The Persians is the only surviving example of a Greek drama based entirely on an actual historical event. Although other extant Greek tragedies allude to contemporary Greek history, they transfer the action of the plays to mythical times or faraway places. In a sense, The Persians also moves the locale of its action to the exotic court of the Persians; however, the poet was interested in portraying the specific aftermath of the Battle of Salamis, a naval battle in which the Persians were decisively defeated. The play is therefore to be understood in part as an extraordinary celebration of this astonishing victory of Greek over barbarian.
The Persians is also unique as the only extant example of a monodrama, that is, a play that was complete in itself and not presented as part of a dramatic trilogy. All elements of the story are explored by the end of the play, and none is left to be explored in a sequel. On the dramatic level, however, the only real event in the course of the play is the arrival of news of the Persian defeat, which is followed by the effect that this announcement has on the court of Xerxes. Scene after scene explores the unfolding of horror at the calamity that has already taken place.
The appearance of the ghost of Darius, who acts as a semidivine interpreter, adds a new moral and even theological dimension to this work. Aeschylus incorporates this element to emphasize that the defeat of the Persians was no ordinary victory of one political entity over another. The stunning defeat was the work of Zeus, the supreme god of the Greeks, and a punishment for the excessive arrogance of the Persians.
Other Greek plays that are now lost took their subjects from contemporary history, but as the only surviving example of such historical tragedy, The Persians occupies a special place in literary history. Instead of presenting a myth and exploring its moral implications for his audience, Aeschylus struggled with the considerable challenge of making a living person (Xerxes died in 465 b.c.e.) the tragic hero of a drama. Virtually everyone in Aeschylus’s audience had had firsthand experience of the Persian threat, and it is believed that Aeschylus was himself an eyewitness to the Battle of Salamis, which he describes in the exciting...
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