The Greek Plays
Aeschylus (c.525–456 b.c.) came from a propertied family in Eleusis. His first tragedies were performed in the early 490s, but it was not until 484 that he won his first victory in the competition at the City Dionysia. He fought against the Persians at Marathon in 490 and probably also at Salamis in 480. In 472 he described the battle at Salamis in his Persians, the earliest of his surviving tragedies. In 470, Hieron, the tyrant of the Greek city of Syracuse, invited Aeschylus to Sicily to stage a performance of his Women of Aetna (now lost). After returning to Athens, Aeschylus won first prize at the Great Dionysia with five of his other extant tragedies, the Seven Against Thebes (467), the Suppliants (463), and the trilogy, translated in this volume, known as the Oresteia (458), consisting of the Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides.
Although Aristophanes, in his comedy the Frogs (405 b.c.), satirizes Aeschylus’ style as pompous, bombastic, and sententious, in his extant dramas Aeschylus writes in a variety of modes, ranging from straightforward exposition to densely poetic language characterized by distinctive combinations of words and metaphors. The old men in the choruses of Persians and the Agamemnon use sonorous words and speak in complex rhythms that bring profundity and emotional depth to their reflections on the human condition and the inscrutability of the gods. Metrical motifs carried over from the Agamemnon reappear in the terrifying songs of the Furies in the final play of the Oresteia trilogy, the Eumenides.
In 456, Aeschylus was invited back to Sicily, and he died there. But the Athenians did not forget about him. Half a century later his dramas were so well remembered that even while making fun of his writing style, Aristophanes endorsed his work for its ethical and patriotic values, wishing that Aeschylus could be brought back to life.
Introduction to Aeschylus’ Persians
So far as we know, only three Greek tragedies dealt with recent history rather than age-old myths, and all three portrayed episodes from what we now call the Persian Wars: the twenty-year stretch of armed conflict (499–479 b.c.) that pitted various coalitions of Greek cities against the vast, wealthy, monarchic Persian Empire. The first two of these dramatic experiments were the work of Phrynichus, but both are now lost; Aeschylus’ Persians came third, in 472 b.c. It follows by only eight years the event at its core, the surprising, seemingly miraculous Greek victory over the Persian navy at the island of Salamis, off the west coast of Attica. That victory, achieved despite long odds, had saved most of Greece, and especially Athens, from a fearsome choice between annihilation and subjection to the might of imperial Persia.
It’s no accident that the Persian Wars provided the subject matter for all three of these known Greek historical dramas. The magnitude and scope of this conflict, which appeared to the Greeks to pit the manpower and wealth of all Asia against a much poorer and less populous Europe, gave it mythic dimensions even as it took place, and these only became amplified with the passage of time. Herodotus, writing about the same struggle perhaps half a century after it ended, saw it as the culmination of a millennium-long contest for supremacy between two great ethnopolitical blocs, and therefore as a major turning point in human history.
In dramatizing the naval battle off Salamis—an event he himself, and many members of his audience, had taken part in—Aeschylus closed the chronological gap that gives most Greek plays their sense of otherworldliness, but opened up a gulf of cultural distance instead. The play takes place before the palace at Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire, in what is today western Iran—a place Athenians could neither visit nor visualize, a city they imagined as replete with fantastic wealth and ruled by immensely powerful monarchs. The exotic robes and soft slippers worn by the actors helped convey this distance to the original audience, perhaps along with musical phrases and choral dance steps suggesting the Far East. It has even been suggested by a modern scholar that the backdrop for the play’s production was the ornate tent-cloth beneath which the Persian king, Xerxes, camped during his invasion of Greece—one of the proudest spoils of Athenian victory. If true, this story explains how the word skēnē, originally meaning “tent,” came to denote the stage on which the dramas were played, eventually coming into English in a Latinate spelling, “scene.”
But though the play is ostensibly set at a far remove from Athens, the moral and religious ideas around which it revolves are unmistakably those central to archaic and early classical Greece. Aeschylus uses the plight of Xerxes, a defeated king stripped of both his army and his royal robes, to explore the role of hybris and atē, unsanctioned overreach and the blindness that leads to it, in the rises and falls of individuals and of nations. The Chorus of Persian elders confide their fears about atē in the play’s unique opening ode:
Kindly and wheedling at first comes reckless Atē,
but then she leads men into nets and snares;
no mortal man can jump over, or hope to escape. (96–100)
If the placement of these lines by modern editors is correct (they have been moved from their position as found in the manuscripts), they follow directly after a proud recitation of Persia’s long string of military victories, capped by the recent creation of a Persian navy. That navy, as the Chorus does not yet know but Aeschylus’ audience does, has already been smashed by the Athenian-led Greek fleet at Salamis. The “fine-stranded [ships’] cables” of which the Chorus boast have become the woven “nets” in which the gods trap those hungry for conquest.
