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XerxesA Persian Life$

Richard Stoneman

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780300180077

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300180077.001.0001

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(p.195) Chapter Nine Assassination

Richard Stoneman

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Xerxes's assassination in 465 B.C. at the hands of Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard. Xerxes's authority at court had been weakened by his dalliance with his niece while events in the west had taken a turn for the worse. Since the Persian withdrawal from Greece in 479, Sparta and Athens both went their own ways. Sparta emerged as the leading land power in Greece and Athens rapidly achieved dominance of the seas. This chapter begins with an overview of the careers of Pausanias and Themistocles and goes on to discuss Xerxes's last Greek campaign. It then considers historians' accounts of how Xerxes was murdered by Artabanus or Artapanus, the son of Artasyras, a Hyrcanian and an important adviser of Xerxes.

Keywords:   assassination, Artabanus, Greece, Sparta, Athens, Pausanias, Themistocles, Artasyras, murder

‘Abu, 14+x [i.e. 4–8 August 465 BC] Xerxes’ son killed him.’

Babylonian tablet BM 32234 (Kuhrt I. 306. See also Aelian VH 13.3)

  • This Artaban was provost off his hous
  • And an officer most especial, –
  • With his seuene sonys strong and despitous,
  • Vpon a nyht furious and fatal,
  • Fell vpon Xerxes in his palace roial.
  • And in his stori as it is remembrid,
  • On pecis smale thei han hym al dismembrid.
  • This was off Xerxes the laste final meede
  • Off his hih pride the funeral guerdoun;
  • From his too kyngdamys off Perse & [eek] Mede
  • Froward Fortune hath hym plucked doun.

John Lydgate, Fall of Princes III. 2528–38

More Trouble in Greece

Xerxes’ authority at court had been weakened by his disastrous affair with his niece. At the same time, events in the west had taken a turn for the worse, and Greece seemed to be slipping from Xerxes’ grasp. Since the Persian withdrawal from Greece in 479 the Greek states had returned to their usual fissiparous habits. Sparta and Athens both went their own ways, Sparta developing its position as the leading land power in Greece while Athens rapidly achieved (p.196) dominance of the seas. Athens kept up a war of attrition that moved to a new level of intensity with the career of Cimon, whose victory at the River Eurymedon, probably in 469 BC,1 was a decisive stage in the relations of Greece and Persia.

Pausanias, who had commanded the Hellenic forces at Plataea, was sent out to continue the liberation of the eastern Greeks. First he conducted a successful campaign in Cyprus, and then continued to Byzantium; here he expelled the Persian garrison, but it seemed to the Greek population that they had merely exchanged one oppressor for another. Pausanias was seduced by Persian ways, connived at the escape of a number of prominent Persians, and began to identify with the Persian cause to the extent of wearing Persian dress. Seeing an opportunity for personal self-advancement, he engaged in intrigues with the enemy and even pursued a plan to marry Xerxes’ daughter. Xerxes welcomed this evidence that a Greek had seen the superior advantages of Persian rule; but before the plan could go further, Pausanias was recalled by a dissatisfied Sparta. Pausanias now hired a trireme on his own account and resumed control of Byzantium; he quickly took over Sestos, but this was too much for the Athenians, who sent the general Cimon to drive him out. Pausanias set up a new base of operations in the Troad, but the Spartans sent a herald to fetch him back. He was put on trial after an informer handed over a letter he had written to Artabazus, the new governor of Dascyleion and a cousin of Xerxes;2 Pausanias fled to sanctuary in the Temple of Athena of the Brazen House. The Spartan authorities promptly blockaded him there and starved him to death (probably 467/6 BC). Thus came to an end the career of one whom Xerxes might have seen as a fifth columnist in the west.


Another Greek who began to feel the allure of Persia in the years after Plataea was Themistocles. After his triumph at Salamis he spent time roaming the islands of the Aegean collecting monetary contributions for the defence of Greece. This display of avarice made him unpopular, and he found himself in conflict with the other leading politician of Athens, Aristides. Themistocles was ostracised from an ungrateful Athens and moved to Argos. At the same time he was in correspondence with Pausanias, and when the Spartan ephors discovered the treasonable activities of Pausanias, Themistocles was implicated too. Diodorus says that the Spartans ‘engineered’ a plot against him by accusing him of having conspired with the Spartan king Pausanias (p.197) to betray Greece to Xerxes.3 Themistocles fled – this was probably in 471 BC – first to Corcyra and then to Admetus, the king of Molossia, who received him kindly; but when the Spartans threatened to make war on Admetus he sent Themistocles away. He gave him a quantity of gold and helped him to escape in secret, until he arrived at the mountain town of Aegae in Aeolis, in Persian territory. Here Themistocles was given refuge by a man called either Lysitheides or Nicogenes,4 who was a friend of the king. ‘When Themistocles asked that he lead him to Xerxes, at first he demurred, explaining that Themistocles would be punished because of his past actions against the Persians; later, however, when he realized that it was for the best, he acceded, and unexpectedly and without harm he got him through safe to Persia.’5 Themistocles travelled in disguise, dressed as a woman and riding in a covered carriage. A letter from the fictional composition Letters of Themistocles, probably composed about 100 CE, describes the journey vividly:

