account of education among the Persian elite is supported by Xenophon's description of the 5th-century BC Achaemenid prince Cyrus the Younger, with whom he was well-acquainted. Stoneman suggests that this was the type of upbringing and education that Xerxes experienced. It is unknown if Xerxes ever learned to read or write, with the Persians favouring oral history over written literature. Stoneman suggests that Xerxes' upbringing and education was possibly not much different from that of the later Iranian kings, such as Abbas the Great, king of the Safavid Empire in the 17th-century AD. Starting from 498 BC, Xerxes resided in the royal palace of Babylon.
Accession to the throne
While Darius was preparing for another war against Greece, a revolt 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 kilometers 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 the age of 64.
Artobazan claimed the 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 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 to be a result of 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 Artobazan's mother was a commoner while Xerxes's mother was the daughter of the founder of the empire.
Xerxes was crowned and succeeded his father in October–December 486 BC when he was about 36 years old. The transition of power to Xerxes was smooth due again in part to the great authority of Atossa and his accession of royal power was not challenged by any person at court or in the Achaemenian family, or any subject nation.
Consolidation of power
At Xerxes' accession, trouble was brewing in some of his domains. A revolt occurred in Egypt, which seems to have been dangerous enough for Xerxes to personally lead the army to restore order (which also gave him the opportunity to begin his reign with a military campaign). Xerxes suppressed the revolt in January 484 BC, and appointed his full-brother Achaemenes as satrap of the country, replacing the previous satrap Pherendates, who was reportedly killed during the revolt. The suppression of the Egyptian revolt expended the army, which had been mobilized by Darius over the previous three years. Xerxes thus had to raise another army for his expedition into Greece, which took four years. 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 of the name 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 itself 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. It may have been due to tax increase. Prior to these revolts, Babylon had occupied a special position within the Achaemenid Empire, the Achaemenid kings had been titled as "King of Babylon" and "King of the Lands", perceiving Babylonia as a somewhat separate entity within their empire, united with their own kingdom in a personal union. Xerxes dropped "King of Babylon" from his titulature and divided the previously large Babylonian satrapy (accounting for most of the Neo-Babylonian Empire's territory) into smaller sub-units.
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). Modern historian Amélie Kuhrt considers it unlikely that Xerxes destroyed the temples, but believes that the story of him doing so may derive from an anti-Persian sentiment among the Babylonians. 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. Because the change in rulership from the Babylonians themselves to the Persians and due to the replacement of the city's elite families by Xerxes following its revolt, it is possible that the festival's traditional rituals and events had changed considerably.
Invasion of the Greek mainland
The soldiers of Xerxes I, of all ethnicities, on the tomb of Xerxes I, at Naqsh-e Rostam
Darius died while in the process of preparing a second army to invade the Greek mainland, leaving to his son the task of punishing the Athenians, Naxians, and Eretrians for their interference in the Ionian Revolt, the burning of Sardis, and their victory over the Persians at Marathon. From 483 BC, Xerxes prepared his expedition: The Xerxes Canal was dug through the isthmus of the peninsula of Mount Athos, provisions were stored in the stations on the road through Thrace, and two pontoon bridges later known as Xerxes' Pontoon Bridges were built across the Hellespont. Soldiers of many nationalities served in the armies of Xerxes from all over his multi-ethnic massive Eurasian-sized empire and beyond, including the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Jews, Macedonians, European Thracians, Paeonians, Achaean Greeks, Ionians, Aegean islanders, Aeolians, Greeks from Pontus, Colchians, Indians and many more.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes's first attempt to bridge the Hellespont ended in failure when a storm destroyed the flax and papyrus cables of the bridges. In retaliation, Xerxes ordered the Hellespont (the strait itself) whipped three hundred times, and had fetters thrown into the water. Xerxes's second attempt to bridge the Hellespont was successful. The Carthaginian invasion of Sicily deprived Greece of the support of the powerful monarchs of Syracuse and Agrigentum; ancient sources assume Xerxes was responsible, modern scholarship is skeptical. Many smaller Greek states, moreover, took the side of the Persians, especially Thessaly, Thebes and Argos. Xerxes was victorious during the initial battles.
Xerxes set out in the spring of 480 BC from Sardis with a fleet and army which Herodotus estimated was roughly one million strong along with 10,000 elite warriors named the Immortals. More recent estimates place the Persian force at around 60,000 combatants.
Battle of Thermopylae and destruction of Athens
Achaemenid king killing a Greek hoplite. Impression from a cylinder seal, sculpted c. 500 BC–475 BC, at the time of Xerxes I Metropolitan Museum of Art
At the Battle of Thermopylae, a small force of Greek warriors led by King Leonidas of Sparta resisted the much larger Persian forces, but were ultimately defeated. According to Herodotus, the Persians broke the Spartan phalanx after a Greek man called Ephialtes betrayed his country by telling the Persians of another pass around the mountains. At Artemisium, large storms had destroyed ships from the Greek side and so the battle stopped prematurely as the Greeks received news of the defeat at Thermopylae and retreated.
Foundations of the Old Temple of Athena, destroyed by the armies of Xerxes I during the Destruction of Athens in 480 BC
After Thermopylae, Athens was captured. Most of the Athenians had abandoned the city and fled to the island of Salamis before Xerxes arrived. A small group attempted to defend the Athenian Acropolis, but they were defeated. Xerxes ordered the Destruction of Athens and burnt the city, leaving an archaeologically attested destruction layer, known as the Perserschutt. The Persians thus gained control of all of mainland Greece to the north of the Isthmus of Corinth.
