Book Review: Xerxes
by Richard Stoneman
Yale University Press, 2015
Richard Stoneman begins his superb new book Xerxes: A Persian Life with a statement, a justification, a challenge so seemingly outrageous that you instantly want to believe it: “This is the first attempt,” he writes, “at a serious biography of Xerxes, or any Achaemenid king, since, I believe, Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes, written in the second century AD.”
As is almost always the case with declarations like this one, of course, the wiggle-room is produced by that word “serious,” since its parameters exist in the author’s head and can be invoked to summon support or dismiss rivals. In the case of Stoneman’s book, it seems unlikely that there’ve been no serious biographies of Xerxes in, say, Persian, in the last two thousand years; Stoneman’s Bibliography is ten close-typed pages long, but it contains no Persian titles. But even if we restrict ourselves to titles in English, there’s still at least one title missing from that bibliography: a worthy little volume in the old “Makers of History” series from 2010 by Jacob Abbott on Xerxes.
But a little hyperbole is perhaps forgivable on Stoneman’s part, since he must know how strong and indispensable a book he’s created. At the beginning of his text he stipulates that the aim of his book is to “recreate something of what it was to be the ruler of the largest empire the world had yet seen, in the fifth century BC – and also to investigate how the dominant picture of Xerxes, which the modern world has inherited, came into being.” But what he manages to do in only 200 pages is considerably more than these humble aims; this is bracingly ground-breaking stuff, a scholarly and clear-eyed assessment of an ancient life that’s nearly invisible on evidentiary grounds.
Invisible, hence that side-pursuit how the “dominant picture” of Xerxes has been formed in the mind of the West – meaning, the cultural portrayals of Xerxes in popular culture, which Stoneman kicks off with the Xerxes digressions in the aforementioned Plutarch biography and continues through operas, stage plays, and modern novels, including Gore Vidal’s great 1981 book Creation, in which the king is trumpeted and traduced in equal measure. By the end of reading the novel, Stoneman seems almost despairing: “What have we learned of Xerxes so far?” he asks and then answers, “He is an incompetent commander in war, and in private his is weepy, cruel, arrogant, hedonistic, never satisfied. In the Book of Esther he is a drunkard, ill-advised and excessively pliable. Not an attractive mixture, to be sure …”
And for all the several hundred New England intellectuals who might have finished Creation and might agree with such a summary, there are millions of people throughout the world who’ve never heard of the novel but who think they know Xerxes quite well: for these people, the King of Kings is bald, epicene, and, not incidentally, something like eight feet tall – he’s the Xerxes from Zack Snyder’s movie 300, which dramatizes, or rather melodramatizes, Xerxes’ attack on Greece and annihilation of the forces of King Leonidas of Sparta in 480 BC. That Xerxes despises the very name of freedom; there can be no freedom outside the will of a living god on Earth.
The Xerxes in Snyder’s movie is a sinuous, delicious villain, and in honesty it should be admitted that Stoneman has a nearly impossible task ahead of him if he seeks by implication to paint a favorable or even neutral picture of this ancient Achaemenid. The entire house was built on and perpetuated by treachery and assassination, and when it came to encounters with the West, it married these vicious traits (which were, after all, commonplace in the era) with a fairly steady record of bumbling, defeat, and retreat, epitomized by Xerxes’s father Darius the Great, who suffered defeat and humiliation at the hands of Alexander of Macedon. The Achaemenids were by and large petty, tyrannical, and blood-soaked, which forces Stoneman to cast a fairly wide net for balancing positives – like, for instance, the dynasty’s tendency toward a kind of cultural ecumenism that contrasts it with some of the other large multi-national empires that come to mind, the British Empire, the Romans, the Moghul Empire, or the United States, where “American imperialism is expressed in the universality of Coca-Cola and Nike trainers, even in the countries that hate America most, such as Iran.”
Such equivalences seem more than a little simplified, and they naturally though perhaps accidentally serve to heighten the contrasts of that famous confrontation at Thermopylae, a confrontation to which Stoneman does full justice:
The two armies that faced each other were very different in appearance. The Persians wore tight trousers and long tunics, with leather boots and felt caps. They did not wear armour, except rarely a padded jerkin, and the shields they carried were made of wicker. (These are not as useless as they sound; they are easily penetrated, but also trap enemy arrows and spears so that they cannot be reused.) Their chief weapon was the bow, which was intended en masse to wipe out an enemy by aerial bombardment before the armies ever engaged. The Greeks, by contrast, relied on the hoplite phalanx. The men wore heavy metal breastplates and kilts, greaves and helmets, and carried a spear and a short thrusting sword. The tactic was to form the troops into a tight block which was impenetrable to assault, and which would advance steadily, remorselessly, like a gigantic rugby scrum, until it trampled and crushed whatever stood in its path.
But refreshingly, Stoneman wants to concentrate most of his “Persian Life” in Persia, on as much of Xerxes’s life in his home kingdom as he can reconstruct from the sources available. Stoneman makes intelligent and often very canny use of literary sources such as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, and he stresses that “Xerxes’ legacy is in the works he left behind” – works meaning imperial building projects, most of which were begun by his father. Of the respective ideologies behind such projects, Stoneman is reservedly philosophical: “Did he know in his heart that the art of Persepolis was a dead end,” Stoneman asks of his subject, not quite rhetorically, “doomed to be superseded by the Greek spirit that treasured individualism over magnificence, and that would create an empire on the foundations of his own that came closer than any to binding together east and west, the twain that shall never meet?”
Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BC by the head of his own bodyguard detail, with the help of a eunuch. But the gardens of Persepolis are lovely in the summer.