Xerxes I

Xerxes I
King of Persia and Media
Great King
King of Kings
King of Nations
Pharaoh of Egypt
Rock relief of Xerxes at his tomb in Naqsh-e Rustam
King of Persia
Reign 486–465 BC
Coronation October 486 BC
Predecessor Darius I
Successor Artaxerxes I
Born 519 BC
Died August 465 BC (aged 53 or 54)
Burial Persia
Spouse Amestris, (disputed: Vashti and Queen Esther)
Issue Darius
Artaxerxes I
Dynasty Achaemenid
Father Darius I
Mother Atossa
Religion Zoroastrianism[1]
Xerxes (Xašayaruša/Ḫašayaruša)[2]
in hieroglyphs
in hieroglyphs

Xerxes I (/ˈzɜːrksz/; Old Persian: 𐎧𐏁𐎹𐎠𐎼𐏁𐎠 Xšayaṛša ( Khshāyarsha ) [4] "ruling over heroes",[5] Greek Ξέρξης Xérxēs [ksérksɛːs]; 519–465 BC), called Xerxes the Great, was the fourth king of kings of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia. Like his predecessor Darius I, he ruled the empire at its territorial apex. He ruled from 486 BC until his assassination in 465 BC at the hands of Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard.

Xerxes I is one of the Persian kings identified as Ahasuerus in the biblical Book of Esther.[6][7][8] He is also notable in Western history for his failed invasion of Greece in 480 BC. His forces temporarily overran mainland Greece north of the Isthmus of Corinth [9][10] until the losses at Salamis and Plataea a year later reversed these gains and ended the second invasion decisively. Xerxes also crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon. Roman Ghirshman says that, "After this he ceased to use the title of 'king of Babylon', calling himself simply 'king of the Persians and the Medes'."[11]

Xerxes oversaw the completion of various construction projects at Susa and Persepolis.

Early life

Rise to power

Xerxes was born to Darius I and Atossa (daughter of Cyrus the Great). Darius and Atossa were both Achaemenids as they were both descendants of Achaemenes. While Darius was preparing for another war against Greece, a revolt spurred in Egypt in 486 BC due to heavy taxes and the deportation of craftsmen to build the royal palaces at Susa and Perseopolis. Under Persian law, the king was required to choose a successor before setting out on dangerous expeditions. When Darius decided to leave (487–486 BC), Darius prepared his tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam (five kilometers from his royal palace at Perseopolis) and appointed Xerxes, his eldest son by Atossa, as his successor. However, Darius could not lead the campaign due to his failing health and died in October 486 BC at the age of 64.[12]

Artobazan claimed the crown as the eldest of all the children; while Xerxes, on the other hand, urged that he was sprung from Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, and that it was Cyrus who had won the Persians their freedom. Xerxes was also helped by a Spartan king in exile who was present in Persia at the time, Eurypontid king Demaratus, who argued that the eldest son does not universally mean they have claim to the crown, as Spartan law states that the first son born while the father is king is the heir to the kingship.[13] 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 enjoyed.[14] Artobazan was born to "Darius the subject", while Xerxes was the eldest son born in the purple after Darius's rise to the throne, and Artobazan's mother was a commoner while Xerxes's mother was the daughter of the founder of the empire.[15]

Xerxes was crowned and succeeded his father in October–December 486 BC[16] when he was about 36 years old.[17] The transition of power to Xerxes was smooth due again in part to the great authority of Atossa[18] and his accession of royal power was not challenged by any person at court or in the Achaemenian family, or any subject nation.[19]

Almost immediately, Xerxes crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon that had broken out the year before, and appointed his brother Achaemenes as satrap over Egypt. In 484 BC, he outraged the Babylonians by violently confiscating and melting down[20] 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). This comes from the Daiva Inscriptions of Xerxes, lines 6–13.[21]


Invasion of the Greek mainland

Darius died while in the process of preparing a second army to invade the Greek mainland, leaving to his son the task of punishing the Athenians, Naxians, and Eretrians for their interference in the Ionian Revolt, the burning of Sardis, and their victory over the Persians at Marathon. From 483 BC, Xerxes prepared his expedition: The Xerxes Canal was dug through the isthmus of the peninsula of Mount Athos, provisions were stored in the stations on the road through Thrace, and two pontoon bridges later known as Xerxes' Pontoon Bridges were built across the Hellespont. Soldiers of many nationalities served in the armies of Xerxes from all over his multi-ethnic massive Eurasian-sized empire and beyond, including the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Jews,[22] Macedonians, European Thracians, Paeonians, Achaean Greeks, Ionians, Aegean islanders, Aeolians, Greeks from Pontus, Colchians, and many more.

