Xerxes I (Pers. 𐎧𐏁𐎹𐎠𐎼𐏁 Xšayāršā, meaning “King of Heroes” or “Hero among Kings,” 518 – August 465 BC), commonly known as Xerxes the Great, was the fourth shahinshah of Achaemenid power, ruling from 486 to 465 BC. Son of Darius I and Athos, daughter of Cyrus II.
He ascended the throne in November-December 486 BC at the age of about 36. According to the Greeks (and Romans), Xerxes was sluggish, short-tempered, characterless, easily subjected to the influence of others, but distinguished by self-confidence and vanity. Here is the description given to him by Justin:
“Xerxes himself was always seen first in flight, last in battle; he was timid in danger and boastful when nothing threatened him; he, until he experienced the vicissitudes of war, was so confident, as if he were a lord over nature itself: he tore down mountains and leveled ravines, blocked some seas with bridges, on others for navigation purposes he made channels that shortened the way.
Oriental sources portray a very different personality. They portray Xerxes as a wise statesman and an experienced warrior. Xerxes himself in the inscription found near Persepolis (however, in fact, it is only a copy of the inscription of Darius I), states that he is wise and active, a friend of truth and an enemy of lawlessness, protects the weak from the oppression of the strong, but also protects the strong from injustice by the weak, is able to control his feelings and does not take hasty decisions, punishes and rewards everyone according to his transgressions and merits. He also speaks of his high physical qualities as a warrior; at least this part of his apologia does not contradict Herodotus” account that Xerxes, when he became king, was a tall, statuesque, handsome man in the prime of his life.
Obviously, both the Greek and Persian sources are biased and subjective, but nevertheless they complement each other.
Revolt in Egypt
In January 484 BC Xerxes succeeded in suppressing the revolt in Egypt led by Psammetichus IV, which had begun while his father was still alive. Egypt was ruthlessly massacred, the property of many temples was confiscated. Xerxes appointed his brother Akhemen as satrap of Egypt to replace Ferendat, who was apparently killed during the uprising. According to Herodotus, Egypt was subjected to an even greater yoke than before.
Since then the participation of natives in the government of the country is even more limited – they are allowed only in the lowest positions; both Xerxes and subsequent Persian kings do not dignify the Egyptian gods with attention. It is true that in the Hammamat quarries the name of Xerxes is inscribed in hieroglyphics, but this king obtained the material not for Egyptian temples, but for his constructions in Persia, delivering it by sea. Unlike their predecessors, Xerxes and the kings who followed him did not consider it necessary to adopt Pharaonic titles – only their Persian names written in hieroglyphics in cartouches have reached us.
Revolts of the Babylonians
Then Babylon had to be subdued, once again determined to rebel. Ctesias reports that this rebellion broke out at the beginning of the reign and was sparked by the sacrilegious discovery of the tomb of a certain Belitan (Elyanus says it was the tomb of Bel), and then subdued by Megabez, son-in-law of Xerxes and father of Zopyr. Strabo, Arrian, and Diodorus also speak of Xerxes” sacrileges in Babylonian temples, with Arrian dating them to the time after Xerxes” return from Greece.
In all likelihood there were several rebellions. Initially the Babylonians rebelled under the leadership of Bel-Shimanni. It is possible that this revolt began under Darius, under the influence of the Persian defeat at Marathon. The rebels seized, besides Babylon, the cities of Borsippa and Dilbat, as stated in two cuneiform documents found at Borsippa, dated “the beginning of the reign of Bel-shimanni, king of Babylon and the Lands.” The witnesses who signed on this contract are the same as those found on documents from the second half of Darius” reign and the first year of Xerxes. Apparently, Bel-Shimanni rebelled against Darius and accepted the audacious title of “king of the Lands,” which had not yet been encroached upon by the false Nebuchadnezzar. But two weeks later, in July 484 B.C., this rebellion was crushed.
