Aeschylus: The Persians

January 9, 2023

The Persians
Translated from the Greek by S.G. Benardete
(Chicago, 1991) [472 BC]
44 p. Second reading.

In 480 BC the Persian army, led by the emperor Xerxes himself, invaded Greece in an attempt to subdue the regions, including Athens and Sparta, that had resisted his father’s invasion ten years earlier, but in a remarkable series of battles — first at Thermopylae, then Salamis, and finally Plataea — the Greeks, against the odds, defeated him. It was one of the most important, formative series of events in Greek history, and they could be justifiably proud of what they had achieved.

Less than ten years later, Aeschylus presented this play at the annual Dionysia festival. It is the earliest of his plays to come down to us, and it is unique among surviving Greek tragedies in portraying a recent historical event, for it relates the aftermath of the Greek victory over the Persians. Remarkably, it is set in the Persian court. The characters are Xerxes, his mother, and the ghost of his father.

Even more remarkable than Aeschylus having set his drama in the enemy camp, so to speak, is that he adopted the Persian point of view. The events are tragic for the Persians, and for the pathos of the drama to work his audience must feel their pain. They must consider the Persians not as victims to be gloated over, or bullies to be treated with contempt, but as people suffering a loss and deserving of some level of sympathy. It stands, therefore, as a notable testament to Aeschylus’ magnanimity, and, presumably, since it won first prize at the festival that year, to the magnanimity of the Athenian audience.

The play itself follows the conventions of Greek tragedy, of course. There are long speeches from the few characters, there is a gregarious chorus that comments on the action, and, for those of us reared on Shakespeare, it feels stiff and slight on circumstance. The theatrical conventions were very different, and it is difficult, at least for me, to form a mental picture of the action and to get the feel of the thing.

But I am pleased to have read the play (again), for it stands close to the headwater of the amazing torrent of creativity and generous humanity that was to pour from Athens over the succeeding century or two. We are onto a very good thing.

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