Xerxes, son of the late King Darius of Persia, is a man of overwhelming ambition who, eager to add more countries to his tremendous empire, leads a great army against the Greek states. During his absence, he leaves only the Persian elders to maintain authority in Susa, the capital. The old men wait apprehensively for some word of the invasion forces, and their fears grow as time passes and no message comes from Xerxes. They lament that the land has been emptied of the young men who marched valiantly to war, leaving their wives and mothers to wait anxiously for their return.
Atossa, widow of Darius and mother of Xerxes, is also filled with vague fears. One night she sees in a dream two tall, beautiful women, one in Persian dress and the other in Greek robes. When the women begin to quarrel, King Xerxes appears and yokes them to his chariot. The woman in Asian costume submits meekly enough, but the other breaks the reins and overturns the chariot, throwing young Xerxes to the ground. Then, in Atossa’s dream, Darius comes and, seeing his son on the ground, tears his robes with grief. Upon awakening, Atossa goes to pray for her son’s safety. While she is making a sacrifice before the altar, she sees an eagle pursued and plucked by a hawk. To her these visions seem to portend catastrophe for the Persians.
The elders, after hearing her story, advise Atossa to pray to the gods and to beg great Darius to intercede, from the realm of the dead, to bring success to the Persian expedition. Atossa, her thoughts far across the sea with her son, asks the elders where Athens is. The elders tell her that it is in Attica, in Greece, and that the citizens of Athens are a free people who derive great strength from their freedom. Their words do little to reassure the troubled mother.
A messenger arrives and announces the defeat of the Persian host in a great battle fought at Salamis; Atossa is relieved to learn that Xerxes, however, has been spared. The news throws the elders into sad confusion, but Atossa tells them that men must learn to bear the sorrows put upon them by the gods. Quieted, the elders listen while the messenger relates the story of the defeat. At Salamis, more than 1,200 Persian ships had been arrayed against 310 vessels of the Greeks. The defenders, however, proved themselves craftier than their enemies. Deceitfully, a Greek from the Athenian fleet informed Xerxes that at nightfall the far-outnumbered Greek ships would leave their battle stations and fly, under cover of darkness, to escape the impending sea fight. Xerxes immediately gave orders for his fleet to close in around the bay of Salamis and to be on the alert that night to prevent the escape of the Athenian vessels. The wily Greeks kept their places in the bay, and when morning came, the light showed the Persian ships crowded so closely into the outlet of the bay that they were unable to maneuver. The Greeks thereupon moved against the Persians and destroyed them.
Meanwhile, the messenger continues, Xerxes had sent troops to the island of Salamis, where he planned to cut off all Greeks who sought refuge on land. The Greeks, having destroyed the Persian fleet, put their own soldiers ashore. In the fierce fighting that followed, the Persians, unable to escape by water, were slain. Seeing his great army scattered and killed, Xerxes ordered the survivors to retreat. As the Persians, now without ships, marched overland through hostile Greek territory, many...
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of them perished of hardships or were slain by enraged men of the lands through which they traveled.
The elders of Susa bewail the terrible misfortune brought upon Persia by the king’s desire to avenge his father, who was defeated years before by the Greeks at Marathon. Having heard the story of her son’s defeat, Atossa retires to make offerings to the gods and to pray for the warriors who have lost their lives in the war with Athens. In mourning, she invokes the spirit of Darius, for whom she and the old men have great need at this most depressing time. The shade of Darius appears and asks what dire event has occurred in Persia to make necessary his summons from the lower regions. The elders are struck speechless with fear and respect by his august appearance, but Atossa bravely confronts the ghost of her dead husband and tells him that Persia has met disaster not by plague or by internal strife but by defeat at the hands of the Athenians.
Darius is shocked to hear of the losses Xerxes has suffered and to learn of the ambitious scope of his enterprise. He laments his son’s god-offending pride in bridging the sacred Hellespont and in gambling all the power and wealth of Persia on the success of his ill-fated expedition. Atossa tries to defend Xerxes by saying that he was influenced by evil advisers. Darius reminds his listeners that he and his forebears never jeopardized the welfare of the country to such an extent.
In despair, the old men ask Darius how Persia can redeem its great defeat. The dead king replies that the Persians must never again attack Greece, for the gods unquestionably favor those free people. He urges the elders to teach the young people of Persia to restrain all god-provoking pride, and he advises Atossa to welcome Xerxes and to comfort him on his return. With these words, the shade of Darius disappears into his tomb.
When Xerxes returns, he is filled with sorrow that he did not perish on the field of battle and with remorse for the catastrophe he has brought upon his people. He blames only himself for his defeat. The old men sing a dirge, asking what befell various of the great Persian warriors who fought with Xerxes. Xerxes replies that some drowned in the sea battle and others were slaughtered on the beach. Many, he says, were killed and buried without final rites. In the deepest despair, Xerxes joins the elders in their grief. Even though his greatest ambition has been dashed, he praises the bravery and virtues of the Greeks, whom he tried in vain to conquer.