(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)