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Xerxes’ career – packages of information
1. Family background and status:
Xerxes was the son of King Darius and Darius’ second wife Atossa.
We don’t know anything about his childhood, but we do know he would have been
educated from the age of five to twenty – learning archery, equestrian warfare and
survival skills.
When Xerxes was 20, Darius appointed him viceroy to Babylon, a position he held for 12
years. This gave him an excellent grounding in government and administration.
2. Succession to the kingship:
Xerxes became Great King in 486 BC, but his right to succeed was not automatic. In 507
Darius had named his eldest son Artobazanes as heir. However, Xerxes was the first son
born to Darius after he became king. He was also the son of Darius’ second wife Atossa,
who was Cyrus the Great’s daughter. For these reasons, Darius changed his mind and
nominated Xerxes as his successor just before his death. (A Persian king was required to
nominate a successor before heading off on campaign, to ensure a smooth transfer of
Following Darius’ death Xerxes’ brother Ariamanes, the satrap of Bactria, challenged
Xerxes’ succession. Xerxes bought him off with promises that he would be second in the
kingdom after Xerxes. Ariamanes was satisfied with this, and placed the crown on
Xerxes’ head. Xerxes was true to his word. Ariamanes was made admiral of the Persian
fleet, and later died at Salamis.
3. Administration of the Persian Empire:
Xerxes is portrayed in Greek histories as a “weakling monarch, dominated by his
eunuchs and remembered for his insane attack on European Greece.” (A.T. Olmstead,
History of the Persian Empire) However, in Persian records he is presented quite
differently. He is seen as a master administrator. Darius might have laid out the plans
for the capital, Persepolis, but it was Xerxes who built the city.
Political control of the empire was maintained by the 23 satraps, who ruled on Xerxes’
behalf. They were responsible for tax collection, provision of soldiers and the
maintenance of peace. Many of these men were members of the royal family, like
Xerxes’ brother Achaemenes, who was appointed satrap of Egypt.
Another pillar of Persian administration was the road system, which maintained
communications across the empire. The ‘royal road’ was the centrepiece of this system.
It ran from Susa in the Persian heartland to Sardis in Asia Minor. Feeder roads
connected to this, making the fastest communication system in the ancient world at
that time. Xerxes maintained and improved on this system.
The Persian economic system was based on agriculture, trade and tribute. It was
facilitated by a system of standardised coinage, weights and measures. Imperial
revenues were collected either in monetary form (gold or silver) or in the form of goods
such as grain, horses or cattle. Olmstead suggests that taxes became ruinous in the later
years of Xerxes’ rule, and that the gold and silver collected by the Great King was kept in
storage, resulting in a severe shortage of coins. This adversely affected trade and, in
consequence, prosperity.
Olmstead believes that Xerxes became increasingly susceptible to “harem intrigues” as
his reign progressed, weakening his effectiveness as king. By the end, he had fallen
under the influence of his uncle Artabanus, who was commander of the palace guard,
and his chief eunuch Aspamitres. Both these men conspired in his death.
4. Revolts in the empire:
Shortly before Darius’ death in 486 BC Egypt rose in revolt, apparently as a result of an
increase in taxes. Historians have suggested this rise might have been to pay for Darius’
planned invasion of Greece or his expensive building program.
Xerxes now proceeded to crush the rebellion. Herodotus claims he did so brutally, but
modern historians suggest there is little evidence to support this view. To ensure that
there was no more trouble in Egypt, Xerxes appointed his brother satrap.
Xerxes now planned to carry out his father’s second invasion of Greece, but was delayed
by a rebellion in Babylon in 484. This occurred because Xerxes had started to remove all
vestiges of Babylonian independence. Xerxes sent his best general, Megabyzus, to to
crush the rebellion, and this was quickly achieved. Xerxes then proceeded to punish the
city by tearing down its walls, confiscating its best land and melting down its solid gold
statue of the god Marduk and taking the bullion back to Persia.
