King Xerxes I: 9 Facts About His Life And Rule

Infamous for his invasion of Greece, King Xerxes is often depicted as a tyrant. With a reign marred by revolts, Xerxes I represents the beginning of the Achaemenid Empire's decline.

Feb 26, 2021By Edd Hodsdon, BA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological Trust
xerxes achaemenid empire
Esther Denouncing Haman to King Ahasuerus, Ernest Normand, 1888, Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, via ArtUK; Esther Before Ahasuerus (Xerxes), Simon Gribelin, 1712, via the Royal Academy, London


Most famous for his failure to conquer Greece, King Xerxes is perhaps one of the most notorious Achaemenid Persian kings. Xerxes I had a reputation for harsh punishments, womanizing, and draining the Persian empire‘s coffers. He built immense palaces and other projects at Persepolis and left his mark on the history of both Europe and Asia. Here are nine facts about King Xerxes’ life and rule.


King Xerxes Had A Controversial Accession

relief of king xerxes
Relief of King Xerxes, c. 479 BC, Persepolis, via Ozbalci/Getty Images 


Prior to his death in 486 BC, Darius the Great named his son Xerxes as his successor. However, Xerxes was not the eldest son of the family. His half-brother, Artabazenes, had been born before Darius came to the throne. Initially, Artabazenes claimed the right to the mantle of King. However, Xerxes’ mother was Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who founded the Achaemenid Empire. 


By contrast, Artabazenes’ mother had been a commoner. The symbolism of choosing Cyrus’ grandson as his heir, rather than his own first-born son, was not lost on the shrewd Darius. During discussions between Artabazenes, Xerxes, and Atossa, this was the deciding factor. 


As the first son born during Darius’ rule and a descendant of Cyrus, Xerxes was deemed to have a stronger claim to the throne. Artabazenes did not argue with or challenge the decision. King Xerxes was around 35 years old when he came to power and had spent over a decade as the satrap of Babylonia.


Xerxes Had To Deal With Revolts In Babylon And Egypt

babylonian lion mosaic
Babylonian Lion mosaic, c. 6th Century BC, via Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

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One of Xerxes’ first tasks after ascending to the throne was to deal with a revolt in Egypt. The uprising had begun under Darius, but he had died before he could suppress it. King Xerxes led the Persian army to suppress the revolt in around 484 BC. However, the unrest was not yet over, as another uprising broke out in Babylon. 


Both Cyrus and Darius had honored Babylon as a special part of the empire, acknowledging themselves as “King of Babylon.”However, Xerxes I abandoned the title, instead referring to himself as “King of the Persians and the Medes.” He divided the Babylonian satrap into smaller provinces and raised taxes heavily. Along with his spurring of the city’s prestige, this appeared to incite a series of revolts.


Xerxes appeared to have taken the revolt as a personal offense. The city was besieged, and it was reported that Xerxes destroyed one of the sacred statues of Marduk. Modern historians dispute this, believing that even Xerxes wouldn’t have performed such a blasphemous act. Regardless, the uprisings were violently suppressed. Xerxes had planned to continue his father’s plans for a second invasion of Greece, but the rebellions had delayed his preparations.


Xerxes Tried To Finish Darius’ Greek Campaigns

hoplite slaying fallen persian
Hoplite slaying a fallen Persian, Triptolemos painter, Painter 5th Century BC, via National Museums Scotland


Xerxes I occupies an infamous place in the annals of Greek history due to his massive invasion in 480 BC. Xerxes sought revenge for his father’s defeat at Marathon a decade earlier. After a naval victory at Artemisium, the Persians annihilated the forces of the Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae. Xerxes’ army then ran amok in Greece, and Athens was sacked.


Then, as Xerxes appeared to be securing a successful outcome for his campaign, the Greeks won an improbable victory at the naval battle of Salamis, which turned the tide of the conflict. From atop a cliff above the battle, King Xerxes watched his armada fall for a cunning ploy by the Athenian general Themistocles. His fleet was crippled. After the defeat, Xerxes took the majority of his remaining forces back to Persia. He believed that burning Athens had been victory enough, and left his general and brother-in-law Mardonius to continue the subjugation of Greece.


