The Context of Aeschylus’ Original Production, and the Effect on the Structure and Message of ‘The Persians’
Aeschylus was writing his tragedy ‘The Persians’ in a period of peace following a particularly violent series of wars between Greek and Persian forces (499-449) which eventually ended in Greek victory, as the Persian fleet was defeated in the straits of Salamis, and this can explain the playwright’s primary focus on historical events throughout his play, which is clearly influenced by historical context. Whilst the context surrounding the original production as aimed at winning a literary competition in a festival dedicated to Dionysus can be seen to shape the structure of events in the plot, it is the historical context of the Persian Wars that ultimately guide the overall messages of the play, which are hyperbolised due to the play’s status as a tragedy.
Aeschylus’ ‘The Persians’ was crafted with the aim to win the annual tragedy-writing contest at the Dionysia festival, and this context can be seen to affect the play’s message and playwright’s motives, which seem to be to dazzle audience members and judges alike in order to place in the competition. This is immediately made evident through the mass prostration of the chorus at the play’s opening hymn, as they sing of the glory of Persian soldiers. Indeed, we can understand how complicated dance routines likely followed by the chorus here would have particularly impressed the row of 10 judges seated at the front of the stadium, with the collective mass of voice loudly echoing around the ampitheatre – which was constructed with uneven surfaces in order to amplify sound- both elements which work to create a sense of spectacle, helping Aeschylus’ chances in winning the competition. Yet, even prior to these opening actions of the chorus, the audience is faced with the setting of a royal Persian palace, paired with the tomb of deceased King Darius, and the detail of a tomb- through symbolising the concept of death – immediately signifies the tragic outcome of the play for the audience, thus ensures that spectators’ emotions are tense from the play’s opening scenes. This is evidence for the extent to which Aeschylus’ focus on the context of the literary competition warped his dramatic decisions, through ensuring that both the viewers and the judges were kept in sufficient suspense throughout the plot.
The grandiose setting of a palace, coupled with the vehicle of a chariot in which Queen Atossa makes her entrance, would have added an element of wonder and awe to Athenian perceptions of the play as hugely distant from their own minimalistic culture, and such may have been deliberate tactics employed by the playwright to ensure that the judges deemed Aeschylus’ play the first out of a winning three, which is further evidence for the effect of competitive context on the message and plot of the play. Supernatural elements of the play such as the sudden apparition of Darius’ ghost, and Atossa’s elaborate necromancy that causes his appearance (involving prayers and offerings) would have further been aimed to awe judges through hinting that the play was almost otherworldly in its excellence, and in this way, context of the play encouraged Aeschylus to introduce elements of the divine into his narrative. Overall, the positioning of many moments of spectacular theatre in the opening scenes of ‘The Persians’ suggests that Aeschylus’ desire to win the tragic contest at the Dionysia festival hugely influenced the production of his work, which benefited the playwright who gained the prestigious prize of a golden tripod after winning first place in the competition.
The literary context of ancient Greece was hugely centred around the growth of the tragedy genre, which evidently influenced ‘The Persians’ in its focus on the theme of hubris, coupled with its adherence with a clear tragic structure. The cycle of hubris and nemesis- recognised by the audience- would have been one that tragedy aimed to warn of and prevent through its’ characters, and Xerxes’ action of bridging the Hellespont with a chain of ships would have been considered grossly hubristic in its corruption of a divinely-created natural world, yet is punished through catastrophic Persian defeat- in this way highlighting the effect of the hubris/nemesis cycle on the play’s plot. That this event holds significant historical truth could suggest an alternate interpretation that it is not influenced by tragic structure but merely serves to reflect the past, the fact that it is described through multiple characters throughout the plot- the chorus, then Atossa, then Darius- reinforces the doctoral purpose of tragedy to warn audiences of the dangers of hubris, thus prioritising the argument that tragic context did indeed affect the moral message of the play. Indeed, Darius’ evident shame at his son’s decision to bridge the Hellespont not only serves to caution of the dangers of destroying gods’ creation, but also creates traditional tragic feelings of pity and fear within the audience, who might here sympathise with the Persian King as condemned even by his own father as worthless.
