Friday, January 6, 2023

The Persians

Aeschylus is known to us today primarily for writing trilogies of related plays. The only fully surviving trilogy of tragedies we have from ancient Greece is his Oresteia, which tells the story of the fall of the House of Atreus. There was also originally a satyr play, Proteus, that accompanied the trilogy, but alas the satyr play has been lost.
The tragedy Prometheus Bound is also generally attributed to Aeschylus. It formed a trilogy along with Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus Firebringer, but only fragments of those plays remain. Still, it’s easy to see how the plays all related. (I mean, they all have the same Titan in the title!) If all of Aeschylus’s trilogies had related subject matter, it’s harder to tell how The Persians fit in with the other two plays in its trilogy, Phineas and Glaucus.
In Greek mythology, Phineas was involved with the voyage of the Argos, and Glaucus was a sailor who became immortal, so perhaps the three plays were just thematically related, all pertaining to the sea (maybe even all relating to the Hellespont). In any case, The Persians, which is the oldest full play script in existence, tells the story of the historic naval battle at Salamis. The battle is not shown onstage, but is described in the play, and that description must have been fairly accurate, since Athens at the time of the play’s composition was filled with numerous veterans of the battle, including Aeschylus himself.
Most Greek tragedies begin with a prologue in which a character or characters provide the background for the action. In The Persians that “character” is actually the choral leader (also known as the koryphaios). He introduces himself and the chorus, chanting (in Ian Johnston’s translation):
     We are here as trustworthy delegates
     for all those Persians who have marched away
     to the land of Greece. Thanks to our old age,
     we are the guardians of the royal home,
     so rich in gold, the men Xerxes himself,
     our king, son of Darius, has chosen
     to supervise his realm.
However, the delegates are troubled, because the Persian army invaded Greece a long while ago, and they have yet to receive word of how things have gone. The chorus members themselves then recite what is generally referred to as the parodos, the song they chanted while dancing onto the stage:
     Obliterating cities as it moves,
     our royal army has already marched
     to neighbouring lands on the facing shore,
     crossing the Hellespont, that narrow sea
     which gets its name from Athamas’s child,
     on a floating bridge tied down with cable
     and throwing the yoke of a tight-knit road
     across the neck of the sea.
When the army of the Persian Emperor Xerxes invaded Greece, they did in fact cross the Hellespont, the straight in present-day Turkey that separates Europe from Asia. (The straight is named for Helle, the daughter of Athamas, who according to Greek mythology fell into it from off the back of a flying ram.) The army crossed it on a floating bridge made from boats they tied together with rope and then covered with boards and dirt.
The chorus is fearful of what might have happened to the army as they see the approach of the Queen Mother. Historically, this was Atossa, the wife of Darius and the mother of the present emperor. Darius had previously invaded Greece and failed, after his army was defeated at the Battle of Marathon. In the play, the queen (whose name is never given) complains to the chorus, saying:
     The common folk do not respect great wealth
     unless backed up with men, and though the poor
     may have great strength, the light of their success
     will never shine. Now, we have wealth enough,
     but still I fear for what I hold to be
     our finest treasure, true riches in the home,
     the lord and master’s eye. Since that is so,
     Persians, you old trustworthy counsellors,
     advise me what to do, since all my hopes
     for level-headed guidance rest on you.
The queen has reason to be worried. She had a dream that seemed to portend ill for her son, and afterward saw another ill omen when she went to make a sacrifice to appease the gods. The leader of the chorus advises her to pour out libations to her dead husband, Darius, so that he will bless the Persians from beneath the earth. Before she can do this, however, a messenger arrives with news. In a naval battle near the island of Salamis, the Greeks (though they had far fewer ships) managed to encircle the Persian fleet. The messenger describes the battle this way:
     At first, the bulk of the Persian forces
     held them back. But with so many vessels
     confined inside a narrow space,
     our ships could provide no help to other Persians.
     Instead their bronze prows rammed their own fleet’s ships
     and smashed the banks of oars.
Hearing this wretched news, the queen exits in grief, and the chorus sings an ode (known as a stasimon) lamenting the recent defeat. When the queen re-enters, it is without her royal train. She offers her libations to the spirit of dead Darius and invites the chorus to sing an incantation to raise his spirit. The ghost of Darius then appears, and when he hears the news, he blames the disaster on Xerxes insulting the gods through pride. As Darius puts it:
     He wished to check the sacred Hellespont
     by tying it down with chains, just like a slave,
     and that holy river, too, the Bosporus.
     He built a roadway never seen before,
     enclosing it with hammered manacles,
     creating there a generous causeway
     for his enormous force. Though a mortal man,
     he sought to force his will on all the gods,
     a foolish scheme, even on Poseidon.
Darius’s ghost goes back to the underworld, and hearing that Xerxes will arrive with torn garments, the queen goes off to find fresh clothes for him to wear. The chorus sings another stasimon, lamenting the loss of the good old days they enjoyed under Darius. Then, at the end of the play, Xerxes appears in torn clothing and sings a lamentation that alternates with that of the chorus. As he first comes onstage, Xerxes cries out:
     O my situation now is desperate!
     My luck has led me to a cruel fate
     which I did not foresee! How savagely
     a demon trampled on the Persian race.
     What must I still endure in this distress?
     As I look on these ancient citizens,
     the strength in my limbs fails. O how I wish
     a fatal doom from Zeus had buried me
     with all those men who perished!
That last cry, that it would be better to be dead than to suffer the shame of defeat, marks The Persians as an extraordinary feat of imaginative sympathy. The first great Greek drama to have survived to posterity does not brag about a victory, but laments the loss faced by an adversary.