The action of this drama takes place shortly after the Battle of Salamis, in which the Persian fleet was defeated by the Athenians in 480 B.C. The chorus, consisting of the elders of Persia, is assembled in the city of Susa before their Council Hall.
The Persian elders were worried. The young men of Persia had followed King Xerxes to Greece. They did not know whether or not their armed forces had been successful, and they anxiously awaited news. They sympathized with the wives and the parents of the young men who were compelled to hazard their lives in battle.
While the chorus of Persian elders was commenting on the situation, Atossa, the mother of King Xerxes and the widow of Darius, entered the scene. Atossa had been troubled by dreams, and she had come to seek advice from the chorus of elders.
She was especially troubled by a dream featuring two women: one in Persian custom and the other in Doric dress. They began to fight. Xerxes tried to reconcile them to one another and yoked them beneath his car. The Persian lady gladly submitted, but the other lady shattered the yoke, and Xerxes fell from his car. The ghost of Darius then appeared to Xerxes and pitied his fallen son.
To avert these ills, Atossa offered oblations to the gods. As she did so, a fearful omen disturbed her. An eagle, the imperial bird, was attacked by a hawk. The eagle cowered helplessly while the hawk buffeted it. Atossa was afraid that this omen portended disaster for Xerxes.
The chorus suggested that Atossa make entreaties to the gods and pour a libation to the shades of Darius. While they were discussing the campaign in Greece, a messenger arrived on the scene.
The messenger brought a tale of woe. The Persians had been defeated by the Athenians at Salamis, even though the Athenians had a much smaller fleet than the Persians. Many Persian ships had been destroyed, and a multitude of dead bodies lay among the wreckage. The messenger had seen it with his own eyes.
Atossa anxiously asked the messengers what leaders had been killed. The messenger assured her that Xerxes was alive. However, several leaders had died: Artembares, Dadaces, Lilaeus, and many others.
The Greeks had played a trick on Xerxes. One of them pretended to be a deserter and told Xerxes that the Greek fleet was going to sail away during the night so that it would not be destroyed by the superior Persian fleet. To prevent their escape, Xerxes ordered the Persian fleet to blockade Salamis as soon as the sun set, so that it would be impossible for the fleet to escape. The next morning, the Persians learned that the Greeks were not trying to escape. They were prepared for battle and fought fiercely. They battered the Persian fleet till sundown prevented further action.
Moreover, Xerxes had stationed some Persian soldiers on an island close to Salamis. He was sure that the Greeks would be defeated in the naval battle, and he figured that some of them would take refuge on this island. If so, the soldiers were supposed to kill them.
When the Greeks won the naval battle contrary to Xerxes’ expectations, some of the Greeks went to the island and killed the Persian soldiers that were stationed there.
After telling some of the hardships that he and others faced while returning to Persia, the messenger left the scene. After urging the chorus to comfort Xerxes as soon as he arrived, Atossa also left the scene.
The chorus then described the grief felt by the virgins of Persia and its widowed brides. The chorus also criticized Xerxes for unpeopling Persia by his unwise campaign.
Atossa returned, clothed in mourning garb. She planned to pour a libation on the tomb of Darius, hoping that he would help his son. She urged the chorus to invoke Darius as she made an offering to the infernal gods.
Accordingly, the chorus asked the infernal powers to send the shades of Darius to the realm of light, so that he could inform them of any further troubles that threatened Persia. In the meantime, Atossa poured her libation at the tomb of Darius.
The ghost of Darius appeared and addressed the chorus of elders, who were the companions of his youth. He asked them to tell him what grieved them.
Since the chorus was afraid to speak, the ghost turned to his widow, who told him that Xerxes had led the Persian host against Greece and suffered a terrible defeat at Salamis. The ghost of Darius criticized the impetuous action of his son. He advised the chorus of elders never to invade Greece again.
The ghost of Darius also told them that disaster would overtake the Persian forces that still remained in Greece. They would fall at Plataea beneath the Doric spear. [The Battle of Plataea took place in 479 B.C. Pausanias, a Spartan, was the victorious commander.]
After urging Atossa to put on royal robes and comfort her son, he bade farewell to the chorus of elders and descended to the land of the dead.
After Atossa left to put on her royal robe, the chorus of elders praised the glorious reign of Darius, who conquered many lands and shielded his people with fatherly care.
Xerxes then entered the scene. Since he had torn his royal garments out of grief, he was a pitiful sight.
In the ensuing dialogue, Xerxes and the chorus of elders lamented the disaster that they suffered. In addition, Xerxes described the deaths of various Persian leaders.
Since I do not have the original Greek of Aeschylus at my disposal, this summary has been based on an English translation presented online by Classical Authors.