Friday, January 14, 2022

The Persians by Aeschylus - soon new disaster gushes forth

That little tag (l. 814, p. 145) about disaster could be from many Greek tragedies, but it is specifically from The Persians by Aeschylus (472 BCE), his first extant play, and therefore the first extant Greek play, and therefore the first extant play, which amazes me every time I think about it.

The Persians is likely not the first in many other ways, although as with any aspect of this subject, who knows, but it is pretty close.  The cult of Dionysius had only been in Athens for a hundred years or so, and the interactions between a chorus and a single actor performing some kind of dramatic story (meaning, a play) younger than that.  The Theater of Dionysus had only been in use for about twenty-five years, which is likely about how long Aeschylus had been writing and directing plays.  Greek tragedy was already a mature theatrical tradition when Aeschylus wrote The Persians, with a number of older playwrights, experiments, and so many lost plays.

Side note: my plan is to write about various aspects of Greek plays as I write about specific ones.  I won’t say anything you won’t read in the introductory material to whichever editions you are reading, but it is all part of how I organize my thoughts about the plays, and about literature generally.  Why did anyone write this kind of thing?  Who was the audience?  What did the performance of the play look like?  How did it sound?  Basic stuff.

How many Greek tragedies were directly* about recent events, for example?  The Persians is the only example we have.  It is the tragedy of Xerxes, king of Persia, specifically his decisive defeat by a much smaller force of Greeks, primarily Athenian, in the naval battle of Salamis just eight years before the performance of the play.  It’s the victory that kicked off the Athenian Golden Age and created the power vacuum in the Aegean that led to an empire run by a democratic government of a once-minor city-state.  Unlikely events.

My understanding of human nature suggests that a play or epic poem or song about a great victory would be celebratory, perhaps even boastful, but this play is about the suffering of the Persians in defeat, and not of ordinary people but of the Emperor:

XERXES: Weep and howl.

CHORUS:  We weep and howl. (ll. 1060-1, p. 151)

The great showpiece scene features a messenger giving a long description of the battle, the great defeat, and the subsequent disastrous retreat, while the mother of Xerxes and the Persian elders react in horror and grief.  “Yet I must now unfold the whole disastrous truth” (l. 53, 130), the messenger says:

Sirs, I was there; what I have told I saw myself;

I can recount each detail of the great defeat.  (ll. 63-4, 151)

And what gets me is that a large part of the audience, and the actors, and likely the playwright, the 15,000 free male citizens of Athens, were also there, at Salamis, or adjunct to it, and many others had fought in other battles against the Persians.  Even the youngest would remember the events, only eight years before, when a massive Persian force was on the edge of conquering Athens.  Obviously, the tragedy of the Persians is the negative image of the triumph of the Athenians, but The Persians appears more like a radical act of sympathy.  “Why is the groaning earth rutted and scarred” (l. 71, p. 141) asks the ghost of King Darius, a universal question, perhaps, or at least a good one for the rulers of a new empire to ask.

Or I am misreading the tone completely, and The Persians is about gloating and humiliating the justly punished enemies of God-favored Athens.

I read the Philip Vellacott translation in the old Penguin Classics edition, so line and page numbers come from there.

Next up is Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE), the third play in an otherwise lost trilogy about Oedipus and Thebes.  I’m going to switch to the Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon translation because the edition has more notes, and boy does this play need them. While The Persians is a great place to kick off a trip through the Greek plays, Seven Against Thebes is a poor follow-up, in that it is likely the most arcane, alien play we will read.  Who was the audience; what did it look like – I will need these questions more than ever.

I hope everyone enjoyed The Persians.  It is awfully interesting.

The vase, roughly contemporary to The Persians, is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It shows Athena holding the stern of a warship, and likely commemorates an Athenian naval victory.

* A number of later plays are indirectly about recent events, but we’ll get to that.


  1. I also read it as sympathetic to Xerxes, coming home in shame, criticized by his parents, walking onto the stage after the tale of his defeat has been told in full. He is humbled, but Aeschylus never mocks him. The call-and-response threnody at the end is one of the best things I've ever read.

  2. I love the threnody. I was tempted to quote much of it, but limited myself to the most perfect couplet.

    Right, his parents. His father literally comes back from the dead to dog on him! As if Marathon went so well for the Persians!

  3. Maybe Aeschylus means the play as a warning to the Delian League. "This could be us," etc.

  4. Plausible. Presumably this idea was openly discussed at the time. Hubris and so on.

    Now I wonder what I will think of The Birds when I read it again. Last time it looked like the great, glorious expression of Athenian triumphalism.

  5. I'm using these plays as an excuse to pick up posting again at the new site, so thanks so much for the inspiration!

    Yeah, what is the play about? Gloating? I don't think so. Aeschylus seems much too sympathetic. A warning to Athens and its abuse of the Delian League? The league has only started up and Athens hasn't relocated the treasury or started personally using the funds for personal reasons, so I don't think that's it. Although the central point for me is around line 820—don't reach too far in your goals or you'll suffer like Persia. That echoes some of Solon's poetry from the century before, too.

