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Aeschylus

The Persians

Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Written and first performed in 472 BC, the ancient Greek tragedy The Persians by Aeschylus is the oldest extant example of the genre. Known as the father of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus was also a veteran of the Greco-Persian wars, on which The Persians is based. Because it depicts recent events, The Persians stands out from other plays of the genre, which for the most part focus on the distant past or mythological heroes. The approach was a risky one: Earlier tragedian Phrynichus wrote a play about an Athenian defeat in a battle against the Persian Empire and was subsequently punished. This may be why Aeschylus is careful to depict only the might and glory of Greece and a thoroughly defeated Persia—the only conditions under which it would have been acceptable to portray sympathy for their despondent adversaries.

Aeschylus's play participates in the glorification of Athenian and Greek culture that came to define the Dionysia festival. During Athens’s Golden Age, in the mid-5th century BC, Greek tragedies were written in trilogies that were performed alongside a comedy at the annual Dionysia festival. The Persians is the only surviving entry in its trilogy of plays, which won first prize at the festival that year.

This guide refers to the Penguin Classics edition, Aeschylus: The Persians and Other Plays.

Plot Summary

King Xerxes of Persia has led a disastrous military invasion of Greece, emptying Susa, the Persian capital, of its able-bodied men. The play’s chorus, Persian courtiers who are trusted advisors of the king and royal family, sets the scene, describing the vast array of warriors that followed Xerxes into battle. Xerxes’ mother, Queen Atossa, beseeches the chorus for advice. She had a portentous dream and is concerned about the well-being of her son. In the dream, Xerxes attempted to harness two giant women, one Greek and one Persian, to his chariot, only to be thrown from his seat. After the dream, Atossa witnessed a hawk attacking an eagle. The chorus comforts her, advising her to pour out libations in honor of her husband, the deceased King Darius the Great. 

One of Xerxes’ soldiers delivers a message that confirms Atossa’s worst fears: The Persian army was decimated. Xerxes, acting on bad information supplied by a Greek spy, ordered simultaneous sea and land invasions by means of a bridge of ships lashed together. During this attack, the Battle of Salamis, the Greek fleet destroyed the Persian navy and the land invasion forces scattered. The messenger barely made it out alive; he describes Xerxes’ abject state.

Despondent, Atossa and the chorus mourn the fate of their empire. They summon the ghost of Darius to seek advice. The ghost laments his son’s foolishness. In particular, he condemns the bridge of ships as an affront to the gods: Xerxes’ defeat was divine punishment for his hubris. Ruing this loss as the end of everything he and his forefathers built, Darius departs, advising the Persians never to invade Greece again.

King Xerxes arrives, his royal robes torn to ribbons in despair, armed with nothing but an empty quiver. He grieves his failure, agonizing over his responsibility. The chorus joins him in ritualistic mourning, adding to his sorrow at his request.