The Persians by Aeschylus

“Of the Persians gone 
To the land of Greece
Here are the trusted:
As protectors of treasure …..”
Performed in Athens in  472 B.C., The Persians portrays the naval battle at Salamis between the Greeks and the Persians, which occurred seven years earlier.   It is unique from other tragedies, as it was without a prologue or exudos (final scene) of the chorus.  As it deals with contemporary history instead of the common mythic topics, it was not part of a unified triad of plays that Aeschylus appeared to favour, yet interestingly it was performed with two other “lost” mythic plays, Phineus and Glaucus Ponieus.  In comparing this play to later tragedies, these differences raise the possibility of tragedy developing out of an earlier form.

Battle of Salamis (1868)
Wilhelm von Kaulbach
source Wikimedia Commons

The play begins in 480 B.C., and at the palace of Xerxes at Sousa, the Persian elders are lauding the strength of Xerxes and his army as they are engaged in battle with the Greeks:

“And the furious leader the herd
Of populous Asia he drives,
Wonderful over the earth,
And admirals stern and rough
Marshals of men he trusts:
Gold his descent from Perseus,
He is the equal of god.”


Yet their tone of exhortation becomes tinged with concern over the question of victory in this battle, and the mother of Xerxes, the Queen, appearing, echoes their sentiments.  A herald arrives, bringing most unwelcome news:

“O cities of Asia, O Persian land,
And wealth’s great anchorage!
How at a single stroke prosperity’s
Corrupted, and the flower of Persia falls,
And is gone.  Alas!  the first herald of woe,
He must disclose entire what befell:
Persians, all the barbarian host is gone.”


The herald, an eyewitness, bitterly describes the Persians’ defeat at Salamis.  Momentarily speechless, the Queen finally asks about survivors.  Xerxes is still living, but the Herald lists the many dead heroes, casualties of the battle.  The survivors are scattered.
“Ship dashed against ship, till the Persian army
dead stewed the deep like flowers”
source Wikimedia Commons
While Xerxes is a great warrior, his errors in the battle are made apparent.  He harangued his captains publicly, “in ignorance of Greek guile and the jealousy of the gods” …. and, “he conned the future ill.”  In return for his pride and miscalculations:
“All the Persians, who were in nature’s prime,
Excellent in soul, and nobly bred to grandeur,
Always first in trust, met their death
In infamy, dishonor, and in ugliness.”
Lamenting that her dream of defeat has come to fruition, the Queen attempts to assuage her grief by offering prayers and gifts to the gods.  As she offers libations at the tomb of her dead husband, Darius, his ghost rises up, inquiring about the present woe.  When he hears of the tragic defeat, he appears to blame his son’s “youthful pride”, yet he counsels the Queen to receive her son gently when he returns.

Somber laments issue from the Persian council of elders until Xerxes arrives in grievous affliction.  He recounts more of his defeat, his words a song of sorrow until the end:

“Oh alas, woe,
The magic wheel of longing for my friends you turn, you tell
Me hateful sorrows.  Within my frame my heart resounds,
resounds ……”

Death of the Persian admiral (Ariabignes,
brother of Xerxes) early in the battle
source Wikipedia
Wow, this was a very powerful play.  By the Persians’ defeat, Xerxes has not only lost honour for himself, but he is responsible for the loss of honour of generations before him.  Yet the tragedy of the situation is in his overweening pride and his attempt to place himself in a position above the gods.  He ignored the wisdom of his elders, instead choosing to go his own way, and paid dearly for his folly.
Even though, Aeschylus was writing through Persians eyes, elements of a Greek mindset crept in here and there, as in Darius’ horror of the Persians plundering and burning the Greek temples.  And he counsels the Queen for the Persians not to invade Greece because “the Grecian soil is their own ally.”  Very convenient.  Yet there is also a sympathetic tone towards the Persians, as if the Greeks can empathize with the sufferings of battle and the woes of the aftermath of loss.  In fact, the sympathy is startling.  The great daring of such a play perhaps goes beyond both historical and contemporary understanding.  No playwright had risked presenting the enemy, not only from a sympathetic viewpoint, but also showing them as noble and heroic in battle.  The battle at Salamis was a recent event and it is a tribute to the rhetoric of Aeschylus that this play was so well-regarded.  Yet while his feat is indeed admirable, Aeschylus ensures that he remains in control of his creation.  Few names can be traced to real persons, hyperbole is employed and Persians adopt Greek tradition, preventing any person from drawing any concrete truth from his presentation.  His Persian War, while being historically based, is still in the realm of myth, as if he cannot escape it. 

Translated by Seth G. Bernardete

    




6 thoughts on “The Persians by Aeschylus

  1. Very interesting. A Greek play that is written from the Persian stand point, based on a recent event, where Greeks triumphed…very interesting premises!

  2. Yes, it is. I'm trying to start with the oldest tragedian and work on from there. I'm sure that the tone of these tragedies will change quite a bit. This was very stark and in a way, quite simple, but it was a good introduction because it allows certain techniques to stand out. I quite enjoyed it.

  3. I've got this on my list for 2016, but I decided to finally start The Oresteia first. Aeschylus is fantastically atmospheric, isn't he? The Persians sounds very interesting indeed – I may well read it when I finish Oresteia. I don't find Aeschylus an easy writer, so I'll be glad to have this post to refer back to 🙂

  4. This play was his earliest (at least that's the "guess" at this point in time), so I thought I'd start here. His Oresteia shows the development of his work, so I decided to go in order to determine whether this development would be obvious to me or not. We'll see ….. Next up is, I think, The Suppliant Maidens, which I'm looking forward to.

    I appreciated how much Aeschylus communicated with so little. Every character has a strong presence, from Xerxes to the Herald. It was a great read!

  5. It really is a great play. Surprisingly moving for a work told from the perspective of their enemy.

    "Yet there is also a sympathetic tone towards the Persians, as if the Greeks can empathize with the sufferings of battle and the woes of the aftermath of loss. In fact, the sympathy is startling. The great daring of such a play perhaps goes beyond both historical and contemporary understanding. No playwright had risked presenting the enemy, not only from a sympathetic viewpoint, but also showing them as noble and heroic in battle."

    Perhaps it shows the difference between mere propaganda and art. Also, I wonder if by depicting the Persians as noble and heroic in battle it helps emphasize the glory of the Greek Victory. They didn't just beat any old enemy, but the mighty Persians. If they undersell their enemy it cheapens the glory of their victory.

  6. What great comments! It does make the Greeks look rather victorious in defeating such a noble enemy.

    While the scholars agree that in drama, this was an unusual play, in that it portrayed the enemy in a favourable light, but I was thinking about Homer ……. of course, then we're dealing with poetry, but I thought he portrayed the Trojans in a rather respected and courageous light in the Iliad. However, perhaps he was only a blind poet and not a respected playwright, so less was expected of him …….??

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