Your kindness to the human race has earned you this.
A god who would not bow to the gods’ anger - you
Transgressing right, gave privileges to mortal men.
These are the words of Aeschylus, the first of Ancient Greece’s great tragedians. He brought with him a great sweep and an epic grandeur towards the drama of Athens, allowing the city to rise in its high arts stature. “The Persians”, “Seven Against Thebes”, “The Suppliants”, “Prometheus Bound” and “The Oresteia” trilogy have gone down as timeless pieces of poetry, telling of Greece’s ancient myths, legends, titans, kings and then-recent history, and giving us today an insight into their world and how they viewed it.
Check out my previous post on Cimon and the wars of the Delian League
Aeschylus was born in the town of Eleusis, near Athens, in around 525 BC. His early life remains largely unknown, however it is known that he took part in the Persian Wars, and his personally-written epitaph states that he fought in the Battle of Marathon. Aeschylus also visited Syracuse in Sicily on multiple occasions, being invited by Hieron I, the brother of Gelon, and Aeschylus would eventually die in the Sicilian city of Gela in 456 BC. His death would bring further recognition to his plays as special privileges were decreed for his works.
[ABOVE: The remains of the Sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis, Aeschylus's birthplace]
Aeschylus is the first and one of the three most celebrated Greek tragedians, alongside Sophocles and Euripides. While only a fraction of their collective works survive into the modern era, they have told us a lot about Greek myths, especially about events such as the Trojan War. According to Herodotus, it was Aeschylus that made Artemis the daughter of Demeter by taking the idea from the Egyptians; to the Egyptians, Isis and Dionysus were the parents of Artemis and Apollo, where Apollo was the Egyptian deity Horus and Demeter was Isis.
[ABOVE: "The Death of Aeschylus", from the "Florentine Picture Chronicle" by Maso Finiguerra, 15th century]
In total, Aeschylus would go on to write over seventy separate plays, however only seven have survived: “The Suppliants”, “The Persians”, “Seven Against Thebes”, “Prometheus Bound”, “Agamemnon”, “The Choephori” (“The Libation Bearers”) and “The Eumenides”. His works are organised into trilogies, with “Agamemnon”, “The Choephori” and “The Eumenides” being known together as “The Oresteia”. The Oresteia was Aeschylus’s last set of works, being written only a couple of years before his death.
[ABOVE: The Theatre of Dionysus, Athens, where Aeschylus's plays were commonly performed]
When discussing each of his plays, The Suppliants tends to be discussed after Prometheus Bound, despite being written before it, because its story is foretold in Prometheus Bound. Prometheus Bound is perhaps the best known to English readers. While its date of completion is unknown, its writing style indicates that it belongs within the mature period. Both Prometheus Bound and The Suppliants are in trilogies which, like The Oresteia, tell of the struggle against opposing principles, and trace its course through crises to its gradual solution in a rational compromise.
Seven Against Thebes tells of an earlier stage. It is the last of the Oedipus Trilogy, and it illustrates the working-out of a family curse, ending with the family’s annihilation with no solution or reconciliation. The Persians is Aeschylus’s earliest written work, made only eight years after the event which it discusses - the Battle of Salamis - and its subject matter sets it apart from the others.
Written in 472 BC, this is Aeschylus’s earliest written work. It is also the odd one out of Aeschylus’s works, since it deals in recent history instead of myth. Having been written only seven years after the Greco-Persian Wars, the purpose of “The Persians” was to provide a more balanced image of the Persians and the Persian Empire, portraying King Xerxes as a more sympathetically character compared to how the average Greek would have perceived him and his empire in their minds.
The plays’ key characters are Xerxes, the ghost of his father King Darius, Xerxes’s mother Atossa and the messenger, as well as the chorus, comprised of Persian elders. Its setting is the royal Persian palace in the city of Susa, by Darius’s tomb, in either late 480 or early 479 BC, barely a few months after the Battle of Salamis.
“The Persians” opens with the chorus explaining that they are the Persian elders that comprise the Persian Council. They have been left in charge of Xerxes’s royal palace, impatiently waiting while Xerxes and his army were away on campaign in Greece. Aeschylus shows his first intentions of trying to get the viewer to sympathise with the other side of the conflict by detailing just how vast the scope of the Persian Empire’s nationalities really are, reflecting that it is not just made of one peoples and mindsets and saying that the soldiers were,
the flower of manhood,
The pride of Persian valour,
That we saw march away
He also refers to Xerxes’s great ambition in crossing the Hellespont by calling Xerxes, "Himself the peer of gods", yet hints at his impatience and rashness in his choice to invade Greece by detailing his Hellespont cross as being done, "in one impetuous bound". Aeschylus clearly held Xerxes in high regard for his ambition, but knew his failing was his over-ambition.
It’s here that Xerxes’s mother, Atossa, (Darius’s wife) enters the scene, and the chorus sing great praises unto her. She too explains her concern for the then-unknown fate of Xerxes, stating how Xerxes’s rashness may have undone Darius’s great work before. Atossa then describes a dream she had the night before, which the modern writer Olga Taxidou describes as, "the first dream sequence in European theatre".
