The Persians

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The Persians
Written by Aeschylus
Chorus Persian Elders
Characters Atossa
Ghost of Darius
Date premiered 472 BCE
Place premiered Athens
Original language Ancient Greek
Setting Susa

The Persians (Ancient Greek: Πέρσαι, Persai, Latinised as Persae) is an ancient Greek tragedy written during the Classical period of Ancient Greece by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus. It is the second and only surviving part of a now otherwise lost trilogy that won the first prize at the dramatic competitions in AthensCity Dionysia festival in 472 BCE, with Pericles serving as choregos.

The first play in the trilogy was called Phineus; it presumably dealt with Jason and the Argonauts' rescue of King Phineus from the torture that the monstrous harpies inflicted at the behest of Zeus. The subject of the third play, Glaucus, was either a mythical Corinthian king who was devoured by his horses because he angered the goddess Aphrodite (see Glaucus (son of Sisyphus)) or else a Boeotian farmer who ate a magical herb that transformed him into a sea deity with the gift of prophecy (see Glaucus).[1]

In The Persians, Xerxes invites the gods' enmity for his hubristic expedition against Greece in 480/79 BCE; the focus of the drama is the defeat of Xerxes' navy at Salamis. Given Aeschylus’ propensity for writing connected trilogies, the theme of divine retribution may connect the three. Aeschylus himself had fought the Persians at Marathon (490 BC). He may even have fought at Salamis, just eight years before the play was performed.

The satyr play following the trilogy was Prometheus Pyrkaeus, translated as either Prometheus the Fire-lighter or Prometheus the Fire-kindler, which comically portrayed the titan’s theft of fire.[2] Several fragments of Prometheus Pyrkaeus are extant, and according to Plutarch, one of those fragments was a statement by Prometheus warning a satyr who wanted to kiss and embrace the fire that he would "mourn for his beard" if he did.[3][4] Another fragment from Prometheus Pyrkaeus was translated by Herbert Weir Smyth as "And do thou guard thee well lest a blast strike thy face; for it is sharp, and deadly-scorching its hot breaths.[3][4]


The Persians takes place in Susa, which at the time was one of the capitals of the Persian Empire, and opens with a chorus of old men of Susa, who are soon joined by the Queen Mother, Atossa, as they await news of her son King Xerxes' expedition against the Greeks. Expressing her anxiety and unease, Atossa narrates "what is probably the first dream sequence in European theatre."[5] This is an unusual beginning for a tragedy by Aeschylus; normally the chorus would not appear until slightly later, after a speech by a minor character. An exhausted messenger arrives, who offers a graphic description of the Battle of Salamis and its gory outcome. He tells of the Persian defeat, the names of the Persian generals who have been killed, and that Xerxes had escaped and is returning. The climax of the messenger's speech is his rendition of the battle cry of the Greeks as they charged: "On, sons of Greece! Set free / Your fatherland, your children, wives, / Homes of your ancestors and temples of your gods! / Save all, or all is lost!" (401–405).[6]

"The Ghost of Darius Appearing to Atossa", drawing by George Romney.

At the tomb of her dead husband Darius, Atossa asks the chorus to summon his ghost: "Some remedy he knows, perhaps, / Knows ruin's cure" they say.[7] On learning of the Persian defeat, Darius condemns the hubris behind his son’s decision to invade Greece. He particularly rebukes an impious Xerxes’ decision to build a bridge over the Hellespont to expedite the Persian army’s advance. Before departing, the ghost of Darius prophesies another Persian defeat at the Battle of Plataea (479 BCE): "Where the plain grows lush and green, / Where Asopus' stream plumps rich Boeotia's soil, / The mother of disasters awaits them there, / Reward for insolence, for scorning God."[8] Xerxes finally arrives, dressed in torn robes ("grief swarms," the Queen says just before his arrival, "but worst of all it stings / to hear how my son, my prince, / wears tatters, rags" (845–849)) and reeling from his crushing defeat. The rest of the drama (908–1076) consists of the king alone with the chorus engaged in a lyrical kommós that laments the enormity of Persia’s defeat.


Aeschylus was not the first to write a play about the Persians—his older contemporary Phrynichus wrote two plays about them. The first, The Sack of Miletus (written in 493 BCE, 21 years before Aeschylus' play), treated the destruction of an Ionian colony of Athens in Asia Minor by the Persians; for his portrayal of this brutal defeat, which emphasized Athens' abandonment of its colony, Phrynichus was fined and a law was passed forbidding subsequent performances of his play.[9] The second, Phoenician Women (written in 476 BCE, four years before Aeschylus' version), treated the same historical event as Aeschylus’ Persians. Neither of Phrynichus' plays have survived.

