Wednesday, 2 March 2016

The Persians by Aeschylus.

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:

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. 

Further Reading 


  1. To this day, whenever I hear Aeschylus mentioned, I'm reminded of Robert Kennedy's speech here in my home town of Indianapolis, where he famously broke the news about the assassination of Martin Luther King and is credited with helping keep the city calm where riots broke out in others upon hearing this news. He cites a passage by Aeschylus:

    "My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

    Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
    falls drop by drop upon the heart,
    until, in our own despair,
    against our will,
    comes wisdom
    through the awful grace of God.

    What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."

    I'd bet most of our presidential candidates in this round couldn't even tell you who Aeschylus was...

    1. I love that, thanks for sharing.

      And I dare say you're right about your presidential candidates... Given that Trump was retweeting quotes from Mussolini because Trump thought he himself had said them, I think Aeschylus would be over-reaching somewhat! :)

  2. congratulations, O; if i was an ancient greek, i'd send you a laurel wreath! something to be proud of, for sure. and: Mr. Carr, tx for the poem and the sentiments; one can only hope reason and compassion can find their place in this modern day America...

    1. Thank you! I don't think Aeschylus would be too impressed with my posts, but hopefully he'd appreciate my effort :)


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