In August 482 B.C. the Babylonians rebelled again. Now the rebellion was led by Shamash-eriba. One Babylonian document testifies about this revolt – the contract of the trading bank of Egibi, dated 22 tashritu (October 26), the year of the accession to the reign of King Shamash-eriba, “the king of Babylon and the lands”, and the witnesses of the transaction are the same as those mentioned in the documents from the time of Darius; the son of one of them is mentioned already under the 1st year of Xerxes. At any rate, the rebellion was not prolonged – this is evident already from the presence of one document from the “beginning of the reign.” The rebels had major successes, capturing Babylon, Borsippa, Dilbat and other cities, since most of the military garrisons stationed in Babylon had been transferred to Asia Minor to participate in the coming campaign against Greece. Xerxes” son-in-law, Megabez, was entrusted with the suppression of the uprising. The siege of Babylon lasted several months and apparently ended in March 481 B.C. with a severe massacre. The city and other fortifications were torn down. Even the course of the river was diverted and the Euphrates, at least temporarily, separated the residential part of the city from its sanctuaries. Some of the priests were executed, the main temple of Esagilus and the ziggurat of Etemenanki were also severely damaged.
Herodotus does not know anything about it either, but reports, without knowing it himself, an interesting information that Xerxes took from the temple of Bela (Esagila) a colossal, weighing 20 talents (about 600 kg), golden statue of the god, killing the priest who guarded it. Of course, the Greek historian thought that the reason was self-interest. In fact, as we know, it goes deeper than that. The quelling of the rebellion entailed extreme measures: the destruction of the temple and export of many treasury items of the temple to Persepolis; the golden statue of the god Marduk was also sent there, where it was probably melted down. Thereby Xerxes not only virtually, but also formally liquidated the Babylonian kingdom, turning it into an ordinary satrapy. By depriving Babylon of the statue of Marduk, Xerxes made it impossible for kings to appear there. After all, the claimant had to receive royal power “from the hands” of a god. Since that time the titulature of the king on Babylonian documents has also changed: on those dated “the year of his accession” Xerxes is still called “the king of Babylon, the king of lands”; on those dated from the first four years of his reign – “the king of Persia and Media, the king of Babylon and lands”; finally, since the 5th year (480-479) the designation “the king of lands” begins, which remains for all the successors of Xerxes. Diodorus notes that after the rebellion only a small part of Babylon was inhabited, and most of the city was devoted to crops.
Preparing for the trek
By the end of the 80s the situation in Persia had stabilized, and Xerxes began to prepare energetically for a new campaign against Greece. For several years work was underway to build a canal (12 stadia, more than 2 km long) across the isthmus in Halkidiki, to avoid bypassing the Cape of Athos, where the fleet of Mardonius perished. A bridge was also built across the river Strimon. Numerous workers from Asia and the surrounding coast were herded into the construction. Along the coast of Thrace food stores were established and two pontoon bridges with a length of 7 stadiums (about 1300 m) each were thrown over the Hellespont.
Diplomatic preparations for the campaign were also underway; ambassadors and agents of Xerxes were sent to various states in Balkan Greece and even to Carthage, which should have taken military action to divert the Greeks of Sicily from participating in the war with Persia.
Xerxes enlisted the help of prominent Greek fugitives in his palace to prepare for the campaign. Argos and Thessaly had expressed their submission to Persia. Many Greek cities, not excluding Athens, had strong pro-Persian factions. The inhabitants of Crete refused to help the Hellenes, and the inhabitants of Kerkyra took a wait-and-see attitude.
Greeks prepare to fight back
A number of Greek states were preparing to fight. In 481 B.C. an all-Hellenic alliance centered at Corinth and led by Sparta was formed. It was decided to meet the Persians on the border of Northern and Middle Greece, at Thermopylae. The mountains in this place were close to the sea shore, and the narrow passage was easier to defend. Simultaneously with the actions of the land army, a naval operation near the island of Evia was planned, so that the Persians could not break through the Eurepis strait and be in the rear of the Greeks. Since the position at Thermopylae was defensive, the Greeks decided to send there a small part of the united Greek army, only about six and a half thousand men, headed by the Spartan king Leonidas I.
