Xerxes The Great: The Powerful Persian King Whose Death Destroyed an Empire
Xerxes I, also known as Xerxes the Great, was a 5th century Achaemenid king of the Persian empire. He is best known for leading the massive invasion of Greece, marked by the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea.
In modern popular culture, Xerxes is perhaps best known as the main antagonist in Frank Miller’s 300, a film based on the comic series of the same name. In these modern works, Xerxes, as ‘the other’, is portrayed, amongst other things, as effeminate, despotic, and decadent. In a way, these qualities serve to highlight the difference between Xerxes and his Greek adversaries, in particular the Spartan king who opposed him at Thermopylae, Leonidas.
Such negative portrayals of Xerxes (and the Persians in general), however, are not limited to modern times, and were already in existence during the king’s lifetime. As may be expected, these depictions were often made by his Greek enemies.
Who Was Xerxes the Great?
Xerxes the Great was born in 519 BC and died in Persepolis, modern day Iran. He was the son of Atossa, the daughter of Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great, and King Darius I and became the heir apparent in preference to his elder brother due to his lineage in relation to Cyrus (which his elder brother missed out on because he was not Atossa’s son).
Xerxes ruled the Achaemenid empire from 486-465 BC. His reign is most marked by the Persian campaigns against Greece and the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, and Plataea, which may explain part of the reason why the Persian king has been heavily criticized by writers (especially the ancient Greek ones) over the years. One of the most famous of these can be found in Aeschylus’ play, ‘ The Persians.’
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Xerxes in ‘ The Persians’
Aeschylus’ ‘ The Persians’ is a tragedy that was first produced in 472 BC and was the second play in a four-play production that won first prize at the City Dionysia festival in Athens that year. The two characters said to have the most ‘airtime’ in the play are Atossa, Xerxes’ mother, and the ghost of Darius, Xerxes’ father. Nevertheless, the play (including the conversations of Atossa and Darius’ ghost) revolves around Xerxes’ expedition against Greece and his defeat at the Battle of Salamis. Additionally, Xerxes makes an appearance towards the end of the play.
Bust of Atossa. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
In ‘ The Persians’ Xerxes was portrayed rather negatively. One of his undesirable qualities in this play is hubris. For instance, during the conversation between Atossa and her husband’s ghost, the dead king pointed out that Xerxes’ excessive pride caused him to believe that he could enslave even the gods,
While he hoped / To bind the sacred Hellespont, to hold / The raging Bosphorus, like a slave, in chains, / … and swell'd with thoughts / Presumptuous, deem'd, vain mortal! That his power / should rise above the gods, and Neptune's might.
Nevertheless, hubris was a common motif in Greek mythology, and many Greek characters, such as Oedipus and Bellerophon, are known to have suffered from hubris as well. One feature that perhaps separates Xerxes from these Greek characters is his behavior as an ‘Easterner’.
To the ancient Greeks, Orientals were viewed as their opposites. Thus, for example, in ‘ The Persians,’ Xerxes is depicted by Aeschylus as one who is incapable of controlling his emotions. For much of Xerxes’ time on the stage, he is a man completely consumed by grief, bewailing his misfortunes against the Greeks and making meaningless exclamations such as “oioi!”, “Ieh, ieh!” and “Ototototoi”.
Rock relief of Xerxes at his tomb in Naqsh-e Rustam. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
How Herodotus Depicts Xerxes
Xerxes is also treated unfavorably in Herodotus’ ‘ The Histories’ as well, especially when one compares him with other Persian monarchs mentioned in the work, such as Cyrus and Darius I. Nevertheless, Xerxes’ failed expedition against Greece was not placed entirely on his shoulders by Herodotus. Instead, the blame is placed on Mardonius, one of Xerxes’ cousins, and an influential figure in the Persian court.
According to Herodotus, Xerxes was initially reluctant to invade Greece, but was persuaded to do so by Mardonius, who had personal motives for this campaign,
Now, Xerxes was at first rather reluctant to make war on Greece… He (Mardonius) argued in this way because he wanted to stir things up and also because he wanted to become the governor of Greece. Eventually he succeeded in winning Xerxes round to his point of view.
The Beginning of an Empire’s End
Whilst Xerxes’ Greek campaign was ultimately a failure, he did manage to put down revolts in Babylonia and Egypt, thus keeping these areas in the Achaemenid Empire. Additionally, Xerxes is said to have maintained the Royal Road, an ancient highway that was reorganized and rebuilt by Xerxes’ father, and praised by Herodotus for the speed it allowed men to travel. Additionally, after returning from Greece, Xerxes continued a number of architectural projects left unfinished by Darius.
Two of the best known structures completed by Xerxes are the Gate of All Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns. Yet, as a result of the failed Greek expedition, these projects depleted the empire’s coffers and burdened Xerxes’ subjects through heavy taxation.
When a storm shattered the bridges over the Hellespont, Xerxes had the waters whipped 300 times and shackles dropped into them as a mark of enslavement.
Xerxes attending the lashing and "chaining" of the Hellespont (Illustration from 1909). (Public Domain) When a storm shattered the bridges over the Hellespont, Xerxes had the waters whipped 300 times and shackles dropped into them as a mark of enslavement.
Xerxes, however, seems to have been blind to any of these problems, or if he did notice them, he did not do anything about it. He continued to do as he pleased, and because of this it has been said that his rule marks the beginning of the Achaemenid Empire’s decline.
In the end, Xerxes was assassinated by one of his own ministers, Artabanus, who intended to sit on the Persian throne himself. This plan failed, as Artabanus was subsequently killed by one of Xerxes’ sons, Artaxerxes, who became the next Achaemenid king.
Top Image: Persian warrior, relief from Persepolis (Vladimir Melnik / Adobe Stock)
Aeschylus, The Persians [Potter, R., (trans.), 1833. Aeschylus’ The Persians.]
Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aeschylus/persians.html
Gill, N. S., 2014. Xerxes the Great. Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/xerxes/g/Xerxes.htm
Herodotus, The Histories [Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Huot, J.-L., 2016. Xerxes (Reigned 486- 465 B.C.). Available at: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/notes/xerxes.html
Lendering, J., 2015. Xerxes I. Available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/person/xerxes-i/?
Mastin, L., 2009. Ancient Greece - Aeschylus - The Persians. Available at: http://www.ancient-literature.com/greece_aeschylus_persians.html