His­tory Mak­ers: Xerxes

The son of Dar­ius I had big boots to fill upon his father’s death – ones that, ac­cord­ing to the Greeks at least, slipped from Xerxes’ feet for the du­ra­tion of his reign. Alice Barnes-Brown tells his story

History Revealed - - CONTENTS -

The Per­sian ‘King of Kings’ dares to take on the An­cient Greek em­pire

“I am Xerxes, great King, King of Kings, the King of all coun­tries… the King on this great Earth far and wide” Xerxes, in an in­scrip­tion on a foun­da­tion tablet at Perse­po­lis

The Per­sian ‘King of Kings’, Xerxes I, looked out across the Sa­ronic Gulf. Seated on his throne atop the im­pos­ing Mount Ai­ga­leo, a won­der­ful van­tage point just out­side Athens, he watched his mighty naval fleet do bat­tle with the Greeks at the Bat­tle of Salamis. What he saw, how­ever, would dis­ap­point him and send him (and many of his men) pack­ing for good. His ar­ro­gance would prove to be his down­fall, not only in Greece, but within the whole Per­sian Em­pire.


Xerxes, per­haps, had rea­son to be ar­ro­gant. He was born circa 519 BC to King Dar­ius I of the pow­er­ful Achaemenid dy­nasty, who had ruled the Per­sian Em­pire at its great­est ex­tent – stretch­ing from Pak­istan to north­ern Greece. Fur­ther­more, his mother was Atossa, the daugh­ter of Cyrus the Great – the em­pire’s founder. Xerxes’ early life was, there­fore, one of lux­ury and van­ity, hav­ing been wor­shipped by his staff and ac­cus­tomed to get­ting his own way.

Dar­ius died in 486 BC, just be­fore his sec­ond in­va­sion of Greece. Over a decade ear­lier, the Per­sian-oc­cu­pied ar­eas of this neigh­bour­ing civil­i­sa­tion had grown tired of their tyran­ni­cal pup­pet gov­ern­ment, and in­sti­gated what be­came known as the Io­nian Re­volt. A first at­tempt to quash the Greeks had failed, but Dar­ius was will­ing to try again. Per­sian tra­di­tion dic­tated that, in case any­thing hap­pened to him on cam­paign, he would have to choose a suc­ces­sor first. Dar­ius chose Xerxes, in spite of the fact he was not the el­dest son. Nat­u­rally, this en­raged Xerxes’ older half-brother, Ar­to­bazanes, mark­ing the start of a tricky power strug­gle.

Prior to Xerxes’ crown­ing, Ar­to­bazanes con­tested the de­ci­sion and ar­gued that only a king’s el­dest son could be the le­git­i­mate suc­ces­sor. In re­tal­i­a­tion, Xerxes en­listed the help of an ex­iled Spar­tan king named De­mara­tus, who ar­gued that Spar­tan tra­di­tion did not follow this ap­par­ently uni­ver­sally ac­cepted rule. But Xerxes’ trump card was his an­ces­try – as a di­rect de­scen­dant of Cyrus the Great, the man who had founded the Per­sian Em­pire in the first place, he pos­sessed an il­lus­tri­ous fam­ily tree. His em­bit­tered sib­ling did not.

He also had his mother on hand to help. Atossa, the most re­spected and beloved of all Dar­ius’s wives, held a mas­sive de­gree of in­flu­ence. She en­sured that her son’s ac­ces­sion went smoothly, and that Ar­to­bazanes faded into ob­scu­rity. After all, who would dare ques­tion the daugh­ter of the great Cyrus?

As king, one of the first things Xerxes did was crush large re­volts in Per­sian-oc­cu­pied Baby­lon. He an­gered its in­hab­i­tants fur­ther when he crassly de­stroyed a golden statue of the god Mar­duk, even though Baby­lo­nian cus­tom stated that the le­git­i­mate ruler of the land had to hon­our it each New Year. Such dis­re­spect for these tra­di­tions clearly demon­strated that Xerxes was not a ruler to be tri­fled with, and made him ex­tremely un­pop­u­lar. As the Pharaoh of Egypt, he de­stroyed yet an­other in­sur­rec­tion there. Of course, the Egyp­tians re­ceived the same harsh treat­ment as the Baby­lo­ni­ans. These swift de­feats gave the frag­ile King a much­needed con­fi­dence boost. Wish­ing to com­plete his father’s un­fin­ished busi­ness, Xerxes set his sights on re­bel­lious Greece.


With ap­prox­i­mately 300,000 sol­diers, it was the largest and most well-equipped in­va­sion force the world had ever seen. It was sup­ported by a num­ber of Greek vol­un­teers, who had de­cided that re­sis­tance was fu­tile and that their best bet was to side with the in­evitable win­ner – or so they thought.

Pav­ing his way through what’s now Turkey, Xerxes and his men hit an ob­sta­cle when they ar­rived at the Helle­spont, the nar­row strait be­yond which lay Europe and a sure vic­tory. Here, An­cient Greek his­to­rian Herodotus tells a cu­ri­ous tale. Upon reach­ing the wa­ter, Xerxes or­dered that his boats be tied to­gether to cre­ate a bridge. How­ever, when they were de­stroyed in a storm, he sen­tenced the waves them­selves to 300 lash­ings.

With the bridges re­made, his troops reached the other side and con­tin­ued on their way, head­ing for Athens. At the base of Mount Athos, Xerxes con­structed a canal through the en­tire penin­sula so his armies could pass through. Though it would soon fall into dis­re­pair, the site of the canal is still clearly vis­i­ble to­day.

