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:

Montaigne XXXVII

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.


Important to give credit where it is due, so here’s a plug for Sarah Bakewell’s ‘How to live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’.

I’ve found it a very good introduction to Montaigne the man, but I’m also enjoying finding out about his era of pre-enlightenment/renaissance France and how views of Montaigne changed in later centuries as people judged him and read him through the prism of their own times.

Robert Graves’ ‘Count Belisarius’, the last great Roman General I’ve written about before, was similarly (if fictionally) revealing of the era of Constantinople at the head of the Holy Roman Empire and the many fractious tribes of Europe and Asia Minor. These are periods and places which aren’t always part of the simplified historical narrative of why the world is currently as it is.

Several of Bakewell’s references are worth reprising – first a Spanish theologian (I wonder who?) opined that no state could be at peace “…if everyone considers his own God to be the only true God… and everyone else to be blind and deluded.” Surely, as true of our own personal opinions and beliefs as it is of nations.

But the pick of Montaigne for me is:

“On the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting on our own rump.”

A reminder to let go of status, do as one would be done by and to live simply and well.