The following entry presents criticism of Aeschylus's Persians (472 b.c.) For more information on Aeschylus's life and career, see CMLC Volume 11.
The Persians is not only the earliest extant play by Aeschylus, but the earliest surviving historical play in European literature. It also has the distinction of being the only surviving example of an entire genre, that of historical tragedy. Other unique theatrical elements of this work include the fact that it is the oldest surviving two-actor play (incorporating a second actor was one of Aeschylus's most significant dramatic achievements) and is also the earliest known play to use a ghost. Aeschylus, named the Father of Tragedy by ancient Athenians, wrote many tetralogies, a thematic grouping that consists of three tragedies followed by a satyr-play. The Persians was the second part of a tetralogy performed in 472 b.c. which also included the Phineus, the Glaucus, and Prometheus the Firelighter. The Persians is the only one of the four now extant, but functions well in isolation. As one of just seven plays by Aeschylus to survive to modern times, the Persians provides important insight into his dominance of the theater toward the end of the fifth century b.c. It is also invaluable historically because it is the sole surviving text of any significant size by an author who witnessed the Persian Wars, having been written within a decade of the battle of Salamis, the aftermath of which is the tragedy's focus.
Aeschylus was born into Athenian nobility in 525-24 b.c. in the village of Eleusis, near Athens. He entered his first competition for a drama prize in 498 b.c. and achieved his first victory in 484 b.c. The Persians was first performed in the spring of 472 b.c. in Athens. Aeschylus won first prize for the tetralogy of which the Persians was a part, entering it in the competition in the archonship of Menon. It was the second of, reportedly, thirteen times he received top honors. Scholars believe that, in all, he wrote probably between ninety and one hundred plays. Aeschylus died in Gela, Sicily, in 456-55 b.c. According to legend, he met his death when an eagle, carrying a tortoise and seeking a way to crack open its shell, dropped his prey from a great height on Aeschylus, having mistaken his bald head for a rock.
Plot and Major Characters
The focus of the Persians is the decisive sea battle of Salamis in 480 b.c., during which the Greeks prevented an invasion by the superior forces of the Persians. More precisely, the play's focus is the Persian reaction to their defeat. The play opens in Persia, in the chambers of the royal palace at Susa. There the elders, represented by the chorus, confident of their armies but anxious nonetheless for confirmation, await word of victory. The expectation is that the Greeks, with only 310 ships, will not be able to resist the onslaught of 1200 Persian ships led by King Xerxes, son of the late King Darius. Darius's widow, Queen Atossa, enters and tells the councilors of her disturbing dreams, which she interprets as forebodings of doom for the Persians. The men entreat her to pray to the gods and to ask the dead king to intercede in battle on behalf of their forces. Soon a breathless and excited messenger sent by Xerxes arrives and tells the news: the Greeks have defeated the Persian armies, who were tricked into narrow straits through which their great ships could not maneuver. Xerxes and his surviving warriors have retreated, but will encounter great danger on their way home, facing winter storms, hunger, even possible starvation, and enraged locals. After the messenger gives details of the defeat and says that it must reflect the intercession of the gods on the Greeks' behalf, the ghost of Darius appears. He blames the debacle on his son's arrogant pride, which has endangered his entire nation. Darius warns that the Persians must never again attack Greece, and then disappears. Xerxes returns to Susa, his clothes in shreds, his bearing no longer that of a god but of a pitiful, fallible man. He is filled with remorse, blames only himself, and praises the magnificence of the Greek soldiers.
The primary message of the Persians is a warning against overarching, or hybris. Using the Persians as an example, Aeschylus conveys the arrogance he wants to warn his own people against. The fate of the Persians is defeat, a retribution that is paid by the gods to put them in their rightful place. There is recognition that everyone is at the mercy of the gods and defeat can annihilate the greatest; indeed, the greatest are the most likely to anger the gods. The final message of the ghost of Darius to the elders is to enjoy life while they can.
Aeschylus's prize-winning play has been recognized for its high quality and brilliant construction since its first performance. According to Gilbert Murray, its appeal does not rest on its plot or characterization, but on Aeschylus's greatness of spirit. The play was written during a time when it was politically risky for Aeschylus to reveal the humanity of his nation's enemy. But, critics have noted, the play is compelling in its depiction and even inspired Aeschylus's audience to award him top prize for his efforts. Critics point out that even though the action of the play occurs during some of the finest moments in Athenian history, the warning it contains is equally valid for Greeks and Persians. Scholars are particularly impressed by the overall absence of conflict in the work and note that most of the action is about defeats already suffered or yet to come. Gerald F. Else writes that “hardly anything happens in the play at all,” and yet it is successful as both a tragedy and a historical drama. In his essay on the Persians, Murray writes that in addition to its thematic focus, the play is also significant as one of the few surviving records of a historical event. Anthony J. Podlecki emphasizes that the play is unique in Greek drama because it is the only surviving example of historical tragedy, using a contemporary person as its tragic hero.