Great King from 465 until 424 BC


Artaxerxes bowl

A silver bowl possibly from the court of Artaxerxes I (British Museum)

The inscription round the rim in Old Persian cuneiform reads:

Artaxerxes, the great king, king of kings, king of lands, son of Xerxes the king, the Achaemenid, in whose house this silver drinking cup was made.


Greeks - not much help any more. Herodotus' history ends soon after the Battle of Mykale in 479 BC. Thucydides the Athenian wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta (Peloponnesian War: 431 - 404 BC), but is sketchy about events in the 50 years leading up to it. Diodorus is chronologically far removed, like us - and has no reliable narrative for this period.

What happened during those 40 odd years?

There's no narrative, and we don't know many actual dates. But - in approximate order - these things happened:

  • He suppressed a revolt in Bactria (Afghanistan) which may have been led by his brother. (He was not there in person; in fact he never left Persia.)
  • He continued building work at Persepolis (PTA ends in 459 BC)
  • Egypt tried to win independence from Persia (464 - 454 BC). After the assassination of Xerxes, the Egyptians thought this might be a good time to break away. They were successful at first, besieging the Persian garrison in Memphis. They asked for and got huge help from Athens (200 triremes). But Artaxerxes put pressure on Athens by giving gold to Sparta. A large Persian force arrived and freed the Persians in Memphis - and the bid for freedom ended with humiliation for Egypt, and disaster for Athens. An inscription from Athens shows how effective Artaxerxes' policy of distraction was:
    Of the Erechtheid tribe, these men died in war, in Cyprus, in Egypt, in Phoenicia, in Halieis, in Aegina, at Megara in the same year On a mable stele now in the Louvre; Meiggs and Lewis, Greek Historical Inscriptions 33
  • Judaea
    On the death of Darius, Xerxes his son took the kingdom; who, as he inherited his father's kingdom, so did he inherit his piety towards god, and honour him; for he did all things suitably to his father in relation to divine worship, and he was exceedingly friendly towards the Jews.Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 11.120

    According to the Jewish historian Josephus [above] Xerxes continued the friendly policy of his father and grandfather towards the Jews, now re-established in Judaea. According to the Jewish Bible (Books of Ezra and Nehemiah) Artaxerxes continued the policy begun by Cyrus and continued by Darius. This was to help Jews transported to Babylonia to return to Judaea, and give them financial support to rebuild their temple and defences in Jerusalem. There had been opposition to this project from local enemies; Artaxerxes intervened to strengthen the position of the Jews, on condition that they they stayed loyal to Persia. Because Ezra, the Jewish leader and law-giver, decided to accept the authority of Persia, the Jewish nation and its religion was able to reestablish itself in Judaea.

    The Book of Esther in the Jewish Bible may refer to the reign of Artaxerxes I (although "Ahasuerus" is also identified with Xerxes and Artaxerxes II). Dismissed by some as "historical fiction" it tells the tale of an orphaned Jewish girl, Esther, who's chosen by Ahasuerus to replace his prudish and disobedient wife. She risks her life to reveal a plot by Haman, the king's vizier, to exterminate all the Jews in Persia. Haman is hanged and licence given to Jews to kill anyone they regard as a threat - over 75,000 were slaughtered. The event in celebrated in the Jewish festival of Purim.

  • Greece. Athens was weakened by the Egyptian fiasco. Artaxerxes, using cash incentives, encouraged Persian supporters ("Medizers") in various cities. A formal peace treaty was concluded ("The Peace of Callias" 449 BC). The Greeks believed this was a sign they'd finally won the war with Persia, but in fact it gave the Persians all they needed - guaranteed access to their possessions in Cyprus and Egypt. From 431 BC and throughout the reign of Darius II the whole of Greece was involved in the war between Athens and Sparta and their allies - known as the Peloponnesian War.

Was Artaxerxes a good ruler?

He used overwhelming military force in Egypt, but left the Greeks to quarrel among themselves - in fact encouraging their rivalries by judicious payment of cash. We know about his attention to detail in Judaea because of the Bible - perhaps he was similarly involved in other troubled parts of the empire. In many ways he seems a model ruler - he could well have claimed the Roman mission statement as his own:

parcere subjectis et debellare superbos
[Show mercy to those who submit to our rule, but make total war on those who challenge it.] Virgil, Aeneid VI. 852

Artaxerxes I died in 425 BC, and was succeeded by his son Xerxes II.