Xerxes I of Persia (English: /ˈzɜrksiːz/; Old Persian: خشایارشا (Ḫšayāršā), IPA: [xʃajaːrʃaː]; also known as Xerxes the Great, was the
fourth Zoroastrian king of kings of the Achamenid Empire.
Youth and rise to power -
Immediately after seizing the kingship, Darius I of Persia (son of Hystaspes) married Atossa (daughter of Cyrus the Great). They were
both descendants of Achaemenes from different Achaemenid lines. Marrying a daughter of Cyrus strengthened Darius' position as king.
Darius was an active emperor, busy with building programs in Persepolis, Susa, Egypt, and elsewhere. Toward the end of his reign he
moved to punish Athens, but a new revolt in Egypt (probably led by the Persian satrap) had to be suppressed. Under Persian law, the
Achaemenian kings were required to choose a successor before setting out on such serious expeditions. Upon his great decision to leave
(487-486 BC), Darius prepared his tomb at Naqsh-e Rostam and appointed Xerxes, his eldest son by Atossa, as his successor. Darius'
failing health then prevented him from leading the campaigns, and he died in October 486 BC.
Xerxes was not the oldest son of Darius and according to old Iranian traditions should not have succeeded the King. Xerxes was however
the oldest son of Darius and Atossa hence descendent of Cyrus. This made Xerxes the chosen King of Persia. 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 have had. Artobazan was born to "Darius the subject", while Xerxes was the eldest son born in the
purple after Darius' rise to the throne, and Artobazan's mother was a commoner while Xerxes' mother was the daughter of the founder of
Xerxes was crowned and succeeded his father in October–December 486 BC when he was about 36 years old. The transition of power to
Xerxes was smooth due again in part to great authority of Atossa and his accession of royal power was not challenged by any person at
court or in the Achaemenian family, or any subject nation.
Almost immediately, he suppressed the revolts in Egypt and Babylon that had broken out the year before, and appointed his brother
Achaemenes as governor or satrap (Old Persian: khshathrapavan) over Egypt. In 484 BC, he outraged the Babylonians by violently
confiscating and melting down 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).
Although Herodotus' report in the Histories has created certain problems concerning Xerxes' religious beliefs, modern scholars consider
him as a Zoroastrian.
In the year 465 BC Xerxes was murdered by Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in Persian
court (Hazarapat/commander of thousand). He was promoted to this most prestigious of positions in Achamenid court after his refusal to
help Mardonius in Plataea and instead withdrawing the second Persian army successfully out of Greece. Although he bore the same name as
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 an effective master plan to dethrone the Achamenids. In August, 465 B.C he
assassinated Xerxes with the help of a eunuch Aspamitres. Greek historians give contradicting accounts on the full story. According to
Ctesias (in Persica 20), he then accused the crown prince Darius (Xerxes' eldest son) of the murder; he instigated Artaxerxes (another
of Xerxes' son), to avenge the patricide. But according to Aristotle (in Politics 5.1311b), Artabanus killed Darius first and then the
king himself. Later on after discovering what he had done and planned for the royal power, Artabanus together with his sons were killed
by Artaxerxes I. Participating in the scuffles was also general Megabyzus (baghabukhsha) whose side switching probably saved the day
for the Achamenids.
Invasion of the Greek mainland -
Main article: Greco-Persian Wars
Darius left to his son the task of punishing the Athenians, Naxians, and Eretrians for their interference in the Ionian Revolt and their
victory over the Persians at Marathon. From 483 BC Xerxes prepared his expedition: A channel was dug through the isthmus of the
peninsula of Mount Athos, provisions were stored in the stations on the road through Thrace, two bridges were built across the
Hellespont. Soldiers of many nationalities served in the armies of Xerxes, including the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Indians,
Egyptians and Jews.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes' first attempt to bridge the Hellespont ended in failure when a storm destroyed the
flax and papyrus bridge; Xerxes ordered the Hellespont (the strait itself) whipped three hundred times and had fetters thrown into the
water. Xerxes' second attempt to bridge the Hellespont was successful. Xerxes concluded an alliance with Carthage, and thus deprived
Greece of the support of the powerful monarchs of Syracuse and Agrigentum. Many smaller Greek states, moreover, took the side of the
Persians, especially Thessaly, Thebes and Argos. Xerxes set out in the spring of 480 BC from Sardis with a fleet and army which
Herodotus claimed was more than two million strong with at least 10,000 elite warriors named Persian Immortals. Xerxes was victorious
during the initial battles.
