Xerxes I: Biography, Military Campaigns, Medical Wars

Xerxes I (c. 519 BC – 465 BC), also known as Xerxes the Great, was a king of the Achaemenid dynasty, in which he succeeded his father Darius I. Although his government was the which gave way to the collapse of the power of the Persians, was considered the 5th great king of his lineage. He gained his fame for having invaded Greece.

In his advance through the Hellenic lands he sacked and desecrated the temples, especially the Athenians, but Xerxes lost control of the region after being defeated at the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes believed that the Greeks had been defeated after taking Athens and that was the error that led him not only to lose what he had conquered but also the great influence of his Empire. 

Most of the information that exists about Xerxes I was collected by the Greeks, who show him as a degenerate and somewhat deranged man. It is believed to correspond to the biblical character named Ahasuerus, who appears in the Book of Esther.

He reigned for 21 years and pacified Egypt and Babylon, which had risen at the beginning of his rule. He dedicated his last efforts to the development of the imperial infrastructure, built colossal structures and moved away from conquests and foreign policy.

As a result of a plan to seize command from the Achaemenids that took place in Susa, Xerxes I was assassinated and was succeeded to the throne by his son Artaxerxes I.


Early years

Xerxes was born around 519 BC. It is not known which was the city in which the prince came into the world, who was the first son of Darius I with his wife Atosa, the daughter of Cyrus II the Great, founder of the Achaemenid dynasty.

His real name was Khshayarsa or Khashyar shah . The Greek transliteration of this was “Xerxes” and so it became known in the West thanks to historians who recorded his exploits.

His father Darius I was a descendant of another branch of the Achaemenids. By contracting this marriage with Atosa, the daughter of Cyrus II who had been the sister and wife of the previous monarch (Cambyses II), the new sovereign put an end to possible discussions about his legitimacy.


Xerxes had other brothers, the eldest of them was Artobazanes, son of Darío’s first marriage with a commoner. Ariabignes and Arsamenes were also born from that union.

The prince’s brothers born to the same mother, Atosa, were Aquémenes, Masistes and Histaspes. Darío also married with the other daughter of Ciro named Artistona and with her he had Arsames, Gobrias and Artozostra.

The last three brothers of Xerxes were the son of Darío with Parmis, granddaughter of Ciro, called Ariomando and two others with a woman called Frataguna that they took by names Abrocomes and Hiperantes. These two perished during the Battle of Thermopylae led by Xerxes.


During 486 a. C., the Egyptian population decided to prepare a revolt against the government of the Persian king. Before leaving to quell this revolt, Darius I not only left his tomb ready, but also declared that if he died his heir would be Xerxes.

Before managing to calm the area of ​​the Nile, Darío passed away. At that time there was a succession conflict in the kingdom, since Artobazanes, Darío’s eldest son, proclaimed his right to rule by virtue of being the first-born.

Xerxes, for his part, could trace his lineage back to Cyrus II the Great, liberator from the Persians. Not to mention that his own father had named him heir apparent before passing away.

Also the Spartan king Demaratus, who was in Persia, said that the heir was the first male born with the father on the throne, which contributed to the legal problems that the transition of Xerxes could represent.

However, Xerxes was crowned in late 486 BC. C. and both the family and the subjects were in agreement with that decision. At the time he was approximately 36 years old and had served as governor of Babylon for about 12 years.

Early government

His first action was to pacify Egypt, there he then left his brother Aquémenes as a satrap. Two years after having assumed the kingdom and again in 482 a. C., Babylon also disturbed the peace of the dominions of Xerxes I.

These insurrections suffered the same fate as those in Egypt, and since then the ruler was able to direct his sights on the Greeks, those who dared to tarnish the reputation of his father Darius I during the first medical war.

He prepared a great army and garrisoned it properly. He boasted of the benefits of having free men at his disposal for combat, as well as the great logistical machinery that he was able to deploy in the campaign.

At the beginning of the Second Medical War, Xerxes prevailed on both Thermopylae and Artemisium. She advanced steadily and conquered Athens, one of the jewels of Hellenic civilization. However, the defeat at Salamino marked the beginning of the end of that adventure for the Persian.

He had to retreat to Thrace and, battle after battle, Xerxes I continued to lose the ground he had just taken. That ended up ending the era of greatness of the Achaemenid empire and with the maritime dominance that his grandfather Cyrus II aspired to.


There is a record that one of Xerxes I’s wives was named Amestris, but it is unknown whether he took other women for wives or concubines. The royal couple had six children named Amytis, Darío, Histaspes, Artaxerxes, Aquémenes and Rodogune.

It is also known that with other women Xerxes I sired offspring. The names of the rest of the sons of the Persian sovereign were Artarius, Tithraustes, Arsamenes, Parysatis and Ratashah.


After failing in his attempt to subdue the Greeks, Xerxes I devoted himself to internal politics and to complete major construction projects started by his father Darius I, as well as others of his own that would guarantee his passage into history.

He completed the works on buildings such as the Susa Gate, as well as the Darío Palace in the same city. However, the largest works were those carried out in Persepolis.