5. Religious policy:
It was Darius who promoted Ahuramazda as the dominant god in Zoroastiranism. Xerxes
continued this practice, but gave emphasis to the concept of ‘Arta’, which meant ‘truth’
or ‘righteousness’. According to Olmstead, this was a significant religious reform. Xerxes
was so devoted to this concept that he named his son Artaxerxes, meaning ‘Arta’s
Xerxes also continued his father’s practice of tolerating rival religions in the empire. As
part of his pharaonic duties in Egypt, he continued the cult of the Apis Bull, though he
did destroy the gold statue of Marduk in Babylon (as punishment for rebellion).
6. Xerxes’ building program in Persepolis:
When the Persian Empire was first established, Cyrus the Great used conquered cities –
Ecbatana, Pasargardai, Susa – as his capitals. Darius, by contrast, decided to build his
own capital, Persepolis, in the Persian heartland. It is not known why he made this
decision, as the Great King did not live in one place but travelled around the empire
continually, using a variety of palaces. Some scholars suggest Persepolis was a religious
centre, others that it was the location of the No-Ruz gift-giving ceremony.
Following his return from Greece, Xerxes set himself the task of completing the projects
started by his father. He also undertook a number of projects of his own in Persepolis.
 His first task was to finish the Tachara (the Palace of Darius), which was started by
his father in 515 BC.
 He also completed the Apadana, a vast, 3,600 square metre audience hall that could
hold 10,000 people. Its 25 metre high roof was supported by 36 massive columns.
 The Gate of All Lands was the formal entrance to the Apadana. The sculpted figures
on either side of the gate were lamassu’s – bulls with wings and human heads. They
were adapted from statues on Assyrian palaces, and were meant to ward off evil.
This structure was commenced and completed by Xerxes, as was the Great Double
Staircase, which led up to the Gate.
Xerxes also built his own palace (the Palace of Xerxes), modelling it on that of Darius
but with a much larger central hall.
 A final project started by Xerxes but completed by his son Artaxerxes was the Hall of
a Hundred Columns, the largest structure in Persepolis.
In addition to these projects in the capital, Xerxes also oversaw others in the empire.
These included maintenance of the Royal Road built by Darius, completion of the Susa
Gate, and construction of a palace at Susa.
7. Images and representations of Xerxes as king:
The inscriptions and friezes of Xerxes in Persepolis tell us very little about the events of
his life. Instead, they are assertions of Achaemenid ideology, depicting the Xerxes
carrying out the duties of a Great King: ruling justly, upholding truth and righteousness,
collecting tribute.
In the inscriptions he put up in his palaces, Xerxes declared how proud he was of his
Achaemenid heritage, and how honoured he was to be ruler of the Persian Empire. He
also thanked Ahuramazda for allowing him to become king.
8. Xerxes’ motivations in invading Greece:
When Xerxes came to power, he inherited his father’s plan to invade Greece a second
time. According to Herodotus, he was ill-disposed to implementing the plan, but was
talked around by his cousin Mardonius. Mardonius persuaded Xerxes of the need to
punish Athens for defeating Darius’ force. Such an attack would deter others from
defying the Great King. Mardonius also appealed to Xerxes’ desire for wealth, describing
Greece as “a wondrous beautiful region, rich in all kinds of cultivated trees, and the soil
excellent; no one, save the king, was worthy to own such a land."
Herodotus also says that Mardonius was motivated by a desire for adventure, and
hoped to be made satrap of Greece once the war was over.
A fourth reason given by Herodotus for the invasion was that messengers arrived in
Persia from the Thessalian kings promising to support Xerxes if he invaded Greece.
Although we have no Persian account of Xerxes’ reasoning, we can also assume that he
must have been motivated by a desire to extend the Persian Empire and to gain
personal glory.
