Aeschylus, “The Persians”

Yesterday: The Histories   Tomorrow: The Birth of Tragedy   Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

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Before I start, a brief addendum to my post on The Odyssey a few days ago; here is the opposite story, of the unfaithful wife: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZbN_nmxAGk (Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss, “Whiskey Lullaby”)

Now, Aeschylus’ “The Persians” is a natural follow-up to The Histories, which you will recall climaxes with Xerxes’ failed invasion of Attica in 480 BC.  This play describes the same event, without all the background.  The play opens with the chorus and Atossa (Darius’ powerful wife and Xerxes’ mother), as Atossa awaits word of the happenings of the expedition.  She relates her most recent dream, of Xerxes attempting to resolve a conflict between a Greek woman and a Near Eastern woman by yoking together and forcing them to live in friendship.  The Near Eastern woman submits. but the Greek one lashes out and breaks the rein, freeing herself.  Atossa here expresses her anxiety about the outcome of the expedition, at which point a messenger arrives, bringing word of the Athenian rout at Salamis and explaining that Xerxes had escaped.  Atossa laments the loss to the Persian Empire; then she and the chorus are found at Darius’ tomb, calling up his ghost.  She tries to find out if there is any way to rectify the loss.  Darius, hearing of the loss, simply chastises what he considers excessive pride, lamenting that his son would ever cross to mainland Greece and foretelling another defeat (this one being the Battle of Plataea).  Darius’ ghost leaves, and Xerxes arrives, a shell of himself, and conducts a give-and-take with the chorus.

Now this is not Aeschylus’ most memorable play.  It is, however, the one that likely spoke most truly of his convictions.  It brings these convictions out by its strong imagery and use of literary devices such as foreshadowing, symbolism, and juxtaposition.  Aeschylus himself, born circa 525 BC and dying circa 455 BC, was around 35 when he fought at the Battle of Marathon in 490.  Thus he had first-hand experience of conflict with Persia.  To Greeks of the time, the resistance to Persian influence was the single most important value they shared; but they retained their freedom against the most lopsided odds.  The Persian Empire at this time extended from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to India, north just below the borders of modern Russia, and included many Greek cities in Anatolia and Asia Minor.  The resisting Greek cities look like a grain of sugar next to a loaf of bread; you may not even see it on the table.  The Greek victories, then, carried particular weight to the men who won them and the societies built around them.

So what are his convictions that become clear from this play?

First, that Persian influence was the equivalent of slavery; Persian conquest destroyed freedom and was therefore distasteful.

Second, that both sides viewed the other as effeminate, but that the Persians, their men described as dying “inglorious” deaths, were the real women, and the Greeks the real men.

Third, that it is the will of the gods that Greece remain free.

Fourth, that even Darius was smart enough to figure out that his invasion of Greece had been a costly mistake (though this is historically dubious and seems to be just in Aeschylus’ head).

And fifth, that while this invasion by Xerxes an impious affront destined for failure, the impiety came from his mother, who we see engaged in necromancy.

Now all of these things may be true, but the biggest reason the Persians lost the battle is not impiety or stupidity but inferior weaponry, both by sea and by land; the Greeks had both better offensive weaponry (longer weapons which meant better range for their infantry) and better defensive weapons (better shields), so after the Persians had exhausted their arrows the infantry battle was destined to go in Greek favor despite the Persian numerical superiority.  And the Persian ships, while having a continuous deck which made fighting easier on all sides, were more likely to suffer the effects of a sudden wave and also more vulnerable to the battering of rams.  Couple these martial superiorities with the Greek will to freedom and the recipe for disaster was ever-present.  The turning point in the Persian Empire had arrived, and from the Battle of Plataea after it was on the decline rather than the ascent.

The play is short–in the Great Books of the Western World edition it is 12 pages, so in a normal version perhaps 20–and very easily readable.  I will almost certainly do a course in the future on classic plays, not including Shakespeare, and this will be a part of it.  It takes half an hour, maybe an hour at most–so turn off those commercials and read the goddamn thing!

For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Persians

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