Xerxes was the fifth ruler of the Persian Dynasty. Also known as Xerxes the First, he was the king of Persia who was made famous not only because of being a boundless ruler of the Persian Empire but also because of his epic failure in his Greek invasion that cost his kingdom so much.
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Who Was Xerxes?
Xerxes I (486 to 465 BCE) Khashyahar Shah was the successor of Darius I, also known as Darius the Great. He was known as Khshayarshain in old Persia and Xerxes in Greek, and he officially carried the title Shahanshah, which means “King of Kings.”
Xerxes I had an undeniably great ancestry. His father was the great King Darius I, and his mother was Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great who was the founder of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire. Xerxes I was not the eldest son of his father but was favored for the throne because of his lineage.
– Early Life
Born around 520 BC, even at a young age, Xerxes I knew that he would be the successor of his father because of the influence of his mother. It’s no surprise that Dante the Great appointed him to be next in line to the throne, this decision was strongly detested by Dante I’s eldest son, Artabazenes, whose mother was just a commoner. Artabazenes’ aversion toward Xerxes I paved the way to his contribution to the fall of his half-brother, the king.
Even before becoming a king, Xerxes I already had a taste of how was it to become a ruler. He had a stint as a governor in the city of Babylon, a certain way for the king-to-be to practice.
– The Successor of the Throne
As Darius I’s successor, it is safe to assume that King Xerxes I acquired the best education and training available during that period, necessary for him to become the future ruler of the land.
Due to a revolt in Egypt, the father of Xerxes, Darius I, left the kingdom addressing this unfortunate disturbance. As of Persian leaders, Xerxes has been appointed as his successor if Darius I wouldn’t come back.
However, Darius I was able to come back unfortunately suffering from sickness, after several days, he passed away. At 35, Xerxes I was the successor of the throne and became the King of Persia; he ruled from 486 BCE to 465 BCE.
Xerxes the Great married Amestris, the daughter of Otanes, one of the noblemen in the Persian Empire, who noticed the impostor Gaumata during the time of King Cambyses II. Together with Darius I, they killed the imposter. Thus, at the time of Darius I, Otanes secured a position in society.
With Amestris, King Xerxes had sons: Darius, Hystaspes, and Artaxerxes. As someone who was a womanizer, he had some children with both noble lineages and commoners.
Among the rulers of the Persian Empire, King Xerxes I gained an awful image courtesy of his ultimate enemies whom he was not able to overcome in the infamous Persian-Greco battles. The tide turned its favor toward the Persians and Persian historians lived, surely, King Xerxes I’s name would have left a better taste in one’s mouth.
Accomplishment and Reign
Unlike his father, Darius the Great, who worked his way from the bottom to the top, King Xerxes’ to the throne was served on a golden platter. As someone who had a royal heritage and was immensely proud of it, King Xerxes I also named himself the Persian god-king. It was a name that must be capitalized with great effort and fervor for it to be substantiated.
Yet, scholars often said that Xerxes I did not exert force nor work hard to become king. Such deficiency could be one of the reasons why his reign was not so sterling compared with that of his predecessors.
– Information on Heritage
King Xerxes I’s grandfather was Cyrus I, and his father was Darius I; they were widely known for their great works in the progress of the Persian Empire. Admired by many and imitated by some, King Xerxes I’s ancestors were surely the kind of leaders one wishes to experience living with.
They were remarkably known for their amiability and tolerant policies exhibited toward the citizens of the entire Persian Empire and its nearby lands, such as Babylon, Egypt, and Greece. This kind of approach from leaders usually brings good relations among the constituents, which prove beneficial to the rulers and their subjects.
However, Xerxes was quite the opposite. Notwithstanding the painstaking efforts of the previous rulers to build a great kingdom, with a personality of his own, King Xerxes disregarded the good relationships among his Persian people and the allies of his kingdom.
His works and decisions were solely of his own accord and indulgence, and he was a prideful kind of person. He thought highly of himself, and he showed no compassion and mercy toward those whom he detested.
– Character Reference
Although the Persian Empire was religious, the Persian king seemed insensitive to this important aspect of the lives of his constituents. Remarkably, even in a polytheistic circumstance, King Xerxes I did not give significance to religious undertakings.