Crossing the Hellespont
In the summer of 480 BC the Persian army, numbering, according to research by modern historians, from 80 to 200 thousand soldiers (Herodotus gives absolutely fantastic figures of 1 million 700 thousand people), began to cross the Helespont. Came at this time, a storm swept away pontoon bridges, and some of the Persian soldiers drowned in the sea. Angered Xerxes ordered to whip the sea and throw chains into it in order to calm the raging elements and to cut off the heads of the overseers of the works.
The measures taken helped, and after seven days the army of Xerxes safely crossed to the European shore. The further advance of the Persian army to Thermopylae passed without difficulties, and in August 480 BC the Persians reached the Thermopylae Gorge. By sea the Persian army was accompanied by a strong fleet. In addition to the Persians, all the peoples under his control took part in the campaign of Xerxes: Midians, Lydians, Cycians, Hyrcanians, Babylonians, Armenians, Bactrians, Sagartians, Saki, Indians, Aryans, Parthians, Horasmians, Sogdians, Gandarians, Dadics, Kaspians, Sarangians, Pakti, Utii, Miki, Parikani, Arabs, Ethiopians from Africa, eastern Ethiopians (Gedrosians), Libyans, Paphlagonians, Lygians, Matiens, Mariandines, Phrygians, Misians, Bifinians, Pisidians, Kabalia, Mylians, Moschians, Tibariens, Macrons, Mossinians, Maras, Colchians, tribes from the Persian Gulf Islands. In the fleet served: Phoenicians, Syrians, Egyptians, Cypriots, Pamphilians, Lycians, Asiatic Dorians, Carians, Ionians, Aeolians, and inhabitants of Hellespont.
The Battle of Thermopylae
The position at Thermopylae allowed the Greeks to hold off the advancing enemy for a long time, but in addition to the passage through the gorge to the south there was another mountain road, known to the locals and probably to Persian intelligence. Leonidas sent a detachment of 1,000 Thokidians there, just in case. When several attempts by the Persians to break through the Thermopylae Gorge were repulsed, a select group, including the Persian guard, moved to bypass the mountain road; a traitor from the locals volunteered to be a guide. Taken by surprise, the Thokidians, under a hail of arrows, fled, while the Persians, paying no further attention to them, continued their march and went behind the Greeks.
When Leonidas learned of what had happened, he let most of his detachment go, but with the Spartans, Thespians and some other Greeks he remained in place to cover their retreat. Leonidas and all those who remained with him died, but by delaying the Persian advance they made it possible to mobilize the Greek forces by pulling them up to Isthmus and to evacuate Attica.
Actions of the fleets
At the same time as the battle of Thermopylae, the fleet was active off the island of Evia. The storm caused considerable damage to the Persian fleet anchored off the poorly defended coast of Magnesia. Several hundred ships sank and many lives were lost. During the transition of the Persian fleet from the coast of Asia Minor to the Eurepis strait, the Athenians captured 15 Persian ships that had straggled from the main force.
To cut the Greeks off, the Persians sent 200 ships along the east coast of the island of Evia, but a sudden storm blew up this squadron; many ships sank. The clash of naval forces in the battle of Artemisia was fought with varying success. The sides were roughly equal in strength because the Persians could not deploy their entire fleet. Both sides suffered significant losses. Upon receiving the news of the death of Leonidas” detachment, the further stay of the Greek fleet here was pointless, and it withdrew to the south, to the Saronic Gulf.
