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.

Thoughts on Aeschylus

Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia trilogy begins much like other great plays, such as Hamlet, on the walls of the city with a a lone watchman who bemoans the state of affairs, waiting for a light showing that Agamemnon, his king, is returning home from the Trojan War. Upon spotting the foreboding beacon, he  scrambles to tell Clytemnestra of the news, which she doubts. As Aeschylus’s play represents the culmination of Greek lyric poetry synthesized with Greek theatre, and multiple players on stage, the play features a notable struggle between the Greek elders, the Chorus, and Clytemnestra. A lone herald comes forth first announcing Agamemnon’s return, followed by Agamemnon himself, who appears not in disguise, apparently learning nothing from his great and notable comrade, Odysseus. Instead, he follows in the short-sighted footsteps of Achilles. As a result, Agamemnon carries with him a curse that befalls him for the murder of his daughter Iphigenaia, for which his wife, Clytemnestra, has never forgiven him. Additionally, he brings home a cocubine from Troy, Cassandra, that enrages Clytemnestra. However, his family’s curse goes back much further to the feud between Agamemnon’s father, Atreus and his twin brother Thyestes, and some would say, even further to the curse of Tantalus, the Titan. Atreus murdered his brother’s children and fed them to him for committing adultery and sleeping with Atreus’s wife -successive generations of his family are thus cursed in their efforts. This culminates in Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra, however in other accounts it is her lover, Aegisthus who commits the murder.

In the second part of the play, The Libation Bearers, Orestes returns from mainland Greece to find his sister pouring libations on the grave of their father. Together, they devise a plan to exact revenge on their mother and her imposter suitor. Orestes appears at the palace doors as a wandering traveler who announces the death of Orestes. Offstage, he kills Aegisthus and exposes his identity to his mother, before killing her, too. After this bloody affair, he flees the palace as the furies, or Eumenides, haunt him and chase him away.

The final part of the play, The Eumenides, at least what has survived for the modern eye, begins at the Pythia who beckons Apollo and it opens with a dialogue between Apollo and the Chorus of furies. The ghost of Clytemnestra appears to the sleeping furies, who have been put to sleep by Apollo, and she scolds them for not doing their duty to exact revenge. The scene is set when Athena appears and conducts a trial over whether to accuse Orestes of the crime of matricide or to find him blameless. Apollo comes to his defense and the furies are given a new role, underground, while Athena warns the Athenians to maintain a sense of fear, while also self-governing themselves, and to always hold themselves upright for having overcome the barbaric cycle of vengeance and retribution.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

Thucydides on Greek Origins

At the outset of Thucydides’s “archaeology” of the Peloponnesian War, the greatest “motion” of the city yet seen by either the Hellenes or barbarians or also possibly of all mankind, including the ancient Trojan War, Thucydides provides many opportunities for wonder. Pointing to later thinkers, like Hobbes, Thucydides gives an account of how the Hellenes came to be.

The early peoples of Hellas were not settled, uprooted like the Scythians of the Steppes as discussed in Herodotus. Tribes of fewer numbers were compelled by tribes of larger numbers -the rule of force reigned supreme in this “state of nature”. Men did not plant and grow food because settlements were frequently pirated, and men only cultivated the necessities of life devoid of capital or commerce. Therefore there was heavy competition among the tribes over fertile regions like Boetia or the Peloponnesus. These fertile regions caused certain individuals to seek enrichment, except in Attica where the soil was relatively poor and where many victims of war sought refuge until Attica could no longer maintain them all and they sought out colonies in Ionia.

According to Thucydides, the ancients were weak and barbarous, like the men of the Homeric epics. All of life was devoted to war, and like in Vico, we find the early cities established by the patriarch who provided shelter to the rootless many through both his virtue and wealth. The old Hellenes are like the modern barbarians in that life is governed by the superior rule of force. For example, in Thucydides’s opinion, Agamemnon’s ability to compel the Argives was less due to his oath of Tyndareus and more so to do with his superior strength (his vast navy). Fear was at least as strong as love in the Trojan expedition under Agamemnon, and Chaos and tyranny, rather than freedom, ruled the lives of the early Hellenic peoples. Slowly hereditary monarchies degenerated into tyrannies as wealth grew for the Hellenes and new technologies were developed, such as the triremes that might have originated from the Corcyrans.

“Again, wherever there were tyrants, their habit of providing simply for themselves, of looking solely to their own personal comfort and family aggrandizement, made safety the great aim of their policy, and prevented anything great proceeding from them; though they would each have their affairs with their immediate neighbors” (1.17).

It was Sparta that would eventually put down the tyrannies thanks to their long-lasting regime free from tyranny for over 400 years, supported by Athens (Note: this is distinct from the Athenian account of their victory without the help of Sparta who was busy at a religious festival when the Medes invaded). After the repulsion of the Medes (Persians), the Hellenes split into two factions: the Spartans, the chief military power of the Hellenes who established their regime by building loyal oligarchies at each polis under their protection, and the Athenians, the democracy and naval power who imposed monetary tributes on their subordinate city-states. However, Thucydides is critical of Athens, the first city to embrace a relaxed and luxurious style of life. Thucydides muses on the distinctions between Spartan and Athenian culture -while he maintains the superiority of the Spartans, he also imagines that years from now the ruins of Athens will be looked upon as greater than those of Sparta. He states that while many accept the account of the origins of the Peloponnesian War to be the breaking of the peace treaty between Athens and the Peloponnesians, Thucydides claims the chief cause must be the alarming growth of Athens that Sparta found threatening.

