The Persians, first produced in 472 bce, is extremely unusual in two ways: 1) it is based on a recent historical event — the defeat of Xerxes and the Persians by the greatly outnumbered Athenians in the 480 bce naval battle at Salamis — instead of a distant mythological one; 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. Xerxes’ mother, the Queen and widow of Darius, frets about her dream involving 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 impressed by the Greeks having defended themselves against Darius in earlier years.
A herald announces 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). 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. The Queen goes off to pray and sacrifice and the Chorus mourns the defeat.
The Queen and the elders summon the spirit of Darius from Hades. He arrives, kvetching about the ascent. 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. Darius advises no more wars against Greece and that the elders lighten up. He returns to Hades.
The Chorus remembers Persia’s glory days. Xerxes arrives and offers a litany of dead Persians in an “ubi sunt” dirge. Xerxes 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.