All of this is rather unusual for Aeschylus’s works, especially since his chorus’s would not usually appear until much later into the play, at least until a minor character has spoken some dialogue. Her dream described two women - one from Asia and another from Greece - who fell into a quarrel, only to both be restrained by Xerxes, who tied them by their necks to a chariot. One woman accepted her fate, while the other tore off her restraints. Pulling at the chariot, the woman was able to knock Xerxes over, who fell at the feet of his onlooking father, Darius, pitying his son.
When Atossa awoke, she cleansed herself in a river and ordered for animal sacrifices to be made, before seeing a falcon claw an eagle that was seeking refuge by a temple of Apollo. Taking this as a religious omen, Atossa was struck with fear as to the unknown fate of her son. The chorus explain that they mean not to worry her, but pray for Xerxes’s return too. The chorus encourage Atossa to perform libations, and Atossa asks about Athens, Xerxes’s main target in the war; the chorus tell her of Athens, its wealth and its soldiers, as well as their former victory against Darius at Marathon in the previous decade, worrying Atossa further.
Suddenly, a messenger enters the scene to give the message that Xerxes was defeated at the Battle of Salamis. The messenger tells of the battle in great detail and says that Xerxes managed to escape, while Atossa expresses that since they are but mortal men, they must accept the grievances that the God’s often give people. The messenger closes his telling of the battle of Salamis by quoting the final words of the Greeks before charging towards the routing Persians:
Forward, you sons of Hellas! Set your country free!
Set free your sons, your wives, tombs of your ancestors,
And temples of your gods. All is at stake: now fight!
The messenger further describes the fates of those who survived the naval battle; some were cut down on a nearby island, some died to natural disasters on the way back to Asia, and very few made it back in total. Before Atossa leaves the scene, she asks only that those who return - including and especially Xerxes - be taken great care of.
Atossa later visits the tomb of Darius, her dead husband, and asks the chorus to summon his ghost and spirit, keen on seeking his guidance to saving their native land, while the chorus poured wine libations on to the ground. Darius appears from his tomb in ghostly form.
[ABOVE: "The Ghost of Darius Appearing to Atossa, by "George Romney, 18th century]
Atossa tells Darius of what the messenger in turn told her, of Xerxes’s failure. Atossa put down Xerxes’s over-eagerness to attack, condemning him as someone who liked to play soldier at home yet overstretch with other people’s lives. Darius also admires Xerxes for ambitiously bridging the Hellespont, yet condemns him all the same for defying nature and the gods, and thinking that doing so would not end poorly. He also foretells of the fates of those Persians still in Greece at the time - those under the command of Mardonius - before they die in greater numbers at the Battle of Plataea:
… the well-spring of their pain
Is not yet dry; soon new disaster gushes forth.
On the Plataea plain the Dorian lance shall pour
Blood in unmeasured sacrifice; dead heaped on dead
Shall bear dumb witness to three generations hence
That man is mortal, and must learn to curb his pride.
Here, Xerxes shows up alongside a couple of accompanying soldiers, wearing his now torn up royal regalia. Reeling from his losses after Salamis and Plataea, Xerxes wished to hide his face out of fear and shame. The rest of the poem has Xerxes describing the enormity of the loss he and his army suffered in Greece, while the chorus laments with him as the poem gradually ends.
The Syracusian tyrant Hiero invited Aeschylus to perform “The Persians” for him in his home city. In his play “Frogs”, Aristophanes - some seventy years later - referenced Aeschylus’s play, describing it as “an effective sermon on the will to win”. Even the Romans, who were at near constant wars with Persia once their borders met, thought highly of Aeschylus’s plays. “The Persians” still influences literature well into the modern day; Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Hellas: A Lyrical Drama”, written in 1821 was modelled on Aeschylus’s ancient literature, while specific lines in Aeschylus’s play can find further influences in T.S. Eliot and even Dante’s “Inferno”. In as recently as 1993 and in response to the Gulf War, the famous American theatre director Peter Sellars directed a rendition of “The Persians” at both the Los Angeles and Edinburgh Festivals; even the famous actor John Ortiz, who appeared in the Fast and Furious films, appeared in the play as Xerxes himself.
[ABOVE: A part of the front cover to Peter Sellars' play, 1993]
NEXT PERSIAN POST: ARTAXERXES I, 465 - 424 BC: The Long-Handed Shah
NEXT GREEK POST: EGYPT AND CYPRUS, 460 - 450 BC: End of the Persian Wars
- "Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound and Other Plays", translation by Philip Vellacott
- Herodotus, "The Histories", Book 2.156
- Richard P. Martin, "Myths of the Ancient Greeks", page 3
(I do NOT own these videos)
"Classics Summarized: The Oresteia" by "Overly Sarcastic Productions"
"Greek Playwright Aeschylus Was Killed By a Turtle" by "Weird History"
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