Notes on Xerxes and His Persian Empire

2017.08.03 | By Olga M. Davidson

Adapted from notes written by Olga Davidson and originally published in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 Program Book. The 2017 Glimmerglass production of Handel’s XERXES, directed by Tazewell Thompson, runs through August 18.

Xerxes was ruler of the Persian Empire from 486 to 465 BCE. Under his rule, the empire was by far the mightiest power in the ancient world, dominating Asia Minor, the East Mediterranean, Egypt, the Near East, and Central Asia.

The Persian name of Xerxes was spelled in the Old Persian cuneiform script as x-š-y-a-r-š-a, meaning “he who rules over warriors.” Most of what we know about the life and times of Xerxes comes from two ancient Greek sources, both of which are nowadays considered to be masterpieces of classical literature.

The earlier of these two main sources is a tragedy known as The Persians, the premiere of which was performed in the year 472 BCE at the festival of the City Dionysia in the city of Athens. This tragedy was composed and directed by the Athenian state poet Aeschylus and sponsored by the most celebrated exponent of Athenian democracy at that time, Pericles himself. Ιn the Frogs of Aristophanes, performed in the year 405 BCE, the stage-Aeschylus brags (verse 1027) that the best ergon or ‘work’ he ever created was this tragedy, The Persians.

The second and later source is the History of Herodotus, which first circulated in the Greek- speaking world during the last decades of the fifth century BCE. Most of our information about Xerxes comes from Herodotus.

In both sources, a pivotal moment in the story about Xerxes is his crossing of a strait called the Hellespont, which separates Asia Minor in the southeast from Europe in the northwest. The quest of Xerxes was to conquer the Greeks who lived on the European side of the Aegean Sea, especially the people of Athens, and the way for his land armies to reach Europe was to cross the Hellespont. To achieve such a crossing, as we read in both Aeschylus and Herodotus, Xerxes undertook the spectacular feat of constructing an enormous bridge that spanned the Hellespont, thus making it possible for the king’s land armies to cross over from Asia to Europe.

But before the planned crossing could even begin, the bridge was destroyed by a violent storm. The narrative of Herodotus captures in detail the rage of Xerxes in reaction to this calamity. The ruler issues orders to have the Hellespont punished: the underlings of Xerxes are commanded to administer a whipping to the waters of the sea and to drop fetters into the depths below. It is as if Xerxes could exert his despotic rule over nature itself by treating the Hellespont as his slave. Although the planned crossing will in any case succeed after Xerxes commissions a pontoon to be constructed in place of the bridge, the ruler will ultimately fail in his quest to conquer the Greeks of Europe, as we read not only in the history by Herodotus but also in the tragedy by Aeschylus. Moreover, the narrative of Aeschylus explicitly links this failure with divine vengeance for the hubris or cosmic outrage shown by Xerxes, who at the end of the tragedy is displayed in a sorry state of abject defeat upon returning to his home in Persia.

Handel’s opera makes only incidental reference to Xerxes’ military exploits; more important for the operatic plot are amorous intrigues of the Persian court. Although much of this operatic plot is invented, a moment from Herodotus’s narrative (7:21) serves to inspire one of the work’s most memorable and telling scenes. The historian reports that Xerxes, at the beginning of his march toward the Hellespont, finds a plane tree that enthralls him with its beauty: he treasures this tree so dearly that he decorates it with gold ornaments and arranges for it to be guarded by one of his elite troops known as the Immortals. A later Greek author, Aelian (Varia Historia 2.14), ridicules Xerxes for idolizing a tree, but this worshipful gesture of the king is in fact true to the royal traditions of his dynasty. As Pierre Briant, an expert in the history of the Persian Empire, points out, the kings of the Persian empire could be pictured as worshipping the plane tree as a tree of life.

Seal of Xerxes. Petter & Chipiez 1890 fig. 497, reproduced in Briant 2002 fig. 30.
Seal of Xerxes. Perrot & Chipiez 1890 fig. 497, reproduced in Briant 2002 fig. 30.

This act of adoration is reproduced in the beginning of Handel’s opera. Although Handel’s Xerxes differs from the historical emperor in many ways, they are both men given to intensely passionate acts, as we see and hear in the breathtaking aria, “Ombra mai fu.”

Frondi tenere e belle
del mio platano amato
per voi risplenda il fato.
Tuoni, lampi, e procelle
non v’oltraggino mai la cara pace,
né giunga a profanarvi austro rapace.

Ombra mai fu
di vegetabile,
cara ed amabile,
soave più.

O leaves tender and beautiful
of my beloved plane tree
On you may fate shine resplendent
May thunder, lighting, and storms
never intrude, ever, on your dear peace of mind,
nor may there be any wind that comes to violate you
—some violent wind from the west.

Shade there never was
of any plant
so dear and lovely
or any more sweet.

Trans. Gregory Nagy

Olga M. Davidson earned her Ph.D. in 1983 from Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies. Since 2009, she has been affiliated with the faculty of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations, Boston University.



Briant, Pierre. 2002. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Ketterer, Robert C. 2015. Laughing at the Great King: Ottomans as Persians in Minato’s Xerse (Venice 1654). Abstract. Abstracts for 2015 CAMWS Meeting.

Perrot, Georges, and Charles Chipiez. 1890. Perse: Phrygie—Lydie et Carie—Lycie. Vol. 4 of Georges Perrot and Charles Chipiez, Histoire de l’Art dans l’Antiquité. Paris: Hachette.