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.[23] The Carthaginian invasion of Sicily deprived Greece of the support of the powerful monarchs of Syracuse and Agrigentum; ancient sources assume Xerxes was responsible, modern scholarship is skeptical.[24] 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.[25]

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. 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. After Thermopylae, Athens was captured. Most of the Athenians had abandoned the city and fled to the island of Salamis before Xerxes arrived. A small group attempted to defend the Athenian Acropolis, but they were defeated. Xerxes burnt the city; leaving an archaeologically attested destruction layer, known as the Perserschutt.[26] The Persians thus gained control of all of mainland Greece to the north of the Isthmus of Corinth.[10]

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.[27]

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.[28] 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.[29] 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 the military blunders in Greece, Xerxes returned to Persia and oversaw the completion of the many construction projects left unfinished by his father at Susa and Persepolis. He oversaw the building of 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 oversaw the completion of the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury, all started by Darius, as well as having his own palace built 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.[30] He had colorful enameled brick laid on the exterior face of the Apadana.[31] He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a palace at Susa.[32]


In August 465 BC, Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court, assassinated Xerxes with the help of a eunuch, Aspamitres. Although Artabanus bore the same name as the 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 a plan to dethrone the Achaemenids.[33]

Greek historians give contradicting accounts of events. According to Ctesias (in Persica 20), Artabanus then accused the Crown Prince Darius, Xerxes's eldest son, of the murder and persuaded another of Xerxes's sons, Artaxerxes, to avenge the patricide by killing Darius. But according to Aristotle (in Politics 5.1311b), Artabanus killed Darius first and then killed Xerxes. After Artaxerxes discovered the murder, he killed Artabanus and his sons.[34] Participating in these intrigues was the general Megabyzus, whose decision to switch sides probably saved the Achaemenids from losing their control of the Persian throne.[35]



In Histories, Herodotus relates that at the Strymon river, the Magi sought good omens by sacrificing white horses. And after using these enchantments and many others besides the river, the armies of Xerxes crossed its bridges at the Nine Ways in Edonian country. When they learned that Nine Ways was the name of the place, they buried alive nine boys and nine girls who were children of the local people. Herodotus further relates that burying people alive is a Persian custom and he adds that Xerxes' wife Amestris buried, twice, seven sons of notable Persians as an offering on her own behalf to the fabled god beneath the earth. [36]

Although Herodotus' report in the Histories has created debate concerning Xerxes's religious beliefs, modern scholars consider him a Zoroastrian.[37]


By queen Amestris:

By unknown wives:

  • Artarius, satrap of Babylon.
  • Tithraustes
  • Arsames or Arsamenes or Arxanes or Sarsamas, satrap of Egypt.
  • Parysatis[38]
  • Ratashah[39]

Cultural depictions

Xerxes is the central character of the Aeschylus play "The Persians." Xerxes is the protagonist of the opera Serse by the German-English Baroque composer George Frideric Handel. It was first performed in the King's Theatre London on 15 April 1738. The famous aria "Ombra mai fù" opens the opera.[40]

The murder of Xerxes by Artabanus (Artabano), execution of crown prince Darius (Dario), revolt by Megabyzus (Megabise) and subsequent succession of Artaxerxes I is romanticised by the Italian poet Metastasio in his opera libretto Artaserse, which was first set to music by Leonardo Vinci, and subsequently by other composers such as Johann Adolf Hasse and Johann Christian Bach.

Later generations' fascination with ancient Sparta, particularly the Battle of Thermopylae, has led to Xerxes' portrayal in works of popular culture. He was played by David Farrar in the fictional film The 300 Spartans (1962), 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 film adaptation 300 (2007) and its sequel 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), as portrayed by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, in which he is represented as a giant man with androgynous qualities, who claims to be a god-king. This portrayal has attracted controversy, especially in Iran.[41] Ken Davitian plays Xerxes in Meet the Spartans, a parody of the first 300 movie replete with sophomoric humour and deliberate anachronisms.

Other works dealing with the Persian Empire or the Biblical story of Esther have also featured or alluded to Xerxes, such as the video game Assassin's Creed II and the film One Night with the King (2006), in which Ahasuerus (Xerxes) was portrayed by British actor Luke Goss. He is the leader of the Persian Empire in the video game Civilization II and III (along with Scheherazade), although Civilization IV replaces him with Cyrus the Great and Darius I.

