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Is Xerxes worthy of the title 'Great'?

Updated on March 9, 2012

Was Xerxes deserving of his title 'Great' or was he not the King we remember him as?

There is much debate on whether the rule of Xerxes can be considered ‘Great’ or whether he was, as so many classical authors, most especially Herodotus, have said; the spark for the beginning of the decline of the Persian empire. This essay shall consider the various events of Xerxes’ reign and most crucially it will judge his worthiness not solely on his Greek campaign but also on the evidence of his other achievements or failures. There can be no doubt that the classical authors were quick to denounce Xerxes as a bad king, not only because of his ultimate failure in getting all the Greek states under his dominion, but also because by creating this image, it made the Greek victories look even more impressive. It is important to remember the bias with which the literature was written and therefore, arguably give preference to the small amount of Persian evidence which exists. The essay will attempt to reach a conclusion, taking in accounts both Greek and Persian, as to whether or not Xerxes is worthy of the title ‘the Great’. ‘Great’ shall be interpreted as furthering the progress of his Empire, upholding the Persian values already set out by men such as Cyrus and Darius and by the good qualities recognisable in any good leader: militarily, politically and socially.

Kuhrt argues that the reign of Xerxes has been narrowed down by the classical authors such as Herodotus to be seen through the eyes of the Greeks. His failed attack on the Greek armies is portrayed throughout literature, from being the basis of Herodotus’ books to the play ‘The Persians’ by Aeschylus. There is no doubt that this was a hammering defeat for Xerxes, however, it seems as if the modern day view of his reign might have been overly influenced by these events. To base whether Xerxes is worthy of the title ‘the Great’ solely because of a few lost battles on the fringes of his great empire might seem slightly foolish and ignorant as “these powerful Greek-generated images and stories have shaped perception of Xerxes’ reign even his personality, to the point where the surviving evidence on this period from elsewhere in the empire has been subordinated to it and twisted to fit our preconceptions.”1However, the problem does not necessarily come from an over reliance on the classical sources but rather from a serious lack of Persian sources. In order to find out the details of Xerxes’ life in depth, where literature is concerned, historians are forced to rely on the works provided by the ancient Greek authors because that is almost all that exists. This is arguably why the reign of Xerxes is so commonly seen through the Greek perspective but it is important to distinguish the truth amongst exaggerations and gather what information that exists about Xerxes’ rulings elsewhere in the empire.

Whilst it is necessary to not overestimate the importance of the campaign into Greece in debating the greatness of Xerxes, it must be accepted that it was still a large and important factor in his reign and so should be analysed closely. It has been portrayed in history that the Persians suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Greeks and it is certainly true that ultimately their invasion was resisted. However, the Persian invasion was not without success. Despite severe losses, they defeated the Greek army at Thermopylae and went as far as taking Athens and destroying the Acropolis. Furthermore, their influence was great enough to persuade numerous Greek states to join them, most notably the Thessalonians and it is possible that they were only eventually defeated and worn down because the army, according to Herodotus, suffered from plague and dysentery. This combined with the naval defeat at Salamis and later battles such as Plataea show that Xerxes was indeed out matched by the Greeks and ultimately failed in his campaign. However, according to Dio Chrysostom, it was declared in Persia that Xerxes defeated the Greeks, took Athens and “sold into slavery all those people who had not fled and, after this success, imposed tribute on the Greeks and returned to Asia.”2 It is more than likely that this was the propaganda that Xerxes used to mask the reasons for his withdrawal in Greece but even so, this shows good political leadership and an ability to maintain his necessary image of near invincibility to his Empire. The dangers of announcing a defeat could encourage other states to rebel against him so arguably he showed successful kingship in spreading propaganda.

When Xerxes came to power, according to Ctesias and Herodotus, he successfully managed to suppress revolts in Egypt and Babylonia which had initiated in the reign of Darius showing that he was capable of keeping control in his own Empire and effective in putting down rebellions quickly. Herodotus also says that he punished Egypt by making their “servitude harsher”3 and thus attempting to stop any future rebellions from reoccurring. However, classical texts, Babylonian tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions all suggest that Xerxes abandoned the ways of Darius and Cyrus when dealing with conquered states. Instead of revering the local gods and honouring the holy places, Xerxes is reported to have torn down the temples and committed sacrilege in both Egypt and Babylon. He even removes his various titles as rulers of these places showing his contempt and refusal to revere them more than he would any common satrapy. Xerxes paints an intolerable picture of himself through his inscriptions upon the Persepolis where he describes how he destroys the temples of the ‘demons’, most likely referring to Babylonia. Therefore, arguably, by alienating himself from the traditional customs of his predecessors, he showed weakness through impiety and cruelty with a lack of respect for the people he wished to govern and thus, seriously questioning his warranting of the title ‘Great’.

