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Introduction to Aeschylus' Persians
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

The following material is intended to accompany the translation of Aeschylus' Persians in the collection of translations of Classical authors.


In 480 B.C. the combined naval forces of the Greeks, led by Athens, defeated a much more imposing Persian force under their king Xerxes in the narrows off of the island of Salamis (west of Athens). This Greek victory (along with a victory by land a few months later at Plataea in Boeotia) put an end to Xerxes' plans to expand his realm westward into Europe and was a just source of pride for the forces of Athens in particular. In 472 B.C. Aeschylus celebrated this victory in his play, The Persians. Despite its evident pro-Athenian bias, this work is more than a simplistic piece of jingoistic self-congratulation. Aeschylus attaches a paradigmatic significance to the defeat of Xerxes, using that defeat as the basis for a probing examination of empire and human ambition — one that well might have ominous overtones for the Athens of his time, with its own increasingly imperialistic ambitions abroad.

For an account of Xerxes' expedition and its aftermath, see Herodotus, The Histories, books 7-9 (especially 8.40ff.) and J.B. Bury and R. Meiggs, A History of Greece (fourth edition: London and Basingstoke, 1975) 167ff.

For background on Aeschylus' life and works, see s.v. "Aeschylus" in the on-line Perseus Project's encyclopedia.

Questions to consider

How does Aeschylus manage the presentation and the interaction of his characters? the construction of scenes? How is the chorus employed? In particular, examine: the relative number of lines devoted to choral songs versus spoken, "dramatic" verse; the nature of the "plot" (What happens in Persians?); the degree to which Aeschylus strives for realism.

What themes or images stand out as you read the play?

What are the various causes alleged in the play for Xerxes' fall? Are they mutually compatible? Compare Herodotus' account: What similarities can you find in the view of Xerxes' fate in Herodotus and Aeschylus? Do the two authors use any similar images or techniques to convey their views?

How does Aeschylus deal with the historical material that forms the basis of his play? (You might try contrasting the dramatic technique of Persians with that, e.g., of one of Shakespeare's historical dramas — e.g. Henry V.)

Aeschylus' Persians and Contemporary Politics

Read The World of Athens H.I. 22-27; 5.78-96.

We have seen that Herodotus' Histories, in celebrating the glorious triumph over Xerxes' forces, seem to comment on the political situation of Greece in his day (see Course Notes on Herodotus). For many scholars the same is true of Persians, produced in 472. Some have argued that the play is intended to recall the role played by Themistocles in the victory at Salamis. In 472 Themistocles' fortunes were on the wane: as leader of the "democratic" faction in Athens he began to lose in a power struggle against the more conservative political faction under the leadership of *Cimon (Miltiades' son). In 472 or 471 Themistocles was ostracized and his political career came to an end. (In the 480s to 460s ostracism was the political weapon of choice. We have evidence that the actual votes at ostracisms were often "rigged" - pre-inscribed ostraca would be passed out in advance. [Of the nearly 1500 ostraca discovered, most of them dating to this period, 542 bear Themistocles' name.] We know that Themistocles had successfully staved off several earlier attacks by hoisting his opponents on their own petard, so to speak.) It has been suggested that part of this political battle was waged on the symbolic front, with Cimon's supporters playing up the glories of Marathon while Themistocles' faction celebrated Salamis. Many feel that Aeschylus' selection of the Persian Wars (and, more specifically, the battle of Salamis) as the subject for one of his plays in 472 was no accident. This hypothesis gains weight when we consider that *Pericles (an important member of Themistocles' faction and, later, the leader of the "democrats") acted as producer (choregus) for Aeschylus' play.

But Persians may have a larger significance as well. Aeschylus' picture of the downfall of the ruthless and hybristic tyrant Xerxes has been felt by some to bear an ominous relevance to Athenian foreign policy in the late 470s. Increasingly the *Delian League was showing signs of its coming transformation from a voluntary league for mutual self-defense to a naval empire dominated by Athens. (Review The World of Athens, H.I. 22-28.) What began as a series of brilliant victories against Persia (479: Mycale, Sestos; 478: Cyprus, Byzantium; 476/5: Eion) and against criminal elements (475/4: Scyrus, a notorious base for pirates), took a dire turn in 472/1 when the League used military force against Carystus (southern Euboea) to compel it to join the League against its will. This venture was an indication of things to come: in 470-69 the island of Naxos attempted to leave the League and was reduced to submission; in 465-63 Thasos met a similar fate. By c. 454 the treasury of the League was transferred to the Acropolis in Athens and the facade of a voluntary and democratic alliance was dropped altogether: the League had become an Athenian naval empire, its members subject states (although the Athenians continued to refer to them, euphemistically, as "the allies"). Would it have required an undue amount of foresight on Aeschylus' part to have seen where Athenian policy was leading? [FN 1]

Aids to reading The Persians

J.C. Hogan, A Commentary on The Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus. Chicago and London, 1984.
A.J. Podlecki, The Persians by Aeschylus. Englewood Cliffs, 1970.

The Structure and Meters of the Play

Lines 1-154 — The Parodos Lines 155-245 — The Queen and the Chorus Lines 246-531 — The Messenger's Report Lines 532-97 — The First Stasimon Lines 598-851 — The Ghost of Darius Lines 852-907 — The Second Stasimon Lines 908-end — Xerxes


FN 1 See, in general, D. Rosenbloom, "Myth, History, and Hegemony in Aeschylus," in B. Goff, ed., History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama (Austin, 1995) 91-130. For a contrary view, see C. Pelling, "Aeschylus' Persae and History," in C. Pelling, ed., Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford, 1997) 1-20. [Return to text]

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