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.
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