He did not seem to remember significant religious rituals, events, and traditions, to the dismay of the people. The ultimate blasphemy he made against the gods was when he desecrated the patron deity of the city of Babylon, Marduk, by having it melted down into nothingness. What followed was the fury of not only the Babylonian citizens but also of the citizens of the whole of Mesopotamia, which instigated many revolts later on.
Commencing his rule, history revealed that Babylon rebelled against King Xerxes at least two times before they were dealt with heavy hands. Surely, the new Persian king was showing everyone that he was not easy to be reckoned with.
In general, King Xerxes’ time as a ruler was characterized by ease in ruling the lands, indulgence of oneself with ambitions, and the ability—brilliance, tenacity, and humility, or the lack thereof—to realize them. Moreover, King Xerxes’ reign showed how a man, when leaning so much toward his follies, would most of the time be imperiled.
His decisions, vices, and pride brought him harm and drove him to become unworthy of the position he was holding. Should he have been a commoner with the same attitude, he would have ended up the same—losing everything he holds dear.
Contentment was never a man’s strength, surely not for King Xerxes I himself. Right after establishing peace in his kingdom, dealing with it through full force and heavy hands, Xerxes looked forward to a seemingly demanding campaign.
It was the need to conquer the lands of the Olympian gods and goddesses, Greece. A quest in which his ancestors never succeeded; thus, Xerxes I’s thirst to be declared as the victory upon this matter.
Although Greek historians revealed that King Xerxes’ mind was far from it, the need to avenge his father Darius I’s mishap at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE was pressed upon him by his advisors, especially his cousin and Persian chief of the army, Mardonius. Of course, Mardonius had his interests in this operation. He was eyeing to be the governor of the rich lands of Greece should their campaign work.
– Facing the Battle
King Xerxes gave in to the pressure and prepared for the greatest battle he would have ever faced — a massive war against the Greeks. The preparation itself took almost half a decade to be completed for the essential elements—troops, training, and supplies. All men—young and old alike—in the vast Persian Empire were mandated to join the assembly of warriors.
According to a Greek historian, Herodotus, the troops numbered more or less 2 million soldiers, and thousands of ships were moored for the incoming battle. This was a gathering of forces thought to be the largest and most equipped of that period.
With this enormous number—a first in history—many historians agreed that King Xerxes I thought of himself as the victor ahead of time. It was an unbelievably bad lapse of judgment because the war did not turn favorable on their side.
The big size did not prevail this time both inland and sea as King Xerxes’ army suffered defeat from the Greeks, whose warriors were noted to be savages and did not easily surrender to enemies. The epic fail King Xerxes suffered from this war, as it was forever remembered and attached to his name.
At first, King Xerxes and his troops conquered the lands of Thermopylae and Artemisium, where they emerged as victors, most likely because the Greeks were at a disadvantage at that time in terms of numbers. King Leonidas, the commander of the Greek warriors, had only 300 braves compared to that of the well-equipped Persians.
Madly furious because of the resistance shown by the Greeks from these battles, Emperor Xerxes I burned Athens to the ground next. It was an act that he admittedly regretted later in history.
Confidence with the results of the previous fights, the troops, and the Persian king entered Salamis. The famous Battle of Salamis was where the Persian armies suffered an improbable defeat.
As the Greek general, Themistocles took charge of the command, there came a battle not only of strength and power but, most importantly, the battle of brains, tactics, and strategies. From a seemingly brilliant strategy on the part of the Greeks, the Persian warriors were slowly weakened and finally succumbed to the opposing forces.
– Midst of the Defeat
Wide-eyed, from afar, King Xerxes I calculated the imminent obliteration. Thus, together with his trusted men, he turned back home to Persia, suffering from fatigue and different illnesses.
Tasked to continue the goal at the hand of conquering Greece was the Persian army general, Mardonius. Demoralized and weakened, General Mardonius did not win against the Greeks. Eventually, he was killed, together with the remaining Persian soldiers. The general who was eyeing glorious Greece for himself was killed in that very same land he dreamed to govern.
This futile Persian conquest has been the theme of many Greek dramatics and plays, consequently making it more notable to the world at the expense of one memorable leader of the Persian Empire, King Xerxes the Great.
