The Persians – Aeschylus

The Persians
Aeschylus
Philip Vellacott, translator
Ancient Greece, 472 BCE

Chorus:
We are the Persian Council, left in trust,
For all our Persians serving now in Hellas,
To guard this rich and golden house. The King,
Xerxes himself, son of Darius, chose
Our rank and years to govern his domain.

But when will they return–Xerxes our king
And all his gold-clad armament? Our hearts
Heave in our breasts, clamouring prophetic fears.
The flower of Asian youth left home; and none,
Runner nor rider, brings us word of them.

So begins Aeschylus’s first surviving play, and the first surviving ancient Greek play (I believe oldest surviving play, period). It is a historical play. A tragedy, I suppose, for it relates the catastrophic defeat of the Persians, led by Xerxes, to the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis. Beyond this narrative there is little plot; it is more a news reel than a story.

The characters are few: the chorus, by turns anxious and devastated; the messenger who bears the bad news; Atossa, Xerxes’s mother; the ghost of King Darius, Xerxes’s father; and finally Xerxes himself, cataloging more fully than messenger the full scale of the defeat.

It is a defeat that Darius, called to view by the chorus in their role as Persian elders, attributes to his son’s hubris, for daring to go against the gods and nature.

Darius:
How swiftly came fulfilment of old prophecies!
Zeus struck within one generation: on my son
Has fallen the issue of those oracles which I
Trusted the gods would still defer for many years.
But heaven take part, for good or ill, with man’s own zeal.
So now for my whole house a staunchless spring of griefs
Is opened; and my son, in youthful recklessness,
Not knowing the gods’ ways, had been the cause of all.
He hoped to stem that holy stream, the Bosporus,
And bind the Hellespont with fetters like a slave;
He would wrest Nature, turn sea into land, manacle
A strait with iron, to make a highway for his troops.
He in his mortal folly thought to overpower
Immortal gods, even Poseidon. Was not this
Some madness that possessed him? Now my hard-won wealth,
I fear, will fall a prey to the first plunderer.

That Aeschylus should attribute the defeat not to any strategic or military superiority of the Greeks is interesting to me. Told through the Persian point of view (though the gods named are all Greek deities), it seems almost sympathetic, rather than the triumphant celebration by the victors that I might have expected. This becomes more nuanced, allowing the audience to feel the full force of their victory in the roll call of the enemy dead, while also displaying the deep grief of the defeated.

The many names of the dead is interesting to me as well. Were they the actual names of Persian generals and captains and soldiers? Representative names selected by Aeschylus? I assume that memory of names and valorous deeds was important to the ancient Greeks, for as I recall from The Iliad, there were many, many names there also.

I’m still not entirely sure of what to make of The Persians. Although I’ve done a little research into the context of ancient Greek theater, I have little context for the larger culture at the time (outside of other plays, epics, and myths I’ve read), so I don’t know how much I’m missing. However, I found it an interesting start to what will hopefully be a journey through all the surviving Greek plays, hosted/encouraged by Wuthering Expectations.

2 thoughts on “The Persians – Aeschylus”

  1. Isn’t it crazy? Literally the oldest play we have. Unless some dates are way, way off.

    I, too, was wondering about how much meaning to attach to the catalogue of fallen Persians. Well-known generals? Symbolic names? I have no idea.

    1. Considering how old these plays are, and by comparison how little we know of Shakespeare, it’s crazy to me that we have these at all, and know as much as we do.

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