The Persians by Aeschylus is the first surviving play in the Western tradition. Or so Hugh Denard says in the preface to volume 2 of Aeschylus: The Complete Plays. The play was first staged at the Great Dionysia Festival in Athens in 472 B.C. It won the prize. Aeschylus was in his early fifties and it was about eight years since Greece had defeated the Persians. Aeschylus fought at both Marathon and Salamis. The play would have been one of a tetralogy. We know this because the festival typically had the three best playwrights present their plays during the course of a day for each. There were three tragedies, all related somehow by theme or story, and then a fourth play, a comedy, also called a satyr play, to close the evening. Wouldn’t want to send everyone home weeping! Unfortunately, The Persians is the only surviving play from the tetralogy. There are some guesses as to what the titles of the other plays were but nobody knows for sure.
The Persians also happens to be the only surviving tragedy from fifth-century Athens that is based on recent historical events. This, of course, gives scholars lots to argue about not only in regards to this particular play but also the subject matter of Greek plays in general.
Based on historical events as it may be, Aeschylus took dramatic license with some of the facts. He makes the Persian force bigger and the Greek force smaller. He changes timelines of when battles occurred. And when the ghost of Dareios, Xerxes father, appears on the scene, Aeschylus pretends like the Battle of Marathon never existed and Dareios never had plans against Athens. He even has Dareios say that he warned Xerxes against trying to conquer Greece. There is no documented evidence that this is the case. In fact Dareios worked until his death to try and organize an army to return to Greece.
Why would Aeschylus take such liberties when everyone present would be quite familiar with the Persian wars? Hybris-atê. Hubris. Excessive pride. He had to make Dareios better in order to make Xerxes worse. He had to make Xerxes’ pride be so overweening, that he would defy not only his father but also the gods. As Hugh Denard says:
Out of wealth comes prosperity, but when an excess of wealth is sought, and acts are committed that exceed what man is allowed by the gods, then prosperity (that comes from wealth) is slammed, like a wrestler thrown and pinned to the floor, and destroyed.
Even Herodotus played up Xerxes’ pride, so much so that at times all that was lacking was an evil bwahahahahaha! from Xerxes’ lips.
The actors in the play are a small group in typical Greek fashion. We have the Chorus of Elderly Men, the Ghost of Dareios, Atossa, Xerxes’ mother, Xerxes, and a Herald. These are the speaking parts. There is a huge cast of extras that include slave attendants and Persian soldiers. Most of the lines go to Atossa and an old man from the chorus.
So we have Atossa saying things like:
Has our great wealth now tripped up prosperity
and in a cloud of dust
slammed it to the floor of the palaestra–
the prosperity won by Dareios with a god’s help?
And the chorus singing:
Xerxes in his madness misguided his ships!
Dareios never harmed his men,
master of the bow,
beloved of Susa!
This king was no Dareios!
And the Ghost of Dareios spouting philosophy:
To be human is to suffer,
Neither land nor sea is free of evil’s sorrow.
And the longer men stretch out life
the more evils come.
Dareios also calls his son “impetuous” and foolish and wonders if his mind had been gripped by a disease.
And we have Xerxes, finally arriving on the scene at nearly the very end, weeping and wailing (and singing):
Behold me and weep,
I am your
The blight of my land,
the ruin of my
One of the things I found most interesting about this play is that most of it is sung and not just by the chorus. When Xerxes appears, he either chants or sings most of his lines. There is also dancing in the play. Most of the dancing seems to be performed by the extras, but a good amount is also performed by the chorus. I was always under the impression that all the chorus did was stand in the background and chant once in awhile. But it turns out they are a very active group of twelve who often had to perform intricate choreography.
It is hard to say I really enjoyed reading the play. I didn’t not like it. My difficulty is in being so distant from the experience. I can imagine in the chanting and singing and how lines echo between actor and chorus that it must have been an intense experience. I can imagine the places the audience must have felt their hearts beat faster and their stomachs flip-flop. I can imagine, but I can’t feel it myself. What would be really cool would be to see the play acted. I saw a pared down version of Medea acted several years ago (pared down because it was only two women) and I loved it. So if anyone knows of any video recording I can look for of The Persians being acted, I’d appreciate the tip.
My book also has Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound and The Suppliants in it. Since I was able to read The Persians in one sitting, I think I just might give these other plays a go too before I step back to volume one for Orestia.