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The Persians

The Persians (Περσαι) is a tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus.

It was produced in 472 BC along with three other plays, which do not survive, but which probably also had something to do with the Persian Wars. The first play, Phineas, was apparently about the mythological figure Phineas, who helped Jason and the Argonauts pass into Asia. The Persians was the second part. The play is especially notable in that it is the only surviving ancient Greek tragedy that is based on an actual historical event, namely the Battle of Salamis. That battle took place in 480 BC, only eight years before The Persians was performed. Aeschylus had participated in the battle, and it is likely that most of his Athenian audience had either fought in the battle or had been affected by it directly. Glaucus Potnieus, the third part, seems to have been about the Battle of Plataea of 479 BC. The fourth play, a satyr play, may have been about Prometheus.

The Persians takes place in Susa, the capital of Persia, and opens with the chorus (representing Persian nobles) and Queen Atossa awaiting news of the battle. 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. A messenger then arrives, delivering news of the defeat, and there is a graphic description of the battle including the names of the Persian leaders who have been killed.

Atossa then goes to the tomb of her dead husband Darius, who appears to her as a ghost, although he is ignorant of the defeat. The ghost of Darius (almost a unique occurrence in ancient Greek tragedy - the only other ghost known to appear on stage is in another play by Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers) goes on to explain that the Persians were defeated because of the hubris of his son, Xerxes, who constructed a bridge of boats across the Hellespont and by doing so offended the gods (by this, Aeschylus means that the gods, rather than Athens, were responsible for Athens' victory). The ghost of Darius also makes a reference to the Battle of Plataea, another Greek victory, probably foreshadowing the third play.

Xerxes, the tragic hero of the play, does not appear until the end. He has returned in defeat and in shame, and does not realize his own hubris was the cause of his defeat. The end of the play is filled with lamentations by Xerxes and the chorus. There is no peripateia ("reversal of fortune"), as a tragedy would normally have - Xerxes is never portrayed as a king with a good fortune to be reversed. He does, however, realize the cause of his defeat (the anagnorosis), and ends the play more noble than when he entered.

Aeschylus was not the first to write a play about the Persians, as Phrynichus had written The Phoenissae in 493 BC. Phrynichus' play, which is lost, apparently mocked the Persians and celebrated the Greeks despite the Persian victory over the Ionian Revolt only one year before in 494 BC, and he was fined for producing the work. Aeschylus, on the other hand, mentions no Greek leaders at all and does not turn his play into propaganda. Instead, he wanted his audience to feel pity for the Persians, the enemy they had so recently defeated. The play (or, rather, all four plays) won the Dionysia festival in Athens in 479, and it was reproduced in Sicily in 467 BC (one of the few times a play was reproduced during the lifetime of the author). The version produced in 467 probably forms the basis of the surviving version, and may have been slightly different from the original. It was also later a popular play in the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire, who also fought wars with the Persians.

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