An introduction to a classic play
Michael Billington notes in The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present that Aeschylus’ classical play The Persians is the oldest surviving work of Western drama. First performed at the City Dionysia in 472 BC, The Persians takes a nuanced approach to the matter of war and conquest. It was a direct inspiration for the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’. Percy Shelley’s drama Hellas was written in response to it. It’s the only play from the classical era that deals with historical events rather than mythological ones. In short, The Persians is a fascinating play and Aeschylus’ handling of war is worthy of closer inspection and analysis.
The real-life historical incident which inspired Aeschylus’ play was the Greeks’ victory over Persian forces at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The Persian King Xerxes attacked the Greeks at Salamis in a sea battle because he wanted vengeance following his defeat at the earlier Battle of Marathon ten years before. Given that Aeschylus’ play was first performed just eight years later, many of the spectators in the original audience of The Persians would have either fought in the conflict or known someone who had. In summary, Aeschylus’ play focuses on the Persian court, where Xerxes’ mother, Atossa, and a chorus of old men, await news of Xerxes’ military attack. Unfortunately, when news arrives, it could hardly be worse: Xerxes’ Persian army has been annihilated by the Greeks.