Briant, in his defence of Xerxes argues that there is no direct evidence to suggest that it was Xerxes who destroyed the Babylonian temples. Rather he suggests that it was due to the classical authors who were trying to show the piety of Alexander in comparison to Xerxes. However, he seems all too willing to dismiss the classical sources as being completely biased and wrong. There is no doubt that they were biased, but despite this, it is almost certain that they contained parts of the truth as well and as Briant admits that “Xerxes had decided to persecute Babylonian religion”4, there is no reason why we should discount the evidence that he destroyed the temples as well. Briant’s argument on Egypt is more convincing. He states various artefacts that show Xerxes still being referred to as the Pharaoh of Egypt contrary to statements made by Herodotus and other classical authors. However, he does concede that the Egyptian temples were destroyed thus showing that ultimately Xerxes committed sacrilege and abandoned the ways of his ancestors. Herodotus tells of how, after crushing the revolt in Babylon, Xerxes supposedly stole the golden statue of Bel-Marduk who was their chief god. This seems to fit in extremely well with Herodotus’ account of Xerxes in general, and it therefore, must be seriously questioned whether such an event was likely to happen. Allen states that “it is possible that this statue was a symbolic prize taken to a royal palace in order to represent Babylon’s part in the empire, but it is unlikely to have been the cult statue itself”5 and this assessment seems to fit more appropriately with the ideology of Xerxes that we can interpret from his own inscriptions in places such as Persepolis.

Wiesehöfer contradicts Allen and Briant’s view that Xerxes was not the bad king that the ancient Greeks depicted him as. He states that Xerxes’ “ambition had no bounds … he treated his opponents with monstrous brutality and could not be tolerant in religious matters … marked the inevitable decline of Persian power and culture.”6 If Cyrus was the example set for how a king should be, then Wiesehöfer argues that Xerxes was most certainly not great. There are several examples given, although it must be noted that they are given by Greek authors, of the brutality of Xerxes. Firstly, after finally beating the Spartans, Xerxes had the body of Leonidas brutalised mercilessly. This was not in custom with Persian culture as normally those who displayed bravery and honour were treated with respect. Similarly, the punishment of Pythius’ son and also the famous display of hubris when the Hellespont dared to obstruct the path of Xerxes, shows how irrational and unlike Cyrus Xerxes could be.

Culican provides a damning view of Xerxes both politically within the Empire and of the invasion of Greece as “Xerxes had neither the military ability nor the statecraft of his predecessors.”7 He criticises Xerxes for being ignorant of strategic warfare when it came to sea and land conditions in Greece, although arguably this is a slightly harsh assessment as the sheer military might which he commanded would make any leader confident in attack. On the surface it seems as though Xerxes failed as a military leader, especially within Greece but within the context of Persian society, it could be argued that warfare was the job of his generals and strategy was not his to deal with. Furthermore, he quickly crushed the rebellions within his own Empire and did gain victories in Greece, including the destruction of Athens. Culican does provide an important point in illustrating that by executing the Phoenician general after Salamis, he alienated a potentially crucial ally. This lack of judgement does seem to suggest weakness in his kingship.

Xerxes’ ‘daivā Inscription’ shows, at the very least, that his intentions were ‘Great’. He ultimately claims to have “(1) re-established order in a troubled country; (2) to have destroyed the sanctuaries of the daivā; (3) to have re-established the worship of Ahura-Mazda; and (4) to have re-established order in another ‘business.’”8 These are things which every king of Persia who was considered great endeavoured to do. Nonetheless, in comparison to rulers such as Cyrus, a man considered truly ‘Great’, and Darius, Xerxes’ methods seem not to have met with the same success and ultimately served to endanger the stability of his Empire when concerning future rebellions. Another area where Xerxes certainly lived up to his title was in his construction of Persepolis where he “followed in his father’s footsteps when he continued construction projects at Persepolis and carried on his administration of the empire.”9 Although Darius had started the project, Xerxes increased and added to it extensively for the full duration of his reign. He continued Darius’ theme of inscribing their dynasty upon the walls and echoed much of what Darius had written. “He commemorated, completed and extended Darius’ palatial structures at Susa and Persepolis”10 and he also continued Darius’ theme of legitimizing their place as kings in the Achaemenid dynasty.