The extended mourning sequence which closes ‘The Persians’ is indicative of the effect of literary culture not only on the message, but plot of the play- which ends in a traditional tragic denouement in which characters lament and reflect on the catastrophic happenings which have altered the course of their lives: in this case, Xerxes weeps for both his own degradation from a royal figure, to a ‘loathsome and pitiful outcast’, and through these lines, his role as a tragic protagonist is cemented, with the sheer length of the denouement elongating the cathartic emotions felt by the audience, who would be encouraged to likewise weep in horror at the peripeteia of the King. Nonetheless, characterisation of Xerxes in other parts of the narrative as authoritative and evil-natured perhaps deteriorate from tragic structure through encouraging viewers to perceive Xerxes as the play’s antagonist rather than protagonist, and this is furthered through knowledge that many Athenians in the audience would have fought against Xerxes’ forces in the Persian Wars- fashioning him into a real antagonist in their lives, and in this way, Aeschylus as a writer is influenced more by the historical circumstances of his time than the theatrical. Thus, the structure and message of Aeschylus ‘The Persians’ are evidently hugely ingrained and influence by tragic convention, and yet the character of Xerxes can be seen to stray from the confinements of tragedy as does not wholly slot into the role of ‘tragic protagonist’. Yet, Aeschylus’ descriptions of the King are nonetheless affected by the recent history of the wars between the Persians and Greeks, suggesting that indeed, the context of the play greatly affects its meaning, albeit this context be literary or historical.
The narrative of ‘The Persians’ is greatly influenced by Aeschylus’ desire to commemorate the Greek victory in the prior Persian Wars, entailing one-dimensional descriptions of Persian characters as ‘other’ to the Greeks, and their virtues. Aeschylus’ characterisation of the Xerxes particularly juxtaposes Athenian politics through presenting Persian oligarchy as a predominately destructive force, and this is shown through Xerxes’ command of his soldiers in battle, as ‘one million sabres obey the King’s dread word’, fearing for their lives as he threatens to ‘cut off [their]’ heads’ if they allow any Greek triremes to shield themselves from death. This display of the dangers of Persian oligarchy can be seen as the antithesis to descriptions of the Greeks as sailing as a ‘single pulse’ refusing to obey any man as master, and thus, it becomes evident that descriptions of Persian politics are merely hyperbolic opposites to the Athenian system of ‘demokratia’, designed to commemorate the superior system of Greek government: this would have been particularly evident in a contemporary production of the play, in which seating at the amphitheatre split spectators into demes (a Greek variation of political constituencies), therefore audience members would immediately be aware of the faults of the Persian government compared to their own. Indeed, further characterisation of Xerxes as an individual is certainly influenced by Aeschylus’ aim to commemorate the superiority of Greek forces and leadership: ‘folly’ and ‘foolish’ are adjectives repeatedly applied to the King throughout the narrative, one particularly compelling moment being Darius’ criticism of his son as a ‘Weak fool!’ driven by madness in battle. Such moments work to create an image of Xerxes as irrational and immature, thus establishing the Greek focus on collective unity as opposed to a singular leader in battle (‘they are not called slaves to any man’) as surpassing the Persian systems of leadership, and in this way sensationalising the Greeks’ exemplary teamwork in battles such as Salamis and Artemisium for all to see.