On the way I passed through a few hills and a deep valley. I saw and traversed great flat plains. The edges of them were inhabited and well worked. The desert part nourished wild beasts and herds of other animals. I sailed down many rivers and visited all kinds of people. From my fellow travellers I learned the Persian language, and the journey was no longer unusually troublesome or tiring to me.6

When Themistocles reached Susa he sought audience with the king, first applying to the chamberlain, Artabanus.7 But which king? Thucydides and Charon of Lampsacus said that Artaxerxes was already on the throne when Themistocles reached Susa; Thucydides puts the arrival of Themistocles in Susa in the early days of the reign of Artaxerxes I,8 some fourteen years after the Persian repulse from Greece. Plutarch claims to find that Thucydides’ chronology works better, but then goes on to follow the alternative version, which he, like Diodorus, found in Ephorus, Dinon, Cleitarchus and Heraclides, that it was Xerxes to whom Themistocles came.9 Certainly if, as Plutarch says, Themistocles lived ‘a long time’ in Magnesia, it seems likely that he arrived in the empire before the death of Xerxes. Thucydides’ statement may be explained by assuming that he was misled by the fact that Themistocles’ Persian career concluded under the later king. Themistocles seems, at any rate, to have behaved himself in his Persian years and not to have given Xerxes cause for dissatisfaction; but still he found it prudent to keep the unpredictable king at arm’s length.

(p.198) Many scholars prefer Thucydides’ version, especially Arthur Keaveney, who puts Themistocles’ arrival at the turn of the year 464/3:10 thus he had been on the run for seven years. Keaveney calls it a ‘slow, not noisy’ progress. A decision is impossible such is the state of the evidence, but nothing prevents the supposition that he arrived under Xerxes and continued to enjoy favour under his successor. It certainly makes a better story! – as Pietro Metastasio found when he concocted the libretto of his much-loved opera, Temistocle.11 Here the king is won over by the Athenian’s devotion, but temporarily turns against him when he, Xerxes, falls in love with a maid of his wife’s who turns out to be Themistocles’ daughter; yet she refuses him. Eventually Xerxes learns the virtues of a good king, pardons everybody and yields the daughter to her own true love.

Themistocles began by introducing himself merely as ‘a Greek’. Artabanus warned him that he would have to prostrate himself if he wanted to speak to the king, and Themistocles swallowed his pride and said that he would make no bones about that. Xerxes had perhaps been to some extent fooled by the devious messages that the Athenian had sent him before Salamis, and regarded him as someone he could work with. At all events, the enemy of Xerxes’ enemy could be, at least temporarily, the king’s friend, and he was given refuge at court. Xerxes gloated over his success: ‘I have Themistocles the Athenian!’ he cried, celebrating with a few drinks, and prayed that ‘Ahriman would never stop influencing his enemies’ thinking in this way, so that they banished their best men’.12

Themistocles learnt Persian and survived a campaign for his execution by the king’s sister; Xerxes then honoured him with the gift of a Persian wife (Diodorus is the only source, but it does not seem implausible), provided him with a multitude of slaves, and presented him with several estates to provide him with an income:13 Magnesia on the Maeander for his grain, Myus for meat and fish, and Lampsacus for its vineyards.14 Themistocles went hunting regularly with the king, and even became a friend of the Queen Mother and ‘a student of the Magi’.

At Lampsacus, Themistocles was honoured with a festival,15 perhaps because he ‘freed the city from tribute’. (The phrase comes from one of the ‘Letters of Themistocles’, a concoction made several centuries after the hero’s death, but by an author who seems to have had access to now lost historians.)16 He began to issue his own coins. If he arrived in Susa after the Battle of the Eurymedon, as Keaveney’s argument requires, it is perhaps surprising that these western cities were still Xerxes’ to give him.17

(p.199) Themistocles took the opportunity to travel widely in Asia Minor: probably he was employed by the king as a useful source of information about what was happening in his Greek-speaking territories. Once, when visiting Sardis, he spotted in the temple of the Great Mother a bronze statue of a girl, known as the ‘water-carrier’, which he had himself set up when he was superintendent of the water supply in Athens. This statue was one of the spoils that Xerxes had taken from Athens and deposited in Sardis. He made so bold as to ask the satrap of Lydia whether it might be returned to Athens. The satrap became very angry, and it was only by sweet-talking his concubines that Themistocles managed to mollify him. He now decided to settle far from the centre of royal power, on his estate at Magnesia. He even built a temple of the Great Mother there, and lived ‘a trouble-free life for a long time’,18 outliving his benefactor Xerxes by several years.