Finally, Ctesias’ account of Xerxes includes many stories about the woman of his court. Various other classical authors also described “the disorders of the harem, assassinations, and conspiracies; around him were unleashed the passions of the court princesses and the growing influence of the eunuchs.”11 It provides another example of the weakness of Xerxes and most especially the story of Masistes whom he had murdered. His weakness for woman, firstly Masistes’ wife, and then his daughter ended with Amestris mutilating Masistes’ wife and pretty much having to kill the entire family of his own brother. Whether this ‘novella’ is based entirely on truth is unknown, but as an oral tradition it does show the weakness of Xerxes within his own court and it could be argued that to be a ‘Great’ king, he must first control his court before he could control an empire.

In conclusion, therefore, it can be seen that there is much debate over whether Xerxes lived up to his title or whether he was “weak, easily influenced, immature in his appetites, egotistical, cruel, superstitious, licentious.”12 Ultimately, it seems that Xerxes suffered from a bad temper mixed with bad luck. His whipping of the Hellespont and his apparent destruction of the religious places in Egypt and Babylon combined with various other rash deeds such as the mutilation of Leonidas show how his bad temper painted him in a light that was both disgusting from a Greek point of view (although this is perhaps the reason why the Greeks wrote so extensively about these events) and from the point of view of being a successful political and social leader. He suffers from bad luck because his decisions always seem to be the wrong ones. He is, in the first place, persuaded to attack Greece, and also Masistes’ daughter requests the royal coat of Amestris from him leaving him no choice but to oblige. Such events determined poor outcomes which reflect badly on his kingship. However, Briant’s statement that “we must renounce, once and for all, the Greek vision of Xerxes’ reign”13 arguably goes too far as although it is important to remember the Greek bias, ultimately Xerxes, through hubris and a lack of military leadership, fails to conquer Greece and sacrifices many of his people by doing so. This combined with his lack of tolerance, impiety and weakness within the court suggest that Xerxes was not deserving of the title ‘Great’. Despite this conclusion, it must be remembered that although he did not achieve greatness politically, socially or militarily for his empire; he also did not, as so many historians (ancient and modern) have stated, start the demise of the Persian Empire. This is evident because “the long-term trends of archaeological and administrative data illustrate a continuing stability and productivity during Xerxes’ reign”14 showing that he, despite literary sources, did uphold his Empire but failed to be considered ‘Great’ in the same respect as men such as Cyrus and Darius.

1 Kuhrt, A. (2007). P238

2 Dio Chrysostom 11.149

3 Herodotus VII, 5; 7.

4 Briant, P. (1996). P545.

5 Allen, L. (2005). P52

6 Wiesehöfer, J. (1996). P42.

7 Culican, W. (1965). P80.

8 Briant, P. (1996). P550.

9 Garthwaite, G. R. (2005). P37.

10 Kuhrt, A. (2007). P241.

11 Briant, P. (1996). P515.

12 Briant, P. (1996). P515.

13 Briant, P. (1996). P567.

14 Allen, L. (2005). P57

Xerxes in the film "300"
Xerxes in the film "300"

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      Derdriu 6 years ago

      Chuckbl, What an entrancing, fascinating, riveting look into the ancient sources to find whether or not moderns need to add "the Great" after Xerxes' name! In particular, you offer a balanced view regarding the potential prejudice in any source, Greek or non-Greek. Additionally, I like the way you bring in the current interest in Sparta, Leonidas and the tragic battle of the valiant 300.

      It's interesting how some ancients withstand the test of time and others aren't doing so under the increasing scrutiny possible through subsequent advances in research, science and technology.

      Thank you for sharing, voted up + all,


    • chuckbl profile image

      Charlie 6 years ago from Scotland

      Glad you enjoyed it :)

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

      Voted up and interesting. Sounds like you're right on the money.