King Xerxes I: The Life and Legacy of the Achaemenid Persian Empire’s Most Notorious Ruler

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It was not until the excavations of the 1930s that many of the relics, reliefs, and clay tablets that offer so much information about Persian life could be studied for the first time. Through archaeological remains, ancient texts, and work by a new generation of historians, a picture can today be built of this remarkable civilization and their capital city. Although the city had been destroyed, the legacy of the Persians survived, even as they mostly remain an enigma to the West and are not nearly as well understood as the Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians. In a sense, the Achaemenid Persian Empire holds some of the most enduring mysteries of ancient civilization.

One of that empire’s most famous figures is King Xerxes I, if only because he led the Second Persian War against the Greeks. Thanks to legendary clashes at Thermopylae and Salamis, the Persian leader has remained legendary, and the war was a veritable clash of civilizations. Had the Persians triumphed, the Golden Age of Athens would have been snuffed out, and Greece would never have formed the backbone of Roman and Western culture. Simply put, the West as it is today might never have existed.

Not surprisingly, the majority of surviving sources regarding Xerxes are the product of Greek writers, so it was inevitable that the Persian king has been depicted in unflattering terms for thousands of years. The details of his invasion of Greece cast him as the villain in the dramatic Greek retelling of the tragic 300 Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae, and focus on the loss at Salamis that solidified his reputation as a failure despite another 15 years of successful rule after withdrawing from the Greek mainland.