Themistocles went native; his son Cleophantus had a thoroughly Persian education.19 Themistocles is said to have done a favour to Demaratus,20 who was still living in Persia. Demaratus had been king of Sparta from 515 to 491, so was born perhaps around 535. In 465 he would have been seventy, and very old if all this took place under Artaxerxes.

‘Some historians say,’ continues Diodorus, that Xerxes had not yet given up his plan of conquest of Greece.21 He invited Themistocles, now about sixty-five, to command a fresh expedition (the nub of Metastasio’s plot); the latter agreed, but then committed suicide by downing a cup of bull’s blood (which is supposed to congeal rapidly and thus choke the victim; this is false).22 Xerxes abandoned the plan as unworkable without Themistocles, who thus ‘by his voluntary death left the best possible defence that he had played the part of a good citizen in all matters affecting the interests of Greece’. Plutarch links the episode with Cimon’s triumph at the Eurymedon (see below). But the story cannot be historical if Themistocles actually became governor of Magnesia under Artaxerxes, after 465, and is probably untrue anyway. He most likely died in about 460. John Marr suggests that the story of his refusal of Xerxes’ appointment was concocted by Themistocles’ sons on their return to Athens in the 450s.23

When Themistocles died, at the age of sixty-five, a magnificent tomb was erected for him in Magnesia, as Plutarch reports from information given him by his friend Themistocles, a descendant of the great general. (The ‘tomb of Themistocles’ at Piraeus, accordingly, must be falsely named, though Thucydides claims that his bones were secretly brought to Athens after his death.)

(p.200) Xerxes’ Last Greek Campaign

The careers of these two men, unsatisfactory as they were, suggest that Xerxes had by no means lost interest in the west. Although he wished to continue his mission of control by diplomatic means, the two players he found were too few to carry the day, and things moved too slowly to be effective. A story about the general Cimon suggests that they were not the only players in the diplomatic game. A Persian called Rhoesaces, ‘who had defected from the king’s cause’24 (or, no doubt, claimed that he had), came to Athens with a great deal of money and took refuge at Cimon’s house, placing before him bowls full of gold and silver darics. Cimon asked whether he wished to have Cimon as an employee or a friend. ‘As a friend,’ replied Rhoesaces; whereupon Cimon told him to keep his money, since he would be able to make use of a friend’s resources whenever he had need. Cimon was not for sale. The apophthegm recalls one attributed to Xerxes’ doppelgänger Esfandiyar by Mir Khwand, ‘devout gratitude is better than bestowing gifts; for the effect of the former is permanent, but that of the latter transitory’.25 Perhaps Xerxes’ took Rhoesaces’ rebuff to heart.

The Athenians were determined to eliminate the Persian threat by military means, and entrusted the incorruptible Cimon with the prosecution of the campaign to liberate the Greek cities. After driving Pausanias out of Sestos and Byzantium, he turned his attention to Eion, at the mouth of the River Strymon. The Persian commander Boges put up a fierce defence; when the food supplies were exhausted he decided on a grand gesture: he erected a vast funeral pyre, killed his wives and children, slaves and concubines, and threw them all into the flames; he then cast all his gold and silver into the Strymon, and finally leapt himself into the flames. Such episodes are told so many times in Greek history, in several authors,26 that one wonders whether they can really all be historical. But there is no doubt that Athens benefited from control of this important city, which provided access both to forests for timber and mines for silver (as well as the treasure that Boges had thrown into the Strymon).

A campaign against pirates on Scyros was not directly aimed at Persian power, but perhaps shows the level of instability in the Aegean that had been created by the years of warfare, as well as Themistocles’ cash-collecting activities. On Scyros, Cimon found the gigantic bones of the hero Theseus, which the Delphic oracle had told him he must recover and bring to Athens. These sacred relics brought the general immense kudos.

