Aeschylus, The Persians
The Persians, first produced in 472 bce, is extremely unusual in two ways: 1) instead of a distant mythological event, it is based on a recent historical one — the defeat of Xerxes and the Persians by the greatly outnumbered Athenians in the 480 bce naval battle at Salamis; and 2) that it presents the enemies of Athens, those despotic empire-builders who would have enslaved the Athenians, with pity, compassion, and a degree of admiration.
A Chorus of Persian elders frets at the absence of news concerning Xerxes and his men in their military bid for Greece: “Doom is the omen / In my heart convulsed, / As it whines for its master” (49). They supply an epic catalogue of warriors, and we frequently hear about the effect of foreign wars on those waiting at home.
Beds with longing fill with tears,
Persian wives in softness weep;
Each her armed furious lord
Dismissed with gentle love and grief,
Left all alone in the yoke. (53)
Xerxes’ mother, the Queen and widow of Darius, enters, fretting about her dream which involved a woman resisting being yoked by Xerxes to a chariot. The yoke broke, Xerxes fell, and dead daddy appeared to give pity. The Queen made sacrifice and saw an omen: a falcon picking at the head of an eagle. She is baffled as to why Xerxes would want to travel so far for a conquest (56) and is impressed by the Greeks having defended themselves against Darius in earlier years. She asks the Chorus for basic information regarding the Athenians. “They are slaves to none, nor are they subject” (57).
A Herald announces disaster: that the Persians have lost despite the great odds against the Greeks, and that “The lifeless rotting corpses glut the shore, / And adjacent fields of Salamis” (58). The Chorus laments: “Recall how many / Persians widowed vain, / And mothers losing sons” (58). Many of those lost are listed. Xerxes is still alive. It sounds as if the Persians were set up: their ships were moored so as to prevent Greek ships from escaping the bay, but none tried. In the morning, the Greek navy attacked and the Persians could not maneuver; “never in a single day / So great a number died” (63). The Queen goes off to pray (although Persians did not really worship the Greek gods) and sacrifice: “To Earth and dead I’ll come to offer gifts, / A sacrificial cake” (66). Yum. The Chorus continues to mourn the defeat: “Many with delicate hands / Rending their veils, / Drenching their breasts, / Swollen with tears, / Sharing their woe, / Ladies of Persia / Softly are weeping” (66).
The Queen and the Chorus of elders summon the spirit of Darius from Hades. He rises, kvetching about the ascent: “The chthonic deities more readily / Receive than give” (71). The Queen reports that “Persia is destroyed” (72). Darius is surprised that Xerxes tried to conquer the sea and calls it “ignorance” and “youthful pride” (74). The Queen says advisers mocked Xerxes for staying home instead of venturing out for Persian expansion and conquest by spear, such as Darius had in his lifetime. Darius advises no more wars against Greece — this should be a lesson to you all — and that the elders lighten up. He descends back to Hades.
The Chorus remembers Persia’s glory days. Xerxes arrives and offers a litany of dead Persians in an “ubi sunt” dirge. He castigates himself and validates the strength of the Greeks.
Aeschylus. The Persians. Trans. Seth G. Benardete. Aeschylus II. 2nd ed. by David Grene & Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. 43-86.