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Xerxes, King of Persia

July 23, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
As son and successor of Darius I, Xerxes inherited the Persian Empire at the height of its power. Best known for his formidable invasion of Greece, his eventual defeat marked the beginning of the end of the Achaemenid Empire.

Xerxes’ Early Life

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Xerxes (known as Khshayarsha in Old Persian) was born around 520 B.C., the son of Darius I, king of the Persian Empire, and Queen Atossa, daughter of Cyrus. 

Xerxes was chosen over his older brother, Artabazanes, as heir apparent, writes Persia scholar Jean-Louis Huot. In 486, when Darius died, Xerxes was about 35 years old. He had already ruled as his father’s governor in Babylonia for many years, and quickly took decisive action as the new king.

Xerxes as King of Persia

Unlike his father and Cyrus the Great, Xerxes ruled foreign lands with a heavy hand. In 485, he put down in a revolt in Egypt, and “ruthlessly ignored Egyptian forms of rule and imposed his will on the rebellious province in a thoroughly Persian style,” the Iran Chamber Society explains.

Next, he suppressed another revolt in Babylonia. Although his father had treated Babylonia and Egypt as allies of the Persian Empire, Xerxes turned his back on these empires—and their gods, reports Huot. From now on, he called himself simply “king of the Persians and the Medes.”

Peace was reestablished in the empire but many wanted to seek revenge against the Greeks for the great loss that Darius had suffered at the Battle of Marathon in 490. Mardonius, Xerxes’ cousin and brother-in-law, incited him to action.

“The impressionable Xerxes gave way to pressure from his entourage and threw himself into patient diplomatic and military preparations for war,” according to Huot. Herodotus, a Greek historian in the fifth century B.C., described Xerxes’ thorough preparations and subsequent invasion of Greece in “The Histories.”

While Xerxes prepared for war,
his subjects achieved “two major engineering feats,” Great Battles magazine reports. Two bridges were constructed over the Hellespont (the modern-day Dardanelles, a narrow strait dividing Europe and Asia Minor).

When a storm destroyed the bridges, Xerxes flew into a rage. “He ordered the designers of those bridges executed and that the Hellespont itself be given 300 lashes as punishment.” Replacement bridges were constructed, and a ship canal was dug across the Isthmus of Actium near Mount Athos.

Though nothing remains of the bridges, traces of the canal still exist. “It represents not only the most impressive surviving monument of Persia’s short-lived imperial presence in Europe, but also one of the most important pieces of ancient marine communication engineering anywhere,” according to The Annual of the British School at Athens.

Xerxes spent the winter of 481-480 in Sardis, and led a land and sea invasion into northern Greece. “The superiority of the Greek infantry, man for man, was by then well known, but Xerxes' force outnumbered the Greeks,” Encyclopedia of World Biography explains. Herodotus estimated Xerxes’ army at about five million, but modern estimates put the number closer to 300,000.

The Greeks responded with about 10,000 men in the spring of 480, but were defeated by the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. Xerxes’ army marched on Athens, destroying the Acropolis, and then engaged in a naval battle at Salamis.

Themistocles, the Athenian naval leader, sent a secret letter to Xerxes promising that the Athenians would desert if the Persians attacked, in return for the restoration of Athens, Encyclopedia of World Biography explains. But the Athenians didn’t desert, and Xerxes’ army was easily defeated.

In order to protect his communication lines, Xerxes returned to his capital of Susa, leaving Mardonius in charge of 300,000 soldiers. In 479, Mardonius was defeated and killed in battle at Plataea, signaling the beginning of the decline of the Achaemenid Empire.

Even though the war dragged on, Xerxes didn’t involve himself. Instead, he retired in Susa and Persepolis, and devoted his time and resources to construction projects. An audience hall, a palace, a treasury and other monuments were built during this time.

According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Xerxes “became a drunken, embittered man, a pawn of his scheming courtiers, and was murdered in Susa by the captain of the guards.” The Iran Chamber Society claims that he was assassinated by order of his son, Artaxerxes, who succeeded him. Encyclopedia Britannica reports that his eldest son was also murdered, leaving Artaxerxes to gain power. Whatever the course of events, Xerxes died in 465.

Xerxes’ Legacy

Xerxes and his incredible campaign against the Greeks have served as inspiration for artists throughout history. Baroque composer George Frideric Handel wrote an opera, "Serse" (“Xerxes”), which was first performed in London’s King’s Theatre on April 15, 1738. The opera takes place in Abydos, on the southern coast of the Hellespont. Visit the Handel House Museum Web site for a synopsis of the opera.

Xerxes has also made an appearance in comic books and on the big screen. In 1998, Frank Miller created “300” for Dark Horse Comics. The comic book is a fictional rendition of the Battle of Thermopylae from the point of view of King Leonidas. In 2006, the work was adapted into a film of the same name, and became the highest-grossing R-rated film of the year, according to Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times.

“But ‘300’ also became an international incident, of sorts,” Boucher writes. “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bitterly denounced the film and the Iranian Academy of the Arts filed a formal complaint through the United Nations that framed the movie as nothing less than an attack on the historical identity of a nation—especially with its portrayal of Xerxes (portrayed by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro) as leering and androgynous and the Persian army as a demonic horde.”

Controversy may rise again: Miller is now working on a new comic, “Xerxes,” which will tell the story of the events leading up to those depicted in “300” and then continue where “300” left off. And Zack Snyder, the director of the film “300,” is already working on a script for the movie version of “Xerxes,” so Xerxes will soon make another big-screen appearance.
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