An introduction to a classic play
Michael Billington notes in The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present that Aeschylus’ classical play The Persians is the oldest surviving work of Western drama. First performed at the City Dionysia in 472 BC, The Persians takes a nuanced approach to the matter of war and conquest. It was a direct inspiration for the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’. Percy Shelley’s drama Hellas was written in response to it. It’s the only play from the classical era that deals with historical events rather than mythological ones. In short, The Persians is a fascinating play and Aeschylus’ handling of war is worthy of closer inspection and analysis.
The real-life historical incident which inspired Aeschylus’ play was the Greeks’ victory over Persian forces at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The Persian King Xerxes attacked the Greeks at Salamis in a sea battle because he wanted vengeance following his defeat at the earlier Battle of Marathon ten years before. Given that Aeschylus’ play was first performed just eight years later, many of the spectators in the original audience of The Persians would have either fought in the conflict or known someone who had. In summary, Aeschylus’ play focuses on the Persian court, where Xerxes’ mother, Atossa, and a chorus of old men, await news of Xerxes’ military attack. Unfortunately, when news arrives, it could hardly be worse: Xerxes’ Persian army has been annihilated by the Greeks. The ghost of Xerxes’ father, Darius, then appears, lamenting his son’s hubris (a common trope in Greek drama) in thinking he could beat the Greeks, especially when he’d already been vanquished once. The play ends with the return of Xerxes, who reproaches himself for his hubris.
Aeschylus could have written a play glorifying the Greeks’ military might and revelling in their decisive victory over the Persians. National pride must have been high among Greek subjects in the wake of Salamis. But he didn’t do that. Instead, in The Persians he offers an altogether more morally ambiguous take on the recent conflict, and – by extension – on the nature of all war. If history is written by the victors (a claim which is highly suspect in itself), then at least the victors can attempt to put themselves in the shoes of those over whom they have been victorious. Aeschylus was not just a playwright: he was a soldier as well, and had fought at the Battle of Salamis. He knew first-hand, as many Athenians did, what war was like. He may well have realised that, in the long run, there are no ultimate victors when it comes to military conquest.
It’s true that The Persians can be read as jingoistic self-congratulation – or at least, that those in the original audience, if so inclined, could have taken that reading from it. After all, the Persians are shown to have been foolhardy in thinking they could beat the mighty Greeks, and in depicting their humiliating defeat, Aeschylus reinforces the Greeks’ seeming invincibility. Xerxes is shown to be arrogant and gets a good whipping; even his own father shakes his ghostly head at his son’s silly dreams of victory against the doughty Greeks. In Greek drama, hubris such as that displayed by Xerxes is punished by nemesis, or retribution – and so it is in The Persians. The play might be interpreted, then, as a story about the jumped-up Persians getting their just deserts. But it’s more than that. Aeschylus goes to some lengths to show the suffering that war causes, and the losses suffered by the Persians in their doomed campaign. Another feature of Greek drama was the idea of catharsis, whereby the spectator was encouraged to observe the events of the drama and then reflect on his own behaviour. So we might analyse The Persians as a warning to the Greeks, too: don’t get too cocky or ambitious, or you might suffer the same fate as Xerxes and his army.
The very fact that the precise meaning of The Persians remains elusive and difficult to pin down or analyse is what makes it such a satisfying work of art. It invites different interpretations, its meaning residing in the eye of the beholder. Aeschylus offers a satisfying play because he refuses to offer us satisfyingly neat conclusions – about war, about conquest, about human nature.
The best English translation of Aeschylus’ play is, in our view, Persians and Other Plays (Oxford World’s Classics).