Xerxes I, ruler of the largest empire in the ancient world, wanted nothing more than to complete his father’s conquests. At the start of his rule, he brought Egypt into the empire, but Greece was always on his mind. His father, Darius, had failed to conquer the Greeks and Xerxes planned to finish the job. Yet the only accounts we have of this mighty ruler come from the Greek historian, Herodotus, who seems to have demonized the Persian king. Xerxes is portrayed as someone who files into a rage at the slightest provocation and is sorely in need of some anger management.
Cutting a Person in Half
Xerxes planned to march over two million soldiers into Greece and that kind of war-making required massive financing. Pythias, a Lydian governor, helped bankroll the endeavor. Enroute to the Hellespont to cross into Europe, Xerxes visited Pythias. The governor hosted the king, lavishing money and supplies on the army. Pythias then made one small request. He wanted his eldest son to be released from serving in the army, so that he could take care of his father in his old age.
Xerxes flew into a rage. He thought that Pythias doubted the outcome of the war and thought Xerxes would fail like Darius did. The king had the eldest son cut in half. Then he marched the entire Persian army between the two halves to serve as a warning to anyone who would doubt the king.
Flogging the Sea as Punishment
By 480 BCE, Xerxes had reached the Hellespont, the shortest strip of sea to cross into Europe. He ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge, nearly a mile long. Just after the bridge was completed, a storm struck and demolished the structure. The king was so infuriated, he ordered that the sea be flogged 300 times for its insolence. In addition, he also pierced the waters with red-hot iron in order that the waters obey Xerxes.
The king also took his wrath out on the engineers, beheading every single one. A new bridge was built using 600 boats tied together with ropes. Alas, when he returned to the Hellespont in defeat, this bridge was also destroyed.
Now in Greece, Xerxes led 300,000 of his men to the pass of Thermopylae, only to meet a token resistance: 7000 Greeks. However, these Greeks were no typical warriors. King Leonides of Sparta and 300 of his personal soldiers guarded the pass. They held off the vastly superior Persian army for three days, inflicting massive casualties, before a traitor allowed the Persians to attack from behind.
Xerxes was furious over his Pyrrhic victory. He ordered his troops to scour the battlefield until they found the body of Leonides. Then he ordered the head to be removed and the remaining body fastened to a cross.
A No-Win Situation
Ultimately Xerxes lost and was forced to retreat to Asia Minor. On the journey back by sea, the king’s ship encountered a storm. The helmsman informed Xerxes that the ship is too heavy to survive the storm. The king asks his soldiers to lighten the load, and they leap to their deaths. As a reward, Xerxes gives a crown to the helmsman for saving the life of the king. However, since he was also responsible for the deaths of many Persian soldiers, Xerxes has the helmsman beheaded.
The Greeks viewed anger as a kind of poison that infected the body. Reasonable people controlled their anger, while tyrants and savages gave way to their wrath. Herodotus never documents the lead up to Xerxes outbursts, only the finally, wrathful act. Perhaps a bit of anger management would have helped the Persian ruler.