Indeed, Xerxes’ decision to tear his clothes paired with Atossa’s immediate concern with clothing her child upon his return perhaps deters from genuine historical events, yet is successful in signifying the Persian obsession with both luxury and outward appearances, thus underlining and shedding positive light on the Greek focus on the mental states of their soldiers rather than how they look, and this is greatly indicative of the effect of cultural context on the message of ‘The Persians’. Furthermore, we can understand how these acts might have been made all the more shocking for a contemporary audience through use of costume- Aeschylus’ choice of clothing for the King as a ripped and shredded version of the minimal Persian armour worn in battle would have been a visual representation of the Greek distain for the poor outfits worn by the Persians in battle- crafted from softer fabrics than the armour of the Greeks. To conclude, Aeschylus’ characterisation of the Persian leader Xerxes in ‘The Persians’ is almost wholly produced by Greek stereotypes of Persians developed in the historical context of the Persian Wars. Aeschylus, in order to mark the Persians as antagonistic individuals with no shared values to the Greeks, characterises them primarily as an unflattering ‘negation’ of Greek virtues and values: the Persians are what the Greeks are not, leading critics such as Hall to label the texts ‘a document to the Athenian collective imagination’- used to perhaps ease the guilt felt by Athenian audience members as they watch battles they have been involved in play out on stage.
The context surrounding the original production of Aeschylus’ ‘The Persians’ did indeed have a significant effect on both its structure and message. The recent history of the Persian Wars can be seen reflected in the narrative of both texts, and whilst it is literary-tragic context that influences Aeschylus’ great focus on themes of hubris, nemesis and catharsis, the events and characters used by the playwright to display these themes are ultimately rooted in the historical context of Xerxes’ actions and his leadership. Whilst the theatrical context in which the play was produced (the Greater Dionysia Festival) evidently influenced Aeschylus’ design of the play as aimed to win an award, this is only evident in the positioning of events at certain points in the structure, as opposed to the overall message of the play, which remains untouched. Whilst it is the recent historical context of the Greco-Persian wars which has greatest effect on the original production, the timeless relevance of themes such as political strife and human grief allow the text to have just as much resonance among readers in a modern context as it did upon first publication.
The Importance of the Chorus in Aeschylus’ presentation of the Persian Invasion
The chorus was an integral feature of traditional Greek tragedy, which explains the high degree of importance placed on the chorus by Aeschylus in ‘The Persians’, used to reinforce the tragic elements of the plot, whilst also helping to create a sense of pity for Persian characters perhaps demonized by Greeks. Indeed, whilst Aeschylus certainly uses the chorus to draw out the differences between the social and military attitudes of the Greeks and the Persians, the speeches of the messenger figure are arguably more important to deepening this cultural divide which would have been felt acutely by Athenian audience members, many having experienced the on-stage battles only a few years prior to the production of the play at the Dionysius Festival.
Aeschylus’ chorus plays a significant role in earning ‘The Persians’ status as a tragedy through aligning with many of the features commonly associated with traditional Greek tragic plays, therefore making it ore dramatic. Indeed, the very existence of the chorus within Aeschylus’ play and that they enjoy a significant amount of speech within each section of the play aligns it with many tragedies of the era- such as Agamemnon and Electra- in which the chorus acted as an integral part of the fabric of the plot. The significance of the chorus as honing into traditional elements of tragedy is further displayed as they are used by the playwright as tool for conveying the dangers of the hubris/nemesis cycle, a common theme of tragedy which works to reveal how human folly and opposition towards the gods will eventually create negative circumstances against the individual: for example, the chorus repeatedly refers to their rulers as divine figures- initially commenting of Xerxes’ status as a ‘god’ within the opening song, and then later labelling Atossa ‘mother of a god’ as she enters the stage, which might be seen as hubristic actions which perhaps explain the apparent hatred of the gods for Persian characters, and this finds further expression as the chorus compels the queen to summon the ghost of Darius through occult practices, warning the Greek audience of the dangers of performing such anti-pious behavior as leading to such tragedy experienced by the Persians at the battle of Salamis: in this way, this scene developing both the tragic focus on the hubris nemesis cycle, and additionally into tragedy’s doctoral purpose as aimed to teach the audience a lesson that can be applied to their daily lives, a message particularly key to a contemporary audience of Athenian citizens who, being heavily religious, would have certainly applied such messages into their everyday lives. Furthermore, the role of the chorus is able to reinforce the traditional structure of a tragedy: the chorus begin the play in an opening stasimon through describing the scene as grandiose and adorned with ‘gold’, and close the tragedy with an extended grieving sequence, mourning lost soldiers, thus marking out the key rise and fall of the tragedy into the denouement, and traditional Persian instruments paired with elaborate costume choices might have here exaggerated the extreme catharsis desired during these closing scenes; perhaps the chorus might have been doused in gold armor in order to remind the audience of the horrors of warfare, thus exaggerating an audience’s cathartic response through reminding them of previous sorrow, and therefore by extension, reinforcing the tragic structure of the play as ending with a denouement in which the characters all experience extreme loss in both their personal and political life- whilst also reinforcing Xerxes’ role as tragic hero due to the repetition of the chorus of his sounds of weeping. Therefore, the chorus is proven deeply influential in developing the classical tragic structure of the play, through both the timing of their speech within the play, paired with their reaction to the actions of other characters.
