One of the Persian Empire’s most famous figures is King Xerxes I, if only because he led the Second Persian War against the Greeks. Thanks to legendary clashes at Thermopylae and Salamis, the Persian leader has remained legendary, and the war was a veritable clash of civilizations. Had the Persians triumphed, the Golden Age of Athens would have been snuffed out, and Greece would never have formed the backbone of Roman and Western culture. Simply put, the West as it is today might never have existed.
Not surprisingly, the majority of surviving sources regarding Xerxes are the product of Greek writers, so it was inevitable that the Persian king has been depicted in unflattering terms for thousands of years. The details of his invasion of Greece cast him as the villain in the dramatic Greek retelling of the tragic 300 Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae, and focus on the loss at Salamis that solidified his reputation as a failure despite another 15 years of successful rule after withdrawing from the Greek mainland. Although Herodotus’s Histories offer a less biased account than some later sources, he still depicted Xerxes as a figure of tragic failings, listening too often to the wrong councilors and eventually collapsing on the weight of his own hubris. This classic appearance as a tragic hero figure gives some pause for doubt, as the literary stereotype is almost too perfect and suggests a lack of depth and nuance that characterizes all accurate investigations of historical individuals.
These early images were only exacerbated by Alexander the Great and his biographers, who maintained a fiery hatred toward Xerxes for his burning of Athens. They targeted many of his building projects after their capture of Persepolis, and they pushed an even bleaker picture of the king, one of an idle, indolent, cowardly, and corrupt ruler. The continuation of this can be traced throughout the passing centuries - Plato considered Xerxes to be a poor reflection of a great father, and another contemporary, Lysias, wrote in his Funeral Oration how Xerxes “had held Greece in contempt, but had been deceived in his hopes, who was dishonored by the event, galled by the disaster, and angered against its authors, and who was unused to ill-hap and unacquainted with true men.”
Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a History of the World in which, despite including an anecdote in which Alexander considered re-erecting a statue of Xerxes due to the king’s virtues, he went on to describe Xerxes as impious, brutal, wicked, foolish, cowardly, and merciless. Author Henry Rawlinson, writing in 1867, claimed that Xerxes’s character was far inferior to his more admirable predecessors, while David Stronach asserted in 1978 that Xerxes was significantly less intelligent than his father had been.
As usual, the truth lies far more towards the middle, even as Xerxes’s frequent portrayal as the villain in the story of a fierce, brave defense of Greece against overwhelming odds has made him a less than popular subject for biographers and historical investigations. However, a few individuals have undertaken to explore the true complexities of his character, and through these works and a few ancient sources, most particularly Herodotus, a more accurate picture can be derived, even if the bias of Greek accounts still colors the information. In reality, very little objective information exists as to the personality and character of the king, so the truth must be estimated through a careful interpretation of his deeds.
King Xerxes I: The Life and Legacy of the Achaemenid Persian Empire’s Most Notorious Ruler looks at the life of the Persian leader and the major conflicts he led. You will learn about Xerxes like never before.