Battle of Salamis and Xerxes Military Decision

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To what extent is Xerxes misinterpreted in both ancient and modern sources?

Throughout history, it has been claimed by many that Xerxes, the fourth Persian king of the Great Achaemenid dynasty, was a cruel and intolerant leader, whose actions were more than questionable. However, in a time when Persian and Greek hostilities were quite extreme, due to Xerxes’ military decision to acquire Greece, there were few written sources which were not composed by his opposition or heavily influenced by the bitter relationship. Despite accounts, by composers such as Herodotus and Aeschylus, there has been recent attempt to consider both ancient and modern sources to balance his image. In the endeavor to reevaluate a reign that has much maligned throughout history and to reconsider a personality who has been at the mercy of those who write prejudicially about him, it is seen that Xerxes was in fact, a level-headed and impartial leader who reigned successfully, despite his loss of a hardly decisive war in Greece.

In evaluating Xerxes’ reign, it is essential to consider the accounts of his contemporaries in order to acquire a first hand portrayal of his actions which have traditionally established his character as one who was incapacitated with power. Herodotus, most infamously referred to throughout history as the “father of lies”, is a ancient Greek writer responsible for the account ‘The Histories’, which chronologically details Xerxes’ kinship and his failed endeavours at the expansion of the Persian empire into Greece.1 As he colourfully recounts Xerxes’ personal conversations, the supposed insanity of his predecessors and his reaction to failed attempts in bettering his empire, Herodotus, who is criticised for being considerably riddled with bias against the Persians, establishes this most inaccurate, yet permanent, portrayal of the Great King. In his Histories, Herodotus explicitly writes of Xerxes, although never having personally encountered one another, as a “decadent” man, whose attempt to invade Greece not only marked a decline of sanity but a most damning example of “hubris”.2 Despite this, however Herodotus, who appears to abuse the Great King’s image, offers a complex view of Xerxes, balancing his account, rather than providing only a negative depiction. According his account, Xerxes was, quite contradictorily, a rational man, detailing numerous occasions where he took council and made critical decisions based on their advice.3 Herodotus also writes of Xerxes‘ compassion and extreme sympathy as he inconsolably wept for the immense loss of life during the war, as was Persian funerary custom.4 Herodotus also compliments Xerxes, saying of him, ‘amongst all these immense numbers there was not a man who, for stature and noble bearing, was more worthy than Xerxes to wield so vast a power’.5 Through his commendation, he evidently admires Xerxes’ logistical skills and preparation in amassing an army ‘greater than any other’6.

Herodotus does, however, combine his admiration with criticism concerning Xerxes’ actions. In his contempt for the Persians, Herodotus accounts Xerxes “barbarically” lashing the Hellespont, a narrow body of water, in an attempt to punish the strait for destroying his well constructed bridge. 7 This attempt to control nature, according to Herodotus, was hubristic and an act of extreme “impiety”.8 In addition to his insolence, Xerxes is also depicted as a coward and savage. In this, Herodotus accounts Xerxes’ hasty retreat after Salamis in fear of the Greek fleet while leaving his army behind. However, modern historian Russell Granger argues that Xerxes in actuality took counsel when withdrawing from Greece, despite Herodotus’ claim of his cowardly departure in attempt to promote Greek supremacy. In fact when taking into account his portrayal of Xerxes as an depraved megalomaniac, it must be considered that Herodotus is extremely hostile toward the Persians and particularly Xerxes for endeavouring to...
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