Aeschylus, through characterization of the chorus is able to mark out significant differences in the military and cultural values of the Greeks and the Persians, and yet it is through the speech of the messenger that is most valuable in describing these differences. These contrasts are rapidly set up through the opening scenes in which the chorus provides a catalogue of references to Persian individuals, immediately presenting the Persian force as dis-unified and deeply disorganized, thus juxtaposing later presentations of the Greeks as working together as ‘shapes of gloom’- used to characterize them as a unified and indistinct mass able to exert terror onto the Persian people. Nonetheless, it is the messenger’s descriptions of the Greek and Persian forces within battle which most importantly develops the contrasting values of the two sides, for example the Greeks are described as moving as ‘a single pulse’ in contrast to the Persians whose ships move ‘in swift disorder’ unable to exert force over their enemy, and that the Greeks are singing ‘battle hymns’ further marks out the differences between the two sides as where the Greeks are unified both in the military and artistic sense, the Persians are not able to even organize their ranks for battle. Indeed, Hall claims that the Athenian male audience- many having fought in the battle of Salamis only 8 years prior- would have acutely recognized these differences as marking the Persians as ‘other’, thus exaggerating the triumph of their victory in the messenger’s speech. Nonetheless, whilst the messenger successfully draws out military differences between the two sides, the chorus is arguably more influential in creating a sense of cultural contrast between the Greeks and Persians: the Greeks are described as valuing a sense of unparalleled freedom as the chorus retorts Atossa’s remarks through labelling them ‘not servant to any man’ whilst then suggesting that they ‘once struck Persian arms a fearful blow’, which contrasts dramatically with the oligarchical Persian system explored through the negative characterization of Xerxes as surveying his ships with ‘one dread eye’, a metaphor coloring the dictator’s rule as authoritative and undeniable, in contrast with the Greek focus on the collective needs as opposed to those of the individual. The Athenian audience was seated in political factions known as demes and therefore the chorus’ speech would have been vital in mirroring their own political viewpoints. Nonetheless, such political differences are similarly drawn out through the messenger’s speech conveying Xerxes threat to ‘cut off the head’ of every Persian captain who allowed Greek ships to shield from destruction, suggesting that the Persians must place faith in the words of a single man, unlike the Greeks who unanimously cry ‘move forward sons of Hellas’ whilst entering into battle, suggesting that it is the concept of ‘Hellas’ or a shared Greek identity fought for rather than the desires of one individual. Therefore, whilst the speech of the messenger concerning the Battle of Salamis is clearly more important in drawing out marked contrasts between the political and military cultures of the Greeks and Persians, the chorus’ characterization of both sides allows for these stereotypes to prevail throughout the play, so, their role is equally important in differentiating Greek and Persian forces from one another.
