|King of Kings
King of Persia
Pharaoh of Egypt
Rock relief of Xerxes at his tomb in Naqsh-e Rustam
|King of Persia|
|Coronation||October 486 BC|
|Died||465 BC (aged 53 or 54)
Xerxes I of Persia (//; Old Persian: 𐎧𐏁𐎹𐎠𐎼𐏁𐎠 x-š-y-a-r-š-a, meaning "ruling over heroes", Greek Ξέρξης [ksérksɛːs]; 519–465 BC), also known as Xerxes the Great, was the fourth of the king of kings of the Achaemenid Empire. He ruled from 486 BC until his assassination in 465 BC at the hands of Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard.
He is notable in Western history for his invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Like his predecessor Darius I, he ruled the empire at its territorial apex, although Xerxes I would briefly manage to conquer even more land of mainland Greece than Darius I through the battles at Thermopylae and Artemisium, overrunning Attica, Boeotia, Euboea, Thessaly, and the rest of mainland Greece to the north of the Isthmus of Corinth, until the losses at Salamis and Plataea which reversed these gains and would eventually end the second invasion decisively.
Rise to power
Xerxes was born to Darius I and Atossa (daughter of Cyrus the Great). Darius and Atossa were both Achaemenids as they were both descendants of Achaemenes. 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 Perseopolis. 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), Darius prepared his tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam (five kilometers from his royal palace at Perseopolis) 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, because it was an established custom all over the world for the eldest to have the pre-eminence; while Xerxes, on the other hand, urged that he was sprung from Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, and that it was Cyrus who had won the Persians their freedom. 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.
Almost immediately, Xerxes crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon that had broken out the year before, and appointed his brother Achaemenes as satrap over Egypt. In 484 BC, he outraged the Babylonians by violently confiscating and melting down the golden statue of Bel (Marduk, Merodach), the hands of which the rightful king of Babylon had to clasp each New Year's Day. This sacrilege led the Babylonians to rebel in 484 BC and 482 BC, so that in contemporary Babylonian documents, Xerxes refused his father's title of King of Babylon, being named rather as King of Persia and Media, Great King, King of Kings (Shahanshah) and King of Nations (i.e. of the world). This comes from the Daiva Inscriptions of Xerxes Lines 6-13.
Invasion of the Greek mainland
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, 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. Xerxes concluded an alliance with Carthage, and thus deprived Greece of the support of the powerful monarchs of Syracuse and Agrigentum. 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 Persian Immortals. More recent estimates place the Persian force at around 60,000 combatants.
Thermopylae and Athens
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. After Thermopylae, Athens was captured and the Athenians were driven back to their last line of defense at the Isthmus of Corinth and in the Saronic Gulf, enabling the Persians to overrun all of mainland Greece to the north of it.
What happened next is a matter of some controversy. According to Herodotus, upon encountering the deserted city, in a fit of rage uncharacteristic even for Persian kings, Xerxes had Athens burned. He immediately regretted this action and ordered it rebuilt the next day. However, Persian scholars dispute this view as pan-Hellenic propaganda, arguing that Sparta, not Athens, was Xerxes's main foe in his Greek campaigns, and that Xerxes would have had nothing to gain by destroying a major center of trade and commerce like Athens once he had already captured it.
At that time, anti-Persian sentiment was high among many mainland Greeks, and the rumor that Xerxes had destroyed the city was a popular one, though it is equally likely the fire was started by accident as the Athenians were frantically fleeing the scene in pandemonium, or that it was an act of "scorched earth" warfare to deprive Xerxes's army of the spoils of the city.
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. 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 continued unrest in Babylon, which being a key province of the Achaemenid Empire required the king's own 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.
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 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 also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a palace at Susa.
In 465 BC, Xerxes was murdered by Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court. 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.
In August 465 BC, Artabanus assassinated Xerxes 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'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.
By queen Amestris:
- Amytis, wife of Megabyzus
- Darius, the first born, murdered by Artaxerxes I or Artabanus.
- Hystaspes, murdered by Artaxerxes I.
- Artaxerxes I
- Achaemenes, murdered by Egyptians.
By unknown wives:
- Artarius, satrap of Babylon.
- Arsames or Arsamenes or Arxanes or Sarsamas satrap of Egypt.
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.
Later generations' fascination with ancient Sparta, and particularly the Battle of Thermopylae, has led to Xerxes' portrayal in works of popular culture, although more often than not in a negative light, often portraying him as ranging from unsympathetic to megalomaniacal. This can be blamed largely on the fact that most sources from the period are of Greek origin. The authors of these sources generally demonize Xerxes in a manner that is reflected in more modern works. For instance, 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 novel 300 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 (a blatant historical inaccuracy as regards Zoroastrianism). This portrayal has 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 referenced 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.
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 this 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 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).
Etymology and transliteration
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Xerxes IBorn: 519 BC Died: 465 BC
|King of Kings of Persia
485 BC – 465 BC
|Pharaoh of Egypt
485 BC – 465 BC