9. Preparations for the invasion:
Xerxes and his generals decided on a change of strategy for this second invasion. They
decided to return to Darius’ original plan: a combined land and sea operation. The army
would march to Greece via Thrace and Macedonia, while the navy would remain
offshore, keeping the Persian supply lines open. In addition, Xerxes himself would lead
the invasion. According to Olmstead, this was a prime example of Xerxes’ wisdom.
Before the invasion could begin, detailed preparations had to be made:
 Bridges had to be constructed across the Strymon River (in Thrace) and the
Hellespont (the strait separating Asia from Europe).
 A 4 kilometre canal through the Mt Athos Promontory had be dug, to avoid a repeat
of what happened to Mardonius’ fleet twelve years earlier.
 Supply depots had to be established at places along the route the army would take.
 Finally, the army and navy had to be recruited from across the Persian Empire.
All of this took four years.
Olmstead argues that that Xerxes was convinced he would win not just because of the
size of his army, but because half of the European Greek states had already submitted
to him. All he had to do was defeat Athens, and the Peloponnese would be at his mercy.
10. Thermopylae and Artemisium:
Xerxes’ army set off in 480 BC, with somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 soldiers,
80,000 cavalry and between 600 and 800 ships.
In an attempt to negate their numerical inferiority, the Greeks adopted Themistocles’
strategy of blocking the Persians at narrow mountain passes and waterways. It was
decided to defend the mountain pass of Thermopylae and the nearby Straits of
Xerxes was largely content to leave the military decisions to his commanders. However,
he chose to intervene personally at Thermopylae and Artemisium.
At Thermopylae, he sent in his best troops – the immortals – to face Leonidas, in the
hope they could clear the pass. However, this strategy failed, at the cost of many
Persian lives. It was only the actions of the Greek traitor Ephialtes that allowed Xerxes
to bypass Thermopylae and outflank the Greeks.
The other decision Xerxes made was to order his ships to break the impasse at
Artemisium by engaging the Greek fleet in battle. The reason he did this was that his
army was running low on supplies. Also, had Ephialtes not revealed an alternative route,
Xerxes would have needed his fleet to transport the army past Thermopylae. In this
way, he could have outflanked the Greeks by sea.
Although both sides took heavy losses at Artemisium, Xerxes’ decision could be deemed
a success as it forced the Greek navy to retreat. The way was now open for the Persian
army to seize Attica.
11. Salamis:
Having ravaged Attica and occupied Athens, the Persians had the Greek navy bottled up
at Salamis. According to Olmstead, Xerxes rightly believed this to be a death trap for the
Greeks. He sent his infantry and cavalry north to prepare an assault on the Isthmus of
Corinth, while he decided what to do at Salamis.
Themistocles now used a clever trick to deceive Xerxes. He sent a trusted slave into the
Persian camp, claiming that the Greek navy was in disarray and was planning to
abandon its position. Xerxes believed this story, and sent his Egyptian squadron around
the south of Salamis to block the Greek navy’s escape. This was a perfectly sound move.
The Greeks could not stay in the straits indefinitely. All Xerxes had to do was wait till
they emerged to face him. However, he could not wait. According to Olmstead, he
needed a “spectacular victory”, and this was where he made his fatal mistake. He
landed soldiers on the island of Psyttaleia to kill any Greek stragglers who escaped from
their sinking ships, then ordered his fleet into the strait.
Expecting the Greek navy to be retreating, the Persian ships were taken by surprise and
were rammed and sunk by the Greeks. Many tried to escape, but their retreat was cut
off by the Athenians and Aeginetans. The Persians lost between 200 and 300 triremes.
Most of the sailors on these ships drowned. The Greeks lost only 40 ships.
At the same time, Aristides sailed to Psyttaleia with a force of hoplites and slaughtered
the Persian soldiers stationed there.
Xerxes was so incensed by the defeat at Salamis that he executed the Phoenician
captains of his fleet for cowardice. This incensed the Phoenicians and Egyptians, and
they sailed home, leaving Xerxes without a fleet. It was this rather than the defeat at
Salamis that deprived Xerxes of his fleet and denied him the chance to invade the
Peloponnese that year.