By this time Xerxes had equipped a new army. If this was the army that he invited Themistocles to control, the story of Themistocles’ suicide must (p.201) be false. But Themistocles certainly did not command it, for the commanders were Xerxes’ illegitimate son Tithraustes (for the fleet),27 and his nephew Pherendates (for the army).28 (The king was perhaps running short of male relatives to hold important military commands.) According to Plutarch, the supreme commander was Ariomandes, son of Gobryas: he was presumably a younger brother of the dead Mardonius. In addition to the army, Xerxes had had a new fleet built, or assembled, from Phoenicia, Cyprus and Cilicia.29 This combined force came together near the mouth of the River Eurymedon in Pamphylia, early in 466 BC.30

Cimon set about making the seas west of Pamphylia impassable for Persian ships. He had redesigned and strengthened the fleet of 300 triremes that had been created by Themistocles, and liberated the coastal towns of Caria in a two-pronged attack: the Greek cities readily revolted, but the bilingual cities that still had Persian garrisons had to be besieged. Cimon made his base at the harbour of Cnidus. It is somewhat hard to reconcile the narratives of Plutarch and Diodorus,31 but the order of events was probably as follows. By similar tactics to those he had used in Caria, Cimon first compelled the Lycians, whose cities had not been settled from Greece and whose inhabitants saw themselves as Persian subjects, to become members of the recently founded Athenian League.32 He then came to Phaselis, on the borders of Lycia and Pamphylia: the inhabitants here were Greek, but refused to secede from Persia. In the end they were subdued: Plutarch says that Chian troops in the Greek fleet talked them over by firing arrows with messages attached to them into the besieged city. Cimon now bore down on the assembled Persian force at the Eurymedon.

Again, Plutarch’s and Diodorus’ narratives are incompatible. According to Diodorus, Cimon disguised his own troops in the clothing of Persians captured earlier in the campaign, so that the Persians received them as if they were their own. When night fell, the Greeks left the ships and slaughtered the Persian army, including one of the commanders, Xerxes’ nephew Pherendates. As Diodorus also says that these ships had been captured off Cyprus, 125 miles away, on the same day, and his narrative of the treacherous night-time slaughter has all the marks of a set-piece, it is perhaps wiser to follow Plutarch, who admits that his own sources (Ephorus and Phanodemus) differed on details. Cimon was eager to join battle before Persian reinforcements arrived from Cyprus, and the result was that the Persian fleet made straight for land and the troops fled ashore. More than 200 triremes were captured. The Greek force now pressed ashore and the hoplites, already tired from the sea battle, charged on an enemy whose numbers were superior. But (p.202) hoplite tactics won the day, the Persians were massacred and the camp was looted of its valuables. Thus Cimon was victorious both by land and by sea on a single day. Xerxes’ entire fleet was lost.

It was now, if ever, that Xerxes had reason to feel humiliated – defeated on what he regarded as his own territory. Plutarch writes:

These victories of Cimon humbled the king’s pride so much that he undertook, in the terms of the famous peace, always to keep at least a day’s ride away from the Greek sea, and not to bring any long ship or bronze-rammed ship beyond the Cyanean Islands and the Chelidonian Islands.33

The existence of this alleged peace is a great crux of historical scholarship. The evidence is so contradictory that it can never be solved,34 but it seems best to remain sceptical. As Plutarch goes on to say, what happened in practice was what he describes: the king’s fleet made no further forays into Greek waters. In the circumstances, it seems unlikely that Xerxes had the heart to try a further land campaign under the command of Themistocles. Anyway, his time was running out.

It looks as if this latest failure in warfare may have led to insurrectionist tendencies at the court. ‘After the disastrous war he had waged against Greece, Xerxes … began to be despised even by his own people.’35 His empire was fraying at the edges. Lycia was sliced off by the Athenians sometime before 452 when it entered the Athenian League, which was rapidly becoming an empire; Bactria was soon to slip away, though Xerxes’ son Hystaspes was satrap there at this time; and Egypt raised a revolt as soon as Artaxerxes was on the throne.

The Death of Xerxes

As usual, the accounts of Xerxes’ death as told by the historians vary,36 though there is little doubt that Xerxes was slain in his bed. As Xenophon pointed out (perhaps with Xerxes’ case in mind), his hero the great Cyrus ‘knew well enough that a man can most easily be assassinated at his meals, or in his bath, or in bed, or when he is asleep, and asked himself who were most to be trusted of those he had about him’.37 If that is genuine Persian wisdom, then Xerxes had let his guard slip.

