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Xerxes the Great, also known as Xerxes I of Persia, ( ; ) (reigned 485–465 BC) was a Zoroastrian Persian Shahanshah (Emperor) of the Achaemenid Empire.

Xerxes was the son of Darius the Great and his wife Atossa. He succeeded his father in 486 BC with a very smooth transition of power challenged by no subject nation of the huge Achaemenid empire.

Names and etymology

The name Xerxes ( ) comes, via Latin, from , which in turn derives from ( ). The name has appeared in many inscriptions in languages spoken in various parts of his vast empire: in Old Persian, Elamite, Babylonian, Egyptian , etc. The Greek name is recorded in Histories of Herodotus and Bibliotheca historica of Diodorus.

Among the historians, Herodotus mentions in his history book that Xerxes means warrior.This is however disputed and not accepted by modern scholars. A modern proposal is that "Xerxes" should mean "Hero among rulers".

The alternative English name Ahasuerus is derived from the Latin transliteration of the Biblical Hebrew ( ). This is in turn the Hebrew equivalent of the Babylonian : both this and the non-Biblical Greek name are transliterations from the Old Persian Xšayāršā (also spelt Khshayârshâ). Thus this literary change was created as the name moved across each of the language groups in a westerly direction from Persia until it entered English translations of the Bible. Therefore the Hebrew texts are to a large extent consistent and the name Ahasuerus is equivalent to Xerxes, both deriving from the Persian Xšayāršā.

Early life and accession

Immediately after seizing the kingship, Darius I of Persia (son of Hystaspes) married Atossa (daughter of Cyrus the Great). They were both descendants of Achaemenes from different Achaemenid lines. Marrying a daughter of Cyrus strengthened Darius' position as king. Darius was an active emperor, busy with building programs in Persepolis, Susa, Egypt, and elsewhere. Toward the end of his reign he moved to punish Athens, but a new revolt in Egypt (probably led by the Persian satrap) had to be suppressed. Under Persian law, the Achaemenian kings were required to choose a successor before setting out on such serious expeditions. Upon his great decision to leave (487-486 BC)Dandamaev, M. A., A political history of the Achaemenid empire, p. 180., Darius prepared his tomb at Naqsh-e Rostammarker and appointed Xerxes, his eldest son by Atossa, as his successor. Darius' failing health then prevented him from leading the campaigns,A. Sh. Shahbazi, Darius I the Great, in Encyclopaedia Iranica. and he died in October 486 BC.

Xerxes was not the oldest son of Darius and according to old Iranian traditions should not have succeeded the King. Xerxes was however the oldest son of Darius and Atossa hence descendent of Cyrus. This made Xerxes the chosen King of Persia. Some modern scholars also view the unusual decision of Darius to give the throne to Xerxes to be a result of his consideration of the unique positions that Cyrus the Great and his daughter Atossa have had. The Xerxes argued that Artobazan was born to Darius the "subject", while he was the eldest son born to the purple, Artobazan's mother was a commoner while his mother was the daughter of the founder of the empire.

Xerxes was crowned and succeeded his father in October-December 486 BCThe cambridge history of Iran vol. 2. p. 509. when he was about 36 years old. The transition of power to Xerxes was smooth due again in part to great authority of AtossaSchmitt, R., Atossa in Encyclopaedia Iranica. and his accession of royal power was not challenged by any person at court or in the Achaemenian family, or any subject nation.

Almost immediately, he suppressed the revolts in Egyptmarker and Babylonmarker that had broken out the year before, and appointed his brother Achaemenes as governor or satrap (Old Persian: khshathrapavan) over Egypt. In 484 BC, he outraged the Babylonians by violently confiscating and melting down the golden statue of Bel (Marduk, Merodach), the hands of which the rightful king of Babylon had to clasp each New Year's Day. This sacrilege led the Babylonians to rebel in 484 BC and 482 BC, so that in contemporary Babylonian documents, Xerxes is refused his father's title of King of Babylon, being named rather as King of Persia and Media, Great King, King of Kings (Shahanshah) and King of Nations (i.e. of the world).

Although Herodotus' report in the Histories has created certain problems concerning Xerxes' religious beliefs, modern scholars consider him as a Zoroastrian.