There would be no attack on the Peloponnese now, so Xerxes decided to return to
Persia. He left Mardonius behind with part of the army, to make a land invasion the
following year. This would be very difficult without the support of the navy, as the
assault would have to be made across the Isthmus of Corinth, which was heavily
The Greeks did not wait for Mardonius to attack. Instead, they marched out to face him
at Plataea, where they inflicted the first and final defeat on the Persian army in the
campaign. With Mardonius slain and his army beaten, Xerxes’ dream of conquering
Greece was over.
In many ways, Xerxes was the architect of his own defeat. Although his preparations
were meticulous and his army vastly larger than that of the Greeks, his tactics and
weapons were inferior and his forces less united and motivated than those of his foes.
More than anything, though, the Persians were poorly led compared to the Greeks.
Politically and militarily, Xerxes was no match for Eurybiades, Pausanias and
Of course the Persians themselves did not portray the campaign as a failure. They had
defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae, sacked Attica and occupied Athens, so had
achieved Xerxes’ main objective of the campaign – to punish Athens for its role in the
Ionian Revolt and in Darius’ subsequent defeat. But Xerxes had not achieved his
underlying objective – the subjugation of Greece. No amount of Persian propaganda
could hide this failure.
12. Later foreign policy:
Xerxes’ failure in Greece led to the loss of the Ionian states, and therefore the whole of
the Aegean.
Even so, he managed to preserve the rest of his empire. There is even evidence to
suggest he added to it marginally, by incorporating Saka (to the east of the Caspian Sea)
and Akaufaka (north of Kabul).
13. Relationship with prominent Persians and non-Persians:
Xerxes primarily relied for support on his family and other members of the nobility –
men who had served his father Darius. These men served as courtiers, satraps and
military commanders.
Many of them were members of Xerxes’ inner circle, known as ‘the king’s friends and
benefactors’. This group also had non-Persians members – people from different parts
of the empire with expertise Xerxes valued. Among these were some very prominent
Greeks. Xerxes rewarded these men with land, clothing, jewellery and government
Some of the more prominent advisers to Xerxes included:
 Mardonius – Xerxes’ brother-in-law, and his key general during the Greek invasion.
He died at Plataea.
Artabanus – Xerxes’ uncle and commander of the palace guard. According to
Herodotus, he tried to dissuade Xerxes from invading Greece. He was later involved
in the plot to kill Xerxes.
 Pythius – the grandson of the last king of Lydia. According to Herodotus, Xerxes
encountered him on the way to Greece and offered to do him a favour. Pythius
requested that his eldest son to be excused from military service. Xerxes had the son
cut in two, and placed on the side of the road so his soldiers could see the body as
they marched past. This was to serve as a warning to anyone whose loyalty was not
 Demaratus – exiled king of Sparta. He accompanied Xerxes on his invasion of Greece,
advising him on local conditions.
 Themistocles – former Athenian leader. Having been ostracised from Athens, he
offered his services to Xerxes in the latter part of the Great King’s reign. Xerxes held
him in such high regard that he granted him an estate.
10. The manner and impact of Xerxes’ death:
Xerxes’ final years appear to have been troubled. He was defeated by the Greeks at
Eurymedon, and a famine caused widespread unrest amongst his people.
The Great King was apparently murdered in his bed – the chief perpetrators being his
uncle Artabanus and his chief eunuch Aspamitres. His son Artaxerxes was likely also
Artaxerxes now claimed the throne, but was challenged by one of his brothers, the
satrap of Bactria. Artaxerxes crushed the revolt, then put all of his brothers to death to
prevent any further challenges to his rule. There was also a revolt in Libya, which took
six years to crush.
Such revolts were common following the death of a Great King. However, the revolts
following Xerxes’ death were at the periphery of the empire. The heartland remained
stable and reasonably prosperous. The Greek view that Xerxes’ reign was the beginning
of a gradual decline in Persian influence is wrong.