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Section III Personalities in Their Times
Option E Xerxes
a) What are the positive and negative features of Xerxes' domestic administration? (10 marks)
There are several positive and negative features of Xerxes’ domestic administration. Up until the domestic
intrigues, which eventually led to Xerxes’ bloody assassination, evidence suggests that Xerxes was a
sound ruler. Herodotus, an ancient writer, is the main source for Xerxes’ domestic administration.
In general, Herodotus’ description of the administrative management of the court and the empire
gives the impression the Xerxes was a capable ruler. This conclusion is based on evidence of Xerxes’
satrapal appointments form the royal family, including the appointment of his brother, Achaemenes, to
Egypt. Additionally, Xerxes’ appointments of Persian and Median nobility to army, navy and cavalry
commands indicate Xerxes skilfully handled the domestic administration of the empire. Finally, Xerxes’
willingness to consult his nobles and members of the court when serious decisions are to be made
indicates that Xerxes was not unreasonably autocratic. Such consultations, according to Herodotus,
occurred before the invasion of Greece, and before attacking the Greeks at Salamis. Thus, Xerxes handled
the domestic administration of the Persian Empire with astuteness, whether it is concerning matters
within the empire or outside its borders.
It was only towards the end of Xerxes’ reign, when Xerxes had effectively retired to Persepolis,
that his handling of the domestic administration was not done intelligently. After the Greek invasion,
Xerxes took no more interest in military matters and lived a life of luxury while focusing his attention on
his building program at Persepolis. In Xerxes’ final three years, he built more than Darius did in his entire
reign as king. Xerxes failed to interest himself in the empire’s affairs and left the day to day running of the
empire to Artabanus, the Hazarapat, which undermined Xerxes’ position. Xerxes’ neglect in managing the
domestic administration made the empire suffer and become unstable.
The instability of the Empire was furthered by the domestic intrigues, which eventually led to the
assassination of Xerxes. Herodotus generated problems within the royal family. Herodotus records an
incident immediately after Xerxes’ return to the empire after Salamis. Herodotus records that Amestris,
Xerxes’ wife, discovered that Xerxes was having an affair with Artayne, the wife of his own son. Amestris
did not punish Artayne since she thought that her mother had arranged the affair. She then decided to
punish the older woman by having two guards cut off her nose, lips, breasts and pull out her tongue. The
husband of the mutilated woman was Xerxes brother. When he found out, he intended to muster an army
and raise a revolt against Xerxes. However, Xerxes discovered Masistes’ plans and sent an armed force
after his brother, who was caught and killed. Callender, a modern historian, concluded that Persian royal
women would not be able to take justice into their own hands. Additionally, she states that his story is
unlikely since Amestris irrationally carries out all her punishment on the wife of Masistes, not his
daughter. This story, despite its possible inaccuracy, suggests that Xerxes could not handle the domestic
administration well, or that in the period immediately after Salamis there was a renewal of the possibility
of rebellion and that the Bactrian satrapy (and Xerxes’ brother) was the possible focus of this.
The second domestic intrigue led to death of Xerxes in 465 BC. Xerxes apparently caused such
discontent among several of his officials that they conspired to kill him. Ctesias recounts that Artabanus
“decided to slay Xerxes and transfer the kingship to himself”. Artabanus and Aspametres murdered
Xerxes and told his son Artaxerxes that Darius had killed him. When Darius was killed Artaxerxes claimed
the throne and managed to kill Artabanus when he tried to stab him. Aristotle claims that Xerxes’ son
Darius was murdered first, and Artabanus murdered Xerxes in fear. Regardless, it was Xerxes’
mishandling of the domestic administration at this point that contributed to his death.
Therefore, while there were many positive features of Xerxes’ domestic administration
throughout his reign, his misjudgements led to two domestic intrigues, which were a result of his poor
handling of the domestic administration.
The Near East: Nelson Ancient History 9780170179683
© Cengage Learning Australia 2009
b) Evaluate the success of Xerxes as a political and military leader. (15 marks)
During Xerxes’ reign he performed admirably as a military leader within his own empire, however, failed
to consistently make sound military decisions about matters outside his empire, namely during the
Persian Wars. Despite this, Xerxes should be remembered as a successful military commander since he
maintained the extent of the empire for most of his reign despite several revolts. Aeschylus and
Herodotus imply that Xerxes was not a successful military commander, however, modern historians such
as Olmsted and Kelly are not as harsh.
