The Persians
By Aeschylus (525-456 BC)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
First Performance
Plot Summary
Who Is the Protagonist?
Sections of the Play
Greek Theater: Structure
Author's Biography
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Text

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012

Type of Work

The Persians is a tragic history play presenting the reaction of the elderly Persian council members and the queen mother to the Greek victory over the Persian army and naval fleet in 480 BC. Unlike other Greek plays focusing on mythology and legend from the distant past, The Persians centers on actual historical events. Be aware, though, that Aeschylus invents the dialogue. Into the mouths of the defeated Persians, he puts words that he thinks they might have spoken; into their laments he puts emotions that he thinks they probably felt.
First Performance

Aeschylus debuted the play in the spring of 472 BC at the Great Dionysia, a yearly festival in Athens.


.......After Greek settlers in Ionia (part of present-day Turkey) revolted against Persian rule in 499 BC, Greek soldiers from Athens and Eretria supported the uprising. The fighting ended in 493 BC with a treaty in which Ionia pledged to remain in the Persian Empire. The Persian ruler Darius later decided to attack Greece to punish it for interfering in Ionia and to prevent it from launching future incursions into Persian territory. The best way to achieve his goals, he believed, was to conquer all of Greece and subject it to Persian rule. But after the Persians marched on Greece in 490 BC, the Greeks won a decisive victory on their own soil at Marathon.
.......The Persians returned to their Asian homes, humbled and thirsting for vengeance. After Darius died, his son Xerxes succeeded to the throne and mustered a vast army and naval fleet. After ruthlessly subduing rebellions in Egypt and Babylon, Xerxes attacked Greece  in 480 BC with a force of more than 300,000 soldiers and sailors. Thanks to ingenious strategy and firm resolve, the undermanned Greeks outmaneuvered and outfought the Persians, dealing them their worst defeat and precipitating the decline of their empire.


.......Aeschylus used his own experiences as a soldier in the wars against Persia as background for the various characters' accounts of military action. He took part in the battles at Marathon in 490 BC and Salamis in 480. An inscription on his tomb praises his military feats.


.......The time is 480 BC. The action takes place in the city of Susa, one of four government and administrative centers in the Persian Empire. (The other three centers were the cities of Bactra, Ecbatana, and Persepolis.) Susa is in present-day Iran at a site now occupied by Shush, near the western border of the country. The scenes in the play take place in front of the council hall at the royal palace in Susa, in front of the nearby tomb of Darius, and in front of the palace.


: Mother of Xerxes and widow of King Darius.

Ghost of Darius
Xerxes: King of the Persians and son of Atossa and Darius.
Chorus: Elderly members of the Persian Council of State.
Messenger: Persian who informs Atossa and the chorus of the Greek victory and details of the fighting.


.......The tone of the play is somber, reflecting the mood of the downcast and grieving Persians. It is also sympathetic. As a soldier who fought against the Persians, Aeschylus understood the horror of war and the emotional devastation it causes. He did not wish to celebrate a Greek victory. Rather, he wished to show his countrymen a picture of fellow human beings agonizing over the future of their country and the fate of loved ones who went to war. Undoubtedly, most of the the Greeks attending the play empathized with the Persians, for the Greeks too had suffered in the aftermath of the war.

