Xerxes I

The king of Persia from 486-465 BCE; the son of Darius I and Atossa.

The fact that Atossa was the daughter of the founder of the Persian Empire, Kyrus (Cyrus), gave Xerxes a clear advantage over Darius’ other sons but Atossa wielded great influence over Darius and before he left on an expedition to Egypt, Darius officially appointed Xerxes his successor; Darius died before he could return to Persia and Xerxes became king of the Persian Empire circa 486 BCE.

In Greece, he was known as The Warrior; his massive army invaded Greece in 480 BCE for a variety of reasons including: 1) revenge for his father’s humiliating defeat ten years previously in 490 BCE, 2) the prompting of his general and cousin, Mardonius, who wanted to be satrap of Greece, 3) the vengeful encouragement of the banished Athenian tyrant, Hipparkhus (Hipparchus), and 4) the self-serving prophecies of another Athenian expatriate, Onomakritus (Onomacritus); the only man to advise Xerxes not to invade Greece was his uncle, Artabanus.

Xerxes first quelled the rebellious Egyptians and Ionian Greeks along the coast of Asia Minor; he then proceeded with his plans to subjugate Greece; the army he assembled to march on Greece was immense, consisting of perhaps as many as five hundred thousand men not counting the support personnel; of course this figure is disputed because we only have the word of the historian Herodotus to go on; regardless of the actual size of the Persian army, the Greeks were outnumbered by an overwhelming margin.

It took a month for the Persian army to reach the narrow passage of the Hellespont where they intended to cross over into Europe; Xerxes lashed ships together side by side to create a 4,077 foot pontoon bridge across the Hellespont and prepared to march his army from Asia to Europe; when a violent wind broke the bridge to pieces, Xerxes had men with whips pronounce curses and deliver three hundred lashes on the water; he lowered a yoke into the water to symbolize his domination and finally branded the water with hot irons; the men who had been responsible for the bridge’s construction were beheaded; after he had calmed down, Xerxes repented and made offerings to the water spirits of the Hellespont so that he might be forgiven for his act of irreverence; to appease the waterway, he burned incense, poured libations, offered myrtle branches, a golden cup and bowl and also a sword; whether Xerxes did these things to appease the Hellespont or as a tribute to the sun god of Greece is not clear, regardless, the bridge was completed and the troops marched safely across.

As the army moved down the eastern coast of the Greek mainland, each independent Greek nation was either threatened or beaten into submission; the first major disappointment for Xerxes came at the battle of Thermopylae; a Spartan commander named Leonidas blockaded the pass with a small troop of soldiers; Xerxes was certain that when the Greeks saw his vast army they would simply run away, so he camped for four days in full view of the defiant Greeks; on the fifth day it became obvious that the Greeks were not going to surrender their fortifications without a fight; Xerxes sent a detachment of Medes and Kissians (Cissians) against the Greeks assuming that the Greek defenses would collapse with one aggressive assault; after a full day’s fighting, the Persians suffered heavy losses and failed to dislodge the Greeks; on the next day Xerxes sent in his best troops, the Immortals, to attack the Greeks but they could not force their way through the Greek lines; wave after wave of soldiers were hurled against the Greeks but the Persians remained ineffectual; this went on for several days and the Greeks seemed to never tire or decrease in number.

The impasse at Thermopylae was eventually resolved when a local inhabitant named Ephialtes showed the Persians a mountain trail which would allow the Persians to mount a surprise attack on the Greeks from the rear; Xerxes had his first taste of Greek determination and tactics but he did not think that any amount of gall or intelligence could stand against his massive military; the Persian Empire was the most powerful governmental state on earth and the Greeks, although they were the only civilized people in Europe, were, by comparison, simply a loosely organized and constantly bickering conglomeration of nations who happened to share a common language and heritage.

After the Persians won the battle for Thermopylae and four months after he crossed into Europe, Xerxes burned the city of Athens; the majority of the Athenian citizens had abandoned the city by the time the Persians arrived and the few who remained were systematically captured or killed; the Athenians had retreated to the nearby island of Salamis and the Greek nations of the Peloponnesian Peninsula had constructed a wall across the Isthmus of Korinth (Corinth); to Xerxes’ eyes, the Greeks were clearly making a last stand and he had no doubt that he would soon be the sovereign of all Greece.

Xerxes assembled his fleet south of Salamis and was waiting for the dawn when a Greek messenger arrived and told him that the Greeks were going to try to escape in the night; Xerxes ordered his navy into action and the Greeks, who had indeed been planning to evade a sea battle, were forced to fight; just as the narrow terrain at Thermopylae had benefited the outnumbered Greeks, the confined waters around Salamis were more advantageous to the smaller Greek force than to the superior numbers of the Persian navy; as Xerxes sat on a hill and watched the battle, the Persians ships were burned and sunk before his eyes; he did not want to appear weak or defeated, so he pretended to mount another assault as he actually made preparations to return home with as many ships and troops as he could save; time was of the essence because Xerxes was afraid that the pontoon bridge over the Hellespont would be destroyed by the Greeks before he could make his escape; his senior commander, Mardonius, was given a contingent of troops and ordered to stay in Greece and protect Xerxes’ retreat.