In all three of the historians’ accounts, those of Justin, Ctesias and Diodorus, the key figure is Artabanus or Artapanus, the son of Artasyras, a (p.203) Hyrcanian and an important adviser of Xerxes. (This is not the same man as Artabanus, the son of Hystaspes and therefore Xerxes’ uncle, who had opposed the Greek invasion at the outset.) This man – Justin calls him Xerxes’ ‘prefect’ – decided to murder the king and assume the kingship himself. He got the eunuch chamberlain who was called either Aspamitres (Ctesias) or Mithridates (Diodorus) on his side, and the two of them burst into Xerxes’ chamber one night and stabbed him in his bed. Justin, however, says that the crime was carried out by Artabanus and his seven sons.

The seven sons cause one to raise an eyebrow, given the prevalence of the number seven in stories of the Persian court, and not least the seven conspirators who brought Darius to the throne.38 Certainly Artabanus can have had as little genuine dynastic claim to rule as Darius had had when he carried out his coup.

Now it was necessary to deal with Xerxes’ sons. Hystaspes, who was either the youngest or the middle son, was away from the court since he was satrap of Bactria. Artabanus went to Artaxerxes and told him that his elder brother Darius had just murdered his father: all three historians agree on this. Artaxerxes leaps into action, and with his bodyguard goes straight to Darius’ room and kills his sleeping brother. Ctesias, however, says that Artaxerxes summoned Darius to his presence and then had him put to death. According to Diodorus, Artabanus immediately summoned his own sons and they set upon Artaxerxes; but the latter fought them all off, slew Artabanus, and became king of Persia.39 This train of events provides the plot of Metastasio’s opera libretto, Artaserse.40

Our other sources allow Artaxerxes time to be acknowledged as king, and bring in a further character, Megabyzus (Baccabasus in Justin),41 whom Artabanus takes into his confidence, but who soon reveals Artabanus’ treacherous plot to the king. For Ctesias, Megabyzus is disaffected with Xerxes because he believes his wife Amytis is having an adulterous affair (presumably with the king, though Ctesias does not say so). In Justin, however, ‘Baccabasus’ had no interest in regime change and revealed all to Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes was afraid of the numerous sons of Artabanus (even though he had beaten them all single-handed in a night-time fight), and assembled the entire army. ‘The king then pretended his armour was too short and ordered Artabanus to exchange it with his. Once he had withdrawn and was naked, the king stabbed him with his sword; then he had his sons arrested. In this way, this excellent young man avenged the murder of his father and death of his brother, as well as delivering himself from Artabanus’ trap.’

(p.204) The final act, reported only by Ctesias, is that following Artabanus’ execution, the eunuch Aspamitres was also arrested and put to death by the torture of the boats. The fact that Justin calls this man Mithridates, the name of the man who in Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes was put to death by this torture,42 on a quite different occasion, arouses suspicion.

Even more confusion is imported by a brief allusion in Aristotle’s Politics, explaining how conspiracies can have their roots in fear:

Artapanes [sic] conspired against Xerxes and slew him, fearing that he would be accused of hanging Darius against his orders – he having been under the impression that Xerxes would forget what he had said in the middle of a meal, and that the offence would be forgiven.43

The passage is so allusive as to defy satisfactory interpretation. Does it imply a version in which Darius tried to kill the king, after which Artapanus gained the impression that Xerxes wanted him dead – ‘who will rid me of this turbulent son?’, he might have said, and then regretted it? Artapanus killed the king to save his own skin.

What, if any, of all this are we to believe? Perhaps the answer is ‘nothing’, given the evidence of the very laconic Babylonian tablet quoted at the head of this chapter: ‘Xerxes’ son killed him’.44 The date given for Xerxes’ death, between 4 and 8 August 465, can be relied on given the accuracy of Babylonian timekeeping, but what has happened to Artabanus? Is the entire story about his conspiracy a fiction or was the Babylonian chronicler just ill-informed, or working simply from the end result, that Xerxes’ son succeeded him?

Perhaps it is best to start from questions of interest: who would have wanted what? We should also consider which stories, in the oral tradition that conveyed all Persian history to later writers, would have been of benefit to the only successful actor in the drama, namely Artaxerxes.

It is difficult to believe that Artabanus could have harboured strong hopes of making himself king in the teeth of three existing legitimate sons of Xerxes. Accordingly, let us suppose that his part as originator of the plot was an invention to deflect blame from the successful heir, Artaxerxes. No doubt expressions of dissatisfaction with the king’s conduct of the Greek war were drifting around the palace. Xerxes’ affair with his niece was an unconstructive and perhaps shameful aberration, and it certainly seems to have set his own wife against him. It would also have annoyed his son Darius, who was married to the woman. It was Amestris who stood to gain most from the whole affair. She would be rid of an unfaithful husband and would (p.205) be the Queen Mother of a king who, as it turned out, had a successful reign of over forty years; and still Amestris outlived him, growing old in comfort and honour.

