The Idea of the Enemy in Aeschylus’s The Persians

“However, you can be sure that so great a multitude of men never perished in a single day” -the messenger to the Persians (line 432).

Aeschylus’s second part of a lost trilogy has come down to us as The Persians, told from the perspective of the Greek enemy in the Persian wars. It is unique, a stand alone, for many reasons, not least of which it being the only part of his winning trilogy to survive. The Persians, like the Trojans, were a formidable enemy, and as identified by their name, they were not entirely foreign to the Greek world -their name is taken from Perseus, the hero and son of Zeus who came down to Earth from Ida clothed in gold. The Persians tells the story of Xerxes, emperor of Persia and son of Darius. The setting is in Susa, former capital of ancient Persia. Xerxes attacks Greece out of vengeance but he fails at Salamis. The account of the Persian Wars is told somewhat less flatteringly by Herodotus in his account of the war between the Greeks and the Persians.

The chief action of Aeschylus’s play involves Atossa, the mother of Xerxes, when she claims she has been “haunted by a multitude of dreams.” After she recounts her dream to the Chorus, a messenger approaches with horrible news of the Medes (Persians) at Salamis. Calmly, Atossa wishes to know who remains alive, and she learns that Xerxes lives, and she also wants to know how the defeat happened considering the much larger Persian forces. The image of a “sea of troubles” pervades the play as the Persians realize their cruel fate. Recall the “sea of troubles” in Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” speech.

The Chorus then summons the ghost of Darius for clarity and guidance. In the play, Aeschylus reaffirms Herodotus’s caution from Darius early in the Histories to look only upon one’s own, not to grow fat and listless by wealth and hubris. Before descending back into his grave, the ghost of Darius makes a similar claim (800-842). He claims that the Persians have been presumptuous and impious in their arrogant quest for Greece. In doing so, they destroyed the gods and temples of the Greeks. Finally, Xerxes returns to Persia in tattered robes and bemoans the state of the Persian race, he is consoled by the Chorus before the play concludes (exeunt omnes). The Persian tragedy at Salamis is also his own tragedy.

In Aeschylus, the tragic state of human affairs affects all people, Hellene or Barbarian. The tragic fate of the Persians is a lesson for all Greeks who grow arrogant and impious as the city seeks to expand for fertile soils elsewhere.

For this reading I used the Seth Bernardete translation as part of the David Grene and Richmond Lattimore edition.

Darius and the New Persian Regime

In Book III of Herodotus’s Inquiries, we encounter a problem among the Persians. The untimely death of the insane king Cambyses has led to a power vacuum filled by the corrupt Magi. When the Persians finally instill a revolt against the Magi, a conspiracy of seven men decides to storm the palace and regain power. However, the problem remains for the future of Persia: what form of government should be established? How will it be decided? What is the most just regime?

The first to declare the best means forward, Otanes, encourages the men to place the government in the hands of all Persians, a democracy. He says this in reaction to a monarchical form of government wherein the regime is neither “pleasant nor good,” and as justification he reminds the men of the terrible monarchs, Cambyses and the Magus, to demonstrate that a Monarchy is unnatural and short lived. Additionally, in presenting his case, Otanes asks: how could a monarchy be coherent and harmonious when the ruler is accountable to no one? Otanes seeks for accountability and a more pleasant regime. He makes the claim that even the “best of men” will go insane by the immense amount of power placed in him, which spawns envy and arrogance, in which all evil lies, and human nature is incapable of overcoming these in the position of a tyrant. However, the rule of the majority has the most “beautiful” name of all -Equality. All actions are drawn by lot and are held accountable by the many, everything is held to an audit. Nothing is left unseen. The masses can become like Gyges and see the truth. Therefore, Otanes proposes elevating the masses of men to a ruling position, because “in the many is the whole”. As is the nature of democracy, or a rule of the people, Otanes is concerned primarily with numbers. Like the shape of a square, he longs for a mathematical equality that can be apportioned to the “whole” so as to present a safe option that does not risk corruption.

Next, Megabyzos, defends an oligarchic regime. He agrees with Otanes’s criticism of a monarchy, however he states that nothing can be more worthless than an effectual mob, which is the natural tendency of democracy. In escaping the arrogance of a tyrant, the Persians must not seek salvation in the undisciplined and uneducated common people (here, Megabyzos employs the word demos meaning common people or demes, districts located outside the center of the polis, the Acropolis. Otanes had previously employed the use of plethos, meaning a majority or koinon meaning the authority of the public or the common people). Megabyzos accuses the masses of men of behaving like an undiscerning torrent -this is a good option for the enemies of the Persians but not for the best of men among the Persians. He ends his apologia stating that the present company will be included among the future oligarchs, in the rule of the few.

Finally, Darius comes forth in defense of a Monarchy. In his central argument, he asks the men to consider the best possible regime for each -democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. Undoubtedly the perfect man, the best of all men, is the ideal ruler who rules justly, like a philosopher king. In the rule of the few, an oligarchy on the other hand, private men’s quarrels turn to public hostilities as power is grappled for and this naturally results in a monarchy. On the other hand, in a democracy, when the people rule, they will always do so incompetently, so that the people must form compacts or friendships with one another to keep the regime alive until the people elevate one man who they much admire, capable of keeping the regime from collapsing into anarchy. Therefore, democracy necessarily results in a monarchy as does an oligarchy. Both a democracy and an oligarchy must be forcibly instated by means of a revolution, however an oligarchy is the most naturally occurring regime. Darius concludes by providing justification for the regime in that freedom for the Persians came from one man, and they should therefore preserve this inheritance by preserving their own traditional cultural values.

As in the opening sequence of Plato’s Republic wherein Socrates encounters Polemarchus and returns to the house of Cephalus, we are presented with competing visions of a city in speech. The irony of the context in which the men discuss these three regimes, as in the case of the Republic, is that they embody the various regimes. Three of the best men present defenses, putting on trial the three forms of government, however ultimately the new monarchical regime is chosen by casting of lots, Otanes is outvoted. The result is a monarchy that comes under the rule of Darius in Persia, following the rumors of divine circumstances in which lightning breaks the moment his horse whinnies outside the city, as well as subtle lies by Darius and his comrades who rig the situation (as he had alluded to earlier in Book III, foreshadowing his Machiavellian tendencies). Persia, the best polis of the barbarians, has therefore also formed the best politeia.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.