– The Starting Point of Warnings
In his desire to surpass the achievements of his ancestors in terms of expanding the empire, King Xerxes let his pride get the better of him. He was blinded by the large numbers that he had gathered. In consequence or maybe due to being hard-headed, he disregarded notable advice from his chief advisor, Artabanus.
As an advisor and the king’s uncle, Artabanus counseled his nephew, Xerxes I, to not give in to the clamor of seeking revenge for his father and going into war with Greece because, according to him, he had it in his vision that should King Xerxes pursue the war, a lot of misfortunes would befall him.
However, the good counsel from the old man fell into deaf ears as King Xerxes the Great advanced toward his mission.
Considerable literature revealed that in addition to the unheeded advice given by his advisors, King Xerxes also failed to notice the signs from his surroundings. Several omens were mentioned that would have been useful should King Xerxes have listened to them.
Some that was talked about was that of a horse giving birth to a hare, a very bizarre and peculiar phenomenon indeed. Another one was that right before their departure, an eclipse happened, a heavenly sign that was always looked upon and respected by ancient people but was disregarded by King Xerxes.
– Slowly Uncovered Warnings
Another account talked about how, as his troops crossed the waters toward Greece, they experienced several storms, heavy winds, and other difficulties in the rough seas. These so angered Emperor Xerxes that he ordered his men to whip the water at least 300 times with canes and throw heavy metal shackles to it, believing that these would make the water behave, which, of course, did not happen.
To continue, he instructed his men to construct a bridge over the rough seas, at Hellespont, for their fleet to pass through. With these accounts taken into consideration, by the surviving historians, one could realize the kind of leader Xerxes the Great was. A king is thought to be full of wisdom and intuitive enough to listen to the call of the times. Yet, Xerxes the Great did not heed the obvious warnings given.
Xerxes inherited a vast empire at the peak of its glory. Being an emperor of this realm proved to be a daunting task. Although he deviated from the norms set by his father and grandfather, still, he administrated the kingdom toward what he believed could bring it to further progress.
After the failed war, Xerxes I turned his attention, energy, and money to construction. King Xerxes built palaces, audience halls (apadana), and other lavish building projects, such as the colossal Gates of All Nation and the magnificent Hall of Hundred Columns. In addition to these, lush gardens and a sophisticated irrigation system made Persepolis a one-of-a-kind palace in the whole world.
Years after his failed Hellespont invasion, Xerxes I focused on the construction of different architectural buildings and great monuments. As someone who had an eye for beauty, his constructions were of such splendor and aesthetic grandeur that they are still enjoyed by the modern world.
– Financial Damages
With these constructions, it’s as if the impressionable leader of the Persian Empire wanted the world to know that he was at par or maybe greater than his father, Darius the Great. He also aimed to obscure the devastations brought by the war he set off.
This accomplishment, however, brought excessive damages on the empire’s treasury, and the taxation levied was more than what was regularly required. The Persian citizens carried the burden of additional duty.
Many historians attributed the failure from the war and the enormous expenditures incurred by King Xerxes to the expensive building constructions, as well as his other vices. These resulted in an economic downturn that marked the commencing of the decline of the great Achaemenid Empire.
The Achaemenid or Persian Empire was notably one of the longest-reigning empires ruled by the same lineage, except that of Xerxes’ father, Darius I, whose ascension to the throne was still the center of many scholarly debates.
To form a good judgment of someone’s character, all aspects of his life and persona must be thoroughly examined. This is the perplexity presented by the Persian king Xerxes I. On the one hand, the Persians viewed this Persian god-king as an excellent ruler who was strong, intelligent, brave, and just.
On the other hand, the western historians who fortunately survived the battles instigated by King Xerxes I himself presented him as someone ruthless, wicked, and a failing ruler.
He was a villain to everyone’s story and the antagonist in every Greek drama, especially that of the story of the 300 Spartans versus King Xerxes I’s hundreds of thousands of armies at the pass of Thermopylae. He surely carried this stigma throughout the written words of world history.
– Scholars’ Perspective
It must be noted that scholars and historians relied heavily on the accounts of Herodotus, who was also known as the Father of History, a Greek himself. He was a Greek who looked at King Xerxes as enemy number one.
Nonetheless, some scholars criticized Herodotus, saying that his account of King Xerxes was full of embellishments to make the story palatable to the audience. In the first place, his goal was to entertain.
