COMPETITION: Aeschylus won with Phineus, Persians, Glaukos of Potniai, and Prometheus FireLighter (satyr-play)
CHARACTERS: Queen Mother of Persia, Messenger, ghost of Dareios, Xerxes
CHORUS: Persian elders
SETTING: the tomb of Dareios before the Persian royal palace at Susa
The chorus enter and describe the glory of the great army that the Persian king Xerxes, son of Dareios the Great, has led against the Greeks and wonder with some concern how it has fared. The queen mother enters, distressed by a dream and by a waking vision, and asks about this city of Athens which her son is attacking. A messenger arrives to report that Xerxes was tricked into fighting by a deceitful message from the Athenian side, that the Persian fleet has been decisively defeated in a sea-battle at Salamis, and that Xerxes with the remnants of his forces is making his way back to Susa. In grief the chorus and the queen call upon the ghost of the late king Dareios. The specter appears and asks what has befallen Persia. The queen tells Dareios how Xerxes crossed over to Europe from Asia, bridging the waters and casting chains into the sea to subjugate the waves. Dareios reveals that Xerxes “has cast his thoughts too high” and has offended the gods with his pride and by destroying their temples. Finally Xerxes enters lamenting the loss of the flower of his army.
This is the earliest extant play that we possess, and certainly its structure and style are less developed than Aeschylus’ later plays. It needs only two actors and no scene-building and the chorus takes a particularly prominent role. Three things will interest the student of this play. First, its subject is not taken from traditional myth but from recent history. Aeschylus’ predecessor Phrynichus wrote such drama on two occasions, his Phoenician Women (476) covering the same ground as Persians. Second, history is treated as myth. Xerxes is the familiar tragic hero of Aeschylus who goes too far and offends the gods, and indeed the moral universe of the Persians is identical to that of the Greeks – “Zeus is the chastener of overboastful minds… cease sinning against the gods.” Finally the play has much to do with Athens and her pride in the crucial battle of Salamis in 480. Athens is a city “subject to no individual,” the critical battle is precipitated by a message from the Athenians (from Themistokles who was in a political crisis in 472), and the great victory is told from the point of view of the vanquished. In the play’s crucial scene, the ghost of Dareios, in fact, warns Greece and Athens to remember the fate of the Persians and not to “lust after more, squandering your present prosperity.”
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005