Xerxes I

Xerxes I (/ˈzɜːrksz/; Old Persian: 𐎧𐏁𐎹𐎠𐎼𐏁𐎠 Xšayaṛša (Khshāyarsha ) [2] "ruling over heroes",[3] Greek Ξέρξης Xérxēs [ksérksɛːs]; 519–465 BC), called Xerxes the Great, was the fifth king of kings of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia. Like his father and predecessor Darius I, he ruled the empire at its territorial apex. He ruled from 486 BC until his assassination in 465 BC at the hands of Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard.

Xerxes I
King of Kings
Great King
King of Persia
Pharaoh of Egypt
King of Nations
Rock relief of Xerxes at his tomb in Naqsh-e Rustam
King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire
Reign486–465 BC
CoronationOctober 486 BC
PredecessorDarius I
SuccessorArtaxerxes I
Pharaoh of Egypt
Reign486–465 BC
CoronationOctober 486 BC
PredecessorDarius I
SuccessorArtaxerxes I
Born519 BC
DiedAugust 465 BC (aged 53 or 54)
SpouseAmestris, (disputed: Vashti and Queen Esther)
Artaxerxes I
FatherDarius I

Xerxes I is one of the Persian kings identified as Ahasuerus in the biblical Book of Esther.[4][5][6] He is also notable in Western history for his failed invasion of Greece in 480 BC. His forces temporarily overran mainland Greece north of the Isthmus of Corinth[7][8] until losses at Salamis and Plataea a year later reversed these gains and ended the second invasion decisively. However, Xerxes successfully crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon. Roman Ghirshman says that, "After this he ceased to use the title of 'king of Babylon', calling himself simply 'king of the Persians and the Medes'."[9]

Xerxes oversaw the completion of various construction projects at Susa and Persepolis.

Early life

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 Persepolis. 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 Persepolis) 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.[10]

Xerxes (Xašayaruša/Ḫašayaruša)[11]
in hieroglyphs
in hieroglyphs

Artobazan claimed the crown as the eldest of all the children; 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. Xerxes was also helped by a Spartan king in exile who was present in Persia at the time, Eurypontid king Demaratus, who argued that the eldest son does not universally mean they have claim to the crown, as Spartan law states that the first son born while the father is king is the heir to the kingship.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

Xerxes was crowned and succeeded his father in October–December 486 BC[16] when he was about 36 years old.[17] The transition of power to Xerxes was smooth due again in part to the great authority of Atossa[18] and his accession of royal power was not challenged by any person at court or in the Achaemenian family, or any subject nation.[19]

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[20] 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.[21]


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,[25] Macedonians, European Thracians, Paeonians, Achaean Greeks, Ionians, Aegean islanders, Aeolians, Greeks from Pontus, Colchians, Indians 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.[26] The Carthaginian invasion of Sicily deprived Greece of the support of the powerful monarchs of Syracuse and Agrigentum; ancient sources assume Xerxes was responsible, modern scholarship is skeptical.[27] 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 Immortals. More recent estimates place the Persian force at around 60,000 combatants.[28]

Battle of Thermopylae and destruction of 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. 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.

After Thermopylae, Athens was captured. Most of the Athenians had abandoned the city and fled to the island of Salamis before Xerxes arrived. A small group attempted to defend the Athenian Acropolis, but they were defeated. Xerxes ordered the Destruction of Athens and burnt the city, leaving an archaeologically attested destruction layer, known as the Perserschutt.[29] The Persians thus gained control of all of mainland Greece to the north of the Isthmus of Corinth.[8]

Battles of Salamis and Plataea

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.[30]

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.[31] Another cause of the retreat might have been that the continued unrest in Babylon, a key province of the empire, required the king's personal attention.[32] 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.

Construction projects

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 Tachara (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.[33] He had colorful enameled brick laid on the exterior face of the Apadana.[34] He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a palace in Susa.[35]


In August 465 BC, Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court, assassinated Xerxes with the help of a eunuch, Aspamitres. 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.[36]

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.[37] 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.[38]



Vision in the kings council according to Herodotus

In Histories, Herodotus relates that the Persian King invites council of noblemen from Persia, with which he decided to share the following plans. Earlier attacks from Hellenic forces incited a need for recompense. Therefore two out of a handful noblemen were brave enough to cite their advice on the potential warfare coming up. One of which is Mardonius, who with slightly flattering words seemed to spur the king to his decision, and agreed on the matter. When Mardonius finished, it was said that slandering the neighbouring nation is not only hurting the man absent, but also the man deciding on it, implying the words were of no use to his decision. Artabanus, Xerxes uncle and brother of Darius I whose speech was heard made an impression on the king, wherewith the king furiously ascribed his advisor with cowardice. And fittingly disabled him to battle with the army, and stay home with the women. However, remarkably, later that night, he struggled on Artabanus words, and changed his mind. It was said Xerxes received a vision of a tall and handsome man reminding him the unfaithfulness of changing his mind, and emphasizing the decision made, should be pursued. The next day, his uncle was excused, and the Ionian and Dorian people were left in peace. However, that same night again, a vision was given to Xerxes.

