Born: 519 BC
Also Known As: Xerxes the Great
Born in: Iran
Famous as: Persian King
Emperors & Kings
father: Darius I
siblings: Achaemenes, Ariabignes, Ariomardos, Arsamenes, Arsames, Artobarzanes, Gobryas, Hyperantes, Hystaspes, Masistes
children: Amytis, Artaxerxes I of Persia
Died on: 466
Who was Xerxes I?
Xerxes I (Xerxes the Great) was the fourth and probably the most famous king of the Archaemenid dynasty of Persia. He inherited the throne from his father Darius I and attained Kinghood without proving himself worthy of it. Xerxes became one of the most widely known rulers in those times due to his keen eye for architecture and some great monuments he built, but he lost war with Greece in 480 BCE, which harmed his credibility as a strong ruler. To fight the Greek forces, he formed some allies and assembled a powerful force, which was considered unbeatable. It was the strongest known force to humans until that time. When his father handed over the throne to him, several nearby states such as Egypt and Babylon were in revolt, but Xerxes managed to crush them. But against the Greek forces, his preparations fell short and in the 480 BCE, he faced defeat. Xerxes later captured the northern Greece for some time, only to lose it again a year later in the battles of Salamis and Plataea.
Childhood, Early Life & Rise to Power
Xerxes was born in the royal Persian family around 518 BC to the king of Persia, Darius I and Atossa. His mother was the daughter of Cyrus the great, which played a big role in his coronation as the king, despite not being the eldest son of Darius.
The uprising in Egypt had his father leaving for a dangerous expedition and as per the Persian customs; he had to choose a successor before setting out for Egypt and he chose Xerxes to be his successor. However, King’s poor health halted him from leaving for Egypt and he died in 486 BC, making 36 year old Xerxes the king of a vast and powerful empire.
His half brother and eldest of Darius’s sons, Artabazenes, claimed the throne in front of the council as it was the norm in Persia and rest of the world. But somehow, due to the reason that his mother was a commoner and Xerxes’ mother was the daughter of a powerful monarch, Cyrus the Great, Artabazenes lost his claim.
Mardonius, the cousin of Xerxes and commander-in-chief of the Persian army, manipulated Xerxes to lead the army to capture Greece, a feat his father too had tried to achieve. The Greeks were an accomplished warrior race and weren’t easy to crush, and hence, Xerxes’ uncle and chief advisor Artabanus tried his best to put some sense in his nephew, but failed. Xerxes was an impressionable young ruler and hence, he gathered and led a massive army to Greece. But before that, he needed to do something, during what his father died, crush the rebellion forces in Egypt and Babylon.
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Invasion of Greece
Once he managed to restore peace in the vast Persian Empire, he diverted his attention to capture Greece, which was known for its fearless savage warriors, who were not exactly known to bend the knees to foreign invaders, even in the face of death. Xerxes was well aware of that and also knew in detail about his father’s failures to defeat the Greeks. He spent at least half a decade preparing himself and his forces to attack Greece and summoned men from all corners of his empire to fight for him.
By then, Xerxes’ ruthlessness was heard loud as he disrespected the gods of Egyptians and Babylonians, the two close allies of the Persian state during his father’s rule. And on his way to fight the Greeks, when a bad omen showed up, Pythias, one of his closest allies requested Xerxes to release his son from the army, for he wanted at least one heir for the throne of Sardis alive. Xerxes’ being an atheist got enraged at this demand and killed Pythias’s son by cutting him in half.
The massive force of Xerxes contained about a couple of million men and a few thousand ships, enough to crush Greece, or so he thought. Several omen showed up during his march to Thermopylae, but Xerxes ignored his advisors and led his army across bridges to enter Hellespont. Bad omen also made Greeks hesitant to go on an all out war and the King Leonidas of Sparta had to lead a much smaller army against Xerxes. The battle was fought and against all odds; Leonidas led his army to a seemingly impossible victory, but betrayal from a Greek man, Ephialtes, caused defeat and hence Thermopylae fell in hands of Xerxes.
After defeating Leonidas, Xerxes marched for Athens and quickly captured it in a matter of days, giving himself the control of almost entirety of Northern Greece mainland. Overconfidence allowed him to enter in a war at Salamis with Greek troops without knowledge of enemy’s powers and the terrains, and as a result, he faced defeat. This forced Xerxes to retreat back to Asia, leaving Mardonius on the battleground with a fleet. Mardonius couldn’t stand for long and lost at the battle of Plataea in 479 BCE.
Xerxes lost in Greece and in order to fulfil another wish of his father, he went to Susa to oversee the construction of monuments his father started. His taste in architecture was grandiose and he built the monuments such as the building of Gate of All Nations and Hall of Hundred Columns, bigger than his father intended. He also oversaw the construction of the Palace of Darius and built his own palace, which was more than twice the size of Darius’s palace in Persepolis. He also built the Royal Road, and devoted much larger funds than his father to provide an architectural supremacy to his empire.
The heavy funds spent on these monuments put a great stress on the treasury and hence, the burden of taxes increased on general population, leading to a widespread chaos in the land. Somehow, the historians believe that the heavy expenses on lost wars in Greece and uncalculated construction work in Susa and Persepolis initiated the decline of Archaemenid Empire.
Personal Life & Death
Xerxes married Amestris, daughter of Otanes, and she gave birth to six of his children - four sons and two daughters.
Xerxes was a notorious womanizer and his fondness towards beautiful women led him to pursue his brother Masistes’s young wife. She refused him, but Xerxes wasn’t a patient or a righteous man and in the pursuit of starting an affair with her, he married her daughter to one of his sons. But when he saw Masistes’s daughter Artaynte, he fell head over heels for her and the constant pressure from his side compelled Artaynte to give up on his wishes and they started an affair.
When Xerxes’ wife came to know of the affair, she planned and captured the mother, eventually executing her. This led to an extreme bitterness between Xerxes and his brother Masistes. As a result of this Xerxes killed his brother, along with all his sons.
All these actions led to widespread discontent and Xerxes became a despised ruler in the kingdom. Several plots were hatched to kill him and one of them succeeded. In August 465 BC, Xerxes was assassinated by Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court. Artabanus executed the plan with the help of a eunuch, Aspamitres.
After his death, Xerxes’ oldest son Darius went on to seek revenge and killed Artabanus to recapture the throne of Persia.
Xerxes had several children with queen Amestris. They were Amytis (wife of Megabyzus), Darius (murdered by Artaxerxes I or Artabanus), Hystaspes ( murdered by Artaxerxes I), Artaxerxes I, Achaemenes (murdered by Egyptians) and Rhodogune.
Apart from queen Amestris, he fathered a number of children with several other women as well. They were Artarius (satrap of Babylon), Tithraustes, Arsames or Arsamenes or Arxanes or Sarsamas (satrap of Egypt), Parysatis, and Ratashah.