In Pursuit of Xerxes

Posted 25th August by Richard Stoneman

For some years I have been working on a book about the Achaemenid King of Kings, Xerxes (r. 486-465 BC). Xerxes has had a bad press. Though the greatest writers of contemporary Greece, Herodotus and Aeschylus, both painted a nuanced portrait of the king who led an expedition against Greece that was comprehensively defeated by the briefly united Greek forces, later writers were not so kind. Herodotus depicted a king who was prone to anger and accesses of hauteur, and he found it difficult to understand some aspects of Persian custom, but in the end his Xerxes is a tragic and in some ways sympathetic figure. Aeschylus’ play Persians also depicts a king who is knocked sideways by defeat but returns to Susa to re-establish his kingdom on  a  firm footing. Probably the Greek defeat in the end had little impact on the power of Persia.

But later writers in classical times began to portray Xerxes as a monster of vice, who offered a reward to anyone who could conceive a new pleasure, since he had tried them all.  In the seventeenth century the dramatist Colley Cibber portrayed him as a wanton murderer who could polish off seven virgins in a single night. Much of this blackening of his name seems to have begun with Alexander the Great, whose firing of Persepolis in 330 BC was billed as revenge for Xerxes’ destruction of Athenian temples in 480 BC.

To rescue Xerxes’ reputation I longed to stand again at Persepolis and describe it as it had been at the peak of its glory during the reign of this king who had done most to create the buildings we see today: the Gateway of All Lands, the palace of Xerxes, the so-called ‘harem’ (critics said that the Persian king had 360 concubines, one for every night of the year, and the excavators decided that this building was where they all lived).  I had been to Iran in 1977, in the last days of the Shah, and never expected to go again until one of my colleagues at Exeter University announced that she was organising a party to visit Iran, to assist her own research on Cyrus. The tour she arranged through Travel the Unknown gave all of us who travelled an unparalleled experience. We went everywhere we needed to go, climbing the hillside at Bisutun to see the relief of Darius I, melting in the heat of the Persian winter capital of Susa, scoring the ground at Pasargadae for remains of watercourses and gardens, and examining the stunning reliefs depicting the tribute bearers at Persepolis. Our guide, whose energy was boundless, said at Pasargadae: ‘Most groups take one hour here, but with this group it will be two’. In the end we were there for three hours! We covered enormous distances in a trusty minibus, eating roadside picnics at lunchtime  – like Iranians, for whom no grass verge is too small for a picnic, and tea is always brewing – and enjoying restaurant meals in the evening. The alcohol-free fruit beers were a discovery: they should be imported to Britain.

I have been studying Persian and relished the opportunity to practise the language and acquire some texts of the great poets. A memorable evening was passed by the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, one of the greatest of all poets, where we enjoyed reading and listening to some of his poems in both Persian and English. Our guide spared no trouble to make this a real celebration of Persian culture.

The book is now published (Yale University Press, £25), but my engagement with Iran is not over. When can I go again? As soon as possible, I hope.

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