“‘You dare to call that creature A KING?’… There was no mistaking Xerxes’ rage, even his kinsmen and senior officers were intimidated by the intensity… They all kept their eyes averted, in the hope of diverting his fury away from them.” – Xerxes in the aftermath of Thermopylae 480BC
Greece is in the midst of the largest recorded invasion by a foreign power, which dwarfed any that came before it; Herodotus speaking of a force that marches across oceans and drains rivers dry, of nearly two million men. While dramatised, modern historians place the figure at the still staggering three hundred thousand that now bears down upon Attica, home of the Polis of Athens.
The king of kings, Xerxes I ruled his worlds empire with an iron yet volatile fist. Prone to irrational outbursts of rage, he lashed out with cruel and spiteful punishment; in the first attempted land crossing to Greece, with the destruction of the crossing bridges, Herodotus writes of his furious demand for the engineer’s heads to be cut off and for 300 lashes to be prescribed to the guilty sea:
“You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment on you for injuring him, who never injured you. But Xerxes the King will cross you, with or without your permission. No man sacrifices to you, and you deserve neglect by your acid and muddy waters”
Fig 1: the symbolic/erratic punishment prescribed upon the sea is dramatised in this image; Xerxes looking on with anger at the seas rebellion
A pair of shackles was then thrown into the ocean, to finalise the prescribed justice for its revolt. Herodotus through this passage demonstrates to a listening audience that Xerxes would leave no illusion to the furious justice he would exact upon the polis of Greece. The mind of Xerxes is one conditioned by a boundless wealth he ascended into, as well as a hostile contest with his elder sibling, subordinates and vassals in his early life. With the death of Darius I, Artobazanes laid claim to the throne as eldest and therefore legitimate, the younger Xerxes was advised of his noble heritage; and while Artobazanes was eldest, Xerxes was the son of Atossa: daughter of Cyrus, the patriarch of the Persian Empire and therefore achieved the greater legitimacy.
“My father made me greatest after himself”
Fig 2: The throne of Darius, his noble son Xerxes: carrying the torch onwards to a new age of prosperity/uncertainty
While historians argue that the ascent of Xerxes to the throne was smooth and painless, A T Olmstead summarises Xerxes’ reign as one of vacillating leadership; being seen as a weakling monarch when compared to Darius and Cyrus; cowed by the opinions and views of the eunuchs and attendants of the Persepolis court. While using his architectural feats to set himself apart as the uncontested ruler and his own King of Kings:
“A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created yonder firmament, who created man, who created welfare for a man, who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many. I am Xerxes, great king, King of Kings, King of countries containing many peoples, king of this great earth far and wide, son of Darius the King, and an Achaemenian.”
While Xerxes had his eyes initially on being renowned as a great builder, he presided over a world empire with countries seeking to break away. Egypt and Babylon both harboured religious resentment against Xerxes, which compelled him to repress Egypt. Babylon was reserved a harsher punishment, having its golden statue of Marduk, the patron god of their city, melted down to bullion and removed, demonstrating to both Egypt and Babylon that his rule is beyond contradiction.
With these challenges overcome, Persia knew no western rival and Xerxes had no motivations of conquest, but his cousin Mardonius had other aspirations over Greece:
“’Master’ he would say, ‘The Athenians have done us a great injury, and it is only right that they should be punished for their crimes… Do that, and your name will be held in honour all over the world, and people will think twice before they invade your country’”
Mardonius sought to meld his ambition with the historic desire for vengeance on behalf of Persia, while stroking the ego of his newly powerful cousin Xerxes, who already desired to set himself apart from Cyrus, the patriarch of Persia and his father Darius who rescued the empire from Persia’s pretenders, nicknamed the ‘Shopkeeper’ of Persia for securing it against the turbulent period after Cyrus. Mardonius positioned Xerxes as the avenging conqueror, exacting a long awaited revenge against Greece for its transgressions and beyond the feats of his ancestors, unconsciously guided by his advisors, Xerxes made ready for war.
Fig 3: The extent of the Persian Empire under Darius I, inherited by Xerxes. The line running from Susa to the eastern coast of modern day Turkey is the Persian Royal Road, one of the projects set by Darius to solidify Persia’s position. It would later become the road for Xerxes’ march on Greece.
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