Artaxerxes II


Artaxerxes II (OP *Artaxšaça "whose power (is established through) truth") was the fifth Great King in the Achaemenid line proper and the longest reigning (r. 405/4-359/8 BCE). Though perhaps not widely known today, Artaxerxes was one of the most famous Achaemenid kings in Antiquity due to his more intensive interaction with the Greek West and his significance in the famous works of the eyewitnesses Xenophon and Ktesias, as well as in several now fragmentary Greek historians (Lenfant 2013). He is the only Persian king to receive a biography by Plutarch. Unfortunately, there is little material not written from a Greek perspective, which was dominated by the myth that the Persian Empire was crumbling under Artaxerxes (Xen. Cyrop. 8.8; Isoc. 4.138-149; Plut. Art. 20.1f.; Lenfant 2001; 2014).


Born as Arses and apparently often called Arsakes, the diminutive form of that name (Ctesias FGrH 688 F14.28; F15a; ADART I, 381f.; Kent 1953, 55; cf. Deinon BNJ 690 F14), Artaxerxes II was the oldest son of Darius II and Parysatis, but as usual we know little of his life before his kingship. In analogy to the situation upon Xerxes' accession, it seems that Arses was born and been even married to a non-Achaemenid wife before Darius became king. His younger brother Cyrus, who had been born in the purple, thus had good grounds on which to challenge him.

When Darius II died in 404 BCE, Artaxerxes was his father's designated heir, but his mother Parysatis favoured Cyrus (Xen. Anab. 1.1.3f.; Diod. 13.108.1; Plut. Art. 2.4-5; Iust. 5.11.1f.). Cyrus, who was satrap of the western provinces of Asia Minor (Xen. Anab. 1.9.7), returned to court upon his father's death. Despite Xenophon's claims that he was framed (Xen. Anab. 1.1.3), Cyrus most likely attempted a coup during his brother's coronation ceremony at Pasargadae, but the plot was betrayed (Ctesias FGrH 688 F16.59; Plut. Art. 3; Iust. 5.11.3f.). At Parysatis' request, Cyrus was pardoned and reappointed to his satrapy (Xen. Anab. 1.1.3; Plut. Art. 3.5). This proved a grave mistake, as in 401 BCE Cyrus rebelled again, marching on Babylon with a significant force (Diod. 14.19.2-24.6; Plut. Art. 6.2-13.3). At the crucial battle at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia, Cyrus fell and Artaxerxes was able to reassert his control over the West after punishing his brother as a traitor and rewarding his followers (Xen. Anab. 1.8.24-27; Ctesias FGrH 688 F16.63-67; Iust. 5.11.8f.; Georgius Syncellus 1.485.14-486.7 Dindorf; Briant 2002, 630f.).


Contrary to what the Greek sources sometimes claim, the reign of Artaxerxes is characterised by a significant resurgence in military activity and should be seen as a period of relative strength and stability. Since Darius II had helped end the Peloponnesian War by supporting Sparta, Sparta was the dominant power in Greece and Western Asia Minor at the beginning of Artaxerxes' reign. By lending support to Cyrus' revolt, Sparta lost the king's favour and through his satraps, Artaxerxes moved to reassert control over Ionia (Rop 2018). The Spartan king Agesilaus responded by invading Ionia in 396 BCE, advancing all the way to the satrapal seat of Sardis (Diod. 14.80.1-5), but without lasting impact (Xen. Hell. 4.2), as the Persians retaliated at sea in 394 and by supporting Sparta's enemies in Greece. As a result, Persian control of the Aegean was once again stronger under Artaxerxes than it had been for most of the 5th century. This is borne out by the so-called King's Peace of 387/6 BCE, a royal decree that declared the Greek cities in Asia Minor, Cyprus and Clazomenai part of the Persian Empire, while the rest of the Greeks were to be autonomous. Any breaches of this edict were ground for war and the edict was renewed several times in the next decades (Xen. Hell. 5.1.31; Waters 2014, 184-188).