Still, modern scholars cited how Emperor Xerxes ruled, for 21 years, the biggest empire in ancient times as an incredible testament to his skills as a leader. Not only did he manage the empire efficiently, but he was also able to continue expanding its territory, just like what his predecessors achieved.
The tale of Xerxes would never be complete without talking about his amorous affairs with several women. According to the literature, he enamored many women, and he was even that king mentioned in the Book of Esther. The famous story, which could be a tall tale or perhaps a true incident, talked about how King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) searched for a young lady to become his next queen.
From the many contestants that included beautiful ladies, he held out his scepter to the chosen one, Esther, a beautiful Jewish young woman favored by the gods to be the next queen with a mission. With her goal of saving her people from their enemies, she could only do this with the help of King Ahasuerus himself.
– The Women in the Family
Romantic as the story may seem, King Xerxes, had also put the lives of many women in danger, just like his brother Masistes’ wife, with whom he was so deeply besotted. Though it is not a great example for a king to steal his brother’s wife, he pursued Masistes’ wife.
However, because of her resistance and turning him down, King Xerxes turned his eyes on his niece, Artayne, the daughter of his brother and his beautiful wife. With his perseverance and power, Artayne had no other choice but to give in to the will of the king. She became his lover.
– Turn of Events
Upon knowing of this affair, Xerxes’ first wife, Amestris, was punished by disfigurement the mother of Artayne whom she believed to have full knowledge and consent of the ongoing relationship between Artayne and her husband. In vengeance, Masistes and his wife started an upheaval in their province in Bactria. King Xerxes, was unhappy about this news that he pursued them and killed his brother, his wife, and all members of their family.
These and the other atrocious acts by King Xerxes I further fueled the disgust felt by his constituents, especially that of the social elites and the noblemen.
How Did King Xerxes Die?
As a result of disappointments with the outcome of the war, unhappiness about the lavish constructions and building projects, and discontent about the extravagant expenditures of the king on different parties, women, and other vices, small revolts were planned. Moreover, with the ongoing dissatisfaction about King Xerxes’ rule, his advisors and noblemen worked together to make a ploy to assassinate the king.
The plot to kill the king was executed by one of his chief advisors and a nobleman, Artabanus. One night, the assassination of the king happened in his bed-chamber. The king’s elimination was followed by another set of murders, which involved his sons and other conspirators. In the long run, the plot was discovered, and the murderer was put to death.
Sadly, King Xerxes’ death marked the end of his reign. His son, Artaxerxes, succeeded the throne. Unlike his predecessors who died of natural causes, King Xerxes died at the hands of his people, who perhaps grew tired of his antics as the notorious Persian ruler.
King Xerxes’ remains were also laid at the same resting place as that of his father, Darius I, and other Persian rulers later on at Naqsh-e Rostam. The greatest and the not-so-great rulers of the Achaemenid Empire rested at the same place.
King Xerxes’ ascension to the throne was uneventful compared with the end of his reign.
A successor of a wealthy kingdom, ancient King Xerxes managed to weather the necessary acts as ruler for the Persian Empire to stretch from his period of reign to that of another ruler. Just like his father, he dreamed of expanding the vast empire. With a leadership style somewhat different from the previous rulers, it seemed that his dreams were not thoroughly realized.
Right after his failed Greek conquest, everything slid downhill, which earned him his present status, thanks to the living witnesses of this Persian god-king. He was a fervent king, an extravagant builder, and an arduous lover, a most likely toxic combination after all.
Many of the existing scholarly works of different historians, as mentioned before, incidentally relied on the narratives of Herodotus, a Greek historian.
Still, Xerxes I managed to bring the kingdom intact from one period to another, even through his notorious decisions.
Xerxes I was always remembered because of the following:
- He stopped the insurgencies in Babylon twice with his no-nonsense leadership style.
- He tried hard to expand the Persian territory farther west, into Greece, but he did not succeed.
- He successfully crossed the seas toward Greece.
- He was able to launch the largest army and armada during that period.
- He built beautiful and extra lavish buildings, palaces, and treasuries.
Xerxes I might have suffered unpopularity brought about by his surviving enemies, but still, he performed one of the greatest roles in history. That was his role as a great emperor of the Persian Empire.