There Xerxes built the Gate of All Nations, in addition to the stairs that gave access to this monument. Similarly, Apadana and Tachara finished, which was used as a winter palace.

Other works started by Darius I, such as the Treasury building, were also completed during the government of Xerxes I and one of the structures of this Persian sovereign was the Hall of Hundred Columns.

The architectural style used by Xerxes was similar to that of his father, but more inclined to opulence and grandeur with variations in size and with greater details in its finish.

Last years

According to Greek historians, towards the end of his life, Xerxes I was involved in palace intrigues because of his lack of morals. Some claimed that he tried to take his brother Masistes’s wife as a lover.

The king’s sister-in-law refused to accept this dishonorable position and, to get closer to her, Xerxes arranged the marriage of Darius, his heir, to Masistes’s daughter Artaynte. Then, Xerxes turned her interest towards her new daughter-in-law who, unlike her mother, did reciprocate.

When Amestris, Xerxes’ wife, learned of the infidelity, she ordered her sister-in-law, Masistes’s wife and Artaynte’s mother, to be mutilated. Then, the monarch’s brother created a plan of revenge for the behavior they had had with his wife and tried to overthrow Xerxes.

But the Achaemenid king found out what Masistes was planning and before he could act, he murdered him, as well as all his children. In doing so, he ended the possibility that they would seek revenge in the future.


Xerxes I was assassinated in August 465 BC. C. It is believed that the plot for his death was prepared by the head of the Royal Guard named Artabano, but was carried out with the assistance of an aunt named Aspasmitres.

Artabano wanted to depose the Achaemenid dynasty, so he had placed his sons in positions of power that would allow him to carry out a coup after the death of the Persian monarch.

The heir to the throne, Darío, was also assassinated, although it has been debated if the author was Artabano himself or if he manipulated Artaxerxes so that the other son of the sovereign killed his own brother.

In any case, it is known that Artaxerxes was in charge of assassinating Artabano and thus with his rebellion, in addition to achieving in this way his ascent to the throne after the death of his father.

First military campaigns

Pacification of Egypt

As soon as Xerxes ascended to the throne, the commander-in-chief of the Persian armies, Mardonius, tried to convince him that he should prepare for the invasion of Greece. But at the time, the Persian only had in mind to calm the rebels in Egypt, the sixth satrapy of the Empire.

The Egyptians had rebelled in 487 BC. A year before the death of his father Darío I, and they were governed by the Pharaoh Psamético IV, although this name is disputed by the historians.

Xerxes thought that his predecessor had been very permissive with the Egyptians, since he still let them hold the title of kingdom, and decided to hit the rebels hard. The army, under the command of his younger brother Aquémenes, devastated the Nile delta and took control of the territories.

Xerxes I then prevailed as the third ruler of the XXVII Egyptian dynasty, he replaced the cult of local deities with that of Ahura Mazda, or Ormuz, the supreme deity of Zoroastrianism.

He placed Aquémenes as a satrap, who ruled with a heavy hand, and increased the demands for food and materials that had to be sent to the capital of the empire.

Egypt provided naval ropes and 200 triremes to the Persian navy, which was already beginning preparations to return to Greece.

The Babylonian revolts

After having finished the Egyptian campaign, in 484 a. C., arose an aspirant to power in Babylon, which was part of the ninth satrapy. This man led a short-lived revolt against Persian rule.

Although the rebel Bel-shimanni managed to control the cities of Dilbat, Borsipa, and Babylon, he was only able to maintain power for two weeks.

Two years later, a second Babylonian revolt arose seeking the independence of the kingdom. Under the command of Shamash-eriba, control of the same cities taken by Bel-shimanni, plus Kish and Sippar, was taken.

Xerxes I’s response was overwhelming: he crushed the rebel armies, destroyed Borsipa and laid siege to the city of Babylon for several months, possibly until March 481 BC. C.

Historians differ as to the causes of these revolts. For some, the trigger could be the fact that Xerxes began to call himself with the title of “king of Persia and Media, king of Babylon and king of nations”, for others the apparent Zoroastrian fanaticism of the emperor.

Recent studies, however, deny these claims: since Cyrus II the Great, Persian rulers carried the title of king of Babylon; Regarding religious differences, the Persians were respectful of the customs and religions of every corner of their domains.

End of the Kingdom of Babylon

Likewise, the consequences are colored by the Greek vision of Herodotus, the leading historian of the time. However, it is known that the walls and bastions of Babylon were destroyed as well as some temples of Bel Marduk, the main Babylonian deity.

The title of Xerxes I put aside the cry of “king of Babylon” and only carried “king of nations.” The main Babylonian families stopped recording records and only those of those lines that openly supported the Persians appear.

Herodotus’s account further indicates the destruction of the temple of Esagila consecrated to Bel Marduk, in which every first day of the year the Babylonian kings touched the golden effigy of the god. The Greek historian also says that Xerxes took the solid gold statue and had it cast.

Today, many historians have questioned the veracity of these testimonies.

Second medical war

While a part of the Persian army appeased Egypt and Babylon, Xerxes made preparations to return to Greece and, thus, be able to take revenge for the defeats that his father had suffered.

