Xerxes, the King of Persia is important due to the role that he played in the famous Battle of the 300 – this is what most people know him for. He appears in the works of Herodotus, Plutarch, and even in the Bible.

What was so great about Xerxes the Great?

Read more about him and his importance in our historian-based article below.

Why Was Xerxes Important: Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

The story of the Persian king Xerxes is often used as a warning against hubris. Though Xerxes achievements during his reign were many, he became notorious for his self-indulgence, temper, cruelty, infidelity, and lavish spending. In short, he acted like the spoiled-rotten rich kid that he was. His actions led to his assassination and began the decline of the Persian Empire.

Information about the ancient king Xerxes comes largely from the works of Herodotus and other Greek writers. Since the Greeks and the Persians were fierce enemies, the Greeks embellished the story to enhance Xerxes’ bad reputation. Still, enough unbiased sources exist to support the general opinion.

Xerxes’ Origins: Born Into Greatness on Both Sides

Xerxes’ mother was the daughter of Cyrus the Great. He founded the first great Persian Empire, called the Achaemenid Empire. Xerxes’ father was Darius the Great, who had interesting origins himself. Perhaps he should have been titled Darius the Cunning, and you will soon see why that is.

The Story of Darius the Great

Darius’ father was a court nobleman for Cyrus the Great. Darius himself served as a spear-carrier for Cyrus’s son and successor, Cambyses II. Before his death, Cyrus had a vision that Darius would rule the world rather than Cambyses. Eventually, his vision came true by Darius’s clever use of circumstance.

Cambyses II ascended to power, with Darius as a loyal member of his court. However, after a few years, Cambyses went mad and murdered his brother, Bardiya. Darius and six other nobles kept the incident quiet, but a usurper named Gaumata organized a revolt by posing as the murdered brother.

The seven loyal nobles assassinated Gaumata and thwarted the rebellion. Unfortunately, Cambyses died from an unrelated leg wound before the seven could complete their task.

Who would become the next king?

The six nobles who desired the throne met in front of the palace before dawn, on horseback. They agreed that the first man whose horse whinnied upon seeing the sun would become king.

At sunrise, Darius’s slave touched his stallion’s nose; secretly, the slave had earlier touched the genitals of a mare in heat. The stallion became excited and whinnied right on cue, and the other nobles dismounted and knelt before their new king, Darius I.

The Early Reign of Xerxes: Dissent and Domination

With Darius the Great as his father and Cyrus the Great as his grandfather, Xerxes himself inherited fame, fortune, and power before he ever lifted a finger. Darius favored Xerxes over his older half-brother, Artabazenes, whose mother was a commoner.

Like in Egypt, the divine right of kings in Persia was often interpreted as divinity itself. Since Xerxes saw himself as a living god, his selfish, petulant acts seem less surprising.

Xerxes ascended to power as the Shahan Shah (“king of kings”) in 486 BCE, at the age of 35. One of his first acts was quelling an uprising in Egypt that began under Darius’ reign. Though his father ruled Egypt with minimal force, Xerxes attacked savagely and devastated the Delta region.

No sooner had Emperor Xerxes finished his attack on Egypt than more opposition arose in Babylon. Two nationalist rebels appeared in succession and attempted to gain power. After brutal battles, the Persians repressed the revolt and ravaged the city, causing massive damage.

Xerxes compounded the insult by killing their high priest and melting down their golden statue of the Babylonian god Marduk. Previously, both Cyrus and Darius achieved diplomatic peace by participating in annual prosperity rituals celebrating Marduk. By ordering the destruction of the statue, Xerxes established himself as an enemy of the pre-Zoroastrian gods.

Xerxes Revenge: Bringing the Battle to Greece

With discipline restored, Xerxes might have been content to spend his immense wealth on building projects and lavish comforts. However, his cousin Mardonius and other advisors pressured him to turn his eyes toward Greece and avenge his father’s defeat at Marathon in 490 BCE. Like others who ruled by divine right, Xerxes considered the Greek opposition a blasphemy, for which he wanted to exact severe punishment.

The Persians spent three years preparing for the largest military undertaking in history. They conscripted troops from all regions, called satrapies, and organized and built a navy of 700-800 ships. Herodotus estimated there were five million troops, while modern estimates suggest around 360 thousand.

