xerxes " I am Xerxes, the great king, king of kings, king of lands containing many men....." - Persepolis Inscription of Xerxes

Historical Context

King xerxes reigned during the Archaemenid Persian Empire, from 486 BC to 465 BC. The Archaemenid Empire was the largest the ancient world had ever seen. It was built over 50 years by three kings; Cyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius 1.

It spanned from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia. The main capitals were Ecbatana, Susa, Pasargadae, and Persepolis. It consisted mainly of landlocked deserts with some grazing lands.

The landforms of this area include; a central plateau, plains and mountain ranges. Agriculture in the empire depended on the seasonal melting of the snow from the mountain tops, as the mountains stopped rain clouds from moving over the city, which caused a rise in desert conditions. The Persians tapped into aquifer basins through underground channels for most of their water supply, as well as major rivers in the near east flowing through alluvial plains to agricultural land.

The Persian Empire had vast physical and human resources available to Xerxes. Material resources included minerals and timber. The Persian Empire was a wealthy one, much of its wealth came in the form of tribute to the Persian King from outer areas of the empire. Gold sent from Sardis, Bactria and India. Electrum sent from Lydia. Horses from Babylonia and Corn from Egypt.

Xerxes had 46 nationalities available to fight for his empire. They supplied troops, ships and cavalry when called upon. The Persians and Medes did not pay taxes, but the subject nationalities did; the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Lydians, Ionians, Bactrians.

The king was supported by the Persian nobility, most of which were members of the royal family or Persian and Median. Reliefs and glazed bricks for Persepolis and Susa depicts the nobles in rich clothing and jewellery. Along with the nobles at court and members of the royal family, there were several other positions of dominance. The King's Bow Bearer, spear bearer. There were also senior positions such as the satrap and military commands, which were filled by the royal family.

Religion in Persia included a few gods. The chief of which was Ahuramazda. The Persians also believed water, earth and fire to be quite important. Religious rites including sacrifices and tending to fire alters was the role of classes of priests called the magi. Their belief that earth and air were sacred led them to leaving their dead on high platforms to be picked clean by birds, rather than burying them. Speaking the truth was an important part of the religion and was incorporated into education.

Background and Rise to Prominence

Son of Darius and Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, Xerxes link to Cyrus was significant as Darius was probably not a direct descendant of Achaemenes but Atossa was. Xerxes was born shortly after 520 BC and was the first child of the marriage. His family consisted of his father King Darius, his mother Queen Atossa, three younger brothers, Hystaspes, Achaemenes and Masistes as well as several half brothers. He has only one known sister, Artazostre. Xerxes only known wife was Queen Amestris, he had three sons, Prince Darius, Prine Hystaspes and King Artaxerxes. Prince Darius was named Xerxes' heir but was killed by Artaxerxes before he could take the throne.

The greek historian Herodotus records that education for males occurred between the ages of five and twenty. Boys were taught to " ride, to use the bow and to speak the truth". Some believe that before he ascended the throne, Xerxes was a Satrap of Babylon. This belief stems from an inscription in Borsippa, which refers to the completion of a "new palace" by the king's son. But because this inscription does not mention a name, and Darius had many sons, this is not definite evidence.

Xerxes became King of Persia following the death of his father Darius in 486 BC. Xerxes was not Darius first born son, but was his first born son during his reign as king and to his wife Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, giving him a link to the throne. A treasury relief from Persepolis depicts Xerxes standing behind Darius on the platform of the ruler, wearing the beard and carrying the lotus flower of a ruler. An inscription from Persepolis but Xerxes reads,"my father named me greatest after himself".

Other sons of Darius there were but- thus unto Ahuramazda was the desire-Darius may father made me the greatest after himself. When my father Darius went away from the throne, by the will of Ahuramazda I became King on my father's throne. -Harem Inscription


Feature 1: Building program in Persepolis.

The great palace at Persepolis was started by Darius in 515BC but completed by Xerxes. The staircases, monumental gateways, imposing facades, and the sheer size of the palace are expressions of imperial majesty. The palace also includes reliefs depicting processions of subjects bringing their tributes to the king. The representation of the subjects is described as " a way of incorporating the entire empire into the fabric of the palace......". This palace may have served a variety of purposes including an administrative centre and a focus for religious ritual. "The best know idea is that Persepolis was the site of a No-Ruz gift-giving ceremony..."

