|The Battle of Salamis (Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis) by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1868).|
The Persians (Πέρσαι) is a tragic play by Aeschylus that won first prize in Athens' City Dionysia festival in 472 B.C., eight years after the Battle of Salamis - a victory for the Greeks against the Persians. This is the subject of Aeschylus' play, and the purpose, as Philip Vellacott writes in the introduction of my edition (Penguin, 1961), was for "the gratification of the natural pride of the Athenians in their achievement, and the presentation of the victory of Salamis as the focal point in the defeat of Persia and the establishment of Greek liberty". For this it is unlike the other surviving plays of Aeschylus in that it is on historical events rather than myth.
|Xerxes I of Persia.|
The action takes place in the palace of King Xerxes a few months after the battle of Salamis in September 480 B.C. The play opens with the chorus made up of Persian Elders who await the result of the battle and explain the events leading up to it. They are joined by Atossa, the mother of Xerxes, who is equally nervous, "torn by anxious thoughts," she says. After a dialogue with Atossa and the Chorus the messenger arrives:
O cities of wide Asia! O loved Persian earth,
Haven of ample wealth! One blow has overthrown
Your happy pride; the flower of all your youth is fallen.
To bring the first news of defeat's an evil fate;
Yet I must now unfold the whole disastrous truth;
Persians, our country's fleet and army are no more.
The messenger goes on to give a detailed account of the battle and all those who lost their lives (which suggests that Aeschylus himself was closely involved either as an observer or as a soldier). King Xerxes was not killed, to the relief of Atossa, and they now await his return.
|Darius the Great.|
At the request of Atossa the Chorus summon the ghost of Darius the Great, the father of King Xerxes and husband of Atossa as they offer libations at his tomb. Darius' ghost rises and they tell him of Persia's defeat. He expresses his sorrow and regret at Xerxes' foolishness, then he prophesies another defeat, speaking of the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.). After he leaves Xerxes arrives, ragged and exhausted, and with the Chorus he laments his sad defeat.
The play would have been on the whole enjoyed by the contemporary Athenian audience. Some, Aristotle for example, suggested Aeschylus was expressing his sympathy with the defeated Persians and acknowledge that one day Athenians may suffer such a fate, others such as Aristophanes believed the play to be a celebration of the victory. Whatever the case it is a sensitive, empathetic and moving exploration of war, defeat, and public and private mourning. I enjoyed reading the play, indeed it was fascinating, but, as with the other plays of Aeschylus I have read, it was not easy and I fear my reading was somewhat superficial.
On a final note: I've been reading Aeschylus' plays since December and I've now finished all of his surviving plays:
- Prometheus Bound (480s - 410s B.C.)
- The Suppliants (470s B.C.)
- The Persians (472 B.C.)
- Seven Against Thebes (467 B.C.)
- The Oresteia (458 B.C.): Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides
It's not been easy, but I have enjoyed it. I loved Prometheus Bound (though this may not have actually been written by Aeschylus), and my absolute favourite was the Oresteia. I've said a number of times Aeschylus is astonishingly atmospheric, and he is a very sensitive and insightful writer. My heart may still lie with Sophocles, but I am very happy to have finally read Aeschylus.