Amestris might have engineered the murder of her own husband by the man who had best access to him as he slept, leading him to suppose that she would support a bid by him to become king. But did she also set up her eldest son Darius as a victim? The plot required that one of them should die (Hystaspes, miles away in Bactria, could be sorted out later), and we must presume that she chose the one son she loved and trusted best to survive. It is also possible that the plot was concocted by Darius and Amestris between them: in this sense Darius would be the murderer, and avenger of his wife’s honour, even if the hand he hired to do it was that of Artabanus. This would ‘save’ the Babylonian evidence, which, it should be noted, does not specify which son killed the king. Artaxerxes’ murder of his brother would then be an act of filial piety, and Amestris, reckoning one son on the throne was better than none, would swallow the succession of the second in line, Artaxerxes.

If the eunuch Mithridates, who dies by the torture of the boats, is the same man as became Amestris’ victim much later in Plutarch, it seems that she bided her time before disposing of the man who knew the truth. Ctesias, writing in the reign of Artaxerxes, was bemused by the disinformation floating around the court (and perhaps further confused in Photius’ summary), but he knew that Aspamitres’ later death was just an excuse, and that is why he narrates it as part of the assassination story. The other divergences of the accounts are more or less incidental.

A further possibility is that Artabanus is a complete invention. The fact that he shares his name and court function with the better-known adviser from Herodotus45 – only his father and country are different – raises some suspicion that he is one of those confusing doppelgänger who haunt Persian succession plots. In this case the Babylonian chronicler would be telling the literal truth, that Darius killed his father, which is the story that Artabanus is said to have put about. The invention of Artabanus, however, seems to serve Artaxerxes’ purposes less well than his employment as a historical scapegoat.

One has to feel sorry for Xerxes, hoping for a quiet time in his fifties with a pretty young girl as his bedfellow, and trying to forget about the wretched Greeks who had done so much to spoil his life. Amestris was made of sterner stuff. For Louis Couperus, this moment had been coming ever since Xerxes returned from Greece. In a melodramatic scene, Xerxes ‘asks himself how it (p.206) can be possible. His brothers Abrocomes and Hyperanthes at Thermopylae, his brother Ariabignes and his nephews and brothers-in-law at Salamis, Tigranes – how tall and splendid he was! – and Mardonius at Plataea and Mycale, Artayntes, Ithametres, all dead! Woe, woe! All dead!’ Suddenly,

Framed in the unclosed door, in front of a half-drawn curtain in the entrance between the giant spearmen of enamel and glazed stone, human figures are visible. They are six officers of the royal bodyguard. Their commander – Artabanus is his name – leads them. Their swords are drawn, they have regicide in mind. They have been dissatisfied with the war. Artabanus, son of Artabanus, Xerxes’ nephew [this relationship is a convenient invention by the author to improve Artabanus’ motive], himself is eager to wear the Persian crown. Seen together, they will murder Xerxes as Darius and the six Persians once murdered pseudo-Smerdis. … For some minutes the ambitious conspirators hesitate. They consider, they vacillate. But the grief of the women rings in their ears, and it unnerves the covetous daring of the men. ‘No, no!’ whispers Artabanus, son of Artabanus, ‘later, later’.46

In this dramatic scenario the plot has been brewing for something like fourteen years before it is carried out. This is of course not to be taken seriously, even though the author has noted several of the features of the eventual plot, not least the repetition of the number seven.

More illumination may possibly be gained from another work of fiction, the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, the repository of the legends of the Persian kings from the creation to the end of the Sassanian Empire. As was noted in the Introduction and elsewhere, there is a strange lapse in the genealogy of the Persian kings of this period as recounted by Ferdowsi. As we have seen, Gushtasp (Hystaspes) corresponds in important ways to Darius I. Darius’ son, however, is called Esfandiyar, which recalls the name of the conspirator Sphendadates, not that of Xerxes, whose deeds are largely absent from this Book of Kings. But the son who succeeds him is Ardashir of the Long Arms, undoubtedly to be identified with Artaxerxes Makrocheir or Longomannus of the classical sources, although he also has the alternative name of Bahman. (The epithet is said by Mir Khwand to be an allusion to his reach across all the seven climes.)47 Bahman is said by Mas’udi to be the son of Esfandiyar and a Jewess of the House of Saul:48 the Book of Esther has given him the details of the mother, and her consort is thus identified with Xerxes. In the Persian sources, it is Bahman who, after reigning for 120 years (the approximate time (p.207) between the death of Xerxes and the accession of Darius III in 336), hands over the kingdom to his daughter Homay; she bears him a son, Darab, whose son is Dara, the Darius III of the Alexander story where the Shahnameh begins at last to converge with history. Persian tradition remembered a few other correct facts about Ardashir, for example his connection with the physician ‘Bokrat’;49 the great Greek doctor Hippocrates was in fact invited by Artaxerxes to come to be his court physician, but declined the invitation. Why is Xerxes so completely forgotten? The usual explanation is that Parthian tales have overlaid the Persian core, but perhaps Amestris had a hand in this too, ensuring that Xerxes’ name was forgotten in favour of his more heroic son. For Esfandiyar, heroic though he is, is a failure.

