Achaemenid Dynasty > Xerxes I

Xerxes I

Achaemenid Persian Empire - Farvahar Chapter Decoration


Xerxes I was the fourth king of the Achaemenid Empire and successor to Darius I. He ruled from 486 BCE and presided over a great portion of the Greco-Persian Wars until being murdered in 465 BCE by the commander of his royal bodyguard named Artabanus.

It is believed that Xerxes may be the Persian king Ahasuerus identified in the Book of Esther in the bible. Xerxes himself may have practiced Zoroastrianism. Xerxes was murdered by the captain of his guard in an attempt to seize the throne and destabilize the Achaemenid legacy.

He leaves behind a unique legacy within the Achaemenid Empire as well as on the development of civilization as a whole.

Becoming King

Xerxes was the eldest son of Darius I only with respect to his mother Atossa. Darius I had been married once before and his eldest son from his previous marriage named Artobazan tried to claim the throne as this was the normal procedure for transfer of power in ancient times. However, Atossa was the daughter of Cyrus II the Great and thus her son would have much more legitimacy to the throne than Artobazan whose mother was a commoner.

In the end Darius I declared Xerxes I the successor to his reign before he left on his military campaign in 487 BCE as required by Achaemenid law and he prepared his tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam before setting out. He never was able to set out on this final military campaign and Xerxes succeeded his father when he died in October or December of 486 BCE. Due to his mother the transition of power was smooth with the Persian court and the rest of the empire. He was 36 years old when he assumed power and immediately moved to crush the uprisings in Egypt and Babylonia that had began under the reign of his father.

Xerxes was successful in his conquering of Egypt and installed his brother Achaemenes as satrap. He then moved onto Babylon in 484 BCE and successfully sieged the city. However, he was not as religiously tolerant as his father and the punishment for their rebellion was to melt down the Golden Statue of Marduk that they held sacred. The true rightful Babylonian king was supposed to clasp each New Years and without the statue their ceremony was ruined.

This caused the city of Babylon to revolt twice more in 484 BCE and later in 482 BCE. Xerxes hated Babylon so much he refused the title of King of Babylon as his father had taken and preferred various other titles.

Greco-Persian Wars

Xerxes assumed power right in the middle of the Greco-Persian Wars which occurred after the Greek cities in Ionia tried to rebel against Persian rule with the backing of Athens. This was a stupid mistake and saw the decimation of Ionia, the subjugation of Macedon and Thrace and war brought right to the doorstep of Athens at the Battle of Marathon.

Darius died after his defeat at the Battle of Marathon but was in the planning stages of a second invasion of Greece. Xerxes assumed his fathers armies and in 483 BCE after quelling internal problems of Egypt and Babylonia he set forth on his military campaign. He was going to punish the Greeks for all of their meddling in Anatolia the past several decades and subjugate them once and for all.

He started by ordering the digging of the Xerxes Canal through the isthmus at Mount Athos. He also ordered the construction of two massive wooden bridges known as Xerxes Pontoon Bridges made out of boats and reinforced with wood and other construction materials like his father before in order to cross the Hellespont and enter into Thrace.

After entering Thrace he stored provisions and supplies throughout the country and prepared for his invasion of the southern Greek mainland once again. The Greeks faced a variable horde of enemies within the Persian army including soldiers of all different ethnicities such as Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Jews along with people from the many different territories each of those civilizations controlled.

Battle of Thermopylae

Battle of Artemisium

Battle of Salamis

Battle of Plataea

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.[16] 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 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 Persian Immortals. More recent estimates place the Persian force at around 60,000 combatants.

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 were driven back to their last line of defense at the Isthmus of Corinth and in the Saronic Gulf.

What happened next is a matter of some controversy. According to Herodotus, upon encountering the deserted city, in a fit of rage uncharacteristic even for Persian kings, Xerxes had Athens burned. He immediately regretted this action and ordered it rebuilt the next day. However, Persian scholars dispute this view as pan-Hellenic propaganda, arguing that Sparta, not Athens, was Xerxes's 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.

Inscription of Xerxes the Great near the Van Citadel.

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's 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, 480 BC) was won by the Greek fleet, after which Xerxes set up a winter camp in Thessaly.

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.[18] Another cause of the retreat might have been continued unrest in Babylon, which being a key province of the Achaemenid Empire required the king's own attention.[19] 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 losing to the Greeks the wounded Xerxes returned back to the capital of Persepolis and oversaw many of the construction projects that his father had begun. He also saw the development of the administrative capital of Susa.

At Persepolis he was responsible for building the wonders known as the Gate of All Nations and the and the Hall of a Hundred Columns which were the largest structures in the entire royal palace which was really saying something. He also oversaw the completion of the Apadana along with the Palace of Darius and the Treasury that were all begun by his father. Despite failing militarily with the Greeks king Xerxes ordered the construction of a palace twice as big as his fathers for himself and was built with the decadence and decorum of the capital city.

In addition to building up the city of Persepolis he also oversaw maintenance to the Royal Road that his father had created and the creation of the Susa Gate and the completion of the palace at Susa.

Death & Legacy

Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BCE by the head of his royal bodyguard named Artabanus. He was the most powerful official within the Persian court and was trying to usurp power. Artabanus was popular within the religious factions of Persia and he installed seven of his sons in positions of political power in an attempt to take over the Achaemenid Dynasty.

Artabanus enlisted the help of an eunuch named Aspamitres and the rest is lost to history. Various Greek historians give different accounts on the aftermath of the murder. Some such as Ctesias in Persica 20 suggest it was blamed on the son of Xerxes named Darius and he was murdered by another one of Xerxes sons named Artaxerxes to supposedly avenge the death of his father.

According to Aristotle in Politics 5.1311b however, Artabanus killed the crown prince Darius first and then Xerxes so there would be no contest to his assuming power in Persia. According to Aristotle after discovering what had occurred Artaxerxes killed Artabanus and all of his sons. What was known to have saved the Achaemenid throne during this time was the general Megabyzus who switched sides and prevented some of the atrocities that usually occurred during ancient power struggles.

Xerxes is believed to have been buried in the mountainside necropolis known as Naqsh-e Rustam along with his father and two other Achaemenid kings.

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