Nonetheless, it could be argued that Aeschylus’ chorus is equally important in creating a certain amount of sympathy for Persian characters, encouraging audiences to experience traditional tragic emotions of pity and fear. The grief of the chorus becomes a motif throughout the plot, from their mourning for Persian loss of lives at Greek hands in the opening lines, to their decision to share Atossa’s grief for her son- to copying Xerxes’ devastation at the sorry state of his citizens in the play’s denouement, and this increasingly climatic presentation of grief works to elicit feelings of sympathy within an audience for the deceased Persians lost at Salamis, and one can understand the purpose of a melancholic soundtrack of flutes and lyres used here to perhaps mirror the sounds of the weeping chorus, and encourage audience members to similarly pity the plight of Xerxes having lost his men. Furthermore, the Persians are characterized throughout the tragedy as gentle and effeminate beings in lines such as ‘a swarm of soft skinned Lydians’, and ‘the flower of Asian youth’, the latter metaphor working to characterize the Persian army as delicate and fragile: whilst some critics have deemed this an attempt at Aeschylus to mock the inexperienced ranks of Xerxes’ army, a more compelling idea is that it further deepens tones of empathy within the audience through hinting at the underserved loss of human life; a beautiful and treasured thing. When this moment is immediately juxtaposed with the ‘fear’ and terror wrought by the approaching Greek forces, further sympathy is created for the Persians who have been humanized as deserving of respect by the chorus. Indeed, the ‘soft’ and delicate status of Persian characters is one which links soldiers and ordinary citizens within the speech of the chorus, as mothers with ‘soft white hands… tear their veils in two’ whilst sons with ‘folded cloaks’ perish in seawater: whilst the focus here on outward appearance might be read as a mocking jest at the Persian obsession with luxurious items, the shared effeminate status of characters both live and dead further deepens the viewer’s tragic emotion of pity in suggestions that those mourning have lost people with shared values and characteristics of themselves. It is female grief that is honed into by the chorus in the middle episode, as they mediate upon the women grieving for their deceased sons- ruined by warfare- and this works to heighten the sympathetic nature of the production in an Athenian culture whose women so nearly met a similar fate through the incineration of Athens by Persian forces prior to the battle of Salamis. Thus, albeit it be in the beginning or end of the play, the chorus is undeniably important in coloring the Persians in sympathetic tones, encouraging an audience to pity the plight of the Persian army.
To conclude, it is clear that the chorus in Aeshcylus’ ‘The Persians’ is an important element to both the tragic structure of the play, and to developing characterization of both Greek and Persian characters. Whilst the chorus works to heighten the contrasts between the values of Greek and Persian characters, this serves not as a critique of the Persians as suggested by Hall, but as a method to allow a contemporary audience space to sympathize and empathize with the fallen Persian army.
The impact of ‘The Persians’: Descriptive narratives vs. plot
Classical tragedy is renowned for the dynamics of its plot, and richly ordained language of its narratives, explaining Aeschylus use of both plot and descriptive narratives in tragedy ‘The Persians’ to create an impact on the audience. Descriptive narratives are clearly key to impacting an audience through describing in triumphant tones the Battle of Salamis in which male members of the audience would have likely fought in only years earlier, and yet it is the plotting of the play rather than its narrative that characterizes Xerxes as a failed and careless monarch, yet not utterly undeserving of sympathy. Furthermore, albeit it being a topic moulded into the fabric of the plot- it is the descriptive narratives of characters in which the theme of hubris creates the most significant impact.
Indeed, the emotional impact of an audience of key descriptions of the Battle of Salamis in ‘The Persians’ rely largely on descriptive narratives as opposed to a plot which remains fairly static and arguably redundant. Such impact reaches fruition in the extended narrative of the Messenger, who retells the full horrors of the Persian defeat at Salamis to a shocked and mournful chorus, marking out the disunity of the Persian fleet, unable to form a coherent path as they disband in ‘swift disorder’ in contrast to the Greeks who move forward as a ‘single pulse’, chanting battle hymns, thus juxtaposing the Persian disunity through acting as utterly conformed in not only their military style, but also a cultural sense: indeed, the sharp contrast to be drawn here would have utterly impacted an Athenian audience through creating a celebratory feel to the passage- reminding the Greeks of their defeat of the Persians only years earlier. Furthermore, direct language choices selected by the messenger contribute to the tone of triumph which colours the passage, as the Persians are presented as fearful and alarmed at approaching Greek ships, in contrast to the Greeks who have ‘courage in their hearts’- a phrase used to suggest that stamina is intrinsic to their very being, which is further developed as the Greeks continue to attack their Persian counterparts with fragments of broken trireme following the battle; impacting an audience through reflecting their own pride in their victory. Whilst it could be argued that such moments are merely facets of the unfolding plot within the speech of the messenger, it is widely believed that Aeschylus exaggerated and hyperbolized the skill of the Greeks in such scenes; after all, his own brother died at Marathon and therefore his primary concern would likely not to have been to allow to Persians a wholly sympathetic hearing, thus supporting Kitty’s perception of the play as purely a piece of Athenian propaganda used to exaggerate the values of Greek culture.
