Although Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) is mainly remembered for his massive invasion of Greece, his reign continued for around fourteen more years after his Greek ambitions were crushed at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE. This later period of his life, after Xerxes withdrew from Greece and returned to the heartland of his empire, remains a fairly undefined part of the king’s reign. What we do know about Xerxes’ final years is that he began to focus a great deal of his empire’s resources on construction projects. Nevertheless, he eventually started to lose the support of several key governing satraps and advisors, ultimately leading to a violent end for the king.
Herodotus, one of the main sources on Xerxes’ life, lightly glossed over a few of the events that supposedly occurred in the Achaemenid Empire during the years after the Persian King of Kings returned home from Greece. By far, the most dramatic of these episodes (located in The Histories, Book IX) was a story about how one of Xerxes’ affairs led to the extermination of nearly all of his brother’s family. This story, which will be told shortly, is considered to be largely a fiction created by the father of history, Herodotus (490-425/420 BCE). Yet, many historians believe the core elements of the story were likely based on factual events.
(Possible Xerxes I of Persia, from Hadish Palace at Persepolis. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
According to the tale, Xerxes fell hopelessly in love, or at least in lust, with an unnamed woman in the city of Sardis. The king, mind you, was at this point already a wedded man married to a woman named Amestris. Nevertheless, he sent this new woman in Sardis numerous messages and propositions of his admiration and desire, all of which she politely declined. Frustrated, the king pondered over all the ways he could use his power to compel the woman to consent to his wants, but he quickly pushed those dangerous thoughts out of his mind. After all, the woman he desired was none other than the wife of his dear brother, Masistes.
Xerxes finally decided that Masistes’ wife only needed more time and close proximity before she caved in to his desires. Therefore, Xerxes arranged for his son, Darius, to be married to Masistes’ daughter, Artaÿnte, hoping that the union would allow him to grow closer to his brother’s wife. In the end, Masistes agreed to the marriage, so Xerxes brought Artaÿnte to the city of Susa, where his son, Darius, was living.
Unfortunately, Xerxes’ love for Masistes’ wife was apparently a fickle emotion. Soon after he reached Susa, Xerxes found that he was drawn to Artaÿnte far more than he had ever been with her mother. Once again, Xerxes began to send messages of his affection to the woman he desired, who, this time, happened to be the newly-wedded wife of his own son. Artaÿnte, unlike her mother, decided to accept the king’s affection.
Like many lovers, Xerxes eventually wanted to express his appreciation for Artaÿnte by giving her a gift. And, as a king, he could afford extraordinarily pricey gifts. In fact, he went to see Artaÿnte and promised that he would obtain for her anything that she desired. When she asked if he was telling the truth, the king assented, declaring she could have treasures, a city, even a personal army. She only needed to ask for it. As Artaÿnte pondered the possibilities, her eyes fell on the illustrious robe that Xerxes was wearing. It was a beautifully woven piece, sporting all sorts of pleasing colors derived from expensive dyes. In the end she proclaimed that the gift she wanted was Xerxes’ robe. The king, startled by her decision, tried to steer her back to his other grand offers—unlimited gold and sprawling estates, he suggested, would be much better than a robe. Nevertheless, Artaÿnte’s mind was made up and Xerxes had promised to give her what she desired.
When Xerxes left his lover, leaving behind his robe, he must have felt that his affair was doomed. The robe that he had just given away was not just any piece of clothing. No, it was a hand-sewn gift made personally for the king by his wife, Amestris. It was an especially precious gift, for noble Achaemenid women rarely, if ever, personally worked cloth. With a growing sense of horror, the king knew the robe would be easily recognized in the city and word would inevitably trickle back to Amestris about her husband’s infidelity. As it turned out, Xerxes’ fears were well founded, for his wife did indeed learn about the affair. Yet, she was in no hurry as she cautiously plotted her revenge and waited for the opportune moment to strike. Interestingly, Amestris did not hold Artaÿnte solely responsible for the affair. Instead she apparently believed her daughter-in-law’s action derived from a lack of proper upbringing. Therefore, Amestris directed her wrath against Artaÿnte’s mother, the earlier mentioned wife of Masistes.
(Young woman spinning and servant holding a fan. Fragment of a relief known as “The spinner”. Bitumen mastic, Neo-Elamite period (8th century B.C.–middle of the 6th century B.C.). Found in Susa. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons.)
Xerxes was unaware of his wife’s plot all the way up until the day of his next birthday. Amestris had kept her knowledge of the affair hidden from him for a very specific purpose. At the Royal Supper on the king’s birthday, there was supposedly a tradition where the king gave away gifts to his subjects. Therefore, Amestris requested a very specific present on that day—the right to do whatever she wished with the wife of Masistes. Xerxes was caught off guard by his wife’s request, and, just as happened with Artaÿnte, he found he could not refuse.
After Amestris’ wish was granted, Xerxes immediately arranged a meeting with Masistes and tried to warn him of the impending danger. Yet, the king delivered this warning in a way that you might not have expected. When Masistes arrived, curious about what his brother Xerxes wanted to talk about, the king frantically tried to convince Masistes to abandon his wife. Xerxes even offered him one of his daughters as incentive. Masistes balked at the idea, and after a coarse exchange of words, stormed off to return to his wife. Little did he know that Amestris would get to her first.
As Herodotus told it, while Xerxes and Masistes were arguing, Amestris had called together a select group of soldiers from the king’s personal guard. With the king’s authority behind her words, Amestris ordered the soldiers to hunt down Masistes’ wife and carry out a number of gruesome acts. Herodotus wrote, “Amestris sent for the soldiers of the royal bodyguard and had Masistes’ wife horribly mutilated. Her breasts, nose, ears, and lips were cut off and thrown to the dogs; then her tongue was torn out and, in this dreadful condition, she was sent home” (The Histories, 9.112). When Masistes returned to his dwelling, he found his wife in the aforementioned state—mutilated, but miraculously still alive (at least for the moment). When he finally recovered from his shock, Masistes immediately gathered his sons and set out for Bactria, where he was the governing satrap, in hopes of launching a rebellion.
While Xerxes likely sympathized with his brother’s motivation, the rebellion was a different matter. When the king learned that Masistes had silently left the city, he sent an army in pursuit. The wronged fugitives never made it back to the safety of their domain. Instead, they were intercepted on the road by Xerxes’ troops and Masistes, his sons and any guards that happened to be present were all mercilessly executed. So ends the tale of how Xerxes’ lusts supposedly led to the destruction of his brother’s family, except for Artaÿnte and any other unknown children.
Again, it should be mentioned that most of the dramatic story narrated above was probably a creation of Herodotus’ own imagination. Yet, as with a great deal of folklore and mythology, it would not be surprising if there was a grain of historical truth underneath all of the literary embellishment.
Whether or not the above tale was true, Xerxes’ own fate would turn deadly in 465 BCE. Around that year, a faction led by Artabanus, one of Xerxes’ main lieutenants, organized the assassinations of both the king and his son, Darius. Months later, Artaxerxes I (a son of Xerxes and brother of Darius) killed Artabanus and became the next King of Kings of the Achaemenid Empire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top Picture attribution: (Cropped young woman spinning and a servant holding a fan from a fragment of a relief known as “The spinner”. Bitumen mastic, Neo-Elamite period (roughly 8th – 6th century BCE). Found in Susa. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.