Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.36

A. F. Garvie (ed.), Aeschylus: Persae.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. lxi, 398.  ISBN 9780199269891.  $155.00.  

Reviewed by David Rosenbloom, Victoria University of Wellington (


The Persians was overdue for a new scholarly commentary. Since the publication of H.D. Broadhead's text and commentary (1960), Denys Page (1972) and M.L. West (1990) produced new editions of Aeschylus' plays, Alan Sommerstein published a new Loeb edition of Aeschylus (2008), and Luigi Belloni (1988) and Edith Hall (1996) published important commentaries on the play. Meanwhile, the study of Achaemenid Persia came of age. The work of Pierre Briant, the Achaemenid History Workshop, and many others is now essential for interpreters of the play. The study of ethnicity and Greek self-definition in antiquity became a hot topic, stimulated in part by Hall's influential Inventing the Barbarian (1989). Historicist interpretations of the play challenged the boundaries between tragedy and political discourse.

Garvie is well suited to the task of synthesizing this work and adjudicating among its multiple and conflicting perspectives. His scholarly expertise in matters of the text, language, meter, and plots of Aeschylus' plays is well established; his knowledge of the relevant bibliography is encyclopedic. His edition, which includes an introduction (61 pp.), a text with an augmented apparatus criticus, detailed commentary, metrical appendix, select bibliography, index of Greek words and a general index, is a massive contribution to the study of the play. In addition to providing a full and up-to-date commentary, Garvie aims to exonerate the play from two long-standing critical judgments: that it is a primitive motley of episodes and that it is a patriotic celebration, an epinician in the form of a tragedy. Garvie is successful in the first objective, but his second and more difficult purpose is likely to encounter resistance, starting with this review.

Garvie regards the play as "in its fullest sense a tragedy" (xxii), and predicates the play's success on the audience's identification with the Persians: "If by the end of the play the audience had not, despite itself, come to sympathize or empathize with the Persians in their suffering, to identify with them as fellow human beings, Persae would be, I think, a failure" (ibid.). While I agree that the play has the capacity to be experienced as tragedy "in its fullest sense" both as text and in performance, as one of many different experiences of the play, Garvie sees this as the only way to experience the play, maintaining that the "construction of the plot" ensures a sympathetic/empathetic reaction (xxii). Yet his discussion of the play's "double tragedy," that of Persia and of Xerxes (xxxiv), fails to address thorny issues of audience identification. Nor does his "double tragedy" hypothesis acknowledge a third tragedy, that of Asia and the barbarians in general--"the cities of every Asian land" (249; cf. 56-57, 73, 584-90, 929-30) and the "entire barbarian race" (433-34; cf. 255, 391-92, 423, 798-99, 843-44). Garvie omits analysis of how an audience that had suffered and defeated Xerxes' hybris seven years earlier and was still making him (and others) pay for it at the time of the drama, could sympathize, let alone empathize, with Xerxes', his people's, and his empire's pathos apart from the play's putative genre. His data are the words of the tragedy isolated from their historical, social, and political contexts; from these he believes he can ascertain the poet's intention. This enterprise is predicated upon the assumptions that historical drama and canonical drama are identical and that authorial intention trumps audience reception in the determination of "meaning."

In this review, I evaluate some of Garvie's editorial choices, briefly sample his commentary in comparison to Broadhead's, and discuss his treatment of the rift between past and present, Dareios and Xerxes, in Persia and then assess the claim that underpins his reading of the drama as canonical tragedy--hybris does not explain the Persian pathos but competes with an amoral explanation, divine envy at Persian olbos (xxxi).

