Aeschylus (525 BC-456 BC)
September. 480 BC. After a decisive victory against Leonidas' 300 at the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian army, under King Xerxes, now having conquered most of Greece, floods into Athens razing it to the ground. All that is left of the Greco military contingent is their inconsequentially small navy, and as Xerxes prepares presumably the last amphibious battle of the Second Greco- Persian conflict, he can almost taste the victory and eternal deification.
The play opens with Atossa, King Darius' widow, waking from a nightmare with a premonition, a somewhat strange feeling for the Queen mother of the civilized world to have. Persia's strength and will have been virtually unchallenged as first Darius and now Xerxes have conquered more nations than any other previous empire, yet Atossa worries that the gods will punish them for their arrogance.
As the chorus describes the restless wives and daughters at home, alone in their beds, waiting for their husbands, fathers and sons to return, they too augur an ill sense of foreboding.
Chorus: "But how crafty, the scheme of God! What mere man outleaps it? What human foot jumps fast enough to tear loose from its sudden grip? For with gestures of kindness as bait, Blind Folly fawns a man into her net, nor can he hope to work loose and escape unhurt...(137-149)
Here double beds, bereft of men, are filled with tears, and each wife, who has rushed to war a headstrong spear, is left to spend her gentle elegance, bereft of love, one yoked but alone." (173-181)
Atossa describes her dream to the chorus, which is comprised of old men and regents of Persia. In her dream Xerxes is trying to subdue two women, one robed in Persian luxury, the other in a plain Greek tunic; the Greek woman challenges Xerxes authority and ultimately shatters the yoke she wears and topples Xerxes from his throne, shredding his kingly tunic and shaming him.
The chorus assures her "all shall turn out well"...but an ominous cloud still overshadows Atossa as she waits to hear from the front. And then before Atossa's fears can be fully assuaged, a messenger comes with the terrible news that all is lost.
Messenger: " Listen! cities that people vast Asia, Listen! Persian earth, great harbor of wealth, One stroke, one single stroke, has smashed great prosperity, and Persia's flower is gone, cut down. Bitter, being the first to tell you the bitter news, but need presses me to unroll the full disaster. Persians, our whole expedition is lost." (117-125)
The chorus, not the soothsayers they thought they were, are shocked and quickly despair.
Chorus: "Life stretches long, too long for grey old men who hear of all hope undone..." (131-134)
The messenger then begins to describe the concatenation. Although the Persian fleet greatly outnumbered the Greeks, they were lured into the narrow channel around the island of Salamis, thinking they would create a blockade so the timorous Greek sailors would be surrounded and outflanked, but in the narrow channel, all of a sudden their great numbers became a hindrance and as they were wedged, ship upon ship, the waters became unnavigable and the Persian contingent became sitting ducks, trapped and waiting to be slaughtered.
Messenger: "Then the Greek ships, seizing their chance, swept in circling and struck and overturned our hulls, and saltwater vanished before our eyes - shipwrecks filled it, and drifting corpses. Shores and reefs filled up with our dead and every able ship under Persia's command broke order, scrambling to escape. We might have been tuna or netted fish, for they kept on, spearing and gutting us with splintered oars and bits of wreckage, while moaning and screams drowned out the sea noise till Night's black face closed it all in."
Although the Athenians that had barricaded themselves on the Acropolis had been defeated, the Persians are wary of these Greek gods that seemed to tip the scales of luck and cut the Persian forces down, clearly their own gods have abandoned them.
Atossa and the chorus decide to chant the ghost of Darius up from the grave to get his opinion on the matter at hand. After hearing about his headstrong sons mishandling of the army, and Xerxes attempt to yoke the Hellespont and close the mighty Bosporos, Darius is convinced the gods have enacted the law of Hybris-āte; a law that in its simplest definition entails the "visitation of God's ferocious punishment on anything that is unduly great, whether physical or mental." (C.J.Herington, Persians, (1981) p. 9)
His response after hearing that the Persian army, victorious under his command, has been destroyed is thus:
"Mankind is bound to suffer, the hurts of being human. Many evils spawned in the sea and many on land, for you who must die. And the longer you live the greater the pain....when a man speeds toward his own ruin, a god gives him help..." (1145-1153)(1203-1209)
As the play ends, Xerxes mourns the loss of his men and the catastrophe that has befallen him.
To an audience of Greeks, this play, written only a few years after these events took place, would have been the ultimate voyeuristic pleasure. What better than to watch a play, from the perspective of your mortal enemy, and have an insiders view into their mental anguish at the news of their empires destruction. The play ends with Xerxes and and chorus weeping, but I presume the audience would be standing on their feet rejoicing in the divine retribution their one stubborn little country exacted.
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