Thermopylae and 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. After Thermopylae, Athens was captured and the Athenians and
Spartans were driven back to their last line of defense at the Isthmus of Corinth and in the Saronic Gulf. The delay caused by the
Spartans allowed Athens to be evacuated.
What happened next is a matter of some controversy. According to Herodotus, upon encountering the deserted city, in an uncharacteristic
fit of rage particularly for Persian kings, Xerxes had Athens burned. He almost immediately regretted this action and ordered it rebuilt
the very next day. However, Persian scholars dispute this view as pan-Hellenic propaganda, arguing
that Sparta, not Athens, was Xerxes' main foe in his Greek campaigns, and that Xerxes would have had nothing to gain by destroying a
major center of trade and commerce like Athens once he had already captured it.
At that time, anti-Persian sentiment was high among many mainland Greeks, and the rumor that Xerxes had destroyed the city was a popular
one, though it is equally likely the fire was started by accident as the Athenians were frantically fleeing the scene in
pandemonium, or that it was an act of "scorched earth" warfare to deprive Xerxes' army of the spoils of the city.
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. 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 29, 480 BC) was won by the Greek fleet, after which
Xerxes set up a winter camp in Thessaly.
Due to unrest in Babylon, Xerxes was forced to send his army home to prevent a revolt, leaving behind an army in Greece under Mardonius,
who was defeated the following year at Plataea. The Greeks also attacked and burned the remaining Persian fleet anchored at Mycale.
This cut off the Persians from the supplies they needed to sustain their massive army, and they had no choice but to retreat. Their
withdrawal roused the Greek city-states of Asia.
Construction projects -
The rock-cut tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam north of Persepolis, copying that of Darius, is usually assumed to be that of Xerxes
After the military blunders in Greece, Xerxes returned to Persia and completed the many construction projects left unfinished by his
father at Susa and Persepolis. He built 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 completed the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius as
well as building his own palace 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. He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a
palace at Susa.
In classical music -
Xerxes is the protagonist of the opera Serse by the German-English Baroque composer George Frideric Handel. It was first performed in
King's Theatre in London on 15 April 1738. The famous aria, "Ombra mai fù" is taken from the opera.
By queen Amestris
Amytis, wife of Megabyzus
Darius, the first born, murdered by Artaxerxes I and Artabanus.
Hystaspes, murdered by Artaxerxes I.
Achaemenes, murdered by Egyptians.
By unknown wives
Artarius, satrap of Babylon.
Arsames or Arsamenes or Arxanes or Sarsamas satrap of Egypt.
Depictions in popular culture -
Later generations' fascination with ancient Sparta, and particularly the Battle of Thermopylae, has led to Xerxes' portrayal in a number
of works of popular culture. For instance, he was played by David Farrar in the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, where he is portrayed as a
cruel, power-crazed despot and an inept commander. He also features prominently in the graphic novel 300 by Frank Miller, as well as the
movie adaptation (portrayed by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro).
Other works dealing with the Persian Empire or the Biblical story of Esther have also referenced Xerxes, such as the video game
Assassin's Creed II and the film One Night with the King, in which Ahasueras (Xerxes) was portrayed by British actor Luke Goss. He is
the leader of the Persian Empire in the video game Civilization II (along with Scheherazade) and III, although Civilization IV replaces
him with Cyrus the Great.