His final end comes when, rejected by his father, he faces the great hero Rostam in battle. ‘Then, as the Simorgh ordered him, Rostam drew back his bow. Aiming at Esfandiyar’s eyes he released the arrow, and for the Persian prince the world was turned to darkness.’50 This sounds like instant death, but Esfandiyar, unlike Xerxes, has time for some last words to his brother Pashutan:

Do not torment yourself for me …. Where now are Feraydun, Hushang and Jamshid? They came on the wind and were gone with a breath. … I have travelled the earth and known its wonders, both those that are clear and those that are hidden, trying to establish the ways of God, taking wisdom as my guide; and now that my words have gone forth and the hands of Ahriman are tied, Fate stretches out its lion claws for me.51

The dying hero turns to Rostam:

  • All that happened happened as Fate willed.52
  • Not you, your arrow, or the Simorgh
  • Killed me here: Goshtasp’s, my father’s enmity
  • Made you the means by which to murder me.53
Esfandiyar’s lament is echoed by his daughters, Beh Afarid and Homay, who reproach the king, Gushtasp, who ‘sent him to Sistan, filling him with specious talk so that he’d give up his life for the sake of your crown … you killed your son for the sake of greed’.

Clearly none of this matches Xerxes’ case in any significant way, though Rostam’s letter of apology to Gushtasp is worth noting: ‘As God is my witness, and as Pashutan can testify, I said many times to Esfandiyar that he (p.208) should lay aside all enmity and desire for war. I told him I would give him land and wealth, but he chose otherwise; Fate willed that he ignored my pleas, and who can oppose what the heavens bring about?’ (Herodotus would have agreed.)

The rites for the burial of the king no doubt went something like those for Esfandiyar:

  • Now when the mother
  • And sisters of Esfandiyar had heard,
  • They came forth from the palace with their daughters,
  • Unveiled, with dust-fouled feet, and raiment rent.
  • When Pashutan came weeping on his way,
  • And after him the coffin and black steed,
  • The women hung on him, wept tears of blood,
  • And cried: ‘undo this narrow coffin’s lid,
  • Let us too see the body of the slain.’…
  • When the mother
  • And sisters of Esfandiyar beheld
  • His visage steeped in musk, and sable beard,
  • The hearts of those chaste ladies crisp of lock
  • Fill’d to o’erflowing, and they swooned away.54

Louis Couperus has the conspirators, when they hover at Xerxes’ door, wonder, ‘Is this not the moment, the moment that must be improved, the moment to commit the murder? And then to keep it secret while the corpse is laid on the dakhma, the “Tower of Silence”, for the vultures.’55 And so may we. Was Xerxes’ body exposed in the Zoroastrian manner to have his bones pecked clean by the birds of the air, before entombment in the sepulchre that had been prepared for him on the cliff at Naqsh-e-Rostam, close to Persepolis? All we know about the rites that followed the death of a Persian king is what Diodorus tells us of the arrangements made by Alexander for the dead Hephaestion: the sacred fires were quenched ‘until such time as the funeral should be ended. This was the custom of the Persians when their kings died.’56

A period of mourning was decreed; the people, or at least the members of the court, shaved their heads, and the bier was accompanied to its resting place by loud wailing.57 The body was waxed (i.e. make-up was applied?), and possibly embalmed, and the bier placed on a magnificent chariot. The accession of the king followed, perhaps after a decent delay, and Artaxerxes (p.209) had all the murderers of his father executed, dismissed many of the court officials, and appointed his own choices in their places.58 In due course, the relief depicting Xerxes was removed from its position of honour on the walls of Persepolis, and deposited in a back room of the treasury. The king was dead, and the new king would indeed live long – though not as long as the 120 years attributed to him by Mir Khwand. Artaxerxes was to reign for forty years and though he saw attrition at the edges of his empire his rule was a period of stability for Persia. The foundations of that stability had been in important ways laid by Xerxes. The preoccupations of the Greek writers who would portray him as a tottering king in charge of a battered empire are exposed by the long reign of his successor.


(1.) Meiggs 1972, 81–83, argues for 466 BC.