Interpretations of Persians either read the play as sympathetic toward the defeated Persians or else as a celebration of Greek victory within the context of an ongoing war.[10] The sympathetic school has the considerable weight of Aristotelian criticism behind it; indeed, every other extant Greek tragedy arguably invites an audience's sympathy for one or more characters on stage. The celebratory school argues that the play is part of a xenophobic culture that would find it difficult to sympathize with its hated barbarian enemy during a time of war.[11] During the play, Xerxes calls his pains "a joy to my enemies" (1034).

Subsequent production history[edit]

Detail from the front cover of the programme to Peter Sellars' 1993 production of the play.

According to a scholium at Aristophanes' Frogs 1028, Hiero of Syracuse at some point invited Aeschylus to reproduce The Persians in Sicily.[12]

Seventy years after the play was produced, the comic playwright Aristophanes mentions an apparent Athenian reproduction of The Persians in his Frogs (405 BCE).[13] In it, he has Aeschylus describe The Persians as "an effective sermon on the will to win. Best thing I ever wrote"; while Dionysus says that he "loved that bit where they sang about the days of the great Darius, and the chorus went like this with their hands and cried 'Wah! Wah!'" (1026–28).[14]

The Persians was popular in the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire, who also fought wars with the Persians, and its popularity has endured in modern Greece. According to Anthony Podlecki, during a production at Athens in 1965 the audience "rose to its feet en masse and interrupted the actors' dialogue with cheers."[15]

The American Peter Sellars directed an important production of The Persians at the Edinburgh Festival and Los Angeles Festival in 1993, which articulated the play as a response to the Gulf War of 1990–1991. The production performed a new translation by Robert Auletta.[16] It opened at the Royal Lyceum Theatre on 16 August 1993.[17] Hamza El Din composed and performed its music, with additional music by Ben Halley Jr. and sound design by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger.[17] Dunya Ramicova designed the costumes and James F. Ingalls the lighting.[17] Cordelia Gonzalez played Atossa, Howie Seago the Ghost of Darius, and John Ortiz played Xerxes.[17] The Chorus was performed by Ben Halley Jr, Joseph Haj, and Martinus Miroto.[17]

Ellen McLaughlin translated Persians in 2003 for Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre in New York as a response to George Bush's invasion of Iraq.[18] The production starred Len Cariou as Darius.

In 2006, another adaptation of the play, Persae, was staged at Edinburgh, this time by the radical Australian playwright Van Badham; the text mixed elements of older translations of the play with new dialogue based on Fox News-style reports of the second Iraq war. Critic Dolan Cummings noted: "Persae is an adaptation of AeschylusThe Persians, a play about the Greeks’ vanquished foes coming to terms with defeat. The clever twist... is that, with the action updated to the war on terror, this time it is the West that is defeated." [19]

A 2010 translation by Aaron Poochigian [20] included for the first time the detailed notes for choral odes that Aeschylus himself created, which directed lines to be spoken by specific parts of the chorus (strophe and antistrophe). Using Poochigian's edition, which includes theatrical notes and stage directions, "Persians" was presented in a staged readthrough as part of New York's WorkShop Theater Company's Spring 2011 one-act festival "They That Have Borne the Battle."[21]


T.S. Elliot in The Waste Land, The Burial of the Dead, line 63 “I had not thought Death had undone so many” echoes line 432 of the Messenger account in the Persians: “However, you can be sure that so great a multitude of men never perished in a single day'[22]'” which is also similar to Dante’s line in Canto III, line 56: ch'i' non averei creduto che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.[23] In contemporary literature, Dimitris Lyacos in his dystopian epic[24] Z213: Exit uses quotations from the Messenger’s account[25] in The Persians, (δίψῃ πονοῦντες, οἱ δ᾽ ὑπ᾽ ἄσθματος κενοὶ: some, faint from thirst, while some of us, exhausted and panting[26]), in order to convey the failure of a military operation and the subsequent retreat of the troops in a post-apocalyptic setting.[27] The excerpts from The Persians enter a context of fragmentation whereby broken syntax is evocative of a landscape in the aftermath of war.[28]