Fur­ther south at the nar­row coastal pass of Ther­mopy­lae (a place the lo­cals be­lieved was an en­trance to the un­der­world), Xerxes en­coun­tered his first ma­jor op­po­nent – King Leonidas of Sparta and his elite force of 7,000 hard­core mil­i­tary men. Block­ing the pass, the Greeks valiantly fended off the un­wel­come in­vaders for three days, un­til a traitor named Ephialtes of­fered to guide the Per­sians through a se­cret route so they could at­tack the Spar­tans from be­hind.

Though Xerxes had been warned not to un­der­es­ti­mate the Spar­tans by his old friend De­mara­tus, he failed to an­tic­i­pate the true na­ture of their war­rior cul­ture. Many of Leonidas’s men fled once they saw they were com­pletely sur­rounded by Per­sians, but

“The com­man­der knew the Per­sians’ strength, but also their King’s ar­ro­gance”

300 Spar­tans stayed be­hind to fight and die with hon­our. After an­ni­hi­lat­ing them, Xerxes con­tin­ued his south­ward march, reach­ing Athens and raz­ing the city to the ground.

At this point, it looked as if dom­i­na­tion of all Greece was in the bag. Xerxes would go down in his­tory as the ruler who had not only put down in­sur­rec­tion after in­sur­rec­tion, but con­trolled more ter­ri­tory than his pow­er­ful father ever did. Hun­gry for more, Xerxes took the fight to the Pelo­pon­nese, south of Corinth. The tides would soon dra­mat­i­cally turn on the Per­sians.

Against the ad­vice of a wise war­rior queen, Artemisia, Xerxes had his navy at­tack the Greek fleet at Salamis. Their com­man­der, Themis­to­cles, was a savvy man who knew the Per­sians’ strength, but also their King’s ar­ro­gance. He lured them into a bat­tle by pre­tend­ing to flee through a nar­row chan­nel, cut­ting off most of the vastly su­pe­rior Per­sian ships. De­spite hav­ing half as many boats, the Greeks won a re­sound­ing vic­tory. Xerxes, wit­ness­ing events from his perch on Mount Ai­ga­leo, pan­icked. He and most of his army fled later that day.

One year on, the dregs of the Per­sian forces in Greece took a last stand at Plataea. Think­ing the united Greek forces that had come to at­tack were in re­treat, a Per­sian gen­eral launched a counter-of­fen­sive, at which point the Greeks turned around and gave bat­tle. Since they were bet­ter pre­pared and bet­ter armed, the Greeks eas­ily over­whelmed the Per­sians, and went to their camp to fin­ish off the rest of the strag­glers.


Xerxes never fully re­cov­ered from this mas­sive fail­ure. In­stead of mil­i­tary cam­paigns, he turned his at­ten­tion to build­ing projects that had been started by his father. Like his am­bi­tions, Xerxes’ plans were lofty and grand. Some of the palaces he built can still be seen at the an­cient site of Perse­po­lis, near Shi­raz in Iran.

The last years of Xerxes’ life were spent deal­ing with tri­fling harem in­trigues and at­tempts to usurp the throne. Ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans, one of his mis­tresses (who was also his niece) asked for a gift that would have granted her equiv­a­lent power to the Queen. En­raged, the Queen or­dered Xerxes to put most of his brother’s fam­ily to death.

Then, in 465 BC, the King him­self was as­sas­si­nated. As part of a con­spir­acy to over­throw the Achaemenid dy­nasty, Xerxes’ chief body­guard and right-hand-man Arta­banus had placed seven of his own sons in key po­si­tions. With the help of a de­vi­ous eu­nuch, he then mur­dered Xerxes. Arta­banus’s fam­ily was now poised to take power for them­selves. How­ever, they were foiled when one of Xerxes’ chil­dren dis­cov­ered the plot, killed Arta­banus, and went on to rule as Ar­tax­erxes I.

The legacy of Xerxes is a mixed one. Ow­ing to the fact that most of our sources about him come from Greek his­to­ri­ans – who had an axe to grind after the Per­sian in­va­sion – he is seen in a neg­a­tive light. He has be­come the laugh­ing stock of plays, op­eras, and films, most re­cently in the ac­tion thriller 300.

We may never know the whole truth about this iconic Per­sian ruler, who pre­cip­i­tated the de­cline of the om­nipo­tent Achaemenid Em­pire. How­ever, the mark he left on the world was pro­found, and the grand palaces he con­structed have been enough to tan­ta­lise ar­chae­ol­o­gists and en­thu­si­asts alike for thou­sands of years, and prob­a­bly many more to come.

The en­throne d man in this an­cient is re­lief be­lieved to be Xerxes, but it could be his father Dar­ius

as his ships Xerxes watched on in de­spair the Helle­spont – fell vic­tim to the waves at Europe and Asia the nar­row strait be­tween

Zack Sny­der’s epic war film 300 tells the story of Xerxes’ Per­sian army at Ther­mopy­lae – with a dash of cre­ative li­cense

OLD FOOL? Al­though best re­mem­bered for or­der­ing the sea to be whipped, there was more to this Pe­rian king than his en­e­mies would have us be­lieve

The ru­ins of the Gate of All Na­tions at Perse­po­lis, the cer­e­mo­nial cap­i­tal of the Achaemenid Em­pire

A frieze from the era of King Dar­ius I de­picts archers in tra­di­tional dress 300: Rise of an Em­pire’s cos­tume de­signer clearly took some lib­er­ties with Xerxes’ at­tire…

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