Nonetheless, the plot is clearly largely influential in helping develop the characterization of Persian characters as nuanced and complex, perhaps in this way impacting an Athenian audience to a larger extent that descriptive narratives due to their own stereotypes surrounding Persian culture. This is proven through the character of Xerxes, and his extended grieving sequence shared with the Chorus which ends the play, which holds implications that the tragic nature and deep catharsis of the play relies on such a scene, as Xerxes expresses absolute pity for his character as a ‘weak and pitiful outcast’ and ‘theme for sorrow’, and this might have been emphasized in an original production through use of a melancholy musical soundtrack of lyres and flutes used to accompany this scene. Nonetheless, it could be argued that whilst sympathy created for the character of Xerxes largely relies on such scenes in the plot, audience sympathies are positioned with the Persian fleet through descriptive narratives in which they are described through similes such as ‘netted tunnies’ and a ‘myriad flock’- creating an impact on the audience in suggestions that the Persians feel unable to escape the wrath of leader Xerxes. Nonetheless, as the tragic hero of the play, Xerxes’ hamartia and recognition of his flaws in the final scene perhaps inflicts a greater emotional effect on an Athenian audience through encouraging them to reconsider their stereotypes surrounding the Persian King, which is further developed through his entrance in the plot onstage, following Darius’ speech in a ripped and torn outfit. Whilst it could be argued that the impact created here is one of pity and upset due to the pathetic presentation of the degraded monarch, a more compelling idea is that the audience might scorn the King due to their own negative and distasteful perceptions of Persian monarchy, an idea further reinforced through the positioning of the moment in the plot as directly following Darius’ vitriolic diatribe concerning the foolish and irrational character of his son: whilst it could be argued that it is the emotive language of Darius speech in lines such as ‘Poor Fool!’ and ‘has a God robbed him of his wits?’, paired with his historical listings of a series of prosperous Persian Kings in contrast to Xerxes’ folly that is largely responsible for the impact on an audience who would be tempted to perhaps scorn and cry insults at the onstage King themselves, it seems that the moment in the plot of Darius rising as an apparition from his tomb further impacts an audience through suggesting that the condemnation of Xerxes is almost divinely ordained. Furthermore, that the critique is shared between both parents of Xerxes- Atossa and Darius- would further invigorate an audience in suggestions that Xerxes has been rejected by not only divine figures, but additionally his own parents- and thus is isolated from the empathy of the most significant figures in his life.
