In 472 BC Aeschylus’ new play Persians was performed in Athens. It was based on recent history: the great victory at the Battle of Salamis eight years before. Many members of the audience, and the playwright himself, had fought in the battle, and Xerxes was still very much alive (he was murdered seven years later).
But the play, remarkably, avoids an openly triumphalist tone and focuses on the sorrows of the Persian queen mother Atossa, who waits fearfully in Susa for news of her son’s forces. Xerxes stumbles on in the final scenes, ragged and broken, a rather ridiculous figure who has been crushed by his own hubris. The ghost of his father, Darius, grimly condemns his over-ambitious son and the message is plain: Xerxes is nothing but a chancer. A man driven on by unimaginable arrogance, who brings disaster to himself and his people. A fool who thinks he can outwit the gods themselves.
So now for my whole house a staunchless spring of griefs
Is opened; and my son, in youthful recklessness,
Not knowing the gods’ ways, has been the cause of all.
He hoped to stem that holy stream, the Bosphorus,
And bind the Hellespont with fetters like a slave;
He would wrest Nature, turn sea into land, manacle
A strait with iron, to make a highway for his troops.
He in his mortal folly thought to overpower
Immortal gods, even Poseidon. Was not this
Some madness that possessed him?
(The Ghost of Darius; Aeschylus, Persians, 746-755)
Aeschylus’ characterisation had an enduring impact: for future historians Xerxes became a byword for folly and extravagance. Nowadays, thanks to Herodotus and Handel, most people know only that he had a baffling affection for a plane-tree, built a bridge of boats, and tried rather unsuccessfully to invade Greece.
It’s time to put the record straight, or at least to balance it. Stoneman proudly tells us in the introduction that this is the first biography of an Achaemenid Persian ruler since Plutarch wrote the Life of Artaxerxes II.* If so, it’s well overdue. But even he is challenged by the fact that documentation is so scarce and, annoyingly, very weighted towards the Greek point of view. In trying to correct this he – perhaps problematically – draws on fictional representations of Xerxes as well, to add flavour. These are primarily Gore Vidal’s Creation and Louis Couperus’s superbly-titled Arrogance: The Conquests of Xerxes, both of which are naturally now on my reading list. But can one bolster a biography by drawing on fictional truths? Vidal and Couperus may have done an awful lot of research but they’re still novelists and, even though they aren’t held up against Herodotus, Ctesias or Diodorus, I wasn’t sure it was the best way to tackle the problem. However, their presence fitted in with the feel of the rest of the book, which was very much aimed at the general reader, and thank heaven for that. It’s generally approachable, it’s well aware of Xerxes’ presence in popular culture, and it’s very readable. I learned an awful lot from it.
Stoneman gives us a Xerxes who deserves sympathy. His formidable mother Atossa engineered for him one of the few smooth successions in Persian history. She also chose him a wife: one who reminded her of herself. That was his cousin Amestris, a terrifying woman who managed to amass great wealth and property as well as proving to have an especially strong vindictive streak. We’ll come back to Amestris later. Suffice it to say that the real Xerxes may have been rather henpecked. But Stoneman also argues that Xerxes’ one great ambition – the ill-fated Greek campaign – was undertaken not from wild hubris, but out of a sense of duty to complete the task his father Darius had begun. He was egged on by some of his generals, most notably his belligerent cousin Mardonius. According to Mardonius it would be easy to defeat the Greeks, who ‘“usually wage war in an extremely stupid fashion, because they’re ignorant and incompetent”: they choose a flat plain to fight in and carry on until nearly everyone is dead‘. Mardonius may, retrospectively, have felt rather silly when those ‘stupid’ Greek tactics took his life at the Battle of Plataea…
But the part of Stoneman’s story that appealed to me most was his reading of Xerxes’ assassination. This is, of course, an historical episode that I’ve read a lot about, and there were some very interesting ideas here. I’m not quite sure whether this should be regarded as a spoiler, but be warned nevertheless. Stoneman argues, very plausibly in my opinion, that Xerxes’ murder wasn’t dreamed up by court officials and eunuchs but might actually have been instigated by Xerxes’ eldest son Darius and by Amestris. Xerxes had recently shamed himself by having an affair with Darius’ wife (his own niece), which had insulted both his son and his wife. What did Amestris have to lose? She’d get rid of a philandering husband and would enjoy all the power of a queen mother.
As it happened, things got a little out of hand and Darius was killed too, and Artaxerxes ended up on the throne, but Stoneman’s theory does make sense. Amestris was extremely good at taking nasty revenges on people, and I’ve wondered for months why she didn’t do anything to Megabyzus, even though he was obviously involved to some degree in the conspiracy. But if that conspiracy had ultimately come from her… and if Megabyzus was simply doing his best to stop Artabanus before anyone else died… Well, it all starts to fall into place.
