"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

22 November 2013

The Persians, by Aeschylus

Aeschylus’ play The Persians is unique amongst Greek tragedies because it focuses on a contemporary political situation rather than re-presenting stories from Greek mythology. The play is set in Persia just after the battle of Salamis, in which Aeschylus fought. The content of the play centers on Atossa—Xerxes’ mother—receiving the news that the Persian army has been destroyed at the battle of Salamis and her son disgraced.

Like Aeschylus’ play TheSuppliants, The Persians relies on an aggrandizement of Hellenic martial prowess and pride in contrast to a foreign invader who ignores the commands of the gods. Understandably for someone who fought the Persians, this play—like The Suppliants—has a xenophobic undertone glorifying the Greek military.

The play opens with the Persian council/Chorus discussing how impressive and glorious the Persian army raised by Xerxes was, and how they built a bridge across the Hellespont to send part of the vast army to Greece while the other portion travelled by land. The opening scene of the Chorus speaking is unusually long. By the end of their long speech, the council has begun to fell an anxiety about their army, with premonitions of destruction. Xerxes’ mother Atossa arrives and relates a dream that she had of signs pointing to disaster. The council assures her that the signs must point to the success of the Persian army. Atossa and the Chorus discuss the likelihood of Persian success or failure, and why Xerxes felt the need to try and conquer Athens. A messenger arrives and delivers news that the Persian army has been destroyed. Over the course of several speeches between the messenger, Atossa, and the Chorus they establish how badly the Persian army has been defeated and how the Greeks won the battle of Salamis. Atossa and the messenger leave and the Chorus laments the losses. Atossa returns and tells the Chorus she is going to offer sacrifices to the gods to protect Xerxes and to try and get the spirit of Darius—her dead husband, and Xerxes’ father—to come and offer some advice. The ghost of Darius arrives and tells Atossa and the Chorus about the defeat of the Persian army, he recounts the list of Persian rulers that had made the empire great, and then concludes that Xerxes has done more to ruin the Persian Empire than any other leader. After the ghost leaves, the Chorus reflects on what a great ruler Darius was, particularly in the light of the current catastrophe. Xerxes arrives wearing robes torn in grief. He and the Chorus lament the doom of the Persian Empire in what becomes a formulaic call and response of grief.

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