“Cables” in the context of this play has a wider resonance than mere ships’ riggings. As Herodotus’ account of Xerxes’ invasion makes clear, the Persian land army marched into Europe by way of an enormous pontoon bridge stretched across the Straits of Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles), the place at which a mile-wide stream of salt water separated Europe from Asia. Enormous flax ropes, stretched between anchored ships, held this bridge together and effectively joined the continents. Aeschylus uses the double meaning of zeugma and related Greek words—both a “link” between two things and a “yoke” thrust upon a team of animals to subdue them—to connect this bridge to notions of enslavement and subjugation. A chariot that Atossa has dreamed of, and that she describes to the Chorus in her opening speech, is pulled by another kind of zeugma—the forcible “yoking” of two enslaved sisters, dressed to represent the peoples of Asia and Europe respectively (the European one, significantly, throws off her yoke, while the Asian one accepts it). A typically dense Aeschylean mesh of motifs begins to form around these zeug- words. Ropes, nets, ships, bridges, and yokes are woven together in this poetic tapestry, all evoking the expansionism of imperial Persia, the nation that sought (in Herodotus’ words) “to make all lands one land” (Histories 7.8ɣ).
The long stretch of time over which these themes are traced is also typically Aeschylean, reminiscent of the panhistorical scope of the Oresteia. Two generations are represented onstage, an older one to which the Chorus and queen belong, and a younger one represented by Xerxes. But Xerxes’ father, Darius, who rises spectacularly from the Underworld in ghost form at the play’s climax, seems to transcend time with his omniscience about both the past and the future. He looks back over five generations of rule that preceded his own, describing Persia’s gradual conquest of Asia as a mandate handed down from Zeus. Xerxes, in his view, has rashly exceeded that mandate by entering Europe, offending not only Zeus but Poseidon—here virtually a personification of the straits that Xerxes had bridged, the Hellespont. Aeschylus obscures the fact (or perhaps did not know) that Darius, too, in reality had built an intercontinental bridge (across the Bosporus, according to Herodotus) and campaigned in Europe, against the Scythians north of the Black Sea. The dead king is not a historical portrait so much as an incarnation of all of Persia’s past, a past that Xerxes has, in the view of the play, betrayed and partly undone.
Though Darius rages at his son’s arrogance, he also speaks of oracles that foretold the present catastrophe. Xerxes’ downfall, like that of Agamemnon and other Aeschylean heroes, is the result of both error and fate. On the whole, the Persians suggests that Xerxes is more deserving of pity than blame. The Chorus only rarely express anger toward him, and the solemn, dirgelike procession they share with him in the play’s last scene is a moving evocation of shared sorrow. Atossa’s anxiety for her child allows us to see Xerxes as a frail and vulnerable creature, a mother’s son as well as an army’s chief. The queen exits the stage (at line 851) on a touchingly domestic mission, seeking to bring her son a new robe to replace the rags he now wears. When Xerxes enters shortly thereafter, we see that her mission remains incomplete. The tattered glory of the Persian royal house cannot be restored easily, if at all.
At the heart of the play (from lines 302 to 514) stand the reports of the first Persian soldier to return from Greece, grim catalogs of horror that rank among the finest of surviving Greek messenger speeches. Aeschylus, who had himself fought at Salamis on board an Athenian ship, here demonstrates a remarkable ability to see the battle through the eyes of the enemy. Though the gods are clearly on the side of the Greeks (as signaled by the supernatural voice bidding them to charge and win their freedom), the sufferings of the Persians, both during the battle and in the retreat afterward, are presented with deep compassion and superb artistry. Here and throughout the play, Aeschylus uses sonorous roll calls of Persian casualties, their names resonant with exotic Iranian phonemes, to construct a kind of verbal memorial to the valiant dead. Though he wrote for Athenians, whose city had been razed by the Persians and who had reasons to celebrate the outcome of Salamis, Aeschylus did not indulge in triumphalism or vainglory. There is no irony in the Chorus’s final wails of woe.