Meanwhile, the most serious problem of Artaxerxes' reign was that the important satrapy of Egypt had revolted in 404/3 BCE, with a local ruler exploiting the troubles between Artaxerxes and Cyrus, and the problems with Sparta (Xen. Anab. 2.5.13; Briant 2002, 634-637). Egypt remained outside Persian control until its reconquest by Artaxerxes III in 341 BCE, being ruled in the interim by the kings of the 28th, 29th and 30th dynasty, many of them short-lived. Egypt was hardly a unified kingdom in this period and opportunism was the rule, with many of the rulers attempting to legitimate their usurpations by looking back to the Saïte dynasty of the 6th century BCE (Lloyd 2000, 377-382; Waters 2014, 189-191). Nevertheless, Artaxerxes was unable to take the country back, even though loyal forces still held the south until 400 (DAE 7, 105). The reasons are unclear (Briant 2002, 634f.), though a war with Euagoras, one of the most ambitious kings of Cyprus, surely played a part, since possession of this island facilitated control of the Eastern Mediterranean and thus access to Egypt (Diod. 14.98.3, 15.2.1; ADRTB 440; Briant 2002, 646-652). It seems that Artaxerxes succeeded in reconquering Cyprus in around 382/1, subduing Euagoras and forcing him to pay tribute (Diod. 15.9.2). Sometime in the 380s, however, Artaxerxes' generals had failed to recapture Egypt (Isoc. 4.140) and Egypt in fact went on the offensive for a while (Diod. 15.29.1f.). Only in 374/3 was Artaxerxes able to turn his attention to Egypt again, but success was prevented once more by the extremely dynamic political landscape of the fourth century and strategic errors (Diod. 15.41-43.4; Briant 2002, 653-655). Despite further activity, nothing more was achieved on this front in Artaxerxes' lifetime.

Subsequently, the king seems to have met threats in the empire in 369 (ADRTB 369 referring to a place called Razaundu (in Media? Briant 2002, 614) and 367 (ADRTB 366) but no details are forthcoming (cf. also Plut. Art. 24.1 on a Cadusian campaign). Rather more is known about the so-called great satraps' revolt (Diod. 15.90, 15.93.1; Pomp. Trog. prol. 10; Moysey 1987; Weiskopf 1989; Briant 2002, 656-675; Klinkott 2005, 309-313). Diodorus' hostile perspective obscures much, but it seems as though a number of satraps in Anatolia were ambitiously competing with one another in the last years of Artaxerxes' reign (Xen. Ages. 2.26), which the Greeks perceived as a coordinated revolt against the Great King and read as a sign of the Empire's imminent doom.


Unlike many of the Achaemenids before him, Artaxerxes died in relative peace in his bed, though perhaps troubled by the infighting among his sons (Plut. Art. 30.5). He was the first Achaemenid to be buried at Persepolis, not at Naqsh-i Rustam. Tomb V at Persepolis bears an inscription, a copy of DNe, one of Darius I's tomb inscriptions, that can be assigned to Artaxerxes II or III based on linguistic criteria, but since it does not name a king, the tomb's owner is not clear (A²/³Pa or A³Pa/b). The debate about whether Tomb V or its neighbour, Tomb VI, is Artaxerxes II's is hence ongoing (Schmidt 1970, 99; Schmitt 2000, 119-122; cf. Lecoq 1997, 271f.). Since the inscription imitated lists the extent of the Empire in the same terms as under Darius I, Artaxerxes III, the conqueror of Egypt, may be a slightly more likely candidate (but cf. Kuhrt 2007, 484).

Artaxerxes' first wife was Stateira, daughter of the Persian noble Hydarnes, who had supported the accession of Darius II. Parysatis, Artaxerxes' mother, is painted as a cruel tyrant in the Greek sources, but her behaviour was clearly directed against the dynastic problem the participation of another family in the royal bloodline posed to Achaemenid ideology (Waters 2014, 181). She had Hydarnes' family rooted out and eventually even had Stateira killed, ostensibly against her son's wishes, who banished her to her holdings in Babylonia for a time (Plut. Art. 23.1f.). Before she died, however, Stateira gave birth to Artaxerxes' successor, Ochus, who took the throne as Artaxerxes III, as well as a number of other children. That these dynastic concerns were behind Parysatis' behaviour is further supported by the fact that Artaxerxes next married two of his daughters, Atossa (Plut. Art. 23.3-5) and Amestris (Plut. Art. 23.6, 27.4); others included Apama and Rhodogune (27.4). Of his three known legitimate sons, Darius, Ochus and Ariaspes, the first and oldest was made co-regent and thus the designated successor, but he was later executed for conspiracy (Iust. 10.1.1-6; Plut. Art. 26-29). Ochus eventually removed his other brother, as well as the illegitimate Arsames (Plut. Art. 30.1-5).

It is finally worth noting that the Arsacid dynasty of the Parthian empire, founded by Arsakes I. in 247 BCE (Iust. 41.4-5) claimed to derive their lineage from Arsakes/Artaxerxes II., at least according to Georgius Syncellus (1.539.16-18 Dindorf).