The Ruin of Attica
The Persians could now march into Attica unhindered. Boeotia submitted to the Persians, and Thebes was thereafter actively supporting them. The land army of the Greeks stood on the isthmus of Isthmus, and Sparta insisted on a fortified defensive line here to protect the Peloponnese. Themistocles, Athenian politician and creator of the Athenian navy, believed it was necessary to give the Persians a naval battle off the coast of Attica. Defending Athens at that time was certainly not an option.
A few days after the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian army entered the almost empty land of Attica. Some Athenians took refuge in the Acropolis and offered desperate resistance to the Persians. They were apparently not so few, for 500 men were taken prisoner by the Persians. Athens was looted, the temples of the Acropolis were destroyed, and some monuments were taken to Persia.
The Battle of Salamis Island
After a long debate at the council of war of the Greeks, a new proposal was made to fight the Persian fleet in the Straits of Salamis. On September 28, 480 BC, a decisive battle took place. At night the Persian ships surrounded the island of Salamis and blocked the Greek fleet”s exit from the strait. At dawn the battle began. Xerxes personally watched the battle from a high place on the coast of Attica, from the other shore, from the island of Salamis the women, old men and children of evacuated Attica, who in case of Greek defeat awaited slavery and death.Persian ships that entered the strait, could not use their numerical superiority and maneuver, because their own ships were squeezed behind them. The Greeks, on the other hand, could gradually introduce their reserves into the battle, which stood in the gulf off the northwestern coast of Attica and were initially unnoticed by the Persians. In addition, the wind rose unfavorable for the Persian fleet. The Persian ships were not only dying from enemy attacks, but also bumping into each other. The Greeks won a complete victory.
Greeks prepare for a decisive battle
Although the Persian fleet, led by Xerxes, after the defeat left the borders of Greece, on the Balkan Peninsula was left overland army under the command of commander Mardonius, son-in-law of Darius I. Unable to feed themselves and their cavalry in Attica, the Persians went north. The Athenians were able to return home temporarily.
In the following year 479 B.C. the Persians again invaded Attica and devastated its fields. Mardonius, through the mediation of the Macedonian king Alexander, tried in vain to induce Athens to make a separate peace. Sparta, whom the victory of Salamis had freed from immediate danger, was slow to continue active military operations against Mardonius, proposing to vex him with naval sorties in Thrace and off the coast of Asia Minor, and on the Balkan peninsula to hold the line of defense on the Isthmus. To Athens Sparta promised compensation for crop losses, funds for women, children, and the elderly, but no military aid. However, even in Sparta itself there were supporters of more active action (e.g., Pausanias, regent to the minor king, son of Leonidas), and when, at Athens” insistence, it was decided to fight Mardonius, the mobilization of troops in the Peloponnese and their advance towards Eastme were carried out so quickly that Argos, hostile to Sparta, who had promised Mardonius to delay the Spartans, was unable to do anything about it. The timely warned Mardonius, who was in Attica at the time, retreated to Boeotia, leaving behind him smoking ruins. The Persians needed a plain to fight in, where their numerous and strong cavalry could be deployed. Besides, Thebes, friendly to the Persians, provided the rear of their army.
The Battle of Plataea
In 479 BC at Platæa, on the border of Attica and Boeotia, the last decisive battle between the Greeks and the Persian army that invaded the Balkan Peninsula took place. The Greek army was commanded by the Spartan Pausanias. For more than a week, the 30,000-strong Greek army and the Persian army, numbering about 60,000-70,000 men, stood against each other without engaging in battle. While the infantry was idle, the Persian cavalry disturbed the Greeks with frequent raids and finally seized and covered the main source of their water supply. The Greek army retreated on the orders of Pausanias. Mardonius, deciding that the Greeks had chickened out, moved his army across the half-dry river separating the enemies and began to climb the mountain to meet the Spartans who attacked them. The Athenians and Megarians repulsed the onslaught of the Boeotian and Thessalian hoplites (allies of Persia), supported by Persian cavalry, and began to push back the Persian gunners. They still held out as long as Mardonius was alive, fighting on a white horse. But he was soon killed, and the Persians left the battlefield to the Spartans. The Greeks also achieved victory against the advanced flanks of the Persian army. Artabazus, the commander of its center, began a hasty retreat northward and eventually crossed into Asia Minor by boat. Xerxes approved of his actions.