Feature 2: The Revolt of Egypt

A revolt broke out in Egypt in 486BC whist Darius was still alive, and after Darius' death, Xerxes led the expedition to Egypt himself. This could have been because he increased taxation in order to fund the greater invasion of Greece after Darius' defeat at Marathon, and the corruption of the Satrap. The Egyptians may have seen this as a perfect time to rebel against Persian control because Darius was occupied with the building forces for another attack on Greece. Xerxes personally led an expedition to Egypt and suppressed the rebellion. This expresses Xerxes power as a military leader as he crossed the Sinai desert with his army, defeated the Egyptian Sinai defences and defeated the rebels.

Feature 3: Revolts in the Satrapy of Babylon

Two revolts occurred in Babylon. One occurred in 484 BC and the other in 482 BC. These revolts were not suppressed by Xerxes himself but rather by his general, Megabyxus. Xerxes is believed to have punished the babylonians quite severely. It is recorded that he seized temple lands and the golden statue of Bel-Marduk, which he melted down. However, there is little evidence of the destruction of the Babylonian temples. "A revised view of Xerxes' treatment of the Babylonians focusses on the practice of the Babylonian chronicles to describe times of temple destruction as "kingless". Seeing as Xerxes was given his full 21 year reign, then by implication the temples were not destroyed." (HSC Ancient History Personality Study Xerxes. Page 39)

Feature 4: Xerxes' Invasion of Greece

  • In 480 BC Xerxes personally led the second Persian invasion of Greece. Xerxes had assembled one of the largest armies the ancient world had ever seen. Xerxes main motivation was to; punish the Athenians for the Persian defeat at the battle of Marathon, to extend the Persian empire and to gain personal glory. Thermopylae: Most of the Greek states met and decided that the Spartans be in control. Under king Leonidas' control, although they were all fine soldiers, they were outnumbered hugely by the Persians. The plan was to trap the Persian army in a bottle-neck in Thermopylae where their larger numbers would be insignificant. This all went according to plan until a traitor showed the Persians a way over the mountains which caused the Greeks to retreat, but Leonidas along with 300 men stayed and fought for 2 days before they were killed.With their success at the battle of Thermopylae, the Persians were able to torch Athens and overrun most of Greece. Salamis: The only way to defeat the Persians was with the Athenian fleet. The greeks sent out a fake message to the Persian fleet and enticed them into a small strait of Salamis. The Persians fell for this plan, and once surrounded by the greeks their fleet was destroyed.

Xerxes had a powerful military force, so great that many perceived the Persian empire as the most ideal empire to be in. As a result of his power he was able to expand the Persian empire so much that it at one point became the most powerful empire in all of the near east. He demonstrated his kingship very early on in his reign by crushing the revolts of Babylon and Egypt, and from that point made strategic preparations for his invasion of mainland Greece.

Ancient Sources: Plutarch " And Xerxes even tried to brand and flog the sea, and sent a letter addressed to the mountain:' Great Athos high as heaven, don't make huge intractable rocks interfere with my actions, or else i will tear you to pieces and hurl you into the sea.' and when you find yourself envying Xerxes, as the Hellespontain did, on the famous occasion of Xerxes' pontoon crossing, make sure you also see the men being driven by whips to excavate Mount Athos and the men with faces mutilated when the bridge was destroyed by the waves, if you take their thoughts into consideration as well, you find that they are envying your life and situation."

Modern Sources: C.Hignett ".....some charges against him, notably the cowardice of his hasty retreat from Greece after his defeat at Salamis, are unfounded. But when every allowance has been made for the hostile bias of our sources, it is clear that he was not equal to his high position which he owed to his birth and not his merits. Brought up as a king's son in the unwholesome atmosphere of...intrigues, he was lecherous and cruel... and ended his inglorious reign as the victim of a palace conspiracy. He cannot be blamed for the failure of the long-delayed invasion of Greece; the expedition was well planned and carefully prepared and Xerxes had the wisdom to entrust its execution to the generals he had inherited from Darius."

Ancient Image of King Xerxes
Modern Image of King Xerxes from the film '300'

Legacy: Material. The palace at Persepolis is a lasting testament to Xerxes reign, with inscriptions and the bas-reliefs to record his power and his achievements. As a result, maintenance of the palace became a Kingship tradition continued by his son Artaxerxes and his sons after him.

Reference: HSC Ancient History Personality Study Xerxes

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