Xerxes led his armies to the strait at Hellespont, known today as the Dardanelles. They placed two pontoon bridges across the strait, but a storm swiftly destroyed them. Dismayed by this ill omen, Xerxes beheaded the engineers and ordered the sea to receive three hundred lashes for its insolence. Once they reconstructed the bridges, it took seven days for the entire army to cross the strait.

Xerxes and the Invasion of Greece: Difficult Victories

In 480 BCE, the Persians narrowly won a naval victory at Artemisia while the land forces headed toward Thermopylae to fight one of history’s most famous battles. A few thousand Greeks, with 300 Spartan Hoplites at the vanguard, met the Persians at a mountain pass that was barely 50 feet wide. The narrowness of the battlefield nullified the numbers of the Persian army, and the Spartans further blockaded the pass with the Persian dead.

For two days, the Spartans held the Persians at bay, even prevailing against the Persian elite forces known as the Immortals. However, on the third day, a Greek traitor named Ephialtes (means “nightmare” in Greek) showed the Persians an alternate route through the pass, allowing them to attack from the rear. Sensing defeat, the Spartan general Leonidas dismissed the other Greek forces, and he and the Spartans stayed to defend the pass until none of them were left alive.

After Thermopylae, Xerxes and his still massive force continued to Athens. They defeated the city, but the citizens continued to resist. Enraged, Xerxes ordered the entire city burned for their disloyalty.

Xerxes and the Invasion of Greece: Defeat and Dire Straits

Though Xerxes was victorious in initial attacks against Greece, the tide eventually turned, perhaps literally. Their first significant defeat was at the Bay of Salamis, when the Athenian general Themistocles tricked Xerxes into crowding his entire navy into the strait.

Without room to maneuver, the Greek ships pinned them in and crippled the fleet. Xerxes helplessly watched this defeat from the cliffs above the strait.

After the humiliating defeat, Xerxes headed home, leaving part of the force in Mardonius’ command. Mardonius attempted to continue the conquest of Greece, but he died in battle at Plataea on August 7, 479 BCE.

On the same day, the remaining navy lost the Battle of Mycale. Having exhausted their resources, Xerxes and the army suffered hunger and disease as they made their way back, reaching Sardis with only a fraction of the soldiers remaining.

In the following years, the Greeks launched counter-attacks, liberating Byzantium and other Persian holdings in Asia Minor. Xerxes sent forces to Eurymedon in 466 BCE to thwart the intruders, but they were soundly defeated by land and sea. Persia never again attempted to conquer Greece.

Xerxes’ Remaining Years: Opulent and Expensive Construction

To soothe his bruised ego, Xerxes embarked on several extravagant construction projects in Persepolis. He completed Darius’ palace and then built one twice as large for himself. He also erected the Gate of All Nations, ordered maintenance on the Persian Royal Road, and began work on the Hall of a Hundred Columns.

With the royal coffers depleted by the Greek campaign, Xerxes ordered heavy taxes to fund these decadent projects. Resentment grew throughout the Empire, and the unrest may have influenced Xerxes’ demise.

Xerxes’ Remaining Years: Infidelity and Assassination

Xerxes married Amestris and fathered six children, but he also kept a large harem to indulge his varied appetites. He also became infatuated with his brother’s wife and conducted a long affair with their daughter. Amestris ordered the mutilation of the mother, and Xerxes killed his brother and other conspirators before they could retaliate.

In 465 BCE, Xerxes the Great suffered an inglorious death; he was stabbed in his sleep by one of his closest advisors. His eldest son endured the same fate, and his younger son, Artaxerxes, assumed the throne. The Achaemenid Empire never regained its former greatness after Xerxes’ death.


The accomplishments of Xerxes include victories in war and authorized opulent building projects, yet, he is still considered a bad ruler.

Here is what we discussed about Xerxes and his importance in a gist:

  • Xerxes was the son of Darius the Great and grandson of Cyrus the Great
  • He was famed for his selfishness, temper, womanizing, and extravagance
  • He won battles against Greece, including the famous Battle of Thermopylae. However, he couldn’t subdue the nation
  • His lavish building projects added to the lasting fame of the Achaemenid Empire but severely depleted the Empire’s coffers
  • His infidelity caused a great scandal which led to his brother’s murder and the mutilation of an innocent woman
  • He was assassinated by one of his own advisors and the Persian Empire never rose to the greatness it had at his initial rule

Undoubtedly, Xerxes’ arrogance and selfishness weakened the Persian Empire and led to its demise. One might expect better from a living god.

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