The date at which the Persians was produced, 472 b.c., makes it the earliest play in this volume and, quite possibly, the earliest play among all surviving Greek tragedies. Despite this antiquity, the Persians has had great resonance in recent decades, especially as Western military engagement with the Middle East has become a more central issue. Important productions were mounted in Edinburgh in 1993 and New York in 2003, in response to the first and second Gulf Wars.
This translation is based on the text of A. F. Garvie’s edition, Aeschylus: Persae (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Cast of Characters (in order of appearance)
Chorus of Persian elders
Atossa, queen of the Persians; mother of Xerxes; widow of Darius
Messenger from the retreating Persian army
Ghost of Darius, former king of the Persians; father of Xerxes
Xerxes, king of Persia
Setting: The play takes place somewhere in the city of Susa, one of the royal seats of the Persian Empire. In the background is a council chamber. A group of old men enter, marching to the anapestic rhythm of their opening lines.
Chorus: Here are we, the trusted ones
of the Persians gone to the land of Greece;
we, guards of the wealthy, gold-decked places,
chosen, as fits our age and rank,
by Xerxes himself, our lord and king,
the son of Darius,
to steward this land.
But my heart, a prophet of evil, is troubled
over the homeward return of the king
and of the army bright with gold.10
All of the might that Asia has spawned
has departed. Howling for a young husband,
[. . .]
No messengers—riders nor runners—
have come to the Persian city.
The men of Susa and Ecbatana,
and of the ancient Kissian stronghold,
have set forth and left, some on horseback,
others on shipboard, and others, foot-soldiers,
forming the tight array of war;20
Men like Amistres, Artaphrenes,
Megabates and Astaspes,
chieftains of Persia,
under-kings of the one Great King;
they are sped, heads of a mighty army,
horsemen and conquerors with the bow,
fearsome to look on, awesome in battle,
with steadfast resolve in their souls;
Artembares, stirred by the chariot’s onrush,
and Masistres, and the bow-master,30
noble Imaeus; and Pharandaces,
and Sosthanes, the driver of horses.
Others have gone, sent forth by the Nile,
that great and much-nurturing stream: Sousicanes,
Pegastagon, the scion of Egypt,
and lofty Arsames, who governs
in holy Memphis; Ariomardus,
overseer of ancient Thebes;
and treaders of marshes, now rowers of ships,
fearsome, numberless in their throng.40
Following these went the host of the Lydians,
soft-living men, who control those who dwell
on a continent’s shores; these Mitragathes
and noble Arcteus, royal commanders,
and the gold-covered city of Sardis sent out,
riding on chariots, some pulled by two teams,
others by three, dread weapons of war,
a fearsome sight to behold.
Dwellers on sacred Tmolus, they hasten
to throw a slavish yoke upon Greece;50
Mardon, Tharubis—anvils to spearheads—
and javelin-hurling Mysians.
the gold-covered city, sends forth a mixed throng
in a straggling line; these are stationed on ships,
stalwart with strength that draws back the bow.
From all of Asia there follows the race
that wields the dagger,
heeding the awesome call of the king.
Such is the flower of men now gone
from Persian land,60
for whom every corner of Asia, their nursemaid,
groans and laments with terrible longing.
Parents and wives are trembling in fear
at the long stretch of time, the accounting of days.
By now the royal, city-sacking host
has crossed the straits and gone to lands adjacent,
linking with hemp-bound raft the gap that Helle swam,70
throwing a many-bolted yoke on the neck of the sea, a new roadway.
Bold in assault, the leader of much-peopled Asia
drives his divine flock over the entire earth
in double advance, on foot and by sea, trusting commanders
who stay firm and true—a godlike man from a race of gold.80
He casts with his eyes the dark-blue glance of a murderous serpent;
he has great throngs of men and of ships, and he drives a Syrian chariot;
onto spear-famed men he hurls the bow-wielding war-god, Ares.
No one, we think, will stand up against the vast human river,
or keep out invincible waves of the sea by using stout bulwarks;90
the host of the Persians cannot be attacked; strong of heart is our race.
Our god-sent Fate, from long ago,
sends victory; it charges the Persians
with tower-toppling wars,
with whirling swarms of horsemen, and with smashings of cities.105
And they have learned to look upon
the briny grove of the far-faring sea110
as the raging storm-wind whips it white,