Mardonius knew the mind of Xerxes and the politics of the Persian Empire; he understood that if he was not killed by the Greeks, he would surely be blamed for the failed Greek expedition and be executed as soon as he returned to Persian soil; he retreated from Attika (Attica) and made a stand near the town of Plataea; the battle around Plataea was not a single, definitive confrontation but rather a series of running skirmishes which wore down the disheartened Persians and finally resulted in the death of Mardonius and the utter destruction of what remained of the Persian army.

As far as other achievements, both noble and base, attributed to Xerxes, the following deserve to be mentioned:

  1. The preceding Persian kings had demonstrated some respect for the temples and holy relics of the captured city of Babylon but Xerxes had no scruples regarding these sacred artifacts; he plundered the temple of Zeus and took a fifteen foot golden statue of the god; when the priest objected, Xerxes had him killed;
  2. In the spirit of exploration, and to confirm the Carthaginian claim that the Phoenicians had sailed around all of Libya (Africa), Xerxes pardoned a criminal on the condition that he sail from Egypt, through the Pillars of Herakles (Heracles), around Libya and return to the Arabian Gulf; the criminal returned to Egypt without completing his mission; he told some astounding tales which Xerxes correctly interpreted as lies and had the man impaled;
  3. As Xerxes was marching his army through Lydia on his way to Greece, he was entertained by a very wealthy man named Pythius; the king liked Pythius’ show of respect and his generous offer to donate all of his wealth to augment Xerxes’ war-chest; all went well until Pythius asked the king for a small favor; he asked that his eldest son be exempt from the army; he said that he would gladly allow his other four sons to fight in Greece but he needed his eldest to help him manage his affairs; Xerxes became enraged; he had Pythius’ son cut in half and had the halves put on each side of the road so that the army could march between them;
  4. In order to keep in communication with his far flung empire while he was busy subjugating the world, Xerxes employed a clever and practical innovation; he used a network of horseback riders to rapidly carry messages from the battlefield to his subordinates at home; each messenger would ride for one day and then pass the message to a fresh rider who would in turn ride for one day and then relay the message to a fresh rider; the motto that has been attributed to the United States Postal Service, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” comes almost directly from Herodotus’ description of the Persian messengers of king Xerxes; of course, a comparison of the mounted Persian messengers must be made to the famed Pony Express which delivered mail in the American west during the years of 1860-1;
  5. His treatment of two Spartan messengers is one of the most curious episodes related to Xerxes; when Xerxes’ father, Darius, had sent heralds to Athens and Sparta demanding their submission, they were killed; the Athenians did not give the matter another thought but the Spartans regretted the incident and were determined to make amends; prior to Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, the Spartans sent two messengers, sacrificial victims really, to Xerxes and they offered their lives as recompense for the dishonorable way the Persian heralds were treated; Xerxes surprised everyone, including his generals and advisors, by not executing the Spartan volunteers; instead, he took the Spartans on a tour of his assembled army and navy and let them return to Sparta unharmed; the purpose of this maneuver was to allow the Spartans to marvel at his strength and be cowed into submission rather than fight a pointless war; needless to say, Xerxes misjudged the Spartans;
  6. The love affair with his brother’s daughter was a tragic and embarrassing affair; Xerxes wanted to have the affection of his brother’s wife and so he devised a devious plan where his own son, Darius, would marry his brother’s daughter and thus put him in closer contact with the woman of his desire, the girl’s mother; the affection for the girl’s mother was not returned so Xerxes became infatuated with his son’s new bride; her name was Artaynte and she returned the king’s affection; when Xerxes’ wife, Amestris, became suspicious of the affair, she concocted a plan where she could find out if Xerxes was being unfaithful to her; she gave Xerxes an exquisite cloak that she knew young Artaynte would covet; Xerxes gave the cloak to Artaynte as Amestris predicted and by doing so Amestris knew without doubt that her husband was being unfaithful to her; Amestris waited for the king’s birthday and, as custom dictated, the king was obliged to grant favors and give gifts to his subjects; Amestris asked Xerxes for Artaynte’s mother as a gift and he could not refuse even though he suspected an evil end to such an unusual request; Amestris had Artaynte’s mother killed and mutilated; Xerxes feared revenge for such unjustified treatment of the innocent woman and had his brother, his nephews and their supporters murdered to prevent any retaliation.

Xerxes died in 464 BCE was followed by Artaxerxes I.

  • Histories, book 1, chapter 183; book 4, chapter 43; almost all of books 7 and 8; book 9, chapters 108-113
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