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,

Invincible in war,

Extended like a god his awful power,

Then spread our arms their glory wide,

Guarding to peace her golden reign:

Safe from the toils of war her homeward-marching train.

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 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,


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


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.”

foil to his erring son, and the mouthpiece of the philosopher-poet. We might

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