1. Text

The volume does not tabulate divergences between Garvie's text and those of other editors, but on my rough count of 64 cases, Garvie reinstates Page 39 times, retains West in 18 instances, and agrees with neither West nor Page seven times. In these seven instances, he is especially successful at 815 and 967.1 In the former, Garvie reads Tucker's ἐκπλινθεύεται, and in the latter he prints ποῦ δὴ ποῦ, a suggestion that Page made but confined to his apparatus.. Garvie also diverges from Page and West in using iota subscripts. His text differs from Page's in that it prints medial and final sigmas instead of crescent sigmas. Garvie adopts West's orthography for πόλῃ, but does not print ἠμέρ- for ἡμέρ- (63, 386, 431, 841). He transposes 93-100 to after 114 with West and brackets 778 with Page (who relegated the line to the apparatus). Garvie restores Page's colometry in the anapestic portion of the parode and in various places throughout the choral lyrics of the play. In sum, Garvie offers a reasonable and readable text of the play.

Not all readers will agree with Garvie's editorial choices. For instance, he follows Page in placing a lacuna after 235 and transposing 767 to after 769 so that it describes Kyros rather than, as Garvie would have it, Astyages (p. 300; West thinks 767 would be better placed after 777 as a gloss on the name Artaphrenes). In my view, transposition seems to compound the initial the error of identifying Medos with Kyaxares rather than with his father Phraortes, the first Median king to conquer outsiders and attempt to topple the Assyrians, and hence properly the first ἡγεμὼν στρατοῦ, "leader of the army" (765). Garvie glosses στρατοῦ here (and at 656, 773) as "the citizen body," but it is my impression that the identity of army and citizen body expressed by στρατός is peculiar to Athens, where warriors are citizens, and limited to A. Eu. 566, 683, 762, 889; cf. Sommerstein ad 566). Kyaxares completed his father Phraortes' work, just as Dareios says (766), building an integrated army and destroying Nineveh; Herodotos refers to a praise tradition about him (1.103.1). As the perfect son-king, he is foil to Xerxes, the worst son-king in the history of the Persian empire. That "the rudder of his mind steered his passionate spirit" (767) marks this antithesis, for the play blames Xerxes and ships for the defeat (548-63) and to the bitter end laments only the naval defeat at Salamis (584-97, 918-22, cf. 1074-75).

2. Commentary

Broadhead's and Garvie's respective commentaries on Pe. 115-19 give some sense of the differences between the two. It is not merely that Garvie's comments are fuller; they are more wide-ranging, clearer, cite scholarship that illuminates the lines, and explicate the lines' dramatic significance. Broadhead describes μελαγχίτων φρήν, as "an Aeschylean variation of the Homeric φρένες ἀμφιμέλαιναι," assuming the reader knows the locations and contexts of these passages. He notes the association of blackness with emotion and black garments with mourning and comments that ἀμύσσεται is "one of Aesch.'s violent images to express the inner effects of emotion" (p. 62). His supplementary note makes an unpersuasive case for reading Schütz's τοῦτο instead of the MSS's τοῦδε at line 118.

Garvie comments on Aeschylus' adverbial uses ταῦτα and notes that μοι is a better reading than μου before discussing μελαγχίτων φρήν. He cites relevant parallels and scholarly discussions for the most part unavailable to Broadhead (Onians, Burton on Pi. P 4.109, Irwin on the color terms, Sansone, de Romilly, and Padel on the intellectual dimension of φρένες and emotional associations of θυμός and καρδία, and Jarcho specifically on the passage, pp. 86-87). He also discusses the dramatic importance of μελαγχίτων φρήν as the first image of torn clothing in a series that dominates the play (p. 87). In a separate lemma, he notes the tendency of φόβος and its cognates to attract alliteration of φ-sounds. Indeed, Garvie's notes on alliteration of δ, π and φ run like a golden thread through his commentary. In general, Garvie assumes his readers know less than Broadhead assumed his readers would know (and will want to know that ὀᾶ περσικοῦ στρατεύματος is "a genitive of explanation or cause," p. 87); but Garvie also assumes his readers want to know more about linguistic and metrical parallels, poetic techniques, scholarly opinions, and the dramatic meaning of the details on which he comments. So thorough is his commentary, that the only passages I thought he might cite but did not are Hdt. 9.83.2 in his note to 818-19 on the mound of bones at Plataia and a few passages in his note to 141 illustrating the range of meanings of στέγος (S. El.1165-70; Lyk. 1098)--where it refers to a funeral urn and a tomb respectively.