Son of Darius, have you then plainly renounced your army's march among the Persians, and made my words of no account, as though you had not heard them? Know for certain that, if you do not lead out your army immediately, this will be the outcome of it: as you became great and mighty in a short time, so in a moment will you be brought low again.

The king, perplexed and confused, did not find the confidence to follow up its implications. Therefore Artabanus was told by the king he, on one term, decided to attack again. Before he made this verdict, he gave his uncle the order to wear his clothes and sleep in his bed, so that he would have that same vision. Darius brother squinted the eyes of disbelief, but determined not much later, to agree. Chapter seven ends. Chapter eight starts with the faring assertive naval armies from Greece.[39]

Artaborus about god

The story of the council above mentions the uncle of Xerxes. In his spoken words, he mentions a god that strikes whoever strives to attain anything above greatness. A god that humbles the people, and does not suffer their pride. From the factual information this seems to imply monotheism, which is in accordance with Zoroastrian beliefs of the time.[39]

Zoroastrian origin

Although Herodotus' report in the Histories has created debate concerning Xerxes' religious beliefs, modern scholars consider him a Zoroastrian.[40]


By queen Amestris:

By unknown wives:

  • Artarius, satrap of Babylon.
  • Tithraustes
  • Arsames or Arsamenes or Arxanes or Sarsamas, satrap of Egypt.
  • Parysatis[41]
  • Ratashah[42]

Cultural depictions

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, particularly the Battle of Thermopylae, has led to Xerxes' portrayal in works of popular culture. 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 novels 300 and Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander 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. This portrayal has attracted controversy, especially in Iran.[43] 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 featured or alluded to 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 to his 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.[44]

Xerxes (Ahasuerus) is portrayed by Richard Egan in the 1960 film Esther and the King and by Joel Smallbone in the 2013 film, The Book of Esther. In at least one of these films, the events of the Book of Esther are depicted as taking place upon Xerxes' return from Greece.

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

Xerxes is the Greek version of the Old Persian name Xšaya-ṛšā, which is today known in New Persian as Khashayar (خشایار).

