Skip to Content

Xerxes I – King of Persia

Xerxes I – King of Persia

Xerxes I was Persia’s king from 486 to 465 B.C. His reign continued the Achaemenid Dynasty. He has come to be known to historians as Xerxes the Great. In his time, Xerxes I’s empire stretched from Egypt to parts of Europe and east to India. At that time the Persian Empire was the largest and most powerful Empire in the ancient world.

Facts About Xerxes I

  • Xerxes was the son of Darius the Great and Queen Atosa daughter of Cyrus the Great
  • At birth, Xerxes was named Khashayar, which translates as “king of heroes”
  • Xerxes I’s expedition against Greece saw the largest and most formidably equipped army and navy ever put into the field in history
  • Xerxes decisively quashed an Egyptian rebellion, installed his brother Achaemenes as Egypt’s satrap
  • Xerxes also ended Egypt’s previously privileged status and sharply increased his demands for food and material exports to supply his invasion of Greece
  • Egypt provided ropes for the Persian navy and contributed 200 triremes to its combined fleet.
  • Xerxes I worshipped the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda

Today, Xerxes I is best known for his enormous expedition against Greece in 480 BCE. According to the ancient historian Herodotus, Xerxes assembled the largest and most formidably equipped invasion force ever put into the field in history. However, he is also rightly famed for his extensive construction projects across his Persian Empire.

Family Lineage

Xerxes was the son of King Darius I known as Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) and Queen Atosa who was the daughter of Cyrus the Great. Surviving evidence indicates Xerxes was born around 520 BCE.

At birth, Xerxes was named Khashayar, which translates as “king of heroes.” Xerxes is the Greek form of Khashayar.

Persian Satrapy Of Egypt

During Egypt’s 26th Dynasty, Psamtik III, its last pharaoh was defeated at the Battle of Pelusium in Egypt’s eastern Nile delta region in May 525 BCE by a Persian army commanded by Cambyses II.

Cambyses was crowned Pharaoh of Egypt later that year. This relegated Egypt to the status of a Satrapy initiating the first period of Persian rule over Egypt. The Achaemenid Dynasty bundled Cyprus, Egypt and Phoenicia to create the Sixth Satrapy. Aryandes was appointed as its provincial governor.

Darius took more interest in Egypt’s internal affairs than his predecessor Cambyses. Darius is reputed to have codified Egypt’s laws and completed a canal system at Suez enabling water traffic from the Red Sea through to the Bitter Lakes. This significant engineering achievement enabled Darius to import skilled Egyptian artisans and labourers to build his palaces in Persia. This migration triggered a small-scale Egyptian brain drain.

Egypt’s subservience to the Persian Empire lasted from 525 BCE and 404 BCE. The satrapy was overthrown by a rebellion led by the Pharaoh Amyrtaeus. In late 522 BCE or early 521 BCE, an Egyptian prince rebelled against the Persians and declared himself Pharaoh Ptubastis III. Xerxes ended the rebellion.

In 486 BC following the ascension of Xerxes to the Persian throne, Egypt under the Pharaoh Psamtik IV rebelled once again. Xerxes decisively quashed the rebellion and installed his brother Achaemenes, as satrap of Egypt. Xerxes also ended Egypt’s previously privileged status and sharply increased his demands for food and material exports to supply his upcoming invasion of Greece. Egypt provided ropes for the Persian navy and contributed 200 triremes to its combined fleet.

Xerxes I also promoted his Ahura Mazda his Zoroastrian god in place of Egypt’s traditional pantheon of gods and goddesses. He also permanently halted funding for Egyptian monuments.

Xerxes I Reign

To historians, Xerxes’ name is forever linked to his invasion of Greece. Xerxes I launched his invasion in 480 B.C. He brought together the largest army and navy ever assembled up to that time. He easily conquered the small Northern and Central Greek city-states who lacked the military forces to effectively resist his army.

Sparta and Athens joined forces to lead mainland Greece’s defence. Xerxes I emerged victorious at the epic Battle of Thermopylae despite his army being held up by a small heroic group of Spartan soldiers. The Persians subsequently sacked Athens.

The combined navy of the independent Greek city-states reversed their military fortunes by defeating the Persian navy, which included Egypt’s contribution of 200 Triremes at the Battle of Salamis. After his navy’s decisive defeat, Xerxes was forced to retreat from the Greek mainland, stranding part of his infantry forces in Greece. A coalition of Greek city-states combined their armies to defeat this remnant of the Persian army before winning another naval battle near Ionia. Following these reversals, Xerxes I made no further attempts to invade mainland Greece.

Xerxes ambition to be king of the world declined and he retired in comfort to his three Persian capitals, Susa, Persepolis and Ecbatana. Continual conflict across the empire had taken a toll on the Achaemenid Empire, while its repeated military losses undermined the fighting effectiveness of the once formidable Persian military.

Xerxes focused much of his efforts on building larger and still more magnificent monuments. This construction binge, further depleted the royal treasury weakened following his disastrous Greek campaign.

Xerxes maintained the complex network of roadways that linked all parts of the empire, particularly the Royal Road used to carry from one end of the empire to another and further expanded Persepolis and Susa. Xerxes’ focus on his personal pleasure led to a decline in his empire’s power and influence.

Xerxes I also had to contend with numerous attempts to overthrow his reign. Surviving records show Xerxes I executed his brother Masistes and his entire family. These records disagree about the motivation for these executions.

In 465 B.C. Xerxes and Darius, his heir, were murdered during an attempted palace coup.

Worship of Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda

Xerxes worshipped a Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda. Surviving artifacts fail to clarify whether Xerxes was an active follower of Zoroastrianism but they do confirm his worship of Ahura Mazda. Numerous inscriptions declare actions Xerxes I had taken or construction projects he had undertaken to honour Ahura Mazda.

Throughout the Achaemenid Dynasty, no images were allowed of Ahura Mazda. In the place of their idol, Persian kings had pure white horses leading an empty chariot to accompany them into battle. This reflected their belief that Ahura Mazda would be encouraged to accompany their army granting them victory.

Reflecting On The Past

Xerxes I’s reign was cut short by his assassination by Artabanus one of his ministers. Artabanus also murdered Xerxes’ son Darius. Artaxerxes I, Xerxes’ other son killed Artabanus and assumed the throne.

Header image courtesy: A.Davey [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons