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A king of Persia from B.C. 485 to 465. He was the son of Darius Hystaspis and Atossa. By the influence of Atossa, who was a daughter of Cyrus, Artabazanes, the son of Darius by his former wife, was set aside from the succession and Xerxes made him heir. Xerxes succeeded to the throne in B.C. 485, Darius having died in the midst of his warlike preparations against Greece, which had been delayed by a revolt of the Egyptians. Bred up in the luxury of the Persian court, among slaves and women, a mark for their flattery and intrigues, Xerxes had none of the experience which Darius had gained in early life. He was probably inferior to his father in ability; but the difference between them in fortune and education seems to have left more traces in their history than any disparity of nature. Ambition was not the prominent feature in the character of Xerxes; and, had he followed his unbiassed inclination, he would, perhaps, have been content to turn the preparations of Darius against the revolted Egyptians, and have abandoned the expedition against Greece, to which he was not urged on by any personal motives. But he was surrounded by men who were led by various passions and interests to desire that he should prosecute his father's plans of conquest and revenge. Mardonius was eager to renew an enterprise in which he had been foiled through unavoidable mischance, and not through his own incapacity. He had a reputation to retrieve, and might look forward to the possession of a great European satrapy, at such a distance from the court as would make him almost an absolute sovereign. He was warmly seconded by those Greeks who had been drawn to Susa by the report of the approaching invasion of their country, and who wanted foreign aid to accomplish their designs. The Thessalian house of the Aleuadae, either because they thought their power insecure, or expected to increase it by becoming vassals of the Persian king, sent their emissaries to invite him to the conquest of Greece. The exiled Pisistratidae had no other chance for the recovery of Athens. They had brought a man named Onomacritus with them to court, who was one of the first among the Greeks to practise the art of forging prophecies and oracles. While their family ruled at Athens he had been detected in fabricating verses, which he had interpolated in a work ascribed to the ancient seer Musaeus, and Hipparchus, previously his patron, had banished him from the city. But the exiles saw the use they might make of his talents, and had taken him into their service. They now recommended him to Xerxes as a man who possessed a treasure of prophetical knowledge, and the young king listened with unsuspecting confidence to the encouraging predictions which Onomacritus drew from his inexhaustible stores. These various devices at length prevailed. The imagination of Xerxes was inflamed with the prospect of rivalling or surpassing the achievements of his glorious predecessors, and of extending his dominion to the ends of the earth (Herod.vii. 8). He resolved on the invasion of Greece. First, however, in the second year of his reign, he led an army against Egypt, and brought it again under the Persian yoke, which was purposely made more burdensome and galling than before. He intrusted this conquest to the care of his brother Achaemenes, and then returned to Persia, and bent all his thoughts towards the West. Only one of his counsellors, his uncle Artabanus, is said to have been wise and honest enough to endeavour to divert him from the enterprise, and especially to dissuade him from risking his own person in it. If any reliance could be placed on the story told by Herodotus about the deliberations held on this question in the Persian cabinet, we might suspect that the influence and arts of the Magian priesthood, which we find in this reign rising in credit, had been set at work by the adversaries of Artabanus to counteract his influence over the mind of his nephew, and to confirm Xerxes in his martial mood. The vast preparations were continued with redoubled activity, to raise an armament worthy of the presence of the king. His aim was not merely to collect a force sufficient to insure the success of his undertaking and to scare away all opposition, but also, and perhaps principally, to set his whole enormous power in magnificent array, that he might enjoy the sight of it himself, and display it to the admiration of the world.

For four years longer Asia was still kept in restless turmoil; no less time was needed to provide the means of subsistence for the countless host that was about to be poured out upon Europe. Besides the stores that were to be carried in the fleet which was to accompany the army, it was necessary that magazines should be formed along the whole line of march as far as the confines of Greece. But, in addition to these prudent precautions, two works were begun, which scarcely served any other purpose than that of showing the power and majesty of Xerxes, and proving that he would suffer no obstacles to bar his progress. It would have been easy to transport his troops in ships over the Hellespont; but it was better suited to the dignity of the monarch, who was about to unite both continents under his dominion, to join them by a bridge laid upon the subject channel, and to march across as along a royal road. The storm that had destroyed the fleet which accompanied Mardonius in his unfortunate expedition had made the coast of Athos terrible to the Persians. The simplest mode of avoiding this formidable cape would have been to draw their ships over the narrow, low neck that connects the mountain with the mainland. But Xerxes preferred to leave a monument of his greatness and of his enterprise in a canal cut through the isthmus, a distance of about a mile and a half. This work employed a multitude of men for three years. The construction of the two bridges which were thrown across the Hellespont was intrusted to the skill of the Phœnicians and Egyptians.

