BMCR 2017.03.29

Xerxes: A Persian Life

, Xerxes: A Persian Life. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2015. xi, 275. ISBN 9780300180077. $38.00.


Xerxes I (518 – 465, r. 486 – 465 BCE) was the fourth king of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (ca. 550 – 330 BCE), grandson of its founder, Cyrus the Great (600 – 530, r. 559 – 530 BCE), and son of its most prominent ruler, Darius the Great (550 – 486, r. 522 – 486 BCE). He is best remembered by ancient and modern scholars for his failed attempt to conquer mainland Greece in 480 – 479. In the present volume Richard Stoneman has two aims: to discern the origins of this image of Xerxes and “to recreate something of what it was to be the ruler of the largest empire the world had yet seen”.

Chapter one is devoted to the turbulent events surrounding Darius’ and Xerxes’ accession to the throne and includes information about the education and the investiture of Xerxes, which is relevant for Xerxes’ successors as well.

Chapter two examines the Persian Empire’s territory, economy, cultural and political influence within its borders as well as its court and high officials (with a focus on those of non-Persian descent). This chapter also contains an informative section on Greek and Jewish authors and texts contemporary or near-contemporary to Xerxes that are or can be used as source material for his life and exploits. However, this interposing section disrupts the chapter’s cohesion somewhat and would have served the book better if it had been included in the introduction instead.

Chapter three takes as its subject the actual visual image of the Persian king. The author focuses mostly on recounting stories about the splendor of Persian (royal) gardens and the Persian custom of executing offenders against members of the royal family via inventive and cruel methods of torture.

Chapter four turns to the religion of Xerxes (and the Achaemenids), possibly the most complex and controversial topic of the study of the Achaemenid Empire. Stoneman succeeds in offering an informative and compressed account of issues such as Zoroaster’s date and origins, the connection between Darius’ father Hystaspes/Vishtaspa and the Avestan Gushtasp, the links between Darius’ family and Bactria, and whether/when the Achaemenids became Zoroastrians, issues which are still part of ongoing scholarly dispute. Unfortunately, regarding the discussion of ‘fire temples’/Iranian temples, Stoneman is unfamiliar with Michael Shenkar’s work,1 which results in an incomplete presentation of the topic.

Chapters five and six are devoted to Xerxes’ Greek expedition. Five covers the period from the first year of Xerxes’ reign and the preparations for the expedition to the naval battle at Artemision. Six begins from the Persian siege of Athens and concludes with the battle of Plataea and the reception of Xerxes’s defeat in Persia and Greece. These two chapters deal with a topic that was and will be the topic of numerous books and articles. It contains the narrative, events, texts and information associated with the subject, though the focal point is on Xerxes, his behavior and his actions.

Chapter seven centers on Xerxes’ building program in Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Stoneman does not offer a thorough and detailed account of Persepolis but focuses instead on Xerxes’ activities at the site in a successful attempt to disentangle them from the longstanding notion that Xerxes after his defeat in Greece withdrew from the actual governance of his empire and surrendered to the pleasures of the flesh for his satisfaction. This point of view has had an impact on how scholars have perceived Persepolis: i.e., one of the major buildings of the site was identified by the archaeologists as the ‘Harem’ of Xerxes; its actual function is still under dispute.

Chapter eight addresses the topic of Xerxes’ relationship with royal women. Stoneman stresses the differences between Greek and Persian practices towards women (of the elite classes) and the contradictory information that one obtains from the classical texts. He underlines that Persian kings were renowned for their devotion to their wives and that “even by modern bourgeois standards of love and fidelity, Xerxes seems to score quite high here”. Stoneman advises caution in using the term harem both for the female component of the Persian court and for the so-called ‘Harem’ building in Persepolis which most likely had a different purpose. He accepts that the book of Esther (and the relationship between Esther and Ahasuerus/Xerxes) is a reworking of an older Babylonian tale. He is skeptical about the story of Xerxes and (his brother) Masistes’ wife and daughter (Hdt. 9.107-113), noting “it may be that nothing in this story is quite what it seems”.

Chapter nine focuses on the events surrounding Xerxes’ assassination. The actual story is as murky as one would expect, with hidden motives and players, similar to that of Darius’ accession. Stoneman examines meticulously all available evidence presenting all the angles of this story. Two more stories are included in this chapter: Themistocles’ flight from Greece and his stay in the Achaemenid Empire, including a presentation of the debate whether the flight occurred during Xerxes’s or Artaxerxes I’ reign; and the Persian defeat in the island of Skyros. The book concludes with three appendices on Xerxes in opera and drama (1), the birth of Persian kings (2) and the chronology of Xerxes’ advance through Greece (3).

Stoneman succeeds in offering a re-examination, or a biography as he calls it, of Xerxes’ life and work. To this effect he uses a wide range of written sources (classical tradition, Achaemenid etc.) and archaeological material, even drawing comparisons with the Ottoman Empire and medieval Persia whenever possible. Stoneman follows the practice of presenting the evidence for each topic first and stating at the end of each chapter his own opinion on the matter, which is usually pro-Xerxes. In his conclusion, Stoneman expands on two ideas mentioned in passing in the respective chapters. He stresses that Xerxes’ falling in love with a younger woman is not an unfamiliar story and that it could have been used by Persian propaganda in order to cover a Bactrian revolt instigated by Xerxes’ brother. Stoneman is correct in highlighting that Xerxes’ building program in Persepolis is seen by the Greeks as hybris, but is in full accordance with the ‘Great Deed’ demanded by Achaemenid Persian royal doctrine. The present volume2 will be a useful companion for everyone interested in the Greek-Persian wars, the civilizations of the Near East and especially those unfamiliar with the Achaemenid Empire. Achaemenid scholars, however, might find this book somewhat elementary and note that the Achaemenid sources are not always used to the maximum effect.3


1. Shenkar, Michael (2007), “Temple Architecture in the Iranian World before the Macedonian Conquest”, Iran and the Caucasus 11, 169 – 194.

2. Emma Bridges’ Imagining Xerxes: Ancient Perspectives on a Persian King (New York; Bloomsbury Academic; Publisher’s Preview) deals with the same topic but with a different approach.

3. For example, whilst the so-called daiva inscription of Xerxes ( Xph) is mentioned frequently, the author does not comment on the fact that this document lists for the first time the Dahae (a nomadic people of the Central Asian steppes) as subjects of the Great King. One could argue that Xerxes was responsible for conquering them and therefore expanding the empire somewhat. The fact that the Dahae never reappear in the countries lists could have also advanced Stoneman’s discourse on the aftermath of Xerxes’ reign.