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Xerxes was king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire from 486-465 BCE. Referred to as Shahanshah, king of kings, he led the unsuccessful invasion of Greece, underwent a massive, expensive building program, was assassinated, and is known as the king who marked the decline of the Achaemenid Empire.

Xerxes the Great

Xerxes I, also known as Xerxes the Great, was born in 518 BCE in Persia. Xerxes was crowned in 486 BCE, at 36 years old, after the death of his father Darius. Xerxes spent most of 485 BCE subduing revolts in Egypt and Babylon. He later appointed his brother Achaemenes as satrap, or provincial governor, of Egypt.

Xerxes' father had been on friendly terms with Babylon, having been called the King of Babylon, but Xerxes treated the Babylonians as his subjects and melted a golden statue of their patron deity, Marduk. The statue was significant because it was used by the ruler for rituals - for which Babylon was famous. The ritual had been performed by Xerxes' predecessors, but he did not consider it important, though he still went on to refer to himself as "King of the Persians and the Medes" and subjugate them. Xerxes disregarded the relationships made by his predecessors, and Babylon revolted against him for it twice. Xerxes laid siege to Babylon and crushed the revolts. He then turned his focus to Greece.

Xerxes spent four years preparing and gathering supplies. Pythias the Lydian, as Herodotus tells us, offered money to Xerxes, which he first refused, and then added to Pythias' treasury. Before departing for the Hellespont, an eclipse occurred, which some took as a bad omen. However, Xerxes' religious leaders reassured him that it was meaningless and he continued with his plans of conquest. But, Pythias took it as a bad omen and requested that his oldest son be released from military duty, so Pythias would have a caregiver in his old age. Xerxes took this as a lack of confidence in his ability to succeed and released his son, cut him in two pieces, and placed a half of his body on either side of the road, which the army marched between on their way to Greece.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes' army numbered over two million men and four thousand ships. Herodotus also tells us that Xerxes had second thoughts about invading Greece. The conditions were often unfavorable to Xerxes, and he had to construct bridges over rough waters. Other omens were dismissed, and Xerxes trudged on. The Persians won the battles of Artemisium and Thermopylae and then marched on Athens, which Xerxes burned in a fit of rage over their resistance. He later admitted this was his only regret of his campaign. Next, the Persians fought the Battle of Salamis which was a disaster for their navy. After the loss, Xerxes went back home, leaving Mardonius to lead the conquest of Greece (in which he as unsuccessful).

Upon arriving in his country, Xerxes' army had become smaller, and many of those that remained were sick and malnourished. Instead of helping, he decided to use much of the treasury to build grander monuments than his father had. He maintained the roadways throughout the empire. He also commissioned a project to build himself a more extravagant palace, a building called "Hall of a Hundred Columns", and another building which archaeologists call "The Harem". These projects put a large dent in his treasury, which he made up for by heavily taxing the citizens. Xerxes also engaged in an affair with the daughter of his brother, though he lusted after the wife of his brother. When the affair was realized, a revolt and a string of murders followed, which included Xerxes himself. He was killed in 465 BCE by his minister Artabanus. Xerxes' reign marked the beginning of the decline of the Achaemenid Empire.

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Xerxes’ Significant Accomplishments

  • Became “king of kings” - Shahanshah of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.

  • Quelled revolts by Babylon and Egypt.

  • Destroyed established and friendly relations with allies in Mesopotamia, particularly with Babylon by subjugating the city and melting its main statue of its patron deity, Marduk.

  • Successfully made it to Greece after facing serious challenges including violent storms, rough waters, and bad omens.

  • Led his massive army to victory at the Battle of Thermopylae and Artemisium.

  • Burned the city of Athens.

  • Constructed several expensive, grand buildings including a new palace and the Hall of a Hundred Columns.

Xerxes Quotes

“Only by great risks can great results be achieved.”

“Yes, I was reflecting on things and it occurred to me how short the sum total of human life is, which made me feel compassion. Look at all these people - but not one of them will still be alive in a hundred years’ time.”

“I am Xerxes, great king, king of kings, the king of all countries which speak all kinds of languages, the king of the entire big far-reaching earth.”

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