Invasion of the Greek mainland

Xerxes lashing the Hellespont
Darius left to his son the task of punishing the Atheniansmarker, Naxiansmarker, and Eretriansmarker for their interference in the Ionian Revolt and their victory over the Persians at Marathonmarker. From 483 BC Xerxes prepared his expedition: A channel was dug through the isthmus of the peninsula of Mount Athos, provisions were stored in the stations on the road through Thrace, two bridges were built across the Hellespontmarker. Soldiers of many nationalities served in the armies of Xerxes, including the Assyrians, Phoeniciansmarker, Babylonians, Indiansmarker, Egyptians, Jews and Arabs.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes' first attempt to bridge the Hellespont ended in failure when a storm destroyed the flax and papyrus bridge; Xerxes ordered the Hellespont (the strait itself) whipped three hundred times and had fetters thrown into the water. Xerxes' second attempt to bridge the Hellespont was successful. Xerxes concluded an alliance with Carthagemarker, and thus deprived Greecemarker of the support of the powerful monarchs of Syracusemarker and Agrigentummarker. Many smaller Greek states, moreover, took the side of the Persians, especially Thessaly, Thebesmarker and Argosmarker. Xerxes set out in the spring of 480 BC from Sardismarker with a fleet and army which Herodotus claimed was more than two million strong with at least 10,000 elite warriors named Persian Immortals. Xerxes was victorious during the initial battles.

Thermopylae and Athens

At the Battle of Thermopylaemarker, a small force of Greek warriors led by King Leonidas of Spartamarker resisted the much larger Persian forces, but were ultimately defeated. According to Herodotus, the Persians broke the Spartan phalanx after a Greek man called Ephialtes betrayed his country by telling the Persians of another pass around the mountains. After Thermopylae, Athensmarker was captured and the Athenians and Spartans were driven back to their last line of defense at the Isthmus of Corinthmarker and in the Saronic Gulfmarker. The delay caused by the Spartans allowed Athens to be evacuated.

What happened next is a matter of some controversy . According to Herodotus, upon encountering the deserted city, in an uncharacteristic fit of rage particularly for Persian kings, Xerxes had Athens burned. He almost immediately regretted this action and ordered it rebuilt the very next day. However, Persian scholars dispute this view as pan-Hellenic propaganda , arguing that Sparta, not Athens, was Xerxes' main foe in his Greek campaigns, and that Xerxes would have had nothing to gain by destroying a major center of trade and commerce like Athens once he had already captured it.

At that time, anti-Persian sentiment was high among many mainland Greeks, and the rumor that Xerxes had destroyed the city was a popular one, though it is equally likely the fire was started by accident as the Athenians were frantically fleeing the scene in pandemonium , or that it was an act of "scorched earth" warfare to deprive Xerxes' army of the spoils of the city. Unfortunately, regardless of the circumstances the damage was done and Xerxes considered the capture of Athens as the only major mistake in his military career.

At Artemisium, large storms had destroyed ships from the Greek side and so the battle stopped prematurely as the Greeks received news of the defeat at Thermopylae and retreated. Xerxes was induced by the message of Themistocles (against the advice of Artemisia of Halicarnassus) to attack the Greek fleet under unfavourable conditions, rather than sending a part of his ships to the Peloponnesusmarker and awaiting the dissolution of the Greek armies. The Battle of Salamis (September 29, 480 BC) was won by the Greek fleet. Although the loss was a setback, it was not a disaster as some Greek historians have claimed, and Xerxes set up a winter camp in Thessaly.

Due to unrest in Babylonmarker, Xerxes was forced to send his army home to prevent a revolt, leaving behind an army in Greece under Mardonius, who was defeated the following year at Plataea. The Greeks also attacked and burned the remaining Persian fleet anchored at Mycale. This cut off the Persians from the supplies they needed to sustain their massive army, and they had no choice but to retreat. Their withdrawal roused the Greek city-states of Asia.

Construction projects

After the military blunders in Greece, Xerxes returned to Persia and completed the many construction projects left unfinished by his father at Susa and Persepolis. He built the Gate of all Nations and the Hall of a Hundred Columns at Persepolis, which are the largest and most imposing structures of the palace. He completed the Apadana, the Palace of Darius and the Treasury all started by Darius as well as building his own palace which was twice the size of his father's. His taste in architecture was similar to that of Darius, though on an even more gigantic scale. He also maintained the Royal Road built by his father and completed the Susa Gate and built a palace at Susa.


In the year 465 Xerxes was murdered by Artabanus the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in Persian court (Hazarapat/commander of thousand). He was promoted to this most prestigious of positions in Achamenid court after his refusal to help Mardonius in Platae and instead withdrawing the second Persian army successfully out of Greece. Although he bore the same name as famed uncle of Xerxes, a Hyrcanian, his rise to prominence was due to his popularity in religious quarters of the court and harem intrigues. He put his seven sons in key positions and had an effective master plan to dethrone Achamenids. In August, 465 B.C he assassinated Xerxes with the help of a eunuch Aspamitres. Greek historians give contradicting accounts on the full story. According to Ctesias (in Persica 20), he then accused the crown prince Darius (Xerxes' eldest son) of the murder; he instigated Artaxerxes (another Xerxes' son), to avenge the patricide. But according to Aristotle (in Politics 5.1311b), Artabanus killed Darius first and then the king himself. Later on after discovering what he had done and planned for the royal power, Artabanus together with his sons were killed by Artaxerxes I. Participating in the scuffles was also general Megabyzus (baghabukhsha) whose side switching probably saved the day for Achamenids.