Garvie's commentary to 840-42 demonstrates his command of relevant information and interpretive ability while also showing how his overall interpretation of the play influences his reading of its parts. Broadhead was concerned with the problem of oriental coloring and comic elements in Dareios' parting words. Rejecting both, he viewed the farewell as pointing to "a brighter future" (p. 210). After noting the rare vocative πρέσβεις and some other points, Garvie cites material that Broadhead ignored: the Sardanapalos epigram, the importance of pleasure in Greek sympotic poetry, the proverbial status of the lines, and their deviation from the view of Achaemenid prosperity in royal inscriptions. Garvie thinks that "Critics have sadly misinterpreted the dramatic function of Darius' final words" (p. 321). Like Broadhead, he rejects orientalist and comic interpretations; but he criticizes Broadhead's reading and interprets the lines as "a matter of intense pathos" (ibid.): the Persians no longer have wealth to enjoy, so "The great, successful, godlike king is ultimately no better off than Xerxes, and on this note he returns to the darkness of the underworld." (ibid.). For Garvie, the lines reduce differences between Dareios and Xerxes.

Narrowing the gap between Dareios and Xerxes is a central interpretative aim of this edition. One way Garvie achieves this aim is by reducing generational difference in Persia. Garvie writes that "The parodos combines admiration for the achievements of the wealthy Persians, in their conquests by land and sea, with anxiety in case they may have gone too far in fulfilling what seems to the Chorus to be their divinely appointed destiny" (xxviii; cf. pp. 48-49 , 81, 326). This formulation has one problem: there is no indication in 101-14 that victories by sea are part of Persia's θεόθεν...Μοῖρα.

Garvie (like Broadhead) explains refusals to transpose 93-100 to after 114 by what he considers the mistaken belief that the chorus is anxious about Persia's aggression on and toward the sea. But the transposition actually heightens contrasts between (1) tradition and innovation; (2) land and sea power--domination of poleis based on penetrating fortifications, fighting mass cavalry battles, and expelling populations, on the one side; gazing at the sea in the desire to enslave it and the people who live beyond it and trusting in "cables of fine strands and devices for moving people" to do so, on the other (113-14); (3) Persia's portion from the gods and até.

In addition, Garvie (like Broadhead) emphasizes that the tense of ἔμαθον is aorist rather than perfect (pp.48, 81, "'and they learned', not 'but now they have learned'") to support his reading that the chorus is not anxious about the Persians' turning their gaze to the sea but continuing its boast of invincibility--the Persians acquired this knowledge in the past and it is part of their heritage. Garvie would require the perfect μεμάθηκε for 101-14 to indicate a contrast between past and present. Yet the perfect of μανθάνω is unattested in extant tragedy (comedians use it). Rather, ἔμαθον in tragedy is perfect in force and can imply a "now" (e.g. [A.] PV 553-54; E. Hek. 702-07; Ba. 1345). The tense of the verb does not prevent the chorus from contrasting Persia's portion from the gods and its contemporary relationship to the sea. On the contrary, Xerxes' mode of invasion deviates from the θεόθεν...μοῖρα and the chorus senses this at the outset.

3. Hybris, Dareios, Xerxes

Garvie's minimization of difference between Dareios and Xerxes and between Persia's past and present are consequences of his suppression of hybris as an explanatory factor in the drama (xxii-xxxii). Tragedy, he argues, explores complex responsibility irreducible to a single message. As Aristotle understood it, tragedy does not dramatize the fall of a morally bad person from good to bad fortune. The view that hybris is always punished is empirically false (xxiii).