Not only was this time about punishing the Greeks for having supported the Ionian revolts, but he orchestrated a campaign of conquest.

To that end, he planned an invasion by sea and land and put all the resources of his empire to carry it out. He gathered armies from 46 nations: about 5 million people, including soldiers and auxiliary personnel according to Herodotus’ account.

That number has been significantly reduced by modern research to half a million people, of whom about 250,000 were soldiers. In any case, it was the largest army ever prepared up to that point in history.

The Persian fleet had 1,207 warships and 3,000 supply ships from 12 nations, numbers reported by various sources contemporary to the invasion.

To Greece

The construction of two large engineering works was ordered, in order to be able to mobilize such a large number of people and ships: the first was a bridge over the Hellespont, the strait that is now known as the Dardanelles and that connects Europe with Asia.

A canal was also commissioned on the isthmus of Mount Athos. The bridge was built with the ships of the fleet, placed side by side and tied with papyrus ropes. About a thousand boats were used to cover the 1,200 meters of the strait.

For its part, the Isthmus canal, now known as the Xerxes Canal, was one of the greatest building feats of the ancient world.

In the spring of 480 a. C. left the army, under the command of Xerxes I, from the Anatolian peninsula to Thrace. The 600 km journey to Terma, present-day Salonica, lasted about three months, during which the preparations that the Persians had made paid off.

During the months leading up to the march, 5 supply stations had been placed along the road. Likewise, animals were bought and fattened, they also stored grain and flour in the towns of the area.

The largest army the world had ever known was supported by logistical efforts of equal magnitude.

Battle of Thermopylae

Xerxes had no impediment on his way through Macedonia and Thessaly, as many cities saw the overwhelming number of Persians and decided not to face them and give in to their requests.

When the Persians reached Thermopylae, they found the Greeks in a reinforced position with a low wall and some 7,000 thousand men.

Leonidas I of Sparta and his 300 hoplites, and the allies who joined them along the way, had come to the defense of the Hellenic cities. Meanwhile, Themistocles had departed to command the fleet that would face Xerxes’ army at Artemisio.

The battle, which lasted three days, was won by force of numbers and thanks to the betrayal of a Thessalian named Ephialtes who revealed to Xerxes I a way to outflank the Greek hoplites. In the end, about 20,000 Persian troops by about 4,000 Greeks lay on the battlefield.

The Spartans and Thespians mounted a last defense to allow the withdrawal of about 3000 Greeks who would continue to fight in defense of their cities from the inevitable advance of the Achaemenid monarch.

Battle of Artemis

Almost at the same time that the Battle of Thermopylae was taking place, the Persian fleet found its Greek counterpart in the Strait of Artemisium, made up of 271 warships.

The Persians had left Terma with 1207 ships, but a two-day storm as they passed through Magnesia caused them to lose about a third of their strength. Still, they outnumbered Themistocles’ army 3 to 1.

The tactics of the Greeks were well adapted Persian combat style and did as much damage as they received. However, being fewer in number, those losses were too much for the defenders who retreated towards Salamis.

For its part, a Persian detachment had drifted southward and was hit by another storm, wrecking almost all of its ships.

Faced with the retreat of the Greeks, the Persian army, which now numbered about 600 ships, landed at Histiea where they plundered the region.

Battle of Salamis

After Artemisius, the Greeks took refuge in Salamis. There they met in a council of war in which Adimanthus proposed that the Hellenes adopt a defensive strategy, but Themistocles prevailed, who considered that only with attack could the Persian numbers decrease.

The coalition decided to remain in Salamis, while the Persians sacked Athens and drew up their own plan of action. Some leaders told Xerxes I that he should wait for the Greeks to surrender.

But the Persian sovereign and Mardonio, were inclined by the option to attack. Themistocles then set him up by telling him, through a messenger named Sicino, that he secretly supported the Achaemenid cause and urged him to block the straits where the Greeks were.

By following that proposal, the Persian ships lost mobility. Thanks to that, the Hellenes ‘action plan was carried out as it had been devised and they managed to destroy more than 200 Xerxes’ vessels, while they only lost about 40.

When the Achaemenid king saw the consequences of the confrontation, he decided to return to his dominions for fear of being trapped in hostile lands. Mardonio had to remain in the territory to continue the campaign, but the victory of the Greeks was already inevitable.


  1. Huot, J. (2019). Xerxes I | Biography, Accomplishments, & Facts . [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: britannica.com [Accessed 3 Nov. 2019].
  2. DANDAMAEV, M. (1993), Bulletin of the Asia Institute. New Series, Vol. 7, Iranian Studies in Honor of ADH Bivar, pp. 41-45.
  3. Mark, J. (2019). Xerxes I . [online] Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at: ancient.eu [Accessed 3 Nov. 2019].
  4. Trotter, J. (2001). Reading Hosea in Achaemenid Yehud . London [etc.]: Sheffield Academic Press.
  5. En.wikipedia.org. (2019). Xerxes I . [online] Available at: en.wikipedia.org [Accessed 3 Nov. 2019].

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *