How Xerxes I’s Rule Triggered the Decline of Ancient Persia
Of all of ancient Persia’s kings, Xerxes I is quite famous, but not because he was the most successful. His failures abroad and at home led to gradual Persia’s decline.
King Xerxes I was the son of King Darius the Great – arguably the greatest monarch in all of the ancient world. Unlike his more popular, successful father, Xerxes’s actions did not bolster ancient Persia’s empire, but led to its eventual undoing. Set upon revenge against the Greeks and constantly suppressing uprisings within his own kingdom, Xerxes’s twenty-year reign ended in his assassination in 465 BC.
Xerxes and the Greeks
Towards the end of his years as king, Darius the Great was soundly defeated by the Greeks at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. After his defeat, he planned for another invasion, but died before he was able to put his plan into action. Ten years after Darius’s defeat at Marathon – ten years during which the Greek city-states were able to prepare for another Persian invasion – King Xerxes decided to try again.
King Xerxes marched his Persian soldiers across the narrow Hellespont strait on a bridge built of boats. A small, hardy band of Spartan soldiers met the massive Persian force at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, so narrow that only one chariot at a time could pass through. Led by the king of the Spartans, Leonidas, the Greeks held the pass at Thermopylae, but a spy informed the Persians of another way around the pass through the mountains. This was when Leonidas famously stayed to delay the entire Persian army with only three hundred men, and sent the rest of his force ahead of the Persians to warn the other Greeks. By the time the Persians reached their goal of the city of Attica, it was already deserted.
Meanwhile at sea, although Xerxes fleet easily outnumbered the Greeks three to one, the Greeks’ ships, specially designed for ramming, sunk one Persian ship after another. Xerxes was forced to retreat. The decisive defeat of ancient Persia in 479 BC marked the end of Persian domination in the ancient world, and the beginnings of Greek domination.
Xerxes against the Egyptians and Babylonians
As if Xerxes didn’t face enough problems abroad, he also faced unrest within his own kingdom, coming primarily from the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The two groups disliked the heavy taxes imposed upon them and the number of its citizens taken abroad for construction projects and war. Under Darius the Great, conquered kingdoms were allowed some degree of autonomy, especially when it came to maintaining their religious and cultural beliefs. However, when the Egyptians and Babylonians revolted against Persian rule, Xerxes reacted harshly. Part of his punishment was to melt down the religious statues native to Babylon and Egypt, an act which was meant to subdue his subjects but instead led to even deeper hostility. According to Herodotus, after the revolt was crushed the Babylonians even participated on the side of Greece during the Greco-Persian Wars. Babylon, once the greatest city in the ancient world, lost its grandeur and importance after Xerxes destroyed large portions of it. It would take more than sixty years after Xerxes’s death before Babylon would reclaim its past glory.
The great empire of Persia, established by Cyrus the Great, strengthened by Cambyses, and at its zenith with Darius the Great, began its long, slow decline with Xerxes I. After Xerxes’s death, the revolts throughout the kingdom grew worse, and in 331 BC the Achaemenid Empire was dealt its death blow by Alexander the Great.