When Xerxes ascended the throne in 486 BC, the Egyptian revolt was already underway. It is
likely that the Egyptians were rebelling against the resources being drained from their satrapy due to the
preparations for the Persian Wars. Within two years Xerxes had suppressed the revolt. Xerxes led an
army to Egypt himself and "decisively crushed them; then, having reduced the country to a condition of
worse servitude than it had ever been in the previous reign, he turned it over to his brother
Achaemenes..." (Herodotus). Xerxes’ suppression was swift, harsh and effective. Kelly is rightfully under
the impression that Xerxes’ swift suppression of the Egyptian revolt was a remarkable display of military
skill, particularly considering that there were extensive periods of time in the latter fifth and fourth
centuries when Egypt managed to escape from Persian rule due to their strong defences. While the
treatment of the Egyptians after their revolt remains debateable, it is clear that Xerxes showed an
impressive display of military command.
Two years after the Egyptian revolt, in 482 BC, Xerxes faced another rebellion in Babylon. Xerxes
dispatched his brother Megabyzus with orders to "crush the rebellion at all costs" (Koutaoukis).
Megabyzus quickly put the revolt down, and after executing the leaders, the forces were withdrawn and
want to Ionia. It is believed that Xerxes most probably treated Babylon harshly after this, and began a
campaign to destroy their independence. After the revolt the satrap of Babylonia was dissolved and
Babylon disappeared as an independent satrapy as it was annexed to Assyria. Olmsted states that
“Babylon was terribly punished”.
These two successful military campaigns show the extent of Xerxes' military prowess. It can be
argued that Xerxes treatment of the rebellious satrapies was an attempt to establish control within the
empire, with both of these satrapies indicating Xerxes’ level of tolerance towards rebellion. While Bradley
sees this exertion of power unnecessary and harsh, such actions needed to be taken if Xerxes wanted to
maintain both the extent of the empire and the loyalty of the satrapies.
While Xerxes demonstrated a high level of military skill and success within his own empire, his
success on the military front did not continue abroad in Greece. Xerxes' quest against Greece did not put
him in a favourable light as a successful military commander. Herodotus records that Xerxes was at first
unwilling to invade Greece, however, he was eventually convinced by his advisors, including Mardonius.
In the years leading up to the invasion of Greece, Xerxes made many preparations, which initially gave
promise to the Persian invasion. While Xerxes claimed that his goal was to burn Athens in revenge for the
burning of the temple at Sardis, the size of the force, which Ehrenberg believes was approximately
200 000 combat men, suggests that Xerxes “was not aiming at partial success, he wanted total victory, the
Greek mainland was to be brought fully into the Empire of the Persians” (Kelly).
Once in Greece, Xerxes faced a number of disadvantages that he had perhaps failed to consider
before leaving Persia. His ignorance to the conditions of the battle allowed him to make unwise decisions
in both sea battles –Salamis and Artemesium. In both cases the Greeks were able to undermine the
Persians advantage of numbers by fighting in the narrow straights where the Persian triremes were
unable to adequately manoeuvre and where the Greeks held an obvious advantage.
The land army faced similar problems with hilly mountain ranges and a lack of open fighting
grounds being a significant disadvantage. Xerxes’ failure to consider these factors of topography was a
significant oversight by Xerxes, and was a major factor in Persia’s failed invasion attempt. The Greeks’
unified resistance also presented a challenge to Xerxes. The large size of the Persian forces, the pressure
of time as well as the Persians’ inferior weapons and differing tactics plagued the Persian forces. Despite
Xerxes’ extensive preparations, the Persian commanders made many misjudgements and motivation was
quite low. On one occasion, Herodotus records that Xerxes had to whip his troops in order to motivate
them into fighting. Clearly, Xerxes’ campaign was plagued with many problems, some of which were a
result of his poor military judgements and simple but devastating oversights. Despite Xerxes’
preparations, Xerxes is presented as a poor military leader due to his lack of success.
While Xerxes failed to expand into Greece, it is thought that this was not considered to be a
devastating loss simply because Greece would not contribute significantly to the extent of the Empire. The
extent of Xerxes’ inefficiency is hard to determine and sources Aeschylus, Herodotus, Plutarch, Olmstead
The Near East: Nelson Ancient History 9780170179683
© Cengage Learning Australia 2009
and Kelly all seem to take varying viewpoints on Xerxes' success as a military commander. Despite this, it
can be concluded that regardless of Xerxes’ military blunders during his attempted expansion into Greece,
he performed admirably within his own empire and successfully maintained much of Persia’s extent
despite she Egyptian and Babylonian revolts.
The Near East: Nelson Ancient History 9780170179683
© Cengage Learning Australia 2009