The Persians who remained in Boeotia tried to take refuge in their fortifications. But the Greeks stormed in, looted the Persian camp and seized huge booty. No prisoners were taken. According to Greek historians, only 43 thousand Persians managed to escape, of whom 40,000 fled with Artabaz. The figures are probably exaggerated, and the information about the killed Greeks is obviously underestimated – 1360 soldiers. Apparently only the hoplites, whose names are listed on the monuments in honor of the fallen, are counted here. To the Plataeans, on whose territory the victory was won, the Greeks promised “eternal” gratitude. Thebes was moderately punished for treachery. The Persophile leaders of the besieged city were executed, but the threat to destroy the city was not carried out.
The Battle of Micale
According to tradition, Themistocles proposed that immediately after the Battle of Salamis he send a fleet to the Hellespont to destroy the bridges built there by Xerxes and thus cut off the Persian escape route. This plan was rejected, but soon the Greek fleet began operations against the islands of the Cycladic archipelago that were cooperating with the Persians. The commander of the Greek fleet was approached by secret ambassadors from the inhabitants of the island of Samos, still under Persian control, with an appeal to support the Greek Ionian revolt that was about to take place. The Samosians freed 500 Athenian prisoners taken by the Persians.
In August 479 B.C. the Greek fleet approached Cape Mycale near Miletus. The Greeks disembarked and some of them began to move inland. Tigranes, the commander of the 15 thousandth Persian corps, attacked half of the Greek army, left on shore, but was defeated and died in the battle. The Ionians, Samosians and Miletians, who were in the ranks of the Persians, actively helped their countrymen. Having won on land, the Greeks destroyed the Persian fleet that stood nearby; all the ships were burned, after the booty had previously been carried ashore. According to tradition, the battle of Mycala took place on the same day that the Greeks defeated the Persians at Plataea. The battle of Mycala, though not as great as those that preceded it, cleared the Aegean Sea for the Greek fleet. Samos, Chios, Lesbos, and some other islands were admitted into the all-Greek alliance, whose inhabitants took an oath of allegiance to the common cause.
Siege of Sesta
After the victory at Mycala, the Greek fleet headed for the Hellespont. It turned out that the bridges built on the orders of Xerxes had already been destroyed by the Persians themselves. The Spartans went home, while the Athenians and the allied Greeks of Asia Minor, under the command of Xantippus, laid siege to the city of Sest, where the Persians were fortified. In the spring of 478 B.C., Sestus was captured by the Greeks, and the Persian satrap Artaictus, who led its defense, was put to death. Afterwards, the Athenians sailed home as well.
The Greeks form the Delos Maritime Union
After 479 BC Persia no longer threatened Balkan Greece. The Greek states themselves went on the offensive. But further military successes blew up the temporary unity of the Greeks. Contradictions became more and more evident, especially between Athens and Sparta. The fight between political factions of individual states, which had been temporarily muted, sharpened. Meanwhile the naval operations against Persia continued successfully. The Greeks freed the Hellespont Strait and resumed trade with the Northern Black Sea coast. In 478-477 BC at the suggestion of allies the supreme command was transferred to Athens. Since the war was fought on the sea and the Athenians had the strongest fleet, this was quite natural. Under the leadership of Athens was formed the so-called Delos Maritime Union, which included coastal and island Greek states.
