Remember the song that we sang in Hebrew school about the foolish King Ahashverosh? How foolish was he? Was he truly a fool? This question is the subject of a dispute on our daf between Rav and Shmuel, who discuss whether the strategy of having a general party first and an event for the people of the capital, Shushan, afterwards was an intelligent plan or a foolish one. Did it make more sense to seek the favor of his far-flung constituency, knowing that the local populace was always available to him, or should he have first ensured his support at home?
How to judge Ahashverosh is an argument that has existed through the ages. Even today, historians debate whether he was a master tactician or simply a fool. The Greeks against whom he fought – and often bested in war – succeeded in tarnishing his reputation in a variety of ways. Their description of him is not very far off from the picture that we get from reading Megillat Esther – and even more from the midrashic material based on the megilla – of someone a bit unstable who was easily swayed by the opinions of his advisors and attendants, as well as ruled over by the women of his harem.
It should be noted, however, that in the early years of his reign, Ahashverosh succeeded in putting down serious rebellions in Egypt and Babylon, securing his reputation as an astute and intelligent military tactician. His building initiatives included the cities of Persepolis and Fiura, both of which were impressive on an international scale for that time. At the same time, it appears that his spending on these initiatives was so great that he could not raise enough tax money to cover the projects, which left his treasury bankrupt.
Thus, it is difficult to reach a clear conclusion regarding his personality or his life’s work.