In a dispute between the Corcyrans and the Corinthians, both request aid from Athens, but Athens chooses Corcyra by providing defensive naval support. This threatens Sparta and her allies. Corinth attacks Sparta for allowing the Athenian tyranny to spread, and the Athenians try to self-righteously defend their actions.

It should be noted that Thucydides gives an account of the Hellenes -a city in “motion”, i.e. at war. Socrates calls for this in the Timaeus, the Platonic dialogue immediately following the Republic, and a similar account of Hellenic origins and decay is given in the Laws. In the same way that Plato uses the particular to explore the universal, i.e. the life and death of Socrates, so Thucydides uses the particular -the “great motion” of the war between Sparta and Athens, to explore the universal. However unlike the philosopher, Thucydides’s horizon extends only as far as the city, not in speech but in motion. That is, his history is an account the particular cities in situations that have already come to pass in an effort to proceed to a better account of the good and just city.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman turned classical scholar, Robert B. Strassler.

The Battle of Marathon: Book VI

In Book VI of Herodotus’s Histories, Herodotus claims that both the Hellenes and the Persians committed great acts of evil against one another -an unbiased claim in his inquiry. If the work was to be considered a work of propaganda to spur the Athenians to rise up (written during the Peloponnesian Wars) one might expect a defense, or apologia, of the Athenians. However, Herodotus seeks greatness in its many forms, barbarian or Greek, and often greatness and evil are closely intertwined.

As part of his inquiry, Herodotus weighs differing accounts, as well. He presents the many differing ways in which a story might be told, perhaps to lead the reader to doubt the rumors that emerge from multiple perspectives. Some accounts Herodotus finds agreeable, true, or correct, and others he presents in full form but dismisses as inaccurate to demonstrate the ease with which a reader might become swept up in a story without a healthy attitude of skepticism to guard them.

By modern standards, the battle of Marathon took place in 490 BC. It was the culmination of the Persian attempt to expand its empire across the world, continuing from the subduing of Egypt to the Hellenes, beginning with the Ionians. The Athenians, without the support of the Spartans, helped usher in a revolt in Ionia against the Persians, even setting fire to the city of Sardis. This was shortly after they had expelled the tyranny of Hippias, son of Peisistratos (the populist tyrnat), a tyrant of Athens who fled to Persia bent on gaining revenge against Athens. Once Darius had heard of this, he vowed not to forget the name of the Athenians, with whom he was entirely unfamiliar. He shot an arrow into the sky and spoke to Apollo, vowing to bring justice to Attica. He also commanded his most trusted servant to say the name of the “Athenians” to him three times per day to not forget. As the Persian army advanced through Ionia, they finally overcame the Eritreans, despite Athenian support, and turned their gaze to Attica. His two famous Lydian generals to carry out the task of wreaking vengeance on the Athenians for spurring the revolt of the Ionians were Datis and Artaphernes.

On the Athenian side, were ten generals, including the famous Miltiades -whose father was a four-time chariot race winner at the Olympia and who had escaped death twice to become a general in Athens. Together these ten generals, led by Miltiades, mobilized for the plain of Marathon where the Persians were sure to land after conquering the Eritreans. Their first course of action was to have Phidippides, the fastest messenger, to send word and call for aid to the Spartans. Phidippides ran for two days across 150 miles of land to Sparta and he succeeded in his mission by explaining to the Spartans that all of Hellas has become weaker by the loss of the Eritreans to enslavement. However, due to a law, the Spartans could not leave before the full moon. Therefore, Athens was alone without aid to fight the coming Persian forces.

Meanwhile, Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens, had a dream of sleeping with his mother, which he interpreted to mean he would regain his city of Athens and die there an old man. However, upon arrival at Marathon be was overcome by a coughing and sneezing fit that caused him to lose a tooth in the sand and he was unable to find it. He took this to mean the land would not belong to the Persians, “This land is not ours, and we shall not make it subject to us, either, for my tooth now holds all that was to be my share” (6.107).

Meanwhile, the Athenian generals are divided in how to proceed and whether or not to fight with so few numbers. Miltiades successfully persuades the polemarch, Kallimachos to fight the Medes (Persians) rather than face slavery. Therefore, the vote was 5-4 in favor of fighting -the democratic process was substantiated by the persuasive voice of one man, Miltiades. In a manner mimicking the cunning strategy of Odysseus who was credited with winning the war rather than Achilles, Miltiades makes a gamble by positioning fewer hoplite soldiers in the center of the ranks, leaving it more susceptible to Persian advances.

These Hellenes were the first to see the Persians and also the first to break into a run against the Persians -the Persians thought were “mad”. The Athenian (and Platean) wings were successful in the plan to encircle the Persians and they retreated while the Athenians chased them back to the waters edge and hijacked seven of the Persians ships. The Persian fleet picked up their Eritrean slaves and then made way for the city of Athens, while the Athenians made heavy speed to Athens and beat the Persian fleet there.

In all about 6,400 barbarians died and only 192 Athenians died.

The Spartans arrived late but went to the battlefield at Marathon to inspect the Persians before returning home. After the battle, Miltiades was given command of seventy ships to do with as he pleased, however he suffered setbacks in trying to conquer Paros and was tried by the Athenians. During the failed attempt he badly injured his leg and died of gangrene.

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