Ancient Persian history from Xerxes forward (Esther 1)

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Illustration: King Xerxes

Xerxes, called Ahasuerus in some translations, is the Persian king at the centre of the book of Esther. After taking the throne he first had to deal with rebellion in Egypt and Babylon, but he soon turned his attention to Greece. Planning a new invasion, he put together perhaps the largest army of ancient history and, with the resources provided by his city-states on the Mediterranean, also built up a formidable navy. Intending to overwhelm the Greeks by sheer force of numbers, he began the invasion.

The campaign proved a disaster. The Persians managed to overwhelm a tiny contingent of Spartan defenders at the Thermopylae Pass, but at the cost both og high casualties and of leaving the Greeks with a legacy of fallen heroes around whom they could rally. Xerxes proceeded to take most of the land of Greece, but his fleet was crushed by a smaller Greek fleet in the bay of Salamis, near Athens, in 480 B.C. The Persian forces were driven from Greece after they were decisively beaten at Plataea in 479 B.C.

The story of Esther spans much of Xerxes’ reign. Although the details of Esther’s story are not confirmed from external sources, the Biblical account matches well with the chronology of Xerxes’ time in power, and many details of the book suggest that the author was thoroughly acquainted with Persian court life.

Xerxes was succeeded by his son, Artaxerxes I (ruled 464-424 B.C). The war with Greece had not ended; it had simply shifted from the Greek mainland to the eastern Mediterranean. Soon after taking the throne, Artaxerxes was confronted with a major rebellion in Egypt; the Athenians gave military support to the Egyptian cause. The war was brutal and protracted, lasting from 460 to 450 B.C., but the Persians ultimately managed to crush the rebellion and drive out the Greeks. Exhausted, the Greeks and Persians concluded a peace treaty (the Peace of Callias). It was during Artaxerxes’ reign that Ezra and Nehemiah did their work in Jerusalem, with Ezra arriving during the seventh year of Artaxerxes I and Nehemiah in the king’s twentieth year.

In the years that followed, dynastic succession frequently involved conflicts between rival claimants to the throne of Persia. Darius II ruled from 423 to 404 B.C. and spent much of his time putting down revolts. He was followed by Artaxerxes II (ruled 404-358 B.C.), who began his reign with a civil war between himself and Cyrus the Younger. When Cyrus was killed at the battle of Cunaxa (401 B.C.), the 10,000 Greek mercenaries whom Cyrus had hired had to fight their way back home through Persian territory. (This story is recounted in the famous Anabasis of the ancient Greek historian Xenophon.)

Artaxerxes II was succeeded by Artaxerxes III (ruled 358-338 B.C.), who retained the throne by massacres and a campaign of terror. Responding to revolts in the western provinces, he destroyed the Phoenician city of Sidon and waged a brutal war in Egypt. He himself was assassinated and replaced by Darius III, who had the misfortune of having to defend his empire against a Greek army led by one of the most able generals of ancient history: Alexander the Great. In successive battles Alexander routed the Persian armies and brought the Persian empire to an end.


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