Critical Evaluation

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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 speech of the play’s messenger. This account of the battle constitutes the only version by an eyewitness of any event from the Persian wars. Beyond this historical connection, the play may have had some role in contemporary politics as political propaganda glorifying the recent victory over the Persians. Implied praise of Themistocles’ grand naval strategy, by which the Persians were defeated, may have been intended to influence contemporary debates about the extension and development of Athenian naval power.

The Persians is, after all, a dramatic work. Aeschylus focuses entirely on the arrival of a messenger announcing the defeat at Salamis and the reaction of the Persians who are attached to the royal court. In this depiction, history gives way to fantasy about an exotic people whose private habits and characters were known to the Greeks, if at all, only through hearsay. Catalogs of fallen Persians are recited, many of whose names were clearly concocted by the dramatist, and the entire Persian court turns to mourning. Although, in its broad outline, the story of the Persian defeat is one of a fall from prosperity to adversity, the play itself concentrates almost entirely on the effects of defeat. Elaborate and moving passages of ritual lamentation are a central feature. It is interesting that among the...

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ancient dramatists, Aeschylus was famous for his elaborate use of spectacle. Certainly, production ofThe Persians permitted Aeschylus to give full expression to dramatic display and fantasy as exotically dressed members of the Persian royal court lament the disaster that has befallen them.

Aeschylus is careful to express no open contempt for the defeated Persians. The fear and grief of Queen Atossa are as moving as the despair of any heroine from Greek tragedy. Even Xerxes, whose arrogant acts are depicted as the obvious cause of the calamity, is not singled out for condemnation. Instead, the disaster of Salamis is represented as a disaster for all of Persia, and the entire people share in the blame. At the crucial moment, as the Persians seek to understand the ultimate causes of their downfall, the ghost of Darius appears. Darius, with whose name the growth of Persian power and the prosperity of the empire were synonymous, acts as an interpreter for all that has happened. In his extraordinary commentary, one detects Aeschylus’s search for the ultimate nature of guilt and punishment, which reaches well beyond the immediate circumstances of the defeated Persians. Darius makes it clear that Xerxes is indeed guilty but that a calamity of this magnitude must exceed the limits of individual responsibility. Beyond the specific crimes of Xerxes or of other Persians, the dramatist explores the implications of an age-old law of fate: Ultimately, disaster strikes anything that has grown too great.

As a dramatist deeply interested in ideas, Aeschylus especially wanted to communicate the moral implications of his stories. The probable first reaction of his audience was satisfaction at this representation of the humiliation of barbarian might by Greek courage and ingenuity, but the drama of the Persian defeat also engaged the minds and even the sympathies of the viewers. Poised on the verge of developing their own empire, the Athenians were invited to consider the fate of the Persians as a warning for their own future. Seen in its broadest context, The Persians is a model for the human condition and what appears to be the inevitable cycle of prosperity and adversity.

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Persians, Aeschylus