The Battle of Eurymedonte
After the removal of the Spartans from command, military action continued, primarily to clear Thrace from the Persians. During these years Kimon, son of Miltiades, advanced and led the action of the Athenian and Allied fleets. Under his command the Greeks took the fortress that guarded the strategically important bridges over the river Strimon and several other points on the Thracian coast. In 468 BC, Kimon sent his fleet to the southern coast of Asia Minor, to the mouth of the Evrimedonte River. Here was the last, major clash with the new Persian fleet. The Greeks won a double victory, defeating the Persian forces at sea and on land, as they had in the battle of Mycala. After that, the Persian fleet no longer dared to enter the Aegean Sea.
These failures in the Greco-Persian wars intensified the process of disintegration of the Achaemenid state. Already under Xerxes there appeared symptoms dangerous to the existence of the empire – satrapist mutinies. For example, his own brother Masista fled from Susa to his satrapy Bactria in order to revolt there, but on the way the soldiers loyal to the king caught up with Masista and killed him along with all his sons who accompanied him (c. 478 B.C.). Herodotus tells an eerie legend of his death. Xerxes fell in love with the wife of Masista, but could not get her to reciprocate. Then he arranged the marriage of his son Darius and his daughter Masista, hoping it would give him a chance to get closer to her mother. But then he fell in love with Masista”s daughter, his daughter-in-law, who agreed to cohabit. Xerxes” wife Amestris found out about it and during a feast that was organized once a year, namely on the king”s birthday, when one could ask the king for any gift, she demanded Masista”s wife, considering her guilty of all her troubles, and then she brutally murdered her. After this Xerxes summoned Masista to him and told him that he would give his daughter in exchange for his mutilated wife. But Masista chose to flee to Bactria.
Despite defeats in Greece and in the Aegean Sea basin, Persia continued its active foreign policy; in particular, the Saka tribe of the Dakhs, east of the Caspian Sea, was conquered. This tribe is first mentioned in the lists of conquered peoples under Xerxes. The latter continued his conquests also in the far east, capturing the mountainous region of Akaufaka on the present-day border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Under Xerxes, intensive construction was carried out in Persepolis, Susa, Tushpa, on Mount Elwend near Ekbatana and in other places. In order to strengthen state centralization, he carried out a religious reform, which consisted in banning the worship of local tribal gods and strengthening the cult of the all-Iranian god Ahuramazda. Under Xerxes, the Persians stopped supporting local temples (in Egypt, Babylonia, etc.) and seized many temple treasures.
According to Ctesias, by the end of his life Xerxes was under the strong influence of Artabanus, head of the royal guard, and Aspamitra the eunuch (Diodorus calls him Mithridates). It is likely that Xerxes” position at this time was not very strong. Anyway, from the Persepolis documents we know that in 467 BC, i.e. 2 years before the assassination of Xerxes, there was famine in Persia, royal granaries were empty, and grain prices rose seven times higher than usual. To somehow appease the dissatisfied, Xerxes deposed about a hundred government officials within a year, starting with the highest-ranking ones. In August 465 BC Artaban and Aspamitra, apparently not without the machinations of Artaxerxes, the youngest son of Xerxes, killed the king at night in his bedroom. The exact date of this plot is recorded in one astronomical text from Babylonia. Another text from Egypt states that he was killed along with his eldest son Darius.
Xerxes was in power for 20 years and 8 months and was killed in his 54th year. About 20 cuneiform inscriptions in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian have survived from Xerxes” reign.
Xerxes married the daughter of Onoph Amestris, by whom he had a son named Darius, and two years later a second son was born, named Histaspas, then a third, named Artaxerxes. In addition, he had two daughters, one of whom was named Amitis (after her grandmother) and the other Rodoguna.
The image of Xerxes and the Persian war with the Greeks was reflected in Heryl”s epic poem “Peaches,” written in hexameter.
This is also the theme of the novels of William Davis, Salamis, and Louis Couperous, The Insufferable.
The image of Xerxes and his crossing of the Helespont formed the basis for the libretto of Handel”s opera Xerxes, first performed on April 15, 1738, London.