Garvie's use of the empirical observation that hybris is not punished as justification for reading it out of the play is especially contestable. Whatever else is true of human experience, Xerxes' failed invasion realized the pattern Dareios articulates in the drama: "hybris bears the fruit of atê, from which it reaps a harvest of tears" (821-22). That is why his story has exercised so fascinating a grip on the imagination. To pose the question, as Garvie does, "How could Xerxes know that as a human being he was not allowed to build a bridge?" (xxxii), exposes the difficulty of finding Xerxes as an example of moral ambiguity. The bridge is a symptom of Xerxes' failure to realize that he was human in the first place (cf. xxx where Garvie admits it is a "symbol for the hybris of the invasion itself"). Counter-factual questions, such as "If Xerxes had simply ferried his forces across the Aegean would the expedition have been successful?" (p. 295; cf. xxx) reinforce the futility of seeking moral ambiguity in the play. Xerxes' failure is the ground for the possibility of the Persians. The play reinforces the necessity of this failure at the human, divine, and cosmic levels. The drama is ambivalent about whether it is a Persian or a human story; but I have deep regard for Garvie's insistence that the play does not immunize its audience against the Persian tragedy (xxxii).

Garvie argues that the play problematizes the morality of suffering, leaving the audience to choose between an amoral explanation of Xerxes' and Persia's pathos (divine envy at Persia's olbos) and a moral view of it (the result of hybris, xxxi). Yet he confesses that "In the last resort it may not make much practical difference whether we favour the amoral or the moral interpretation" (xxxi-xxxii; cf. 314). Indeed, this distinction collapses more readily than that between Dareios and Xerxes. The amoral and moral versions correspond, not so much to competing concepts of human suffering, which is overdetermined in the Persians as in other tragedies, but to different perspectives within the drama: the chorus, the messenger, the Queen, and Xerxes on the one side, and Dareios and the audience of the play on the other.

Garvie challenges those who view the play "simply" as the punishment of hybris to explain why the word occurs only twice (808, 821; xxvii). Yet he thinks that the word phthonos, which appears only once, expresses an "idea [that] underlies the whole of the first half of the play" (p.186). This undermines protest about the infrequency of hybris. The negative dividend of Garvie's punctilious approach to hybris is most glaring in his claim that if hybris were important from the start of the play, the chorus should have said "I am afraid that we may have committed hybris" (xxix). There are three reasons why such a demand is misplaced. In its very speech and song (and probably dance) the chorus is instantiating hybris, stating that Phrygians " put the yoke of slavery on Hellas" (49-50), singing that the "the city-sacking army has crossed...putting a yoke on the neck of the sea..." (65-72), picturing Xerxes and his malignant gaze Typho-like on an Assyrian chariot (81-86), boasting about the invincibility of Persia's forces and its divine mandate to brutalize poleis (87-107), thereby performing the pattern of hybris, até, and lament as it segues to the latter two in succession (108-125). What hybristés asks whether his action is hybris? (for the Persians as hubristic, see Hdt. 1.89.2; cf. 3.80.2-4, 8.77.1-2). Second, while such a question may satisfy literalist demands for proof, it would make for wretched theater. And third, with the exception of Dareios, the Persians are blind to the concept of hybris in Aeschylus' play. It is the very basis for their socio-political organization and praxis.

Garvie reduces Dareios' standing in the drama by arguing that tragedians do not put the "moral" of their play in the mouth of a single character. If Dareios acts as "mouthpiece of A. himself" serving to "propound the moral that hybris is a bad thing, we leave too many questions unanswered about the way in which A. has constructed his tragedy" (p.315). Surely there is much to deconstruct in the play's depiction of father and son, but asserting that the Persians treats the difference between Dareios and Xerxes amorally voids the theatrical and dramatic effects of the necromancy and raises even more unanswered questions about the construction of the play. What other tragedy resurrects an idealized father-king-god in search of healing? What other tragic character is invested with as much authority as Dareios? Dareios does not so much state that hybris is a bad thing or become Aeschylus' mouthpiece as claim that hybris is a thing and locate it in the framework of the tragedy as the source of the destructive delusion that is the cause and object of lament. Hybris, até, and lament enable the coalescence of history, tragedy, moral and cosmic order that is the Persians' enduring fiction.

For a work of this size and complexity, the text is remarkably free of printing errors. I noticed errors only at p. 69 ("This will be a double tragedy of Xerxes and its king") and two misplaced accents on p.166.


1.   Other cases where Garvie reads with neither Page nor West include 282, 547 (athetizes αἴρω, 675, 860, 944-46.

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