Xerxes the Great

Coin of Xerxes
Coin of Xerxes. Clipart.com

Xerxes lived from 520 - 465 B.C. He was the grandson of Cyrus and the son of Darius. Like them an Achaemenid, Xerxes I or Xerxes the Great was king of the Persian Empire. This is the Greek transliteration of his name. In Old Persian, his name is Khshayarsha and in Hebrew, this is transliterated as Ahashwerosh [where the initial A indicates a loan word]. When the Greeks transliterated the Hebrew version of the name, they came up with the Septuagint's Ahasueros (see "Linguistics and the Teaching of Classical History and Culture," by Robert J. Littman; The Classical World, Vol. 100, No. 2 (Winter, 2007), pp. 143-150).

Xerxes was not the first-born son of Darius, but he was the first son of Darius' wife Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus (HDT.7.2), which put him in the succession.

Xerxes suppressed a revolt in Egypt. He fought against the Greeks in the Persian Wars, winning a victory at Thermopylae and suffering defeat at Salamis.

Xerxes built a bridge across the Hellespont and dug a canal across the Mt Athos peninsula for the ships in 480. Traces of the c 2200 m. or 12 stadia (according to Herodotus) long canal are described as the most impressive testimony to imperial Persian presence in Europe and to ancient marine engineering. Xerxes wasn't concerned with making a presence, as Herodotus suggests, so much as by concern not to repeat the problems that Mardonius had faced in 492. [Isserlin]

Herodotus states that when a storm damaged the bridge Xerxes had built across the Hellespont, Xerxes got mad, and ordered the water be lashed and otherwise punished.

"34. To this foreland they on whom this work was laid were making their bridges, starting from Abydos, the Phoenicians constructing the one with ropes of white flax, and the Egyptians the other, which was made with papyrus rope. Now from Abydos to the opposite shore is a distance of seven furlongs. But when the strait had been bridged over, a great storm came on and dashed together all the work that had been made and broke it up. Then when Xerxes heard it he was exceedingly enraged, and bade them scourge the Hellespont with three hundred strokes of the lash and let down into the sea a pair of fetters. Nay, I have heard further that he sent branders also with them to brand the Hellespont. However this may be, he enjoined them, as they were beating, to say Barbarian and presumptuous words as follows: "Thou bitter water, thy master lays upon thee this penalty, because thou didst wrong him not having suffered any wrong from him: and Xerxes the king will pass over thee whether thou be willing or no; but with right, as it seems, no man doeth sacrifice to thee, seeing that thou art a treacherous[33] and briny stream." The sea he enjoined them to chastise thus, and also he bade them cut off the heads of those who were appointed to have charge over the bridging of the Hellespont."
Herodotus Book 7.34 G. C. Macaulay Translation

In antiquity, bodies of water were conceived of as gods (see Iliad XXI), so while Xerxes may have been deluded in thinking himself strong enough to scathe the water, it is not as insane as it sounds: The Roman Emperor Caligula who, unlike Xerxes, is generally considered to have been mad, ordered Roman troops to gather seashells as spoils of the sea. After the scathing, Xerxes made his bridge across the Hellespont by lining up ships next to each other. (Incidentally, Caligula did the same thing to cross the Bay of Naples on horseback in A.D. 39.)

Herodotus (HDT) Books 7, 8, and 9 are the main ancient sources on Xerxes. Xerxes is on the list of Most Important People to Know in Ancient History.

Other Resources on Xerxes:

  • "The Canal of Xerxes on the Mount Athos Peninsula: Preliminary Investigations in 1991-2"
    B. S. J. Isserlin, R. E. Jones, S. Papamarinopoulos and J. Uren
    The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol. 89, (1994), pp. 277-284
  • "The Canal of Xerxes: Facts and Problems"
    B. S. J. Isserlin
    The Annual of the British School at Athens, Vol. 86, (1991), pp. 83-91
  • "The Romans' View of the Persians"
    Vincent J. Rosivach
    The Classical World, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Sep. - Oct., 1984), pp. 1-8
    (Provides a list of Roman literary allusions to Xerxes and his Hellespont constructions.)

Also Known As: Khshayarsha, Ahasueros, Ahashwerosh