King Xerxes: Facts, Accomplishments & Death

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  • 0:04 King Xerxes
  • 0:40 Early Life & the…
  • 1:18 Xerxes as Emperor
  • 2:42 Battles with Greece
  • 4:04 Projects, Affairs, & Downfall
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Xerxes I was a very important figure in the ancient world. In this lesson, we're going to explore his life, his achievements, and his death and see how they impacted the Achaemenid Empire.

King Xerxes

When you only study history from a single perspective, there are certain people who will end up getting a pretty bad reputation. One notable example of this is Xerxes I, 5th century BCE king of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia.

In Western history, which is based on the accounts of the Greeks, Xerxes is one of the principal villains, especially if you've seen popular comic book films, like the 2006 film, '300.' In the same way that he is portrayed in that famous movie, the Greeks saw Xerxes as a brutal tyrant, set on destroying Greek civilization and thus, democracy. However, there may have been a bit more to this Persian emperor.

Xerxes I
statue of xerxes

Early Life and the Achaemenid Empire

Xerxes I was born around 520 BCE under the Persian name Kyshayarsa ('Xerxes' is the Greek iteration), as a member of a proud dynasty. His maternal grandfather, Cyrus the Great, was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. His father, Darius the Great, was the conqueror who had launched a major campaign against Athens in 492 BCE.

The Greeks would ultimately win the first Persian War, but Xerxes was raised in a world where empires were growing ever larger, and the Persians were determined to expand their control over Greece. For young Xerxes, the concept of conquering Greece meant ensuring his and his father's legacies.

Xerxes as Emperor

Around 486 BCE, Xerxes ascended the throne and became emperor of one of the largest empires in the world at that time. While he wanted war with Greece, Xerxes had a few other matters to resolve first.

As will happen in empires during successions of power, several uprisings broke out across the Achaemenid lands. Egypt, for example, attempted to rebel against Persian rule and Xerxes was forced to send his military there.

At the same time, the Mesopotamian city of Babylon was up in arms. Cyrus the Great had been very compassionate towards this ancient city, but Xerxes wasn't interested in maintaining peace. He marched into Babylon and melted down the golden statue of their patron deity. This was not only an insult to Babylon, but all of Mesopotamia.

That statue played a major role in a Mesopotamian religious festival that Cyrus had actually officiated in his time. Babylon would rebel twice more in Xerxes' reign, leading the Persian emperor to lay siege to the city.

With Egypt and Babylon roughly pacified and the rest of his subjects terrified to speak against him, Xerxes was finally able to focus on Greece. He built up a massive army, conscripting troops from across the empire. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes' army numbered more than 2 million men, the largest in the world at that time. Legend has it that Xerxes' trip to Greece was full of bad omens, all of which were ignored by the emperor.

Battles with Greece

As the Persians made their way from Asia Minor into Greece, they began to meet heavy Greek resistance. The Greek city-states were independent kingdoms, but they had formed a rough coalition to fight off the invaders.

One of the first significant battles was fought at Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans famously made their stand, while being backed up by thousands of other freed Greeks but which was a Persian victory. After a concurrent victory at Artemisium, the main road to Athens was clear and Xerxes marched into the ancient city, burning it nearly to the ground in his rage that the Athenians dare resist him. He would later cite the destruction of such a great city as his only true regret.

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