In the Bible

The name Xerxes has not traditionally appeared in English bibles, but has rather appeared as 'Ahasuerus'. While in many other more modern translations and paraphrases they have directly listed Xerxes. Xerxes appears three times in the Bible: firstly as Esther's husband, followed by a perfect example in the Book of Ezra, listing him as king of Persia in proper order after Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great (skipping Cambyses and the short rule of the Magi as being unrelated to the events of the book); the third reference comes from the prophecy of Daniel 11:2, foretelling his invasion of Greece. The reference to "Darius the son of Ahasuerus" in is unrelated.

In the Book of Esther

For these same reasons and due to the historical context of the text, it is also commonly understood and translated that Esther's husband Ahasuerus is Xerxes the Great. But the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible identifies Esther's husband as Artaxerxes I (Longimanus), rather than Xerxes himself, as does the Judeo-Roman historian Josephus. Yet it is now thought that the translators of this portion of the Septuagint simply mistook Xerxes the Great for Artaxerxes I (Longimanus).

In Classical Music

Xerxes is the protagonist of the opera "Serse" by the German-English Baroque composer George Frideric Handel. It was first performed in King's Theatre in London on 15 April 1738.


By queen Amestris

By unknown wives

Depictions in popular culture


  1. Herodotus Book 6, Chap. 98
  2. Macaulay p. 329.
  3. Schmeja
  4. R. Shabani Chapter I, p. 12
  5. Heritage of Persia p. 93.
  6. Nichol, F.D., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, Volume 3, Review and Herald Publishing Association, (Washington, D.C., 1954 edition), p.459, "Historical Setting"
  7. McCullough, Ahasuerus in Encyclopaedia Iranica.
  8. Herodotus Book 7, Chap. 2. Excerpt: Artabazanes claimed the crown as the eldest of all the children, because it was an established custom all over the world for the eldest to have the pre-eminence; while Xerxes, on the other hand, urged that he was sprung from Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, and that it was Cyrus who had won the Persians their freedom.
  9. R. Shabani Chapter I, p. 15
  10. Olmstead: the history of Persian empire
  11. The Cambridge ancient history vol. V p. 72.
  12. R. Ghirshman, Iran, p.191
  13. M. Boyce, Achaemenid Religion in Encyclopædia Iranica. See also p. 101.
  14. Livius Picture Archive: Persepolis - Apadana Audience Relief
  15. Farrokh 2007: 77
  16. Bailkey, Nels, ed. Readings in Ancient History, p. 175. D.C. Heath and Co., USA, 1992.
  17. Battle of Salamis and aftermath
  18. Ghirshman, Iran, p.172
  19. Herodotus VII.11
  20. Iran-e-Bastan/Pirnia book 1 p 873
  21. Dandamayev
  22. History of Persian Empire-Olmstead p 289/90
  23. King James Version, New American Standard Bible, The Amplified Bible, English Standard Version, 21st Century King James Version, American Standard Version, Young's Literal Translation, Darby Translation, Holman Christian Standard Bible, etc.
  24. New International Version, The Message, New Living Translation, Contemporary Version, New Century Version, New International Revised Version, Today's New Interational Version, etc.
  25. for more information on this matter see the artilce Darius the Mede, Identity of "Darius the Mede".
  26. New International Version, The Message, Amplified Bible, New Living Translation, Contemporary English Version, New King James Version, New Century Version, New International Reader's Version, Today's New International Version, etc.
  27. Septuagint; Esther 1:1,2,9...etc.; 2003 Hendrickson Publishers, ed. by Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton; ISBN 0-913573-44-2
  28. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews Book 11, Chap. 6, sec. 2; Whiston, William; The Complete Works of Josephus; Hendrickson Publishers, 1987; ISBN 0-913573-86-8.
  29. Sir Godfrey Driver, Introduction to the Old Testament of the New English Bible (1970)
  30. Wikipedia, Septuagint, Creation of the Septuagint, 5 October 2008
  31. Ctesias
  32. M. Brosius, Women in ancient Persia.


Ancient sources

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Modern sources

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