Plot Summary

.......The time is 480 BC. The elderly members of the Persian Council of State gather outside the palace in Susa, one of four cities serving as centers of government for the vast Persian Empire. These councilmen—along with Atossa, the mother of King Xerxes—are awaiting news of the war with the Greeks, a war they are fighting to avenge a Greek victory over their forces ten years before on the plains of Marathon, Greece. The council members extol the might of Xerxes and his armies. Still, they worry about the outcome of the latest fighting. When Atossa enters, she also expresses fears, saying,
Oft, since my son hath march'd his mighty host
Against the lonians, warring to subdue
Their country, have my slumbers been disturb'd
With dreams of dread portent.
    The chorus leader advises her to entreat the gods to protect her son, her country, and her friends and to call upon the ghost of her dead husband, Darius, to bring victory to Xerxes. At the moment that they are speaking, a messenger approaches and announces that the Greeks have vanquished the entire Persian army. The chorus chants,
O horror, horror! What a baleful train
Of recent ills! Ah, Persians, as he speaks
Of ruin, let your tears stream to the earth.
The messenger says he observed the “heaps of dead” with his own eyes. The major victory was at Salamis, where Greek ships routed the Persian fleet. Thousands upon thousands of Persian horsemen, spearmen, and archers also fell to the Greeks in land battles.
.......Atossa says she cannot find words to express her grief. When she asks about survivors, the messenger says Xerxes yet lives. That news, says Atossa, is “a ray that brightens through the melancholy gloom.” The man then recites a list of the names of great Persian chieftains and warriors who died in the fighting. He says,
Whoe'er of Persia's warriors glow'd in prime
Of vig'rous youth, or felt their generous souls
Expand with courage, or for noble birth
Shone with distinguish'd lustre, or excell'd
In firm and duteous loyalty, all these
Are fall'n, ignobly, miserably fall'n.
Persian survivors of the fighting scattered in different directions.
.......Atossa laments that her forboding dreams of defeat for the Persian horde have come true. She will seek comfort in praying to the gods and offering sacrifices for the dead. Noting that she cannot change the outcome of the war, she expresses hope for a brighter future. When her son returns, she says, her countrymen should offer comfort and assistance. After the chorus laments the Persian defeat, Atossa offers libations to the ghost of her husband, Darius, and to the gods—milk from a sacred heifer, honey, wine, the perfume from flowers. After the chorus invokes Darius, he appears as a ghost and asks what woes afflict the country. Atossa answers, “Ruin through all her states hath crush'd thy Persia” in a war on land and at sea against Athens. His son Xerxes, she says, led the forces but survived the onslaught, which she recounts in detail.
.......Darius says his son acted unwisely, thinking “that his power should rise above the gods, and Neptune's might.” Now the greatness won by the predecessors of Xerxes--including Cyrus, Mardus, Maraphus, Artaphernes, and Darius himself--is lost. The ghost tells the Persians to cease warring with Greece and asks Atossa to select a fine robe for Xerxes to replace his battle-torn garments. Then, he suggests, “with gentlest courtesy soothe his affliction.” After the ghost returns to the tomb of Darius, Atossa exits to get the robe.
.......Xerxes arrives with a few of his men. He bemoans his and Persia's ruin.
Ah me, how sudden have the storms of Fate,
Beyond all thought, all apprehension, burst
On my devoted head! O Fortune, Fortune!
With what relentless fury hath thy hand
Hurl'd desolation on the Persian race!
.......When the chorus asks him the fate of certain Persian heroes, he replies that all are now dead. “Dismay, and rout, and ruin, ills that wait / On man's afflicted fortune, sink us down."
.......The chorus and Xerxes end the play with a final lament on the misfortune of the Persians.  



Overweening Pride

.......Even the biggest, strongest, and wealthiest nation will suffer a downfall if excessive pride gains sway over its government. Upstart Greece had deeply wounded Persian pride when it defeated the vast Persian Empire at Marathon in 490 BC, and Xerxes and his advisers thirsted for revenge. After ruthlessly subduing rebellions in Egypt and Babylon, Xerxes attacked Greece  in 480? BC with an army of more than 300,000. Thanks to ingenious strategy and firm resolve, the undermanned Greeks outmaneuvered and outfought the Persians, dealing them their worst defeat and precipitating the decline of their empire.
.......After news of the defeat reaches Susa in the Aeschylus play, the ghost of Darius tells Atossa and the chorus,
Presumptuous pride, when it has matured, bears as its fruit a crop of calamity, from which it reaps an abundant harvest of tears.  . . . Zeus, in truth, is a chastiser of overweening pride and corrects with heavy hand. Therefore, now that my son has been warned to be prudent by the voice of God, [830] instruct him with admonitions of reason to cease from drawing the punishment of Heaven on himself by his vaunting rashness. (Herbert Weyr Smith)


