It was not until the excavations of the 1930’s that many of the relics, reliefs, and clay tablets that offer so much information about Persian life could be studied for the first time. Through archaeological remains, ancient texts, and work by a new generation of historians, a picture can today be built of this remarkable civilization and their capital city. Although the city had been destroyed, the legacy of the Persians survived, even as they mostly remain an enigma to the West and are not nearly as well understood as the Greeks, Romans, or Egyptians. In a sense, the Achaemenid Persian Empire holds some of the most enduring mysteries of ancient civilization.
When considering this empire’s rulers, the two most often referenced are Xerxes, the leader of the Persian invasion of Greece which caused the heroic sacrifice of the Spartans and their allies at Thermopylae, or Cyrus the Great, the man who created the Persian Empire. But the Persians had another critical ruler sandwiched between them, and Cyrus’s accomplishments and Xerxes’s defeats would not have been possible without him. That king was Xerxes’s own father, Darius I, best known as Darius the Great.
Darius I took the throne after the death of Cyrus’s son, Cambyses II, and though his reign would not have been possible without the construction of the empire and the administrative groundwork laid by Cyrus the Great before him, Darius proved himself just as worthy of the epithet. Reigning for over 35 years, Darius kept control of the massive Persian Empire despite numerous rebellions and uprisings, and he also managed to implement reforms and improvements that established the empire’s golden age. He followed the example of Cyrus before him in his foreign policy and mode of kingship as well, offering tolerance and patience to various cultures and religions, and even treating his enemies fairly in most cases.
Perhaps his ultimate success can be seen most clearly in the passage of power at the end of his life. By that time, his reign had been long and stable, and though he died of illness somewhat unexpectedly, his kingdom was still so firmly established that the kingship passed to his son Xerxes without any question or upheaval. Under Darius the Great’s rule, the empire reached its greatest extent, stretching from the Indus Valley and Central Asia in the east to Libya and the Danube River in the west.
Xerxes remains one of the most famous rulers in history because he led the Second Persian War against the Greeks. That war was a veritable clash of civilizations, and had the Persians triumphed, Classical Athens would have been snuffed out and Greece would never have formed the backbone of Roman and Western culture. Simply put, the West as it is today might never have existed.
Not surprisingly, the majority of surviving sources regarding Xerxes are the product of Greek writers, so it was inevitable that the Persian king has been depicted in unflattering terms for thousands of years. The details of his invasion of Greece cast him as the villain in the dramatic Greek retelling of the tragic 300 Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae, and focus on the loss at Salamis solidified his reputation as a failure despite another 15 years of successful rule after withdrawing from the Greek mainland. Although Herodotus’s Histories offer a less biased account than some later sources, he still depicted Xerxes as a figure of tragic failings, listening too often to the wrong councilors and eventually collapsing on the weight of his own hubris. This classic appearance as a tragic hero figure gives some pause for doubt, as the literary stereotype is almost too perfect and suggests a lack of depth and nuance that characterizes all accurate investigations of historical individuals.