Gore Vidal, in his historical fiction novel Creation (1981), describes at length the rise of the Achemenids, especially Darius I, and presents the life and death circumstances of Xerxes. Vidal's version of the Persian Wars, which diverges from the orthodoxy of the Greek histories, is told through the invented character of Cyrus Spitama, a half-Greek, half-Persian, and grandson of the prophet Zoroaster. Thanks to his family connection, Cyrus is brought up in the Persian court after the murder of Zoroaster, becoming the boyhood friend of Xerxes, and later a diplomat who is sent to India, and later to Greece, and who is thereby able to gain privileged access to many leading historical figures of the period.[42]

Xerxes (Ahasuerus) is portrayed by Richard Egan in the 1960 film Esther and the King and by Joel Smallbone in the 2013 film, The Book of Esther. In at least one of these films, the events of the Book of Esther are depicted as taking place upon Xerxes' return from Greece.

Xerxes plays an important background role (never making an appearance) in two short works of alternate history taking place generations after his complete victory over Greece. These are: "Counting Potsherds" by Harry Turtledove in his anthology Departures and "The Craft of War" by Lois Tilton in Alternate Generals volume 1 (edited by Turtledove).

Etymology and transliteration

Xerxes is the Greek version of the Old Persian name Xšaya-ṛšā, which is today known in New Persian as Khashayar (خشایار).


  1. Xerxes made human sacrifice. See Boyce, Mary (1989). A History of Zoroastrianism: The early period, p. 141.
  2. Jürgen von Beckerath (1999), Handbuch der ägyptischen Königsnamen, Mainz am Rhein: von Zabern. ISBN 3-8053-2310-7, pp. 220–21
  3. "THE XERXES QUADRILINGUAL ALABASTRON". The Schoyen Collection. Retrieved 28 March 2017.
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  11. Roman Ghirshman, Iran (1954), Penguin Books, p 191.
  12. Dandamaev 1989, p. 178-179.
  13. Herodotus 7.1-5
  14. R. Shabani Chapter I, p. 15
  15. Olmstead: The history of Persian empire
  16. The Cambridge History of Iran vol. 2. p. 509.
  17. Dandamaev 1989, p. 180.
  18. Schmitt, R., "Atossa" in Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  19. The Cambridge Ancient History vol. V p. 72.
  20. R. Ghirshman, Iran, p.191
  21. Roland G. Kent in "Language" Vol. 13 No. 4
  22. Farrokh, Kaveh (2007). Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford, UK: Osprey. ISBN 1846031087, p. 77
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  25. Barkworth, 1993. "The Organization of Xerxes' Army." Iranica Antiqua Vol. 27, pp. 149–167
  26. Martin Steskal, Der Zerstörungsbefund 480/79 der Athener Akropolis. Eine Fallstudie zum etablierten Chronologiegerüst, Verlag Dr. Kovač, Hamburg, 2004
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  28. Herodotus VIII, 97
  29. "Bêl-šimânni and Šamaš-eriba - Livius". livius.org. Retrieved 2016-09-07.
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  31. Fergusson, James. A History of Architecture in All Countries, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day: 1. Ancient architecture. 2. Christian architecture. xxxi, 634 p. front., illus. p. 211.
  32. Herodotus VII.11
  33. Iran-e-Bastan/Pirnia book 1 p 873
  34. Dandamayev
  35. History of Persian Empire, Olmstead p 289/90
  36. Godley, Alfred Denis (1921–24). "Histories book 7". Herodotus, with an English translation. OCLC 1610641. This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
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  38. Ctesias
  39. M. Brosius, Women in ancient Persia.
  40. Wikipedia page Serse
  41. Boucher, Geoff "Frank Miller returns to the '300' battlefield with 'Xerxes': 'I make no apologies whatsoever'", The Los Angeles Times, June 01, 2010, accessed 2010-05-14.
  42. Gore Vidal, Creation: A Novel (Random House, 1981)


Ancient sources

Modern sources

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  • Dandamaev (1989), A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire
  • Frye, Richard N. (1963). The Heritage of Persia. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 301. ISBN 0-297-16727-8. 
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Xerxes I
Born: 519 BC Died: 465 BC
Preceded by
Darius I
King of Kings of Persia
486 BC – 465 BC
Succeeded by
Artaxerxes I
Pharaoh of Egypt
486 BC – 465 BC
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