Xerxes: A Persian Life
Xerxes, Great King of the Persian Empire from 486–465 B.C., has gone down in history as an angry tyrant full of insane ambition. The stand of Leonidas and the 300 against his army at Thermopylae is a byword for courage, while the failure of Xerxes’ expedition has overshadowed all the other achievements of his twenty-two-year reign.
In this lively and comprehensive new biography, Richard Stoneman shows how Xerxes, despite sympathetic treatment by the contemporary Greek writers Aeschylus and Herodotus, had his reputation destroyed by later Greek writers and by the propaganda of Alexander the Great. Stoneman draws on the latest research in Achaemenid studies and archaeology to present the ruler from the Persian perspective. This illuminating volume does not whitewash Xerxes’ failings but sets against them such triumphs as the architectural splendor of Persepolis and a consideration of Xerxes’ religious commitments. What emerges is a nuanced portrait of a man who ruled a vast and multicultural empire which the Greek communities of the West saw as the antithesis of their own values.
later. 10 Hunting relief from Celaenae, now in the Çanakkale Museum. 11 Relief of musician and warriors from the ‘Polyxena tomb’, now in the Çanakkale Museum. 12 Taşkule, the ‘stone tower’; an Achaemenid-period tomb hewn from solid rock outside the town of Foça (Phocaea), Turkey. Perhaps it was the tomb of a satrap? 13 The Greek face of the trilingual inscription from the Letoön (sanctuary of Leto) near Xanthos, Turkey. It records a dedication in Greek by the king of Kaunos in 337 BC.
satrapies, provinces and regions ruled by a governor or satrap for the Great King. His was not the first empire in the Near East by a long way: there had been empires in Mesopotamia since the third millennium, and both the conquered Assyria and the region of Elam had considerable influence on Achaemenid style. But the empire of Cyrus became the most extensive of them all. As he says in the Book of Chronicles, ‘all the kingdoms of the earth … were given me’.2 We know little of the means by which
army.’55 The defeat made Xerxes even more anxious about his escape route, since it was clear he could not maintain his army in Greece over the winter. He feared that the Greeks might demolish the bridges on the Hellespont,56 and he would be cut off in hostile territory. To cover the course of action he had settled on, namely retreat, he began to build a causeway between the mainland and Salamis, as if he intended to fight another sea battle.57 Ctesias and Strabo concur in describing this
Persian commander had failed because he ignored the advice of the gods.80 When the armies eventually engaged, it has been calculated that the total numbers on the Persian side may have been about 100,000 (including medising Greeks; Herodotus gives a surely inflated 350,000); on the Greek side Herodotus’ numbers add up to 41,400 hoplites and 74,000 light-armed troops. The total number of troops was then considerably something over 200,000, comparable to the numbers that fought at Waterloo and
general, and the Persians in particular, are fiercely – even savagely – protective of their womenfolk. They keep a strict watch over not only their wives, but even their slaves and concubines, who are consequently never seen by strangers, but live their lives in seclusion at home, and when they go outside travel on wagons under awnings with curtains drawn all around them.46 The Book of Esther, too, opposes Herodotus’ picture, since Queen Vashti refuses Ahasuerus’ request to join him in public,