Xerxes – controversially portrayed as a narcissistic androgynous giant in the blood-spattered film 300 – broke with Persian tradition and laid waste to allies and enemies with enormous forces, before losing interest, losing ground and retiring to lotus eating and luxury. Or so some say.
His patina of invincibility was chipped by Leonidas’s legendary 300 Spartans’ suicidal defiance at the ‘hot gates’ of Thermopylae. A Persian General said of them: “Ye Gods, Mardonius, what men have you brought us to fight against? Men that fight not for gold, but for glory.” Spartans sought their immortality in glorious death.
In film and folklore Xerxes was a god amongst men before succumbing to human frailties. Is Xerxes a myth, a legend or history? Probably a bit of all three. A reading of Robert Graves’ Greek Myths suggests most ancient history, legend and mythology is in fact a bit of all three.
But a tale from Montaigne’s suggests that even as Xerxes set out to conquer all, he saw, in the same instant, the limits to his dominance:
Artabanus coming by surprise once upon his nephew Xerxes, chid him for the sudden alteration of his countenance. He was considering the immeasurable greatness of his forces passing over the Hellespont for the Grecian expedition: he was first seized with a palpitation of joy, to see so many millions of men under his command, and this appeared in the gaiety of his looks: but his thoughts at the same instant suggesting to him that of so many lives, within a century at most, there would not be one left, he presently knit his brows and grew sad, even to tears.
Greek myths tell us that power and glory are always transient. Even the most powerful among us are mayflies in historical, let alone geological time. Xerxes is a reminder that men cannot be gods. We have at best three score and ten, whether we are millions or 300 men. It behoves us to use our time well.