    Much is made of the "reality" nature of the play instead of being based in myth, but how much of the Persian Wars had entered the realms of myth by this point? It's almost like trying to bring things back to earth.

    Too much to comment on, but thanks for pointing out that Xerxes was simply carrying out Darius' plans of reinvading Greece. Which, as you note, went so well before. For the Greeks, though, death seems to impart a wisdom unavailable to the living.

  6. I don't know, by 472 Athens was already bullying people around and conquering its island neighbors, acting like a big shot, pissing off the Spartans, sewing the seeds of the Peloponnesian war.

  7. I don't really think the play is gloating, but I have to say the more I think about the plays the more I am filled with doubts. They are distant. Some aspects of them must be so easy to misread. I don't want to be like the existentialists, turning everything into proto-existentialism.

    My doubts have only grown about the most basic questions. I might write about that some time. "How do we know this?" - dates, stage practice, the simplest things. I don't want to fill everything I've written with qualifiers, but it is tempting.

    As for "mythic" - aside from Darius and Xerxes being descended from Perseus - it was only 8 years previous! Literally the entire audience was "there." Twenty year-olds would have been twelve.

  8. Have you read Jose Saramago's The History of the Siege of Lisbon? One of the themes if that it is possible to write multiple contradictory histories based on the same source documents, with no way to confirm which is "true." Readers of whatever era tend to believe that version which reminds them most of themselves.

    "The past is a foreign country" etc. How much "basic humanity" or whatever is innate, how much empathy can we really have with historical figures, and how much are we just projecting? I donno. I quit writing fiction for about two years because I couldn't say what was true and what wasn't.

  9. The Saramago sounds good. I should read it.

    The relevant example for The Persians is Herodotus, born after Salamis, writing his history let's say 30 years after a generation or more removed from the events he is describing. A different kind of writing. Something new.

    Well said, there at the end. Pretty much what I mean, adding in questions about the interpretation of evidence, and what do with the huge gaps, like all of the plays for which we do not even have names. Maybe some of those were also about the Persian war. Who knows.

  10. It's definitely a weird one. What most struck me about this was the calling up of Darius. That's odd in tragedy for sure. There are supposed to be some other historical events in classical tragedy, though none survive, but calling up of ghosts? Definitely Homer--Odysseus and Teiresias (and his mom) but I don't think it occurs in other tragedies.

    Homer, of course, also for treating one's enemies like they're human beings. Xerxes is on a direct line with Hector.

    I read it in the Benardete (University of Chicago) which struck me as inferior. (But it's what I have.) The herald lines you quote above: (I think? The line numbers are weird. ll.266-7)

    And since I was witness, deaf to rumor's tales,
    I can indicate what sorrows came.

    Which definitely strikes me as inferior.

  11. We have one more ghost coming up in Aeschylus. That might be it for ghosts. The summoning of Darius is the one big reminder in The Persians that we are at a religious festival.

    The play owes so much to Homer, doesn't it? The roll call of heroes at the beginning. The battle, obviously.

    I was wondering what "lines" meant in my translation. Lines on the page in front of me, yes, but with any relationship at all to an original manuscript? Probably not.

  12. Many years ago, I was really into Greek and Roman plays. Roll on decades and I still think about them and have recently been thinking about revisiting some. Thanks for the inspiration.

  13. The other thing I felt about this is how plain the language is. Aeschylus is the poet of high-sounding bombast, according to the Frogs, and that's at least true of the choruses of the Agamemnon. Here not so much.

  14. Guy, glad to hear it. It was well past time for me to revisit.

    I, too, thought, the language of Aeschylus was pretty stark, although I know that can be an artifact of translation.

  15. I think the tone is more one of thanksgiving. Everyone in the ancient world knew what the price was for military failure. The playwright is simply evoking the audience's own fears in the pitiful fate of the Persians. (But it's certainly true that the Greeks didn't seem to demonise their enemies so much, and even took a great interest in them – see also, all the plays we'll get onto about Trojans). Aeschylus puts the victory down to the gods (fate etc.) rather than the Athenians themselves, which have deluded Xerxes - into making the invasion in the first place, into choosing the wrong tactics. - This idea of the gods deluding mortals into acting against their own interests recurs endlessly in Greek tragedy.

    I don't believe there are really any authorial messages in Greek tragedy (though it's never a great idea to generalise about the tragedies as a whole). If there is, maybe it's that god works in mysterious ways, and there's not much you can do about it. Tragedy seems to me rather to be concerned with provoking emotional responses in the audience, perhaps as a form of religious cleansing, by portraying people who are being pushed to emotional extremes.

  16. It's Euripides who taught we not to generalize about Greek tragedies, that giant screwball. He will, at some point, contradict every generalization I might have.

    Maybe at some later point we should diverge into a group read of Poetics, if anyone is interested.

