Updated: Sep 8, 2021
His mother was Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, and husband of Darius the Great. Xerxes, therefore, did not have to prove himself to be the king. He married the princess Amestris, daughter of Otanes, who would become the mother of his sons Darius, Hystaspes, Artaxerxes I, Achaemenes, and daughters Amytis and Rhodyne.
Upon assuming the throne in 486 B.C., Xerxes crushed revolts in Egypt and Babylon that had broken out the year before, and appointed his brother, Achaemenes, as satrap over Egypt. He outraged the Babylonians by violently confiscating and melting down the golden statue of Marduk, the hands of which the rightful king of Babylon had to clasp each new year's day. This sacrilege led the Babylonians to rebel in 484 B.C., and again in 482 B.C.
Xerxes' commander-in-chief of the army Mardonius, who was also his cousin and brother-in-law, pressured him to renew the campaign against the Greeks. Mardonius' motives were personal as he hoped to rule that conquered nation as satrap following a Persian victory. Xerxes' uncle and advisor, Artabanus, however, tried to persuade him to abandon the expedition, but Mardonius' arguments prevailed.
From 483 B.C., Xerxes prepared for his expedition. He had a canal dug across the Isthmus of Actium near Mt Athos, the remains of which are still present today. He also had provisions stored in the stations on the road through Thrace, and two pontoon bridges constructed across the Hellespont. According to Herodotus, Xerxes' first attempt to bridge the Hellespont failed when a storm destroyed the flax and papyrus cables of the bridges. In retaliation, Xerxes ordered the Hellespont, the water itself, whipped three hundred times, and had a pair of shackles thrown into the water. His second attempt was a success.
Once the preparations were complete, the invasion force set out, in the Spring of 480 B.C., from Sardis with a force realistically of about 60,000 combatants, possibly 100,000 – 150,000 including the supply train and support staff. The Greeks, meanwhile, had mobilized their forces under the direction of Athens. An advance force of about 7,000 Greeks intercepted the Persians at Thermopylae and attempted to block their path. The vastly outnumbered Greeks held off the Persians for seven days (including three of battle) before the rear guard was annihilated in one of history's most famous last stands. The Spartan king Leonidas, aware that his force was being outflanked, dismissed the bulk of the Greek army and remained to guard their retreat with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians, fighting to the death.
At Artemesium, large storms had destroyed ships from the Greek side and so the battle stopped early as Greeks received news of the defeat at Thermopylae and retreated. After Thermopylae, Athens was captured. Most of the Athenians had abandoned the city and fled to the islands of Salamis before Xerxes arrived. A small number of Greeks attempted to defend the Acropolis, but they were defeated. Xerxes ordered the destruction of Athens, including the Acropolis, the old Temple of Athena, and the older Parthenon, which were all burned to the ground.
“Those Persians who had come up first betook themselves to the gates, which
they opened, and slew the suppliants; and when they had laid all the Athenians
low, they plundered the temple and burnt the whole of the Acropolis.”
-Herodotus (Book VIII Chap 53)
The Persians thus gained control of all mainland Greece to the north of the Isthmus of Corinth. Xerxes was manipulated by a message from the Greek Themistocles to attack the Greek fleet at Salamis under unfavorable conditions. As a result, his Persian navy was destroyed and Xerxes was forced to set up a winter camp in Thessaly.
According to Herodotus, fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridges across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes decided to retreat back to Asia, taking the greater part of the army with him. Another cause for concern was the continued unrest in Babylon which, being a key province of the empire, was too important to lose. He left behind a contingent in Greece to finish the campaign under Mardonius, who according to Herodotus, had suggested the retreat in the first place. In the following year, Mardonius was defeated and killed at the Battle of Plataea. With his death, the Persian forces scattered and Xerxes' ambitious plans of subjugating the Greeks were over. A much more detailed account of the Persian Wars is covered in our lecture series on Ancient Greece.
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