“He gave the cloak. She, charmed with the gift, wore it, exulting.”
William Clark Wontner
from Herodotus, The History, 9.108-113
(Translation: David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)
Now the King had been in Sardis ever since his flight from Athens, after his defeat at sea there. While he was in Sardis, he fell in love with Masistes’ wife, who was also in the place. He sent to her many times but failed to win her over, and he tried no violence because he had concern for his brother, Masistes. The woman was in the same case, for she knew that no force would be applied to her. Finally, as Xerxes failed every other way, he arranged a marriage for his own son, Darius, with the daughter of the woman he courted and Masistes. He thought that, if he did this, he would be more likely to get Masistes’ wife. When he had betrothed them with the usual procedures, he went off to Susa; and when he came there and took into his own house Darius’ bride, he gave up altogether the idea of Masistes’ wife but changed round and fell in love with Darius’ wife (who was Masistes’ daughter) and gained her. The name of the girl was Artaÿnte.
As time went on, it all came out, and this is how. Amestris, the wife of Xerxes, had woven a great, subtly colored cloak, beautiful to look at, and she gave it to Xerxes. He was delighted with it, put it on, and paraded with it in front of Artaÿnte. He was delighted with her, too, and bade her ask him for whatever she wanted, in return for the favors she had granted him. She could have, he said, whatever she asked for. It was destined that she and all her house would come to a bad end, and so she said, in answer to Xerxes, “Will you give me whatever I ask for?” He, thinking that she would ask for anything but what she actually did, promised and swore to do so. When he had sworn, she coolly asked for the cloak. Xerxes was at his wits’ end, for he did not want to give it, for no other reason than that he was in dread of Amestris, lest he should be found out clearly doing what she already guessed at. He offered the girl cities and all the gold in the world and an army, which no one should command but herself. (The army is a real Persian gift.) But when he could not persuade her, he gave the cloak. She, charmed with the gift, wore it, exulting.
Amestris learned that she had the cloak; but having learned of what was done, she held no grudge against the girl but thought the guilty party was the girl’s mother and that she had managed the whole thing; and so she plotted the destruction of Masistes’ wife. She waited for the moment when Xerxes, her husband, should be giving the feast that is held once a year on the King’s birthday. (The name of this feast is in Persian tukta, which means, in Greek, “perfection.”) Then and at no other time the King anoints his head, and he distributes gifts among the Persians. Amestris waited for that day and then asked Xerxes to give her Masistes’ wife. He thought it a terrible and abominable thing to do to turn over his brother’s wife to her and, in addition, someone entirely innocent of the whole matter; for he had a notion of what she wanted her for.
Finally, in the face of her importunity and also under the constraint of the law that no one could fail of a request preferred during the King’s banquet, he consented, very much against his will. He bade his wife do with the woman what she willed, but he also sent for his brother and said, “Masistes, you are Darius’ son and my brother, and, besides, you are a good man. Please live with your present wife no longer; I will give you in her stead a daughter of my own. Live with her, and do not keep as your wife your present one; I do not wish it so.” Masistes was utterly amazed at what he said and answered, “Master, what an improper word is this you speak, in bidding me put aside my wife and marry your daughter! From my present wife I have young sons and daughters, one of whom you have married to a son of your own; besides, the woman is exceedingly to my mind. My lord, of course I esteem very highly being thought worthy to marry a daughter of yours. But I will do neither of these things you bid me. Please do not put pressure on me by insisting on this business. Some other man will appear for your daughter as good as myself, but suffer me to continue to live with my own wife.” That was his answer. Xerxes was furious and answered, “Masistes, this is how it has turned out: I will not give you my daughter for your wedded wife, nor will you live any longer with the other that you have, so that you may learn how to accept what is offered you.” When Masistes heard that, he walked out of the presence, saying, “Master, you have not yet quite destroyed me!”
In the meantime, while Xerxes was talking to his brother, Amestris sent for Xerxes’ bodyguard and savagely mutilated Masistes’ wife. She had her breasts cut off and threw them and her nose, ears, and lips to the dogs and had her tongue cut out and so sent her home mutilated.
Masistes had heard not a word of this but foreboded something of evil and came into his house at a run. He saw his ruined wife and at once took counsel with his children and set off for Bactria with his sons and certain other people, where he intended to raise the province in revolt and do the King the greatest mischief he could. In my opinion, this indeed would have happened if he had got to the Bactrians and Sacae first; for they loved him, and he was viceroy of Bactria. But Xerxes had knowledge of his doings and sent an army against him when he was yet on his road and killed him, his sons, and his supporters. Such is the story of Xerxes’ love and Masistes’ death.
Towards the very end of Herodotus’ The History, he gives us this account of Xerxes’ dalliance, first with his brother’s wife, then with his niece (and soon daughter-in-law). It is a set piece that sticks out of place in the general narrative about the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Xerxes had just suffered a catastrophic loss at Salamis and was fleeing (“completely in the grip of fear,” Herodotus thinks) back to his capital at Susa. He leaves his general Mardonius to continue the conquest of Greece, although, by this time, the reader already knows that Mardonius had died in this campaign, having suffered a crushing and decisive defeat at Platea. This was the battle that put an end to Persian imperial ambitions, and signaled the rise of Athenian prominence.
Xerxes encamps at Sardis, capital of Croesus’ Lydia, which, after its fall to Cyrus in the previous generation (as told in Book 1), removed the buffer between Persia and the Greeks, especially those Ionian colonies along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. This paved the way to Persian incursion into the eastern Mediterranean. But now in retreat, and fearing for his very life, Xerxes stops by this last outpost to the west of his empire, and we are treated by the way to a gruesome soap opera within his imperial household.
Amestris is not only bad ass, she is one bad biatch. The retribution she brought upon her sister-in-law, for thinking she groomed the daughter to seduce Xerxes, was so vicious, Herodotus deemed it worthy of note. Turf war among concubines in a harem is as savage as military combat, and women moreover are more underhanded than men. (Check out, for example, Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern or any of the surreal Real Housewives.) Amestris is no different. She bided her time in quiet plotting until that perfect, opportune moment came to utterly destroy her rival.
Why this tale at this point in The History? Herodotus is perhaps showing us a Xerxes of diminished stature–from that of supreme overlord who ordered the waters of the Hellespont be whipped into submission, or a canal be dug through the isthmus of Athos for the passage of his war ships, to this lovesick, middle-aged man, infantilized by his harridan of a wife. So while Tomyris, the Massagetae queen, had Cyrus by the hair on his head, Amestris had Xerxes by his balls.