Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622


Xerxes (ZURK-seez), the king of Persia from 486 to 465 b.c.e. The three members of the Persian Royal House who appear in this play are unique in Greek tragedy as being the only figures from actual history, as opposed to legend, to be used on the Greek stage. The Persian king is here depicted shortly after the Battle of Salamis (480 b.c.e.), in which the Persian navy was utterly destroyed by the Athenian fleet. Xerxes comes on the stage after a messenger has related to Atossa, the king’s mother, and to the chorus of Persian elders a detailed account of the downfall of the Persian expedition against Athens. The account is a long and tragic recital of the names of great Persian commanders who have fallen in the battle. Xerxes finally enters as a heartbroken and ruined man who has brought about the downfall of his own kingdom. He has previously been described by the ghost of his father, Darius, as the victim of the rashness of youth, whose act of hubris consisted of chaining the Bosphorus with a bridge of boats over which his army might cross. His mother, Atossa, adds that their son had been urged on to his downfall by the counsel of evil men, who had chided him for not surpassing the great deeds of his father. Xerxes is depicted as a man so broken by misfortune that only grief is left to him; he is the ruin of a once great king.


Atossa (a-TOS-uh), the widow of Darius and the mother of Xerxes. In the early part of the play, she is an imposing figure, the widow of one great king and mother of another. While awaiting the news of her son’s expedition against Athens, she eagerly asks the chorus for information about the enemy. She even has to inquire where Athens is located, for, in the eyes of so great a person, it must be a far-off, insignificant city that could not possibly withstand the might of Persia. When the news of the defeat is brought to her, she is at first incredulous; then, when the terrible truth becomes undeniable, she is so stricken with grief that she conjures up the ghost of her dead husband to seek his counsel and solace. She is a woman utterly devoted to the glory of Persia and its Royal House. On the advice of her husband, she withdraws to her palace to put on her richest attire to greet her son on his return from his defeat. She will not desert him when he most needs her.

The ghost of Darius

The ghost of Darius (deh-RI-uhs), king of Persia from 521 to 486 b.c.e., the father of Xerxes and husband of Atossa. During his lifetime, he had raised Persia to its height of power; now he is summoned from the grave by his widow to hear an account of the destruction of all that he had accomplished. He is depicted as a wise and prudent ruler who, though a great conqueror, had known what limits he should put on his ambition. He had foreseen that ruin would fall on his son but had prayed that it might be postponed. Xerxes’ youthful rashness and pride have brought this ruin upon him early in life. The only counsel that the ghost of the dead king can give is that Persia must never again attack Athens, for the Athenians are invincible; “their very earth fights for them.” A Persian army will perish of famine on another expedition. The king knows, however, that his advice will go unheeded. With a prophecy of the second Persian defeat at Plataea (479 b.c.e.), his ghost sinks back into the tomb.

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