See also


  1. Xerxes made human sacrifice. See Boyce, Mary (1989). A History of Zoroastrianism: The early period, p. 141.
  2. Allesandro Bausani (1971). "Chapter 1: The Aryans on the Iranian Plateau: The Achaemenian Empire". The Persians. St. Martin's Press. p. 27.
  3. "Xeres I. The Name – Encyclopaedia Iranica". Iranicaonline.org. 2011-09-30. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  4. "Ahasuerus". JewishEncyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  5. Encyclopaedia perthensis, or, Universal dictionary of the arts, sciences, literature, etc.: intended to supersede the use of other books of reference. 1816. Retrieved 2014-07-25 via Google Books.
  6. Law, George (2010-06-04). Identification of Darius the Mede. ISBN 978-0982763100. Retrieved 2014-07-25 via Google Books.
  7. Lazenby, J.F. (1993). The Defence of Greece, 490–479 B.C. Aris & Phillips. ISBN 978-0856685910. Retrieved 2016-09-07.
  8. Brian Todd Carey, Joshua Allfree, John Cairns. Warfare in the Ancient World Pen and Sword, 19 Jan. 2006 ISBN 1848846304
  9. Roman Ghirshman, Iran (1954), Penguin Books, p. 191.
  10. Dandamaev 1989, pp. 178–179.
  11. Jürgen von Beckerath (1999), Handbuch der ägyptischen Königsnamen, Mainz am Rhein: von Zabern. ISBN 3-8053-2310-7, pp. 220–221
  12. "The Xeres Quadrilingual Alabastron". The Schoyen Collection. Retrieved 28 March 2017.
  13. Herodotus 7.1–5
  14. R. Shabani Chapter I, p. 15
  15. Olmstead: The history of Persian empire
  16. The Cambridge History of Iran vol. 2. p. 509.
  17. Dandamaev 1989, p. 180.
  18. Schmitt, R., "Atossa" in Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  19. The Cambridge Ancient History vol. V p. 72.
  20. R. Ghirshman, Iran, p. 191
  21. Roland G. Kent in "Language" Vol. 13 No. 4
  22. Soldiers with names, after Walser
  23. The Achaemenid Empire in South Asia and Recent Excavations in Akra in Northwest Pakistan Peter Magee, Cameron Petrie, Robert Knox, Farid Khan, Ken Thomas p. 713
  24. Naqš-e-Rostam – Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  25. Farrokh, Kaveh (2007). Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford, UK: Osprey. ISBN 1846031087, p. 77
  26. Bailkey, Nels, ed. Readings in Ancient History, p. 175. D.C. Heath and Co., 1992.
  27. G. Mafodda, La monarchia di Gelone tra pragmatismo, ideologia e propaganda, (Messina, 1996) pp. 119–136
  28. Barkworth, 1993. "The Organization of Xerxes' Army." Iranica Antiqua Vol. 27, pp. 149–167
  29. Martin Steskal, Der Zerstörungsbefund 480/79 der Athener Akropolis. Eine Fallstudie zum etablierten Chronologiegerüst, Verlag Dr. Kovač, Hamburg, 2004
  30. Holland, pp. 327–329
  31. Herodotus VIII, 97
  32. "Bêl-šimânni and Šamaš-eriba – Livius". livius.org. Retrieved 2016-09-07.
  33. Ghirshman, Iran, p. 172
  34. Fergusson, James. A History of Architecture in All Countries, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day: 1. Ancient architecture. 2. Christian architecture. xxxi, 634 p. front., illus. p. 211.
  35. Herodotus VII.11
  36. Iran-e-Bastan/Pirnia book 1 p. 873
  37. Dandamayev
  38. History of Persian Empire, Olmstead pp. 289/90
  39. Godley, Alfred Denis (1921–24). "Histories book 7". Herodotus, with an English translation. OCLC 1610641. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  40. M. Boyce, Achaemenid Religion in Encyclopædia Iranica. See also Boardman, J.; et al. (1988). The Cambridge Ancient History Vol. IV (2 ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22804-2. p. 101.
  41. Ctesias
  42. M. Brosius, Women in ancient Persia.
  43. Boucher, Geoff "Frank Miller returns to the '300' battlefield with 'Xerxes': 'I make no apologies whatsoever'", The Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2010, accessed 2010-05-14.
  44. Gore Vidal, Creation: A Novel (Random House, 1981)


Ancient sources

Modern sources

  • Barkworth, Peter R. (1993). "The Organization of Xerxes' Army". Iranica Antiqua. 27: 149–167. doi:10.2143/ia.27.0.2002126.
  • Boardman, John (1988). The Cambridge Ancient History. V. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22804-2.
  • Boyce, Mary. "Achaemenid Religion". Encyclopaedia Iranica. vol. 1. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Bridges, Emma (2014). Imagining Xerxes: Ancient Perspectives on a Persian King. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1472511379
  • Dandamayev, M.A. (1999). "Artabanus". Encyclopædia Iranica. Routledge & Kegan Pau. Retrieved 2009-02-25.
  • Dandamayev (1989), A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire
  • Frye, Richard N. (1963). The Heritage of Persia. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 301. ISBN 0-297-16727-8.
  • Gershevitch, Ilya; Bayne Fisher, William; A. Boyle, J. (1985). The Cambridge history of Iran. 2. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-20091-1.
  • Holland, Tom (2005). Persian Fire. London: Abacus (ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1).
  • Macaulay, G.C. (2004). The Histories. Spark Educational Publishing. ISBN 1-59308-102-2.
  • McCullough, W.S. "Ahasuerus". Encyclopaedia Iranica. vol. 1. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Schmeja, H. (1975). "Dareios, Xerxes, Artaxerxes. Drei persische Königsnamen in griechischer Deutung (Zu Herodot 6,98,3)". Die Sprache. 21: 184–188.
  • Schmitt, Rüdiger. "Achaemenid dynasty". Encyclopaedia Iranica. vol. 3. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Schmitt, Rüdiger. "Atossa". Encyclopaedia Iranica. vol. 3. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Shabani, Reza (2007). Khshayarsha (Xerxes). What do I know about Iran? No. 75 (in Persian). Cultural Research Bureau. p. 120. ISBN 964-379-109-2.
  • Shahbazi, A. Sh. "Darius I the Great". Encyclopaedia Iranica. vol. 7. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Stoneman, Richard (2015). Xerxes: A Persian Life. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300216042.
  • Olmstead, A.T. (1979) [1948]. History of the Persian Empire. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226497648.
Xerxes I
Born: 519 BC Died: 465 BC
Preceded by
Darius I
King of Kings of Persia
486 BC – 465 BC
Succeeded by
Artaxerxes I
Pharaoh of Egypt
486 BC – 465 BC
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