And then there were the several offhand references to a ‘gold plane tree‘, which I wanted to know more about, for obvious reasons. Stoneman remained impenetrable on the subject, so I resorted to the Encyclopedia Iranica. Apparently the wealthy Lydian Pythius gave a present to Darius I: a miniature golden plane tree and vine. These seem to have found their way back to Persepolis, where they became famous and cherished treasures of the court. Xenophon also talks about the plane tree (but he suggests it’s full-size), and says that it was bedecked with jewels from all over the empire and that the King held audiences beneath it. So you see, perhaps Ombra mai fu isn’t all that far from the truth! The golden plane tree and the vine seem to have remained at Persepolis until Alexander the Great and his soldiers looted and burned the palace. Though I’ve always had a soft spot for Alexander, I can’t quite forgive him for Persepolis.
There are lots of intriguing little nuggets of information. Stoneman makes a good case for dismissing the story of Esther once and for all, persuasively arguing that it’s a retelling of an older story about the Babylonian gods Ishtar (Esther) and Marduk (Mordechai). He uses Xerxes as a way to tell us about Persian education, culture, attitudes and architecture, and it’s all deeply interesting, albeit sometimes surprising. Apparently, when you spoke to the Persian king, you had to stand on a gold brick. Can that be true? How big was this brick? It strikes me as terribly impractical. What do you do in council meetings? Pass the brick round? And what about dinner parties? Or if you went out hunting? Did you ever get to a social status where you no longer had to worry about the brick? What about the king’s wife? (I can’t imagine Amestris giving a damn about whether she had a gold brick to stand on or not.) Things like this matter to me.
The book’s fascinating but not perfect and I don’t mean in terms of its history, which I’m not qualified to judge – I’ll leave that to Achaemenid specialists. But there are needless errors and repetitions (do we need to be told twice that Empedocles claimed to remember a former existence as a bush?). For example, Stoneman twice says that there were 1,000 Immortals rather than the 10,000 I’ve read elsewhere. I think that in giving this number he’s referring to those selected from the larger force to serve as the King’s bodyguard, which gave them the right to carry gold-topped spears – but it’s not clear. Similarly, his frequent references to ‘Artaxerxes’ can be terribly confusing, because he doesn’t always distinguish between Xerxes’ son (Artaxerxes I) and his great-grandson who was king when Ctesias wrote his history (Artaxerxes II).
Those who’ve read the historical appendix to my comic won’t be surprised to hear that I was looking out for certain historical figures in particular, and all were present and correct; but I was rather shocked by Stoneman’s take on Amytis. He suggests Megabyzus was driven to treason by her unfaithfulness because he thought she was having an affair with the king. But that can’t possibly be right, surely? Xerxes was Amytis’ father and Ctesias specifically says that he publicly told her off for her behaviour. There’s no hint that Xerxes was remotely involved in whatever fling she might have had. You can bet that, if there’d been the slightest hint of scandal, Ctesias would have been on it like a pig after a truffle.
There are also inconsistencies with names: for example, the imposter Gaumata’s name is spelled differently on two different occasions. Persian names are incredibly frustrating, because the familiar names we know aren’t actually Persian at all, but Greek equivalents which are themselves transcribed in various ways. But if you’re writing a book, you’ve got to choose a particular spelling and stick to it. I felt particularly injured that Stoneman managed to spell Megabyzus’ name in two different ways, and give two different dates for his Syrian rebellion, in the space of one double-spread.
Regarding the issue of names, I felt there was a strong case to be made for the kind of glossary at the back that you find in Tom Holland’s translation of Herodotus. It’s an immensely helpful way to remember who everyone is, especially because everyone’s name (save Xerxes) seems to start with either Arta- or Mega-. And what about a helpful list of the various satrapies with their respective rulers during Xerxes’ reign? I initially felt that a family tree wouldn’t go amiss either, but I’ve been working on one myself since, and I’ve discovered that it swiftly descends into a tangle of interbred first cousins.
I don’t mean this post to sound critical. I really don’t. I mean it to sound engaged. This was a book that had my entire attention: it absorbed me and made me laugh and made me argue with it out loud; it led to mad scribbling on random pieces of paper, and many pauses to flick through Herodotus and Ctesias at my elbow. It was great. And it finished off with a chapter dedicated to Xerxes’ presence in opera and the theatre, which utterly delighted me, especially when Stoneman not only mentioned Artaserse but name-checked an actual singer for the only time in the chapter: no less than Franco Fagioli, who evidently impressed Stoneman despite singing the role of a character who never existed.
In short, this is an enthusiastic, engaging and very enjoyable book absolutely packed with anecdotes and information. I don’t know Stoneman’s reputation as an Achaemenid scholar (I think he’s more of an Alexander man), but he writes clearly and well, and with flair. This comes warmly recommended to anyone who wants to find out more about this complicated and much-maligned historical figure: Xerxes ‘beyond the plane’.
* Stoneman doesn’t seem to mention this book, which seems to have come out just a year ago, but isn’t actually available to buy except at an insane price.