Aeschylus - The Persians 472 B.C.

In the spring of 472 B.C. an upcoming political figure by the name of Pericles won great fame by sponsoring a play in Athens. The play from Aeschylus was called 'The Persians' and appeared in a contest at the Greater Dionysia. Sponsorship of a play by a single figure demonstrates that Pericles was then on of the wealthier men in Athens.

The play's subject matter was taken from recent history, the Battle of Salamis had taken place just 8 years earlier. Aeschylus had participated in the battle, and it is likely that most of his Athenian audience had also fought or had been directly affected by it. Because of this, the play holds a special place in history, it is not only the oldest surviving play ever found, but also the oldest play on a contemporary event. The speech of the Messenger is the earliest account that survives about Salamis and it must be seriously treated as a historical document. Aeschylus certainly knew the facts, and presented his play before thousands who could refute him if he was wrong.

The theatre of Dionysos in Athens

Illustration: The theatre of Dionysos in Athens


The play won at the festival and was reproduced in Sicily in 467 B.C. One of the few times a play was reproduced during the lifetime of the author. The version produced in 467 probably forms the basis of the surviving version, and may have been slightly different from the original.

The play has only 5 characters: The Chorus; of Persian Elders - Atossa; the mother of Xerxes - A messenger - Darius; as a ghost, who is the father of Xerxes, and - Xerxes; The King of Persia.

The location of the play is in the royal palace of Xerxes at Susa; in the tomb of Darius. Action starts by the arrival of a messenger with news of the Persian defeat, and the subsequent arrival of King Xerxes, broken-spirited and disgraced.

The purpose of the play was the gratification of the natural pride of the Athenians in their achievement, and the presentation of the victory of Salamis as the focal moment in the defeat of Persia and the establishment of Greek liberty.

It is important to remember that Aeschylus was ultimately a poet, and the festival required him to put on a show. It is reasonable to suppose that the play had a lavish variety of Oriental costumes and an attempt to represent the manners, and perhaps speech, of the defeated enemy. There is evidence of this in the text, including Persian words, and some Chorus-rhythms associated with Eastern music.

The play has some amazing aspects, there is no real plot. No character development takes place at all. Apart from the pageantry and the poetry the chief interest lays in the splendid vividness of the messenger's narrative. Its purpose was to replay what happend at the battle for the interest of the audience a bit like we would watch a movie about an event that happend some years before. Obviously, a cast of thousands could not be organised to show the actual battle, but it is lovingly portrayed from the Persian view point of how the battle was reported back to them, therefore only a cast of 5 characters is needed.

Another aspect is that no Greek participates in the battle are named in the play, though many names from the Persian forces are. This could only mean that Aeschylus did not want to alienate anybody that was named from those that did not. Athens fought as a whole in the battle, and to name some participants in the play would be the same effect as handing out medals in saying that they were the best warriors on the day.

Another interesting aspect is that the Battle of Plataea is barely mentioned, even though it was the deciding battle that ultimatley removed all Persian influence from mainland Greece. It is given a brief mention by the ghost of Darius as the coup de grĂ¢ce to the Persian expedition, and is duly credited to the Dorians, which means the Spartans. It is unfair to Aeschylus to say that he belittles the importance of Plataea. His theme is the victory of Athens; his audience were his fellow-citizens. He was writing his play inside Athens, himself deeply involved in the creative fever of ambition which was driving the Athenians forward to liberty, expansion and supremacy; and the occasion of its performance was religious, a national thanksgiving by Athenians for Athens.

The Persians, play can be read on the internet here.

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