The Idea of the Enemy in Aeschylus’s The Persians

“However, you can be sure that so great a multitude of men never perished in a single day” -the messenger to the Persians (line 432).

Aeschylus’s second part of a lost trilogy has come down to us as The Persians, told from the perspective of the Greek enemy in the Persian wars. It is unique, a stand alone, for many reasons, not least of which it being the only part of his winning trilogy to survive. The Persians, like the Trojans, were a formidable enemy, and as identified by their name, they were not entirely foreign to the Greek world -their name is taken from Perseus, the hero and son of Zeus who came down to Earth from Ida clothed in gold. The Persians tells the story of Xerxes, emperor of Persia and son of Darius. The setting is in Susa, former capital of ancient Persia. Xerxes attacks Greece out of vengeance but he fails at Salamis. The account of the Persian Wars is told somewhat less flatteringly by Herodotus in his account of the war between the Greeks and the Persians.

The chief action of Aeschylus’s play involves Atossa, the mother of Xerxes, when she claims she has been “haunted by a multitude of dreams.” After she recounts her dream to the Chorus, a messenger approaches with horrible news of the Medes (Persians) at Salamis. Calmly, Atossa wishes to know who remains alive, and she learns that Xerxes lives, and she also wants to know how the defeat happened considering the much larger Persian forces. The image of a “sea of troubles” pervades the play as the Persians realize their cruel fate. Recall the “sea of troubles” in Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech.

The Chorus then summons the ghost of Darius for clarity and guidance. In the play, Aeschylus reaffirms Herodotus’s caution from Darius early in the Histories to look only upon one’s own, not to grow fat and listless by wealth and hubris. Before descending back into his grave, the ghost of Darius makes a similar claim (800-842). He claims that the Persians have been presumptuous and impious in their arrogant quest for Greece. In doing so, they destroyed the gods and temples of the Greeks. Finally, Xerxes returns to Persia in tattered robes and bemoans the state of the Persian race, he is consoled by the Chorus before the play concludes (exeunt omnes). The Persian tragedy at Salamis is also his own tragedy.

In Aeschylus, the tragic state of human affairs affects all people, Hellene or Barbarian. The tragic fate of the Persians is a lesson for all Greeks who grow arrogant and impious as the city seeks to expand for fertile soils elsewhere.

For this reading I used the Seth Bernardete translation as part of the David Grene and Richmond Lattimore edition.

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