When these preparations were drawing to a close, Xerxes set forth for Sardis, where he designed to spend the following winter, and to receive the reinforcements which he had appointed there to join the main army (B.C. 481). During his stay at Sardis the Phœnician and Egyptian engineers completed their bridges on the Hellespont; but the work was not strong enough to resist a violent storm, which broke it to pieces soon after it was finished. How far this disaster was owing to defects in its construction, which might have been avoided by ordinary skill and foresight, does not appear; but Xerxes is said to have been so much angered by the accident that he put the architects to death. Such a burst of passion would be credible enough in itself, and is only rendered doubtful by the extravagant fables that gained credit on the subject among the Greeks, who, in the bridging of the sacred Hellespont, saw the beginning of a long career of audacious impiety, and gradually transformed the fastenings with which the passage was finally secured into fetters and scourges with which the barbarian, in his madness, had thought to chastise the aggression of the rebellious stream. The construction of new bridges was committed to other engineers, perhaps to Greeks; but their names have not come down, like that of Mandrocles. By their skill two broad causeways were made to stretch from the neighbourhood of Abydus to a projecting point on the opposite shore of the Chersonesus, resting each on a row of ships, which were stayed against the strong current that bore upon them from the north by anchors and by cables fastened to both sides of the channel. The length was not far short of a mile. When all was in readiness the mighty armament was set in motion.

Early in the spring (B.C. 480) Xerxes began his march from Sardis, in all the pomp of a royal progress. The baggage led the way: it was followed by the first division of the armed crowd that had been brought together from the tributary nations; a motley throng, including many strange varieties of complexion, dress, and language, commanded by Thessalian generals, but retaining each tribe its national armour and mode of fighting. An interval was then left, after which came 1000 picked Persian cavalry, followed by an equal number of spearsmen, whose lances, which they carried with the points turned downward, ended in knobs of gold. Next, ten sacred horses, of the Nisaean breed, were led in gorgeous trappings, preceding the chariot of the Persian Zeus, drawn by eight white horses, the driver following on foot. Then came the royal chariot, also drawn by Nisaean horses, in which Xerxes sat in state; but from time to time he exchanged it for an easier carriage, which sheltered him from the sun and changes of the weather. He was followed by two bands of horse and foot, like those which went immediately before him, and by a body of 10,000 Persian infantry, the flower of the whole army, who were called the Immortals, because their number was kept constantly full. A thousand of them, who occupied the outer ranks, bore lances tipped with gold; those of the rest were similarly ornamented with silver. They were followed by an equal number of Persian cavalry. The remainder of the host brought up the rear. In this order the army reached Abydus, and Xerxes, from a lofty throne, surveyed the crowded sides and bosom of the Hellespont, and a sort of mimic sea-fight; a spectacle which Herodotus might well think sufficient to have moved him with a touch of human sympathy. The passage did not begin before the king had prayed to the rising sun, and had tried to propitiate the Hellespont itself by libations, and by casting into it golden vessels and a sword. After the bridges had been strewed with myrtle and purified with incense, the ten thousand Immortals, crowned with chaplets, led the way. The army crossed by one bridge, the baggage by the other; yet the living tide flowed without intermission for seven days and seven nights before the last man, as Herodotus heard, the king himself, the tallest and most majestic person in the host, had arrived on the European shore. In the great plain of Doriscus, on the banks of Hebrus, an attempt was made to number the land force. A space was enclosed large enough to contain 10,000 men; into this the myriads were successively poured and discharged, till the whole mass had been rudely counted. They were then drawn up according to their natural divisions, and Xerxes rode in his chariot along the ranks, while the royal scribes recorded the names, and most likely the equipments, of the different races. The real military strength of the armament was almost lost among the undisciplined hordes who could only impede its movements as well as consume its stores. The Persians were the core of both the land and the sea force; none of the other troops are said to have equalled them in discipline or in courage; and the 24,000 men who guarded the royal person were the flower of the whole nation. Yet these were much better fitted for show than for action; and of the rest, we hear that they were distinguished from the mass of the army, not only by their superior order and valour, but also by the abundance of gold they displayed, by the train of carriages, women, and servants that followed them, and by the provisions set apart for their use.