The theme of human hubris and retaliation of divine nemesis is a theme which- despite its central positioning to the plot- becomes all the more shocking to a contemporary audiences when described in detail through descriptive narrative. The cycle of hubris and nemesis is one intrinsic to the structure of a number of contemporary tragedies including Elektra, Agamemnon and Antigone, and therefore it is unsurprising that Aeschylus focuses so intently upon the theme in his works, and yet this is done through narrative in order to perhaps add a unique and slightly unusual slant to his interpretation of the theme: Xerxes’ decision to bridge the Hellespont with a chain of ships (one that would be considered grossly hubristic as a corruption of a divinely created natural world) is one described through the speeches of a series of characters- from the Chorus, to Darius, to Atossa, and whilst this decision to integrate such moments throughout the plot might structurally create an impact on the reader through constantly reminding them of the severity of Xerxes actions, the emotively violent imagery in which the scene is described in the narrative of the Chorus- through language such as ‘yoked’, and ‘chained’ impacts the audience to a greater extent through furthering the shocking idea of not only Xerxes’ hubris, but his awareness and at times relish taken whilst performing such a dreadful act. Whilst the fact that the word ‘hubris’ is merely repeated thrice throughout the narrative of the play might suggest a contrary idea that it is plot opposed to narrative which affects an audience to the greater extent, a more compelling idea is that this ‘allows for the audience’s understanding of the theme to develop’, claims Garvie, and therefore we can conclude that it is indeed the descriptive narratives of characters that best impact an audience through warning of the gross dangers of hubristic actions. Furthermore, the chorus are shown, throughout narrative, to frequently liken their leaders to divine figures; Xerxes is compared to a ‘god’, Atossa the ‘mother of a God’, and Darius is remembered to have ruled ‘like a god’ over Persia during his reign, which further reinforces the fact that hubris and lack of respect for the divine is an attitude ingrained into Persian culture, impacting a Greek audience especially due to the deeply religious context of the Dionysius festival in which the play was performed- which heralded respect and worship of the divine above all other attitudes, suggesting that it is the descriptive narrative of describing hubris as opposed to its positioning in the plot which would have impacted the audience to the greatest extent.
In conclusion, whilst the plot is indeed significant in developing central themes such as Greek celebration and hubris, it is descriptive narratives in which these themes are used to create an impact of the audience; encouraging them to establish their own opinions on the characters through providing a wide range of viewpoints; from Darius’ critique of Xerxes, to the Chorus’ laudation of the King as a divine figure. This is particularly evident in the narrative descriptions of scenes from Salamis, in which the sharp dichotomy created between the thriving Greeks and feckless, disordered Persian fleet would have impacted an audience through reminding them of their own historical successes in the same battle.
The Persians and Authorial Intent: A Question of Tragedy
Aeschylus’ play The Persians, written in 472 BCE, is the oldest extant play in Western Civilization. The play is set within the city of Susa immediately following the defeat of the Persian navy at Mycale. However, The Persians is not as straightforward in its tragic nature as other Greek tragedies of the time given the rocky political relationship between Greece and Persia. Critics tend to debate whether or not the play is earnest as a tragedy. Although some critics interpret The Persians as Aeschylus’ xenophobic exultation following the end of the Greco-Persian wars, The Persians can be more accurately read as a tragedy that aims to evoke sympathy from the audience so that audience members may learn from Persia’s mistakes.
The debate between the two aforementioned interpretations is well-founded as there is ample evidence to support both sides. Early in the play, one of the members of the Persian chorus reflects: “We have always been the favorites of fate. Fortune has cupped / us in her golden palms. It has only been a matter of choosing / our desire. Which fruit to pick from the nodding tree” (114-116), and while the lines are demonstrative of a tragic fall from grace, they also show that the Persians were once prideful to a fault. That being the case, these lines likely did not evoke much sympathy from Grecian audiences who saw arrogance as a fatal flaw that would inevitably be divinely remedied. However, the chorus later asks “Will we ever see those bright boys we sent out of the safety / of our gates again? Were we right to do so? / What unthinkable peril might we have cast them into, / pursuing old men’s dreams?” (161-164). These utterances show that while the Persians were once prideful, they have since learned their lesson and now show remorse for the mistakes they have made. The lines are exceedingly important because they show Grecian audiences that the Persians do not fit the stereotypes they are usually associated with. In Athens, Persians were typically portrayed as bloodthirsty barbarians who would not have expressed such woe and remorse over the loss of life during war. The fact that Persian people in this play do express remorse would have been a break from stereotypes. If The Persians was truly intended to be a staged victory lap for the Greeks, it’s inconceivable that the Persians would have been portrayed in such a positive light.
