Xerxes I


Xerxes (OP *Xšayāŗšā, "ruling over heroes") was the second Great King in the Achaemenid line (r. 486-465 BCE). Even though his reception in Western culture has made him one of the most famous Achaemenid kings today, any balanced historical portrait of Xerxes has always to grapple with the reasons for this popularity. The scarcity of historical evidence from the Persian point of view forces us to draw upon the accounts presented by Graeco-Roman authors, especially Herodotus. As an account written with the benefit, or hindrance, of hindsight, Herodotus' depiction of the king's life makes heavy use of ideological elements and narrative devices to explain, above all, Xerxes' failure to conquer Greece. These devices include personal failures, such as the king's alleged hybris and self-deceit (Hdt. 7.19), his misreading of divine portents and ignorance of mortal limits, and his lack of piety, as well as a binary construction of the world, in which the allied Greeks stand against an Eastern threat.


Though this image can be corrected by the extant epigraphic material only in part, one area in which it can offer a highly unusual corroboration of the external sources is in reconstructing Xerxes' accession to the throne. Given the weaknesses and complexity of the legitimacy of Darius I, his succession threatened to be difficult and face challengers in the realm. The matter was complicated by the fact that Darius had at least two wives and at least seven sons, one of whom was even named Achaemenes and hence seemed predestined for greatness by his dynastic name alone (Hdt. 7.2.2; 7.7.2).

In his official, propagandistic account, XPf, which was used a foundation inscription in the so-called Harem at Persepolis, Xerxes provides his own view of the dynastic conflict this constellation caused. Even though he vaguely acknowledges his competition for the throne, he stresses the accordance of his succession with Ahuramazda's will and his father's designation, who had made him maθišta, "greatest (after him)" during his lifetime. Since they record his deeds as king, the inscriptions themselves further serve to document his fitness to rule. Throughout these inscriptions, Xerxes stresses his ties to his father more than any other Achaemenid king, ties he demonstrated in practice by continuing and adding to Darius' building projects and imperial ambitions (e.g. XPa, XPc, XPg, XSa, XSd, XVa).

Looking beyond the inscriptions, it is worth noting that the potential conflict may have been defused in practice by Xerxes granting his full brothers Hystaspes, Masistes, and Achaemenes positions of worth (Hdt. 7.3.2, 7.64.2, 7.7, 7.82, 7.97). Despite the misrepresentation of Persian royal women in Greek sources, the reasons for Darius' designation of Xerxes as his successor also probably included the fact that his mother was Atossa, daughter of Cyrus II. Unlike his father and his children by his first wife, Xerxes was in a position to trace his lineage back to the heroic imperial founder figure of Cyrus II directly and through both parents, thus removing a weakness in his father's legitimacy and strengthening the conception of kingship Darius had painstakingly implemented. Since royal women are never thematised in the media of the royal inscription and official art in stone, Atossa's absence from XPf should not lead us to discard this interpretation. This choice further avoided conferring greater significance and honour upon another family, that of Gobryas, whose daughter was Darius' first wife (Briant 2002, 520).

Overall, these strategies were successful: Xerxes' accession seems to have been smoother than that of his father. The revolt in Egypt that had broken out already in his father's last years was quelled relatively quickly, though it expended considerable resources (Hdt. 7.1, 7.7) and resulted in Egypt being punished, though the severity is difficult to assess (Briant 2002, 545-547). The impact of Xerxes upon Babylonia and his handling of the revolts there in 484 BCE continues to be a matter of debate. It is clear that administrative realities and socioeconomic elite structures did indeed change during his reign, though it is possible that long-term transformations were simply reaching breaking point under Xerxes, intensifying growing anti-imperial tendencies and provoking explicit responses (Kuhrt & Sherwin-White 1987; Waerzeggers 2002/2003; Waerzeggers & Maarje (eds.) 2018).

Expander of the Realm

Like most Near Eastern kings and especially like his forebears Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius, Xerxes expanded the empire in accordance with the deeply rooted expectation that a king surpass his predecessors (Hdt. 7.8). In the inscriptions, this is visible in the list of provinces given in XPh, which has increased by comparison with those of Darius, including now the Dahae of Central Asia and the Akaufaka. It should not surprise us that the Greeks by and beyond the sea are also listed here: Despite the ultimate failure of the famous Greek campaign more commonly known as the second Persian War, substantial parts of "Greek" territory were indeed Achaemenid under Xerxes, especially when viewed from Iran rather than southern Greece (Briant 2002, 542). From an Achaemenid perspective, the Greek campaign could in fact be said to have achieved its goal of punishing oath breakers and restoring the divine order of the empire through retribution (Waters 2016), though no mention of it is made in epigraphic material.


Another way in which a king demonstrated his legitimacy was to establish lasting works that made the king's mastery of his empire visually manifest. The inscriptions document that Xerxes constructed monumental buildings at Persepolis and Susa, though what we know today was surely not all he accomplished. In Persepolis he completed the Apadana, a palatial hall begun by his father (XPc), as well as various sculptures, while also building the Gateway of All Lands (XPa), as well as a second palace (XPd, XPe, XPp, XPq, XPr), the so-called Hadish, which was completed by Artaxerxes I (A1Pa). He further initiated the so-called Harem building (XPf, XPj, XPo) and the Hall of a Hundred Columns (A1Pb). At Susa, he completed or repaired the gate and palace built by his father (XSa, XSd) and may have constructed a palace of some sort (based on the substantial emendation of XSc). Another project worth mentioning is the canal built between 483 and 480 BCE across the isthmus of Mt. Athos to prepare for the Greek campaign (Hdt. 7.22f.). With a length of more than 2km, a width of two triremes, and the involvement of builders drawn from different parts of the Empire, this feat demonstrated the mastery over land and water Achaemenid kings commanded (Isserlin et al. 2003, 2008).

The Inscriptions

Epigraphically, Xerxes is the best-attested king after his father Darius I. The material comprises numerous dedications on buildings and sculptures. It is important to note that Xerxes preserved the formulae and templates introduced by his father, such as the ties to Ahuramazda and the insistence on Achaemenid lineage, thus stressing the continuity of the royal line and cementing the precedent all subsequent Achaemenid kings would largely follow. In numerous inscriptions (e.g. XPg, XPk on a Darius relief, XVa), he stresses his continuation and extension of his father's work (DEa – XEa), going so far as to inscribe verbatim copies of his father's kingship-defining inscriptions (XPl = DNb), cutting only the appeals to the young man, potentially because they were aimed at himself as Darius' successor.

The most famous royal inscription inscribed by Xerxes is the so-called daiva inscription (XPh), named after Xerxes' claim to have brought a province in which daiva ("demons, false gods") were worshipped back into the fold through military might, the destruction of the temples of the daiva, and proper worship of Ahuramazda. The inscription continues sentiments already expressed by Darius I in the fifth column of DB, in which political rebellion and failure to worship Ahuramazda are equated. There is no reason to assume that Xerxes' harsher and somewhat more elaborate version of these ideological sentiments is to be taken as literal imposition of cult in practice or to read it as a reflection of an actual change in policy. The vagueness of the inscription as to the province where this impiety occurred suggests that its key function was to present a blanket emphasis on the ideological order of the Empire the king guaranteed with his person and deeds, rather than to document historical specificity (Briant 2002, 550-553; Rollinger 2014, 201). In this, it is very similar to DNb and DSe, and can thus be said to sit well with the rest of the corpus.


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Henry Heitmann-Gordon

Henry Heitmann-Gordon, 'Xerxes I', Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online (ARIo) Project, The ARIo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/ario/rulers/xerxesi/]

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