However, Mardonius was killed and the Persians were defeated at Plataea in 479 BC. Around the same time, a third battle at Mycale destroyed much of the remaining Persian army. Xerxes’ imperial ambitions in Greece were thwarted, and barely any of his men the long journey back to Persia. 


King Xerxes Tried To Cross The Hellespont

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Map of the Hellespont, by Annin & Smith, c. 1830, via Library of Congress


In order to launch his invasion of Greece, King Xerxes planned to cross the Hellespont. Known in modern times as the Dardanelles Strait, this pivotal channel guards the gap between mainland Asia and the Gallipoli Peninsula. Xerxes commissioned a series of flax and papyrus pontoons to be built across the Hellespont, which would allow his vast army to cross.


However, the water proved a fickle beast, and a storm destroyed the pontoons. Convinced that the water had conspired against him, Xerxes decreed that the Hellespont should be punished for its defiance. He ordered the sea to receive three hundred lashes and also dropped a pair of shackles into the water. According to Herodotus, Xerxes then had the first engineering crew beheaded. The next team had more success, and the Persian army finally crossed the Hellespont.


Herodotus claimed that Xerxes transferred five million men across the bridges, a task spanning seven days. However, modern historians believe this was wildly exaggerated for theatrics. The modern estimate is that Xerxes crossed the Hellespont with around 360,000 troops. The army then moved up through Thrace, in today’s Balkans, and entered Greece after passing through Macedonia, one of Persia’s vassal states.


Xerxes I Was Infamous For Harsh Punishments And Womanizing

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Esther Before Ahasuerus (Xerxes), engraving by Simon Gribelin, 1712, via the Royal Academy, London


To build his army for the Greek invasion, King Xerxes enforced conscription throughout his empire. Among those conscripted were the five sons of Pythias, a Lydian governor. Pythias requested that his eldest son be allowed to remain as his heir. Xerxes took offense, believing that Pythias doubted the success of the invasion. He reportedly had Pythias’ son cut in half, displayed the corpse on either side of the road, and marched the army between the grisly markers.


Xerxes I was also reported to be a womanizer. He pursued the wife of his brother, Masistes, but failed to woo her. Instead, he had an affair with Artaynte, Masistes’ daughter. Xerxes wore a beautiful robe that his wife, Amestris, had woven for him. Artaynte asked for it, but Xerxes knew it would mean his wife would discover the affair. After failing to offer other gifts, he reluctantly agreed.


Amestris was furious. Blaming Artayante’s mother for her daughter’s behavior, Amestris demanded the mother be brought to her. Again, Xerxes tried to persuade her otherwise, but Amestris was insistent. Once in her clutches, Amestris had the mother mutilated and disfigured by her royal guards. Masistes rebelled, but Xerxes killed him and his conspirators. 


His Building Projects Nearly Bankrupted Persia

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Photograph of the Gate of All Nations, by Luigi Pesce, 1840s-60s, via The Met Museum, New York 


After his unsuccessful and expensive Greek campaign, King Xerxes turned his attention to a series of lavish building projects. He added to the royal city of Persepolis that had been begun under his father, Darius. He finished Darius’ palace and the apadena (audience hall), where he also added a beautiful enamel facade over the exterior.


Xerxes I then began construction on a palace of his own. Eager to eclipse his predecessors, Xerxes had his palace built twice as large as his father’s and connected the two via a terrace. Alongside his monumental palace, Xerxes also built the mighty Gate of All Nations, as well as the Hall of a Hundred Columns. Modern historians believe the latter was Xerxes’ treasury. He also maintained the upkeep of the Persian Royal Road between Susa and Sardis.