(2.) He was the son of Pharnaces of the PFTs.

(3.) Diod. Sic. 11.54.

(4.) Diod. Sic. 11.56 versus Plut. Them. 26.

(5.) Diod. Sic. 11.56.6.

(6.) Letter 20.29–30; Doenges 1981.

(7.) Plut. Them. 27, following Phanias. If it was Artabanus, this implies that Xerxes was still alive, since he did not survive after Xerxes’ murder. See also Doenges 1981, 72–73.

(8.) Thuc. I. 135–38.

(9.) Plut. Them. 27.

(10.) Keaveney 2003, 24–36; summary at 116. Frost 1980, 213–15, also accepts Thucydides against Plutarch. White 1964 does not even consider the alternative version of Plutarch.

(11.) (p.255) See Appendix 1.

(12.) Plut. Them. 28.

(13.) Miltiades’ son had received similar honours: H. 6.4.1.

(14.) Marr 1994 points out that this need be as barely literal as the claim that one of the Persian queen’s estates had specifically to keep her in shoes.

(15.) As can be deduced from the Athenian Tribute Lists, 3, p. 111; Frost 1980, 97–98.

(16.) Doenges 1981: Letter 20.

(17.) Keaveney 2003, 75, following Marr 1994 and Meiggs 1972, 53–54. But the first recorded payments of these cities to the Delian League/Athenian Empire are not until 453 (Lampsacus) and 451 (Magnesia). Frost 1980, 220–22, suggests that it would be possible for cities that were tyrannies to be in the League, but it seems unlikely. Doenges 1981, 395, proposes that the cities were outside the Delian League until the 450s.

(18.) Plut. Them. 31.

(19.) Plato Meno 93e.

(20.) Plut. Them. 29.

(21.) Diod. Sic. 11.58.

(24.) Plut. Cimon 10.

(26.) The Marmares under attack from Alexander – Diod. Sic. 17.28.1–5; the Isaurians under attack from Perdiccas and Philip III – Diod. Sic. 18.22.1–8; the pirate Zenicetes – Strabo 14.5.7; the people of Xanthus under attack from Brutus – Appian BC IV. 77–80. Not to mention the Jews at Masada.

(27.) Diod. Sic. 11.60.5. We do not know who his mother was, except that she was not Amestris. Presumably she was one of the concubines.

(28.) Plut. Cimon 12.

(29.) Ruzicka 2012: in the 460s Xerxes turned to ‘strictly maritime enterprises to counter Athens and her league allies’. There was no standing army: Cawkwell 2005, 132.

(30.) See note 1 above.

(31.) Plut. Cimon 12 and Diod. Sic. 11.60.

(32.) Diod. Sic. 11.60.4.

(33.) Plut. Cimon 13.

(34.) Briant 2002, 555–56, is a good account. Meiggs 1972, 129–51, favouring the existence of the Peace, puts it in about 450, more than a decade after Xerxes’ death. So if Xerxes kept away from the sea, it was not because of any formal peace, and Plutarch’s information may be overstated. The more usual view, of those who think there was a peace, is that it was agreed just before Xerxes’ death, directly after the Battle of Eurymedon: Badian 1987 and article in EIr.

(35.) Justin 3.1.

(36.) Ctes. FGrH 688 F 14 (34); Diod. Sic. 11.69; Justin 3.1; conveniently assembled by Kuhrt I. 307–09.

(37.) Xen. Cyrop. 7.5.59.

(38.) Also the seven conspirators against Strattis of Chios (H. 8 end); and the seven counsellors of the Persian king: ch. 2, p. 61.

(39.) A puzzle is posed by Manetho FGrH 609 F 2/3a (p. 50, l. 20 in Jacoby), which states that Artabanus ruled as king for seven months. I do not know what to make of this.

(40.) Set by Leonardo Vinci and produced in 1730, as well as by Thomas Arne in 1762.

(41.) He features in Vinci’s version but not in Arne’s.

(42.) Plut. Artox. 15–16.

(43.) Arist. Politics, 1311 b 35ff.

(44.) See also Aelian, VH 13.3.

(45.) H. 7.10–18.

(46.) (p.256) Couperus 1930, 298–99.

(48.) Meadows of Gold II. 127; also Tabari 1987, 82; see Herzfeld 1947, 96.

(49.) Mir Khwand 1832, 343; the other Greek mentioned in this passage, Zimokrates, is an enigma.

(52.) A very Herodotean thought.

(56.) Diod. Sic. 17.114.4.

(57.) Sources collected by Briant 2002, 522–23.

(58.) Diod. Sic. 11.71.1–2.