.......After the messenger delivers the bad news, the Persians express profound grief over their losses. The lamentations of the chorus no doubt struck a chord with the ancient Greek playgoers who also suffered losses in the war. If so, the Persians and Greeks thus became one people united in sorrow—at least for a moment in time—perhaps realizing that their real enemy was war itself. Among the pictures of sorrow that the chorus presents are the following:

Example 1
From her sweet couch up starts the widow'd bride,
Her lord's loved image rushing on her soul,
Throws the rich ornaments of youth aside,
And gives her griefs to flow without control:
Example 2
Raise high the mournful strain,
And let the voice of anguish pierce the sky:-
Or roll beneath the roaring tide,
By monsters rent of touch abhorr'd;
While through the widow'd mansion echoing wide
Sounds the deep groan, and wails its slaughter'd lord:
Pale with his fears the helpless orphan there
Gives the full stream of plaintive grief to flow;
While age its hoary head in deep despair
Bends; list'ning to the shrieks of wo.
The Folly of Vengeance

.......After the Greeks won the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the Persians sought vengeance for the humiliating defeat. Atossa says Xerxes was wrong to want revenge, for it reaps only a bitter harvest.
Invidious Fortune, how thy baleful power
Hath sunk the hopes of Persia!
Bitter fruit
My son hath tasted from his purposed vengeance

On Athens, famed for arms; the fatal field

Of Marathon, red with barbaric blood,

Sufficed not; that defeat he thought to avenge,

And pull'd this hideous ruin on his head.


....... The climax occurs when Xerxes returns and accepts responsibility for the ignominious defeat. In his battle-torn rags, he is a living symbol of Persia's humiliating downfall.

Who Is the Protagonist?

....... In ancient Greek tragedies, the protagonist was generally a royal personage who suffered a downfall because of a serious character flaw, usually pride, or hubris. Xerxes fits this description in the Aeschylus play. Even though he appears in only the last third of the play, the other characters speak frequently of him as the leader of the defeated armies and as king of the Persian people. He symbolizes not only glory of the Persian empire before the war but also the desolation of the empire after the war.



.......The Persians begins when the chorus members chant lines expressing their anxiety about the outcome of the war. There is a special name for the lines the chorus of a Greek tragedy sings when it first appears: parode (or parados).


....... The lines that the characters speak or chant as the plot unfolds make up what are called episodes. For example, the first episode of The Persians consists of Atossa's recollection of her unsettling dream, her conversation with the leader of the chorus, the arrival of the messenger with news of the Greek victory, and the dialogue involving Atossa, the chorus, and the messenger about the war. The episode ends when Atossa exits to pray and make offerings.


....... The lines that the chorus sings between episodes make up what are called stasimons. The first stasimon begins when the chorus bewails the Persian defeat and the loss of so many lives. It ends when Atossa returns to the stage.

Alternating Episodes and Stasimons

.......After the first stasimon, the play alternates between episodes and stasimons until the final scene.

Final Scene: Exodos With Kommos

.......The exodos is the final scene of the play. This scene includes a kommos. In a Greek tragedy, a kommos is a lamentation sung by the chorus and a character. In The Persians, that character is Xerxes. 

Greek Theater: Structure

Definition and Background

.....The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dionysia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater. 
....."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them. 

Major Sections of the Theater
.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view plays–usually staged later in the day–without squinting. 
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors. 
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
Other Theater Sections

.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery. 
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene. 
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra. 
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus. 
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.


Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • What reason does the play give for Xerxes' decision to attack Greece?
  • Aeschylus does not glory in the Greek victory. Instead, he sympathizes with the desolated Persians. Why?
  • Why does the chorus invoke the ghost of Darius?
  • In an essay, explain how the Greeks managed to defeat a gigantic military force of more than 300,000 men.
  • Would you describe The Persians as an antiwar play? Explain your answer.