  1. ^ A catalogue of Aeschylean plays contains the two titles Glaucus Potnieus and Glaucus Pontius – hence the uncertainty. To add to the confusion, one title could easily be a garbled duplicate of the other. The consensus seems to favor Glaucus Potnieus (Garvie 2009, xl–xlvi). See, however Muller/Lewis 1858, 322.
  2. ^ According to the hypothesis of The Persians found, e.g., in the Loeb and OCT editions of Aeschylus' plays.
  3. ^ a b "Aeschylus Fragments 57–154". Retrieved 2011-07-24. 
  4. ^ a b Smyth, H.W. (1930). Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides, Fragments. Harvard University Press. pp. 453–454. ISBN 0-674-99161-3. 
  5. ^ Taxidou (2004, 99).
  6. ^ Raphael and McLeish (1991, 14). In the original, this reads: “ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε, / ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ', ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ / παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τέ πατρῴων ἕδη, / θήκας τε προγόνων: νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.".
  7. ^ Raphael and McLeish (1991, 20).
  8. ^ Raphael and McLeish (1991, 26).
  9. ^ See Herodotus 6.21.2 and Taxidou (2004, 96–7).
  10. ^ For the first reading, see See, for example, Segal (1993, 165) and Pelling (1997, 1–19); for the second, see Hall (1996) and Harrison (2000). While there is some disagreement, the consensus is that the Persian Wars did not come to a formal conclusion until 449 BCE with the Peace of Callias.
  11. ^ See Hall (1991).
  12. ^ The Vita Aeschyli § 18 repeats this claim, adding that the play was well received there. For questions surrounding this Sicilian production and its bearing on the text of the Persae that survives, see Broadhead 2009, xlviii–liii; Garvie 2009, liii–lvii.
  13. ^ Garvie 2009, lv.
  14. ^ See Barrett 1964, 194.
  15. ^ Podlecki (1986, 78).
  16. ^ See Favorini (2003) and Banham (1998, 974).
  17. ^ a b c d e From the programme to the Edinburgh Festival production.
  18. ^ McLaughlin (2005, p. 254)
  19. ^ Cummings, Dolan (2006,
  20. ^ released by Johns Hopkins University Press
  21. ^ They That Have Borne the Battle Veterans Festival
  22. ^ Aeschylus, Persians, line 432. Herbert Weir Smyth Ed.
  23. ^ Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, Canto III, lines 56-57.
  24. ^ Michael O'Sullivan. The precarious destitute. A possible commentary on the lives of unwanted immigrants.
  25. ^ Dimitris Lyacos Z213: Exit. Translated by Shorsha Sullivan. Shoestring Press 2010.pp. 77-81.
  26. ^ Aeschylus, Persians, line 484. Herbert Weir Smyth Ed.
  27. ^ Allison Elliott,A review of Z213: Exit by Dimitris Lyacos.
  28. ^ Spencer Dew, A review of "Poena Damni, Z213: Exit.
  29. ^


  • Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
  • Barrett, David, trans. 1964. The Frogs. By Aristophanes. In The Wasps / The Poet and the Women / The Frogs. London: Penguin, 1986. 147–212. ISBN 0-14-044152-2.
  • Broadhead, H.D. 2009. The Persae of Aeschylus. Cambridge.
  • Favorini, Attilio. 2003. "History, Collective Memory, and Aeschylus' Persians." Theatre Journal 55:1 (March): 99–111.
  • Garvie, A.F. 2009 Aeschylus Persae. Oxford.
  • Hall, Edith. 1991. Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy. Oxford Classical Monographs ser. Oxford: Clarendon. ISBN 0-19-814780-5.
  • ---. 1996. Aeschylus Persians: Text and Commentary. Warminster: Aris & Phillips. ISBN 0-85668-597-6.
  • Harrison, Thomas. 2000. The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus' Persians and the History of the Fifth Century. London: Gerald Duckworth. ISBN 0-7156-2968-9.
  • Lesky, Albin et al. 1996. A History of Greek Literature. Hackett. ISBN 0-87220-350-6.
  • McLaughlin, Ellen. 2005. The Greek Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group. ISBN 978-1-55936-240-5.
  • Muller, K.O. 1858. History of the Literature of Ancient Greece: To the Period of Isocrates. Trans. George C. Lewis. Longmans, Green & Co.
  • Munn, Mark H. 2000. The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates. Berkeley: U of California P. ISBN 0-520-23685-8.
  • Podlecki, A.J. 1986. "Polis and Monarchy in Early Greek Tragedy." In Greek Tragedy and Political Theory. Ed. Peter Euben. New ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992. ISBN 0-520-05584-5.
  • Raphael, Frederic, and Kenneth McLeish, trans. 1991. Plays: One. By Aeschylus. Ed. J. Michael Walton. Methuen Classical Greek Dramatists ser. London: Methuen, 1998. ISBN 0-413-65190-8.
  • Segal, Charles. Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow: Art, Gender and Commemoration in Alcestis, Hippolytus and Hecuba. Durham: Duke UP. ISBN 0-8223-1360-X.
  • Taxidou, Olga. 2004. Tragedy, Modernity and Mourning. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP. ISBN 0-7486-1987-9.

External links[edit]