The cost of these projects placed the coffers of the Achaemenid Empire under even greater strain. After the huge expense of his invasion of Greece, Xerxes heavily taxed his satrapies and subjects to fund his extravagant projects. This no doubt caused unrest and resentment throughout the empire and possibly contributed to Xerxes’ later assassination.


Xerxes Had To Deal A Greek Resurgence

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Frieze of Persian Immortals, c. 510 BC, Susa, in The Louvre, Paris


After the defeats at Plataea and Mycale, Persian power in the Aegean was crippled. The Greeks, initially led by Pausanias of Sparta, began a counter-attack aimed at liberating Greek colonies in Asia Minor. Athens and its other city-state allies, which formed the Delian League, were also major contributors.


First, the Greeks cleared out Persian garrisons in Thrace. Then, in 478 BC, Pausanias conquered Byzantium. Pausanias had led the Greeks during their victory at Plataea, but he now did the unthinkable and made peace with King Xerxes. Despite defeat in Greece, Persian was still a major superpower and remained a threat. However, an Athenian general named Cimon defeated Pausanias in 475 BC and claimed Byzantium for the Delian League.


Xerxes began to prepare a new force to combat the Greek interlopers. In 466 BC, Cimon defeated the Persians twice on the same day at the Battle of Eurymedon, on the southern coast of Asia Minor. First, he smashed a Persian fleet sent to intercept him. Then, he defeated a Persian land force on the beach, despite being outnumbered. Events in mainland Greece prevented Cimon from further campaigns, but the defeat at Eurymedon ensured that Persia would never invade Greece again.


Xerxes Had A Horrendous Reputation

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Marble bust of Aeschylus, 18th century, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid


Because no real Persian records survive from the time of the Achaemenid Empire, our main sources for information come from Greek sources. King Xerxes suffers from an incredibly negative reputation from figures like Herodotus. Whereas many Greek scholars seemed to admire his predecessors Cyrus and Darius, Xerxes I is portrayed as an effeminate tyrant.


In a play called The Persians by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, Xerxes is depicted as a figure consumed by his own hubris. The play is set during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, and the Battle of Salamis in particular. The principal characters of the play are Xerxes’ mother Atossa and the ghost of his father, Darius. Aeschylus has them discuss their son, claiming that he believed himself to be above even the Gods.


The Persians helped reinforce the belief among the Greeks that Easterners, which is how they referred to the Persians, were the antithesis of Greek values. Xerxes became an easy target, serving as the figurehead for the Greek belief that he was incapable of controlling his emotions. He is frequently depicted as raging against the Greeks and bemoaning his defeats.


King Xerxes Was Assassinated By His Own Advisor

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The palace of King Xerxes, c. 479 BC, Persepolis, via BornaMir/iStock


After draining Persia’s treasury through his failed military campaigns and lavish building projects, it’s possible that King Xerxes was not a popular ruler. In 465 BC, Xerxes and his son Darius were reportedly assassinated by Artabanus, a powerful figure in the Persian court. Artabanus’ origins are unclear; he was likely one of Xerxes’ foremost officials or perhaps even a member of the royal bodyguard.


Artabanus may have also had the support of Megabyzus, the Babylonian satrap who was married to one of Xerxes’ daughters. However, once Xerxes had been killed, Megabyzus betrayed Artabanus. In revenge, Xerxes’ surviving son Artaxerxes I killed Artabanus and his sons and reclaimed the throne.


Fresh revolts then sprang up in provinces such as Egypt and Bactria and led to further clashes with Greece. Ironically, Artaxerxes’ reign began exactly the same as his father’s. Xerxes remained a vilified figure in Greece even after his death. When Alexander the Great invaded Persia over a century later, he targeted Xerxes’ palace at Persepolis as revenge for the sacking of Athens.

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By Edd HodsdonBA Professional Writing, member Canterbury Archaeological TrustEdd holds a BA in Professional Writing, he has worked at the Dover museum as well as the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. He is most fascinated by the Achaemenid Persian Empire and has been interested in the Ancient world his entire life. His hobbies include walking, philosophy, history, photography, and writing fiction.