In the last 7 years, the film “300” has risen in pop culture fandom with famous quotes like “this is Sparta!” flooding the internet in an unending cascade of memes. The blockbuster told a stylized account of the historical battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans of Greece defended their home from an invading Persian empire. The king of that vast force was Xerxes, portrayed as a “god” in the movie, covered in decadent piercings, amulets and bangles of gold. Don’t fall under the spell of “300” creator Frank Miller’s frequent fever dreams though, Xerxes was indeed a real person. Ancient testimonies, like the records of the Greek historian Herodotus, reveal the part he played in war and conquest. However, another ancient witness, the bible, tells us how this Persian Emperor also helped stop a genocide.
Xšayārša I, known by the ancient Hebrew translation “Ahasuerus” in older bible translations and “Xerxes” in Greek, was a son of Darius I. He eventually rose to power after his father’s death in 486 B.C., becoming the fourth king of the Achaemenid Persian empire, its center being modern-day Iran. Immediately he began construction projects and expeditions into foreign lands, aiming to extend his borders with an army composed of various nationalities, including Jews. Xerxes had many Jews in his kingdom as the old empire of king Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, was now his as well. Nebuchadnezzar had laid siege to Jerusalem and carried off many Jews as exiles to Babylon around 100 years prior. Eventually Cyrus the great, Xerxes grandfather, defeated Nebuchadnezzar’s son and took over the city.
This is the background of the biblical book of Esther, an account of a young Jewish woman and her marriage to Xerxes, making her queen of Persia. Her ethnicity is at first secret, until her cousin Mordecai tells her of an official’s plot to exterminate her countrymen, after which she calls for a fast among the Jews and reveals herself to the King, interceding for their lives. (Esther 3-4) She approaches him unannounced, an act that would normally result in one’s execution, yet Xerxes greatly favors Esther and listens to his new queen. He becomes aware of the treachery in his courts and orders the official to be hanged, while promoting Mordecai in his kingdom. It is an event still remembered today in the Jewish feast of Purim, when the book of Esther, the Megillah scroll, is read aloud.
History sometimes reveals opposing elements of an icon’s character; were they power-hungry? Compassionate? One thing is for sure, human beings are complicated creatures and often times you can find both traits, and many more, revealing themselves in the same person. Still, I’d trust the history books over the movie. Keep on digging!