Marching through Thrace and Macedonia, Xerxes met no resistance until he reached the Pass of Thermopylae between Mount Oeta and the sea. This the Spartan king Leonidas, with about 7000 men, had occupied. For two days they beat back the huge masses of Persians who assailed the pass, but whose very numbers proved an impediment to their success. Even the Immortals were unsuccessful, and Xerxes, who was watching the battle, leaped thrice from his throne in his rage. Presently, however, by the treachery of a Malian named Ephialtes, a body of Persian troops was led by a secret path to the rear of the Greeks. Leonidas at once dismissed all his men except his immediate guard of 300 Spartans and a body of Thespians, and with these advanced into the plain and perished after an heroic struggle (B.C. 480). Meantime a storm had wrecked 400 of the Persian ships of war, and an indecisive naval battle had been fought off Artemisium. Xerxes occupied Athens, pillaged the Acropolis, but suffered a great naval defeat at Salamis, where 200 of his ships were sunk.

After this disastrous defeat at Salamis, Xerxes felt desirous of escaping from a state of things which was now becoming troublesome and dangerous, and Mardonius saw that he would gladly listen to any proposal that would facilitate his return. He was aware that, without a fleet, the war might probably be tedious, in which case the immense bulk of the present army would be only an encumbrance, from the difficulty of subsisting it. Besides, the ambition of Mardonius was flattered with the idea of his becoming the conqueror of Greece, while he feared that, if he now returned, he might be made answerable for the ill success of the expedition which he had advised. He therefore proposed to Xerxes to return into Asia with the body of the army, leaving himself, with 300,000 of the best troops, to complete the conquest of Greece. Xerxes assented, and, the army having retired into Boeotia, Mardonius made his selection, and then, accompanying the king into Thessaly, there parted from him, leaving him to pursue his march towards Asia, while he himself prepared to winter in Thessaly and Macedonia.

Widely different from the appearance of the glittering host, which a few months before had advanced over the plains of Macedonia and Thrace to the conquest of Greece, was the aspect of the crowd which was now hurrying back along the same road. The splendour, the pomp, the luxury, the waste, were exchanged for disaster and distress, want and disease. The magazines had been emptied by the careless profusion or peculation of those who had the charge of them; the granaries of the countries traversed by the retreating multitude were unable to supply its demands; ordinary food was often not to be found; and it was compelled to draw a scanty and unwholesome nourishment from the herbage of the plains, the bark and leaves of the trees. Sickness soon began to spread its ravages among them, and Xerxes was compelled to consign numbers to the care of the cities that lay on his road, already impoverished by the cost of his first visit, in the hope that they would tend their guests, and would not sell them into slavery if they recovered. The passage of the Strymon is said to have been peculiarly disastrous. The river had been frozen in the night hard enough to bear those who arrived first. But the ice suddenly gave way under the heat of the morning sun, and numbers perished in the waters. It is a little surprising that Herodotus, when he is describing the miseries of the retreat, does not notice this disaster, which is so prominent in the narrative of the Persian messenger in Aeschylus. There can, however, be no doubt as to the fact; and perhaps it may furnish a useful warning not to lay too much stress on the silence of Herodotus, as a ground for rejecting even important and interesting facts which are only mentioned by later writers, though such as he must have heard of, and might have been expected to relate. It seems possible that the story he mentions of Xerxes embarking at Eïon (viii. 118) may have arisen out of the tragical passage of the Strymon.

In forty-five days after he had left Mardonius in Thessaly, he reached the Hellespont; the bridges had been broken up by foul weather, but the fleet was there to carry the army over to Abydus. Here it rested from its fatigues, and found plentiful quarters; but intemperate indulgence rendered the sudden change from scarcity to abundance almost as deadly as the previous famine. The remnant that Xerxes brought back to Sardis was a wreck, a fragment, rather than a part of his huge host.

The history of Xerxes, after the termination of his Grecian campaign, may be comprised in a brief compass. He gave himself up to a life of dissolute pleasure, and was slain by Artabanus, a captain of the royal guards, B.C. 464.


A son of Artaxerxes Mnemon, who succeeded his father, but was slain, after a reign of fortyfive days, by his brother Sogdianus.

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