Xerxes, Great King of the Persian Empire from 486-465 BC, is the focus of a lively new biography – Xerxes: A Persian Life – that reappraises his reign using the latest research in Achaemenid studies and archaeology to present the ruler’s role from a Persian perspective. Author Richard Stoneman reveals a complex figure, who ruled a vast multicultural empire and whose successes have been largely overlooked.
In a three-part blog series for Yale, Richard Stoneman examines Xerxes’ legacy and takes us on a tour of Persepolis, one of the most famous ruins in the world, and perhaps this great Persian king’s most impressive and enduring accomplishment…
Xerxes, the Builder of Persepolis
by Richard Stoneman
In front of the palace of Darius a staircase leads up from the courtyard to the palace of Xerxes (also called hadish in one of its inscriptions): ‘Saith Xerxes the Great King: By the favour of Ahura Mazda this palace I built…’ (XPd). To rub the point home, a slightly different inscription – ‘Saith Xerxes the King: this palace I built’ (XPj) – appears in a hundred places! This palace was twice the size of that of Darius, and had a 36-columned square hall with a panoramic view out over the plain. Two double staircases, similar to those on the tachara, carry sculptures that also resemble those on the earlier building. The door jambs again show images of the king entering; though one is labelled as Xerxes, another is marked Darius (NW doorway), suggesting that the building was begun during the life of the king’s father, when he was still crown prince and successor designate. Here too there are reliefs of people, this time leading goats or carrying utensils.
The adjoining ‘harem’ bears one of the longest of Xerxes’ inscriptions, which describes how Darius chose Xerxes during his lifetime as ‘the greatest after himself’, and thus identifies Xerxes as his legitimate successor. Its layout compels the deduction that its purpose was residential but there is of course no reason to suppose that it was really a harem as that is known from the Ottoman Empire; this is simply extrapolation from the idea that the Persian king had 360 concubines (one for each night of the year) and that Xerxes’ only interests after being humiliated by the Greeks were sex and architecture, here conveniently combined in a single structure. The jambs show Xerxes with attendants, accompanied by two attendants, one of them a eunuch: the king wears a flowing pleated gown and a skirt on which patterns of flowers, stars and walking lions are incised. On the eastern door jambs, Persian royal heroes fight respectively a lion and horned griffin.
Persepolis is Xerxes’ greatest monument. The palace complexe he built was the expression of everything that Achaemenid royalty stood for: the king throned in splendour in his golden halls, watched over by the farr or royal fortune symbolised by the man in the winged disc; the assemblage of peoples bringing gifts from every corner of his vast empire; and above all the grace of Ahura Mazda by which the king exercised his rule. Around the edges of the palace were the settlements of the people who lived and farmed there, the workers who maintained the palace, while the houses of the nobles, as Diodorus tells us, filled the further edges of the platform. All the people who lived there derived their existence in some way from the palace.
Xerxes was proud of his achievement. ‘Me may Ahura Mazda together with the gods protect, and my kingdom, and what has been built by me’.
Xerxes: A Persian Life by Richard Stoneman is available from Yale University Press.