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
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.
A BORN KING
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.
BATTLE IN VAIN
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.
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
Zack Snyder’s epic war film 300 tells the story of Xerxes’ Persian army at Thermopylae – with a dash of creative license
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
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…