Aeschylus: Dignity of and Sympathy for the Persians, Or, Why Edward Said is Wrong Yet Again

by Ibn Warraq (August 2010)

Ye Powers that rule the skies,
Memory recalls our great, our happy fate,
Our well-appointed state,
The scenes of glory opening to our eyes,
When this vast empire o’er
The good Darius, with each virtue bless’d
That forms a monarch’s breast,
Shielding his subjects with a father’s care,
Invincible in war,
Extended like a god his awful power,
Then spread our arms their glory wide,
Guarding to peace her golden reign:
Each tower’d city saw with pride
Safe from the toils of war her homeward-marching train.
—The Persians, Chorus, Strophe I
For Aeschylus, it is also reason that has contributed the most to the growth of human civilization. In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, the eponymous hero recounts how he helped man by endowing him with a mind and teaching him all the arts:
Hearken to the plight
Of man, in whom, born witless as a babe,
I planted mind and the gift of understanding.
I speak of men with no intent to blame
But to expound my gracious services:
Who first, with eyes to see, did see in vain,
With ears to hear, did hear not, but as shapes
Figured in dreams throughout their mortal span
Confounded all things, knew not how to raise
Brick-woven walls sun-warmed, nor build in wood
But had their dwelling, like the restless ant,
In sunless nooks of subterranean caves.
No token sure they had of winter’s cold,
No herald of the flowery spring or season
Of ripening fruit, but laboured without wit
In all their works, till I revealed the obscure
Risings and settings of the stars of heaven.
Yea, and the art of number, arch-device,
I founded, and the craft of written words,
The world’s recorder, mother of the Muse.[1]
Here we have Aeschylus’s vision of the human race progressing through history thanks entirely to his reason, the use of his intelligence. Since Edward Said makes much of Aeschylus’s creation of the Other, this observation must be kept in mind, but it would also be appropriate here to examine Aeschylus’s use of the word “barbaros,” and his attitude toward foreigners in general.
In Barbarians in Greek Tragedy, Helen Bacon tells us that for the Greeks, the barbarians included the Trojans, Persians, Egyptians, Lydians, Taurians, Scythians, and sometimes even Macedonians and Cretans. Bacon goes on to point out that the theme of the conflict of Greek and barbarian in Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus “is not . . . a simple question of superior Greek against inferior barbarian.”[2] In Euripides’ Troades, we have the irony of Andromache cursing the Greeks for “savage evils” (barbara kaka), yet the savages are not the Trojans but the Greeks! More specifically coming to Aeschylus’s The Persians, Bacon points out that though in Agamemnon 919–20, “Agamemnon disapproves of the servile foreign custom [of spreading ‘your monarch’s path with tapestry’] there is no implication here, or anywhere else in Aeschylus, that barbarians or their customs as such are intrinsically inferior. Darius has all the “Greek” virtues. Cassandra is morally superior to Clytemenestra.”[3]
Here is Bacon’s final assessment of Aeschylus: “Aeschylus’ handling of foreign material is the reverse of orientalizing. The orientalizing style introduces “oriental” motifs for their own sake, regardless of subject matter, to fill and decorate spaces. We have seen that Aeschylus does have some formulaic foreign references, but even these are not always used in this manner. By far the greater number of foreign references occur only where the context demands them. Far from being introduced for decorative purposes, they are essential parts of the story. . . . [T]here is no question of an occasional exotic touch to add variety and interest. A foreign character in Aeschylus is consistently foreign. Foreignness is part of the characterization, and the poet constantly reminds us of it. He builds and maintains a foreign atmosphere by repeated references to speech and dress and manners, to foreign legends and distant places. And there is no vagueness in his foreign representations, but almost always the concrete individual detail. He represents not “the barbarian” of tradition, but a Persian, a Trojan, an Egyptian, and he has clear notions about their differences in language, dress, customs, and appearance, beliefs. His foreign landscapes are not just distant and exotic scenes, but places on a map, with precise, and sometimes accurate, climate and topography. Aeschylus differentiates among barbarian peoples, and bases his differentiation on detailed information. This takes the emphasis off foreignness as such, and the related idea of the superiority of Greeks to all foreigners. We have seen that this is not an important theme in Aeschylus. For the moment it is enough to point out that it is difficult to maintain the Greek-barbarian antithesis when there is no “barbarian” as such, but instead many different and fascinating varieties of human beings.”