The Inscriptions

Almost all Artaxerxes' inscriptions tell only of building activities in stone. His construction of a palace at Ekbatana is amply documented by the inscriptions on the column bases (A²Ha-b, d) and a gold tablet invoking the protection of Ahuramazda that will probably have served as the foundation inscription (A²Hc). At Susa, Artaxerxes undertook restoration work on the palace of Darius I that had burned down under Darius II, as is documented by his inscribed column bases (A²Sa). These inscriptions are further remarkable for their extremely detailed genealogy, which suggests that insistence on the unbroken Achaemenid bloodline was particularly important to Artaxerxes after Cyrus' challenge (cf. also A³Pa; Waters 2014, 181f.). A fragmentary stone tablet (A²Sc) and fragments of the column bases (A²Sd) document that he also built a large palace with a stone staircase and (hunting?) grounds, located across the river from the great palace of Darius he had restored (Kuhrt 2007, 404).

Like the column bases from Ekbatana, those from Susa invoke Mithra and Anahita in addition to Ahuramazda; one of those from Ekbatana (A²Hb) even invokes only Mithra. This challenging evidence of change in the king's protective deities is a rare example of innovation in Persian royal epigraphy. It is backed up by Berossus' remark (BNJ 688 F11) that under Artaxerxes II, the king set up an idol of Anahita for worship at Babylon and enforced her worship throughout the administrative centres of the empire (Briant 2002, 679; Brosius 1998; Waters 2014, 182f.). Whatever the purpose of this innovation was, at least Mithra persists under Artaxerxes III (A³Pa).

Unfortunately the fragments of limestone and sandstone tablets from Babylon have preserved little of worth (A²Ba-e), but the parallel in phrasing to the inscriptions found in the palace at Susa suggest that he built a small palace also there, inside the old Babylonian castle (Vallat 1989, Kuhrt 2007, 404).


Binder, Carsten, Plutarchs Vita des Artaxerxes. Ein historischer Kommentar, Berlin 2008.

Briant, Pierre, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, Winona Lake, IN 2002.

Brosius, Maria, "Artemis Persike and Artemis Anaitis", in: Maria Brosius and Amélie Kuhrt (eds.), Achaemenid history XI. Studies in Persian history. Essays in memory of David M. Lewis, Leiden 1998, 227-238.

Klinkott, Hilmar, Der Satrap. Ein achaimenidischer Amtsträger und seine Handlungsspielräume, Frankfurt am Main 2005.

Kuhrt, Amélie, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources of the Achaemenid Period, London 2007.

Lenfant, Dominique, "Isocrate et la vision occidentale des rapports gréco-perses", in: Christian Bouchet and Pascale Giovannelli-Jouanna (eds.), Isocrate: entre jeu rhétorique et enjeux politiques : actes du colloque de Lyon, 5-7 juin 2013, Paris 2014, 273-283.

Lenfant, Dominique, "La « décadence » du Grand Roi et les ambitions de Cyrus le Jeune: aux sources perses d'un mythe occidental ?", in: Revue des Études Grecques 114:2 (2001), 407-438.

Lenfant, Dominique, Les Histoires perses de Dinon et d'Héraclide, Paris 2009.

Lloyd, Alan B., "The Late Period (664-332 BC)", in: Ian Shaw (ed.), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford 2000, 364-387.

Moysey, Robert A., "IG II² 207 and the Great Satraps' Revolt", in: ZPE 69 (1987), 93-100.

Rop, Jeffrey, "The assassination of Tissaphernes: royal responses to military defeat in the Achaemenid Empire", in: Jessica H. Clark and Brian Turner (eds.), Brill's companion to military defeat in ancient Mediterranean society, Leiden/Boston 2018, 51-73.

Waters, Matt, Ancient Persia. A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BCE, Cambridge 2014.

Vallat, François, "Le palais d'Artaxerxès II à Babylone", in: Northern Akkad Project Reports 2 (1989), 3-6.

Vallat, François, "Les inscriptions du Palais d'Artaxerxès II", in: DAFI 10 (1979), 145-154.

Weiskopf, Michael, The So-Called "Great Satraps' Revolt", 366-360 B.C.: Concerning Local Instability in the Achaemenid Far West, Stuttgart 1989.

Henry Heitmann-Gordon

Henry Heitmann-Gordon, 'Artaxerxes II', Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online (ARIo) Project, The ARIo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 []

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