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), concerned 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 passed forbidding subsequent performances of his play. 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. 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. During the play, Xerxes calls his pains "a joy to my enemies" (line 1034).