In other words, Aeschylus treated foreigners as individuals, not as “Oriental” stereotypes drawn with contempt but rather as particular humans subject to flaws, and hence eminently suitable subjects for tragedy. He was able to achieve this by his extraordinary knowledge, his insatiable intellectual curiosity, which led him to investigate the language, dress, customs, and traditions of the people
he wished to write about. His plays are peppered with words from the Persian (aggaros, a mounted Persian messenger [Ag. 282], of Assyrian origin but borrowed from the Persian; mandun, a woolen cloak), Phrygian or Thurian (bal(l)en, lord), Egyptian (baris, boat), Egyptian or Hebrew (karban or karbanos, for barbaros), Lydian (palmus, king; bakkaris, incense), and so on. He uses the forty-nine names of Persian princes (Pers. 20–58, 302–30, 955–1001). Including the latter names, Aeschylus uses seventy-one foreign words. As for costumes, Aeschylus, for example, distinguishes the hat and shoes of kings “specifically and accurately.” [5] Equally, he shows specific knowledge of foreign institutions: “He refers to the Egyptian gods by Greek names, but in such a way that he knows their Egyptian functions and attributes (e.g., Suppliants. 210–21). Herodotus (2.156) attests his unique knowledge of Egyptian religion, saying that he alone of the poets knew a certain logos which caused him to call Artemis the daughter of Demeter.”[6]
Even more astonishing, for several of the phrases in Darius’s summary of Persian history in The Persians (765–81) parallels can be found in the Behistun Inscription and other Persian documents. The king’s titles and those of his nobles are all historical.
[7] Looking more closely at The Persians, H. D. Broadhead in his edition of the Greek text notes in the introduction that it is an authentic tragedy with all the dignity one associates with this genre: “[T]he Persae was intended to be a genuine tragedy, that the dramatist has on the whole been successful in carrying out his intention, and that the comparative absence of patriotic bias is in keeping with the high moral tone of the play, and particularly of the Darius scene, which contains the essence of the poet’s own philosophy. If the doctrine is Greek, it takes no account of national differences—it concerns equally both Greek and barbarian.” [8]
As in all tragedies, the The Persians presents us a tragic figure who through an error and moral lapse and failure passes from prosperity to misfortune. Aeschylus, however, was dealing with an event of the recent past: The Persians was produced in Athens in 472 BCE, eight years after the naval battle at Salamis, which the play celebrates—an event that would undoubtedly evoke deep patriotic enthusiasm. While he sticks broadly to the facts, Aeschylus has tried “to raise the historical to the level of the poetic and the philosophic.”
[9] Aeschylus deviates in two significant ways from the facts, first by idealizing Darius, and then by changing the facts to fit into his theological framework: “This manner of handling the historical facts itself suggests that as a dramatist he has adopted a (for the most part at least) supra-national attitude: he has treated the Persian in much the same way as he would have treated the Greek in similar circumstances; from the particular he has distilled the universal.” [10]
As Broadhead shows in lines 302–30, we have a list of the principal captains and chiefs who fell, and the courage of the Persians is underlined: “It would have been easy for Aeschylus to attribute the victory to the skill and prowess of the Greeks—to make the admission come from the lips of a Persian would heighten the effect!—but of this there is not a word. It was a trick that brought the Persian fleet into its fatal position (en stenw), and that the trick was successful was due to the qewn fqono~ [jealousy of gods]. Finally, the flower of the Persian nobles was cut off and destroyed on Psyttaleia, aiscrw~ duskleestatw morw [in infamy, dishonor, and in ugliness]: the contest was not on even terms, and the Persians were at the mercy of the heavily armed Greek troops.”
The description of the ensuing naval battle is subdued and brief where we would have expected the dramatist to provide vivid details and give in to some sort of Greek triumphalism. Significantly, no Greek is named, whereas a long roll of Persian leaders is listed. This was consistent with Aeschylus’s intention of presenting a Persian tragedy as seen through Persians eyes. There is a justifiable moment of Greek patriotism during the battle song at lines 402–405, since the very freedoms of the Greeks were at stake and had been bravely defended; Aeschylus was a staunch believer in democracy. All in all, as Broadhead asks, “Could we expect a more restrained and impartial account from the pen of a
Greek?” [12]
The final scene, when Xerxes appears on stage in rags, is not meant to ridicule the Persian; the play is a tragedy, not a farce, as H. W. Smyth points out: “Contempt or ridicule of a defeated adversary would destroy the very purpose of tragedy.”
[13] It is finely analyzed by Broadhead: “This final scene can be understood and appreciated only if we recognize that Xerxes, unsuitable as he was for the role of traditional tragic hero, is nevertheless the mainspring of the tragedy. In all the earlier scenes he has been present to our minds so that his appearance in the flesh is a veritable climax, which must be reserved for the end of the play. Aeschylus, with unerring instinct, made it follow upon the impressive denunciations of Darius [his father], which, no less than the charge to Atossa [widow of Darius and mother of Xerxes] (833–4), prepare the audience for the picture of the broken monarch, utterly overwhelmed by the shame and disgrace he has incurred, confessing his responsiblity for his country’s ruin, wishing that he had perished with his army, deeply moved when he recalls the trusty comrades he has lost, answering meekly the reproachful enquiries of the Elders, and finally participating in the mournful antiphonal dirge that fittingly completes the picture of the depths of misery to which the once glorious and triumphant Persia is reduced. There is no chauvinism in this exodo~ [the end of a tragedy]. Gilbert Murray is surely right when he remarks, “This lamentation is not only written with great technical skill, but seems to combine an expression of utter defeat and desolation with a certain nobleness and dignity. The conquered oppressor is not mocked.” [14]
Aeschylus’s characters are, on the whole, convincingly drawn. The Chorus of Trusty Elders, chosen by Xerxes to manage the affairs of state in his absence, is used by the dramatist to emphasize the stark contrast between the wisdom of the father, Darius, and the folly of the son, Xerxes. The Elders “provide a distinctively Persian background and that through them is conveyed to the audience the most lively impression of the effects of the disaster on the Persians and their vast empire.”
[15] Atossa is depicted as a dignified queen, intensely devoted to, and anxious for, her erring son—again, a sympathetically drawn character. As for Darius, “This imposing, dignified and majestic figure, more than any other in the play, shows how far Aeschylus has risen above the level of a narrow nationalism. . . . Darius is heroic in stature, indeed is regarded almost as a god. His appearance is a kind of theophany. He has the commanding presence of an Olympian deity whose impressive pronouncements are accepted without question, and are like a strong breeze that blows sanity into a disordered world.”[16] And finally, “[T]he dramatist has sought to delineate, not with prejudice or malice, but with sympathetic imagination, the Persian tragedy as he conceived it to have affected the Persian people, and, in particular, the ruling class.” [17] The Persians is indeed a genuine tragedy, where Aeschylus shows remarkable restraint in describing the Greek victory, which is seen not as being the result of Greek superiority but rather of the transgression of divine law, transgression that would bring disaster upon any human being, be he Greek or barbarian. Furthermore, Aeschylus draws his characters with great compassion and sympathy, and he paints the scene from the Persians’ point of view.

