Stoneman (Pindar, 2014, etc.) sorts through millennia of literature and histories to try to reveal Xerxes, the powerful ruler of the Achaemenid Empire.
The author sets a difficult task, and he cites a vast array of sources—Ferdowsi, Herodotus, Ctesias, Plutarch, and everyone in between—in his quest for the truth about the Persian king who lost Greece. The first problem is that the largest empire the world had seen up to the fifth century B.C.E. had only oral history and little or no literature. The Greeks and Jews did, and they defined themselves in relation to Persia. Persia’s rule was the catalyst, and the Greek language enabled literature to emerge and circulate. The author carefully and concisely compares, refutes, and corrects names and events without tying readers’ brains in knots—no small feat. As Stoneman notes, “ancient writers were not, as a rule, interested in constructing biographies in the modern sense—certainly not on the scale of some modern tomes.” The description of the Persian character is one of the most valuable parts of the book. They were a peaceful people given to planting gardens—not for show, nor for sustenance, but to create a paradise on Earth. So why did Xerxes decide to attack the Greeks, ignoring the warning of his naval commander? The author supposes that, to prove his worth, he needed to carry out a “great deed,” which he did with the vengeful razing of Athens. What the Greeks saw as great victories at Salamis and even Thermopylae barely damaged the Persian Empire. Xerxes’ ultimate grand design was Persepolis, one of the great wonders of the world that was unfortunately mostly destroyed by Alexander the Great.
A biography that awakens curiosity and whets the appetite for more information.