  17. The closest thing I took to a moral is to not disrespect the gods, the culmination of what Darius' ghost tells his wife. And gods are also part of the most striking bit of the play for me - Atossa's recounting of her allegorical dream about Greece and Persia, followed by her witnessing of a hawk killing an eagle at the altar of Apollo. I don't know exactly what that bit is supposed to mean, but it's an unsettling image that hangs over the entire recounting by the messenger. Felt a little William Blake to me.

    reese, I also started with the Bernadette translation and found a lot of it clunky. I think he was trying to preserve some of the meter, which is effective in the final lament, but less so elsewhere (e.g. when the Chorus, upon first learning of the defeat of the Persians, responds "O woe! Woeful evil, novel and hostile."). I found an online translation by one Ian Johnston that worked better for me, I may use him as a source for some of the other plays.

  18. The work that The Persians' positioning most reminds me of - a quasi-propaganda view of a military defeat by an opposing power that is nonetheless sympathetic in many ways - is the 1939 Powell/Pressburger movie The Spy In Black, about a failed (fictional) German operation in World War I. The tone is somewhat "our enemies are real people with real feelings, but they'll still do evil if left to their own devices and we therefore must stop them." Maybe there's a hint of that in The Persians - no matter how sympathetic the chorus may be, and by extension the Persian people, they're still beholden to the whims of their leader.

  19. Yes, I can vaguely imagine Blake's illustration of the scene.

    A more modern version of the story would be about the soldiers, the ordinary people. It is surprising to see the King as the tragic figure, although I guess not surprising given the genre. We're going to see lots of tragic kings this year.

    Ian Johnston's translation is here.

  20. Dollymix, Benardete does say in his intro that he's trying to preserve the feel of the meter, but I can't say that it feels successful. Do you think that opening passage feels like a march? It doesn't to me. Looking at the Greek, that opening choral section strikes me as not the usual thing, especially from line 66 or so, but Benardete's version doesn't get it across for me. And the language is spare in Greek, I think. (That means even with my rusty Greek I can read it...) and Benardete certainly doesn't feel spare to me.

    There were a few other oddities in the translation, I thought. Theomastor--which means, to go all Fragment of a Greek Tragedy,'like to the gods in counsel', but in any case a perfectly Greek word--he renders as Padshah.

    Dollymix, Tom, thanks for the info on Ian Johnston's translation. I'll check it out.

  21. A. E. Stallings has a nice piece about the play in the Sept. 25, 2020 TLS; a couple of tidbits:

    The tragedy plays differently to Greek and non-Greek audiences. Reviews of the live-streamed production in the Guardian (subtitled “a triumph of empathy for a time of Covid-19”) and the New York Times praised the production for its timely lessons on hubris and its message of empathy. But for the overwhelmingly Greek audience present, thrilled to be out of doors at a production at all after a long lockdown, and potentially on the brink of war, the play was rousingly patriotic. The image of Greece as a scrappy little country punching above its weight, taking no orders from kings and exerting its naval prowess to push back against a larger threatening power, was as appealing as ever. [...]

    The battle was a significant marker in the lives of all three of the major Athenian playwrights: Aeschylus fought in it; Sophocles was sixteen (the age of my son now) at the time of the victory, when he was chosen as a handsome youth to lead the victory hymn. Euripides was in utero, and according to legend picked the battle of Salamis as a propitious time to be born, his mother going into labour as she and other Athenian refugees fled for the safety of the island by boat.

    There were two things I particularly wanted to see on Salamis. One was the cave where, according to legend, Euripides wrote his plays, having rowed over from the mainland, and holing up there in a sort of proto writers’ retreat. After driving around the island’s surprisingly large pine forest (the oldest such in the Saronic), we found it, and I was surprised at how far up the hillside it was, how steep. The other thing was an ancient olive tree; this my husband was less sanguine about tracking down, as we had no information other than that it exists. The tree is estimated to be 2,500 years old and has been called the only surviving eyewitness of the battle. Yet the tree is not widely known on the island. We were lucky in that our waiter at lunch was a native Salaminian, and gave us a general idea of its whereabouts. Even so, as we drove up and down the stretch of road at the village he had mentioned, no one we asked had heard about a particular old olive tree. We were about to give up, though knowing it must be close, when a woman driving past offered to lead the way.

    The tree is so old that it has devolved from its enormous central trunk to a circle of offshoots, each itself as thick as a centuries-old olive tree. Odysseus’ rooted marital bed was carved from a living olive tree. And I thought: this is such a tree. A small wooden sign says: “The Olive Tree of Orsa”. According to local lore, Orsa was a young woman in medieval times whose dowry consisted solely of the ancient tree. (It would have been close to 2,000 years old then.) We patted its flanks, and marvelled at the litter of last autumn’s shrivelled olives carpeting the earth underfoot; the tree evidently still produces masses. It may have been a sapling during the battle itself, and a young tree when Euripides wrote his plays.

  22. Stallings is so great. That tree! Amusing, although horrifying, to see the Greeks get whipped up against the, I guess, Turks.

    Vellacott does a nice job of - what do I think he is doing - signaling when he thinks the chorus is singing. He switches to rhymed verse.