Aeschylus, far from exulting over a defeated enemy, is able to summon up a profound human sympathy for the Persians and thus lift himself far above the limitations of the here and now and bring out the universal implications of their overweening pride and the nemesis attendant on those guilty of hubris. To conclude the defense of Aeschylus, here is Seth Benardete, the translator of The Persians:

“To show sympathetically, sine ira et studio [without anger and bias], on the stage at Athens the defeat of her deadliest enemy testifies to the humanity of Aeschylus and the Athenians. No other tragedian we know of, of any country, at any time, has ever dared to go so far in sympathizing with his country’s foe. It is the more remarkable when we consider that Aeschylus himself and almost all of his audience fought at Salamis or Plataea and that war, moreover, was between freedom and slavery. Here are the Persians, having started an unjust war and suffering a deserved defeat, presented not as criminals but rather as great and noble, dying deaths that are to be as much pitied as the deaths of Athenians. To praise the Athenians at Athens, Socrates remarks, or the Spartans at Sparta is not very difficult; but to praise the Athenians at Sparta or the Spartans at Athens demands great rhetorical skill; and for Aeschylus to praise before their conquerors the Persians, the enemies of all Greece, is without precedent and without imitation.”

[1]             Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, trans. George Thomson (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995), p. 20.
[2]              Helen H. Bacon, Barbarians in Greek Tragedy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1961), p. 4.
[3]              Ibid., p. 12.
[4]             . Ibid., pp. 62–63
[5]              Ibid., p. 28.
[6]              Bacon., p. 34.
[7]              Ibid., pp. 39–40.
[8]             H. D. Broadhead, The Persae of Aeschylus. With Introduction, Critical Notes and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), p. xvi.
[9]             Ibid., p. xvii.
[10]           Ibid., pp. xvii–xviii:It is an idealised Darius that Aeschylus has portrayed: the blameless father is a foil to his erring son, and the mouthpiece of the philosopher-poet. We might
                almost say that the facts have been altered so as to fit into the dramatist’s theological
                framework. Xerxes too has been changed, though to a much smaller
                extent. We know from Herodotus that in preparing the expedition against
                Greece he was only carrying out his father’s express design; yet Darius in the
                play censures his son for his rashness and impious daring. . . . This manner of
                handling the historical facts itself suggests that as a dramatist he has adopted a
                (for the most part at least) supra-national attitude: he has treated the Persian in
                much the same way as he would have treated the Greek in similar circumstances;
                from the particular he has distilled the universal.
[11]           . Ibid., p. xviii:
                [T]here is no suggestion that the Persians were not gallant and courageous
                fighters. On the contrary, it is a reasonable inference from the tribute paid to
                Syennesis (326–8) that there were many brave warriors who caused great havoc
                to their foes. In 337f. we learn that in respect of numbers the Persians had an
                enormous superiority, and had every reason to expect victory; but it is constantly
                stressed that the gods were against them [345, 354, 362, 373].
[12]           Ibid., p. xix.
[13]           H. W. Smyth, Aeschylean Tragedy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1924), p. 70.
[14]           Broadhead, p. xxiii, quoting Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. G. Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), p.92
[15]           Broadhead, The Persae of Aeschylus, p. xxv.
[16]           Ibid., p. xxviii.
[17]           Ibid., pp. xxix–xxxii
[18]           Aeschylus, The Suppliant Maidens: The Persians, trans. and intro. Seth G. Benardete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), pp. 44–45.

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