Despite the fifth century b.c.e. Athenian political and religious issues that are diffused more often in Aeschylus’s tragedies than in those of Sophocles and Euripides and that demand some historical explanation for the modern reader, the plays of Aeschylus still possess that timeless quality of thought and form that is the hallmark of classical Greek literature and that has made the themes of Aeschylean drama forever contemporary. Although Aeschylus’s intense Athenian patriotism and probable support for Periclean democratic reforms is fairly well documented in his biographical sources and is reinforced by the dramatic evidence, it is his attention to theological and ethical issues and especially to the connection between Zeus and justice and to the rules governing relationships among humans and between humanity and divinity that provide a central focus for his tragedies. It cannot be a coincidence that all seven extant tragedies, while less than one-twelfth of his total corpus, reflect a constant Aeschylean concern with the theme of human suffering and its causes. Again and again, the plays of Aeschylus suggest that human suffering is divine punishment caused by human transgressions and that people bring on themselves their own sorrows by overstepping their human bounds through hybris, hubris or excessive pride. At the same time, the role of the gods, and especially of Zeus, in this sequence of human action and human suffering is of particular interest to Aeschylus, whose plays seek in Zeus a source of justice and of fair retribution despite the vagaries of an apparently unjust world.
The Persians, Aeschylus’s earliest surviving tragedy, analyzes this system of divine retribution in the context of the unsuccessful invasion of Greece by the Persian king Xerxes in 480-479 b.c.e. Instead of the jubilant Greek victory ode that this drama could have become in the hands of a less perceptive artist, The Persians, presenting events from the viewpoint of the defeated Persians rather than that of the victorious Greeks, transforms the specific, historical events into a general, universal dramatization of defeat and its causes, of hubristic actions and their punishment. The tragedy, set in the palace of Xerxes at Sousa, far from the events with which it is concerned, sacrifices the immediacy of the battlefield for a broadened perspective.
The Persian defeat at Salamis is dramatically foreshadowed in the parodos, or choral entrance song, in which description of the magnificent departure of the Persian forces contrasts with the chorus’s fear of impending disaster. A central cause of this apprehension is the yoking of the Hellespont, which the Persian king had ordered to facilitate departure, and, with overweening pride, to punish the sea for inhibiting Darius’s earlier expedition against Greece. The chorus of elders does not speak here specifically of hubris, but of ate, an untranslatable Greek word implying “blindness,” “delusion,” “reckless sin,” and “ruin.” At the climax of the parodos, the ropes that bind the Hellespont become a metaphor for the nets of ate from which no mortal “who enters is able to escape.”
Foreshadowing is continued in the first episode, in which the queen mother Atossa describes to the chorus a vision of Xerxes’ defeat, which has troubled her at night. The chorus’s response to this dream is the suggestion that the queen sacrifice to the chthonic powers and especially to the dead Darius, but before Atossa can act on this advice, a messenger arrives with news of the disaster at Salamis. This scene is an example of the structural and dramatic variety open to the Greek dramatist with Aeschylus’s introduction of the second actor. The messenger’s opening lines are in the traditional anapestic meter reserved for entrances and are followed by an epirrhematic passage in which the messenger speaks in iambic trimeter while the chorus responds in sung lyrics. No details of the battle are provided by the messenger until the queen requests them, and there follow several messenger reports, one listing Persian losses, another describing the sea battle at Salamis, a third the nearby land battle, and, finally, one announcing the losses in the fleet on the return journey. These reports are interrupted by brief interchanges between the messenger and the queen, in which both speakers respond in two or more lines of trimeter. Rarely in this early play can be found the rapid stichomythia, or conversation in alternate lines of trimeter, that is later used so effectively by two or more speakers in Greek tragedy. The messenger scene substantiates the earlier fears of the queen and the chorus with the reality of defeat, and the dramatic effect of the series of speeches is like a sequence of disastrous waves on the Persian nation. The choral ode that follows the messenger scene is a lyric lament over the disaster and contrasts vividly in its pathos with the majesty of the parodos, in which the expedition’s departure was described.
The messenger scene dramatizes the actuality of the Persian defeat, but the causes of this defeat are not explained until the second episode, in which Atossa and the chorus call forth the ghost of Darius as they had planned to do before the arrival of the messenger. It is Darius who, as a ghost, has the atemporal perspective to link cause and effect and to explain the defeat of his son Xerxes. When the disaster of Salamis is announced to him, Darius’s initial response is that “some great divine force has made Xerxes unable to think clearly,” and he then elaborates by linking both Zeus and Xerxes himself as agents in the disaster. Darius says that Xerxes’ senses were diseased when he yoked the Hellespont: “Although a mortal, he thought to have power over all the gods, but not with good counsel.” Zeus did not stop Xerxes in his folly because “god joins in when a man hastens [his own destruction],” a doom that Xerxes “in his youthful boldness unwittedly accomplished.” Thus, it is Xerxes’ senseless pride, his haughty attempt to become more than human, which is his downfall, and the gods, especially Zeus, not only acquiesce but also assist in this downfall. Darius makes this most explicit in his prophecy of the Persian defeat at Plataea (479 b.c.e.), in which he speaks specifically of “hybris blossoming forth and having the fruit of ate” and of Zeus who is “a harsh accountant and punisher of excessively arrogant thoughts.” This dramatically central episode ends with Darius advising the absent Xerxes to be more moderate.
The arrival of the defeated Xerxes...
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