Furthermore, if The Persians was only Aeschylus gloating about Athens’ victory, there surely would have been many more references to Grecian war heroes. Instead, the audience is given a monologue which only features Persian war heroes, including Artembares, Dadakes, Argestes, Ardeues, Arkteus, Pharnouchus, Matallos, Magos, Artabes, Amistrus, Amphitrius, Ariomardus, Tharybis, and Saisames (322-348), as well as their triumphs. Though the naval battle was an ignominious defeat for the Persians and an overwhelming victory for the Greeks, there is a glaring lack of Greek glorification in the text, which totally subverts expectations the audience would have had about the play going into it. If the theory that The Persians is a boast following the Greco-Persian war is true, then it is very difficult to reconcile Aeschylus’ authorial intention to boast with the fact that he simply glazed over all the Grecian heroes who participated at the battle of Mycale. Considering the fact that the passage focuses solely on Persian war heroes, a group of men whose stories would probably not have been often told, it’s far more likely that The Persians was earnestly meant to be a tragedy that attempts to honestly show Persia’s final hours so that Greek audience might learn from Persia’s mistakes.
The idea that the play is an earnest drama is further evidenced by the fact that the play fits the structure of most tragedies very well. For instance, the play prominently features a tragic hero in the form of Xerxes. Rather than being presented as a clown or buffoon as most enemies of the state were, Xerxes is presented as someone who is both intelligent and remorseful, specifically in the following lines: “I am accursed. / Hated by the gods and men alike. / No place on Earth can hide the shame of me. / Even the deepest caverns of death’s secret chambers / are not black enough to hide me” (793-797), and again later when he says, “All my companions are gone. / The friends of my youth. / My comrades in arms. / All lost” (832-835). Through these lines, Xerxes presents himself as someone who mourns for his friends, his country, and his family. In short, he is clearly a shattered, ruined man. The fact that The Persians contains an actual tragic figure, and not a parody of one, shows that The Persians was meant to be a tragedy, at least as far as authorial intent is concerned. However, the play’s impact reaches beyond authorial intent. Veterans, for instance, would have probably had a very different reaction to the play then average civilians who may have had nothing to do with the war whatsoever. But Aeschylus manages to account for people’s various associations with the war by making the main characters, specifically Atossa, Darius, and Xerxes, highly relatable, both in terms of their relationships with each other as family members, and the emotional turmoil they suffer.
Aeschylus makes sure that the focus of the play is more about this family than it is about the Persian Empire. The first familial relationship the audience sees is the relationship between Darius and Atossa. Upon returning from the dead, Darius says to his wife, “Wife. Your grieving voice was what pulled me up the steep / and narrow ascent. / It was the sound of you that brought me / this unfathomable distance” (664-666). This line has nothing to do with the conflict between Greece and Persia, but rather focuses solely on the relationship between a husband and wife who have been separated for years. It’s a sweet moment, and one that would have likely been omitted if the play was only concerned with basking in Athens’ victory. The audience later gets more family exposition in an exchange between Atossa and her son Xerxes. Upon Xerxes’ return, Atossa says to him “My shattered son / my heart is broken with pity” (875-876) to which Xerxes replies “Mother forgive me / I have wronged you” (883-884). It’s hard to believe Aeschylus would have included this element of pathos if he hadn’t wanted some semblance of sympathy for the characters in the show.
Although some people believe Aeschylus’ The Persians was written so that Athenians could celebrate and experience a sense of Schadenfreude, upon close inspection it appears much more likely that Aeschylus genuinely wrote a tragedy about The Persians so that audiences could either learn from it, or experience the feeling of catharsis which Greek tragedies were famous for. Aeschylus succeeded in writing an effective tragedy because there is a certain universality embedded in the play that is able to draw people into the tragedy. Even veterans of the Greco-Persian war would have been able to relate to a deep spousal relationship, or the relationship between a mother and her son. It is because people find other people and the relationships that exist between them endlessly fascinating that Aeschylus’ The Persians is an effective tragedy, and certainly as the oldest extant play in Western Civilization, one that has stood the test of time.