Battles of Salamis and Plataea
Xerxes was induced, by the message of Themistocles (against the advice of Artemisia of Halicarnassus), to attack the Greek fleet under unfavourable conditions, rather than sending a part of his ships to the Peloponnesus and awaiting the dissolution of the Greek armies. The Battle of Salamis (September, 480 BC) was won by the Greek fleet, after which Xerxes set up a winter camp in Thessaly.
According to Herodotus, fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes decided to retreat back to Asia, taking the greater part of the army with him. Another cause of the retreat might have been that the continued unrest in Babylon, a key province of the empire, required the king's personal attention. He left behind a contingent in Greece to finish the campaign under Mardonius, who according to Herodotus had suggested the retreat in the first place. This force was defeated the following year at Plataea by the combined forces of the Greek city states, ending the Persian offensive on Greece for good.
The rock-cut tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam north of Persepolis, copying that of Darius, is usually assumed to be that of Xerxes
After the military blunders in Greece, Xerxes returned to Persia and oversaw the completion of the many construction projects left unfinished by his father at Susa and Persepolis. He oversaw the building of the Gate of All Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, which are the largest and most imposing structures of the palace. He oversaw the completion of the Apadana, the Tachara (Palace of Darius) and the Treasury, all started by Darius, as well as having his own palace built which was twice the size of his father's. His taste in architecture was similar to that of Darius, though on an even more gigantic scale. He had colorful enameled 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.
This cuneiform text mentions the murder of Xerxes I by his son. From Babylon, Iraq. British Museum
In August 465 BC, Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court, assassinated Xerxes with the help of a eunuch, Aspamitres. 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.
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's 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.
While there is no general consensus in scholarship 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. On 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 disorder.
Wives and children
Xerxes being designated by Darius I. Tripylon, Persepolis. The ethnicities of the Empire are shown supporting the throne. Ahuramazda crowns the scene.
By queen Amestris:
Amytis, wife of Megabyzus.
Darius, the first born, murdered by Artaxerxes I or Artabanus.
Hystaspes, murdered by Artaxerxes I.
Achaemenes, murdered by Egyptians.
By unknown wives or mistresses:
Artarius, satrap of Babylon.
Arsames or Arsamenes or Arxanes or Sarsamas, satrap of Egypt.
Trilingual inscription of Xerxes at Van (present-day Turkey)
Xerxes is the central character of the Aeschylus play "The Persians". Xerxes is the protagonist of the opera Serse by the German-English Baroque composer George Frideric Handel. It was first performed in the King's Theatre London on 15 April 1738. The famous aria "Ombra mai fù" opens the opera.
The murder of Xerxes by Artabanus (Artabano), execution of crown prince Darius (Dario), revolt by Megabyzus (Megabise), and subsequent succession of Artaxerxes I is romanticised by the Italian poet Metastasio in his opera libretto Artaserse, which was first set to music by Leonardo Vinci, and subsequently by other composers such as Johann Adolf Hasse and Johann Christian Bach.
The historical novel Xerxes of de Hoogmoed (1919) by Dutch writer Louis Couperus describes the Persian wars from the perspective of Xerxes. Though the account is fictionalised, Couperus nevertheless based himself on an extensive study of Herodotus. The English translation Arrogance: The Conquests of Xerxes by Frederick H. Martens appeared in 1930.
Queen Esther, a Jewish queen of Xerxes (Edwin Long, 19th century)
Later generations' fascination with ancient Sparta, particularly the Battle of Thermopylae, has led to Xerxes' portrayal in works of popular culture. He was played by David Farrar in the fictional film The 300 Spartans (1962), where he is portrayed as a cruel, power-crazed despot and an inept commander. He also features prominently in the graphic novels 300 and Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander by Frank Miller, as well as the film adaptation 300 (2007) and its sequel 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), as portrayed by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, in which he is represented as a giant man with androgynous qualities, who claims to be a god-king. This portrayal attracted controversy, especially in Iran. Ken Davitian plays Xerxes in Meet the Spartans, a parody of the first 300 movie replete with sophomoric humour and deliberate anachronisms.
Other works dealing with the Persian Empire or the Biblical story of Esther have also featured or alluded to Xerxes, such as the video game Assassin's Creed II and the film One Night with the King (2006), in which Ahasuerus (Xerxes) was portrayed by British actor Luke Goss. He is the leader of the Persian Empire in the video game Civilization II and III (along with Scheherazade), although Civilization IV replaces him with Cyrus the Great and Darius I. In the Age of Empires, Xerxes featured as a short swordsman.
Xerxes (Ahasuerus) by Ernest Normand, 1888 (detail)
Gore Vidal, in his historical fiction novel Creation (1981), describes at length the rise of the Achemenids, especially Darius I, and presents the life and death circumstances of Xerxes. Vidal's version of the Persian Wars, which diverges from the orthodoxy of the Greek histories, is told through the invented character of Cyrus Spitama, a half-Greek, half-Persian, and grandson of the prophet Zoroaster. Thanks to his family connection, Cyrus is brought up in the Persian court after the murder of Zoroaster, becoming the boyhood friend of Xerxes, and later a diplomat who is sent to India, and later to Greece, and who is thereby able to gain privileged access to many leading historical figures of the period.
Xerxes (Ahasuerus) is portrayed by Richard Egan in the 1960 film Esther and the King and by Joel Smallbone in the 2013 film, The Book of Esther. In at least one of these films, the events of the Book of Esther are depicted as taking place upon Xerxes' return from Greece.
Xerxes plays an important background role (never making an appearance) in two short works of alternate history taking place generations after his complete victory over Greece. These are: "Counting Potsherds" by Harry Turtledove in his anthology Departures and "The Craft of War" by Lois Tilton in Alternate Generals volume 1 (edited by Turtledove).