BMCR 1997.08.13

1997.8.13, Hall, ed./trans., Aeschylus: Persians

, , Persians. Classical texts. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1996. vi, 201 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780856685965. $24.95.

H.’s edition of the Persians consists of an introduction, text, translation, commentary, metrical appendix, and bibliography, along with several illustrations. H.’s main argument is that the play offers a particular construct of Persia which is ultimately more revealing of Athens and Aeschylus than it is of Persia. H.’s approach is familiar from her earlier work, most notably Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford, 1989). Among the other areas of interest to H. are the political dimensions of the play, and its aural and visual impact. Taken as a whole, the work is eminently successful. It assembles the best of previous scholars’ work on the Persians, and makes significant contributions of its own to our understanding of the play. In addition to its scholarly virtues, H.’s volume is highly suitable for assignment in courses enrolling graduate students or advanced undergraduates. In what follows I survey in greater detail some of H.’s arguments, and present the few criticisms I have.

H. views the world represented in the Persians as a cultural construct. For her, the play is above all “a document of the collective Athenian imagination” (5), and reflects Athenian attempts at self-definition. The Athenians of the period tended to view themselves as essentially democratic, non-hierarchical, capable of self-restraint, and masculine; consequently their opponents emerge as tyrannical, decadent, luxurious, and effeminate. Indeed, one of H.’s primary accomplishments is to document the “feminisation” of the Persians throughout the play. For instance, the clothes that Xerxes wears, the way he tears them, and his shrill lamentations all gender him female. In commenting on the great dirge at the end of the play, H. states that “the male barbarians are portrayed as expressing their emotions through actions in which not even women were permitted to indulge at Athens in the fifth century” (169). According to H., the Persians“offers serial images of Asia as Woman” (13), and has been influential in anchoring the enduring myth of the Orient as decadent and effeminate.

H.’s analysis of the Persians as cultural construct is sophisticated. She grants that several aspects of Aeschylus’ portrayal are authentically Persian, but claims that one of the play’s challenges is the need to distinguish between Aeschylus’ “cultural translation of authentic Persian practices” and the “fantastic productions of his Athenian perspective” (7). H. uses archaeological evidence from Persepolis, Pasargadae, and Sousa, relief sculpture, and inscriptions (particularly from Behistun) as comparanda in her effort to draw these distinctions. Her conclusion is that some features, such as the chorus’ prostration and the emphasis on Xerxes’s bow, are most likely authentically Persian phenomena. Moreover, H. holds that portions of the play’s regal and military language, such as the expressions “king of kings” and “yoke of slavery”, are “clearly informed by Old Iranian forms of expression” (6). H. has less interest in using other Greek sources to control Aeschylus’ account. Instead, she generally cites the appropriate authorities (e.g., Broadhead, Hammond, Lattimore, Lazenby) and tries to avoid using the play as a “mine of evidence for historical ‘facts'” (5). The illustrations to the volume and the accompanying captions nicely emphasize H.’s approach. The first illustration depicts the ‘Dareios vase’ (Naples 3253) and is entitled “The Persians as fourth-century Greeks saw them”; the second, from an earlier amphora, shows a Greek hoplite wounding a Persian (New York 061021 117), and is entitled “The Persians as fifth-century Greek [sic] saw them”; the third, from a relief sculpture at Persepolis, depicts a seated ruler holding court, and is entitled “The Achaemenid Persians as they saw themselves” (29-30). H.’s main contribution is thus her attempt to delineate the culturally contingent aspects of Aeschylus’Persians.

H. is also interested in the political dimensions of the play, which she terms the “most overtly political of all extant Athenian tragedies” (11). With regard to the question of Athenocentrism, the work is “a nascent expression of the very tension between Panhellenic ideals and Athenian imperial ideology” (12). With regard to political rivalries at Athens, H. views the play as moderately pro-Themistoclean. But the play is most deeply political in its celebration of the Athenian polis. The focus on Salamis and absence of Greek proper names cast the citizen-rowers as the collective hero. For H., the play thus constitutes “a remarkable exercise in the erasure of the social distinctions which were still so important within the citizenry” (12). In addition, the play emphasizes important features of the Athenian democracy, such as “freedom of speech, lack of hierarchical protocol, accountability of magistrates, and protection of the individual under the laws” (13).

H. is acutely conscious of the fact that the Persians was composed to be performed rather than read. She considers the aural aspects of the play vital, and attempts to do them justice. For example, in her translation H. chooses to transliterate (rather than translate and/or simplify) the numerous and varied exclamations of woe. She eschews the conventional ‘alas’ and ‘alack’ “in order to preserve something of the effect of estrangement they [the cries] were intended to create” (23). H. is likewise alert to the visual impact of the play. Following Taplin, she notes the striking differences between Atossa’s “mirror” entrances, and further contrasts the unwarlike “curtained car” in which Xerxes arrives with the customary Assyrian war-chariot. Moreover, H. demonstrates that much of the play’s most significant imagery is eventually made visible. The yoke of servitude, Xerxes’ yoking of the Hellespont, and the broken yoke dreamt of by his mother all find substance in the vehicles used for stage arrivals. Likewise, the bow characterizes Persia: it is opposed to the Greek spear, the Persian force includes numerous bowmen, and Dareios is described as “lord of the bow.” Yet when Xerxes arrives on stage, he does so with empty quiver; not only is he out of arrows, he has even lost the weapon itself. Similarly, the play swims with language connected with ship and sea. And “at the climax of the great concluding dirge, Xerxes orders the chorus to ‘row’ with their arms (1046), a threnodic dance movement bizarrely mimicking the movements of the sailors in the doomed ships at Salamis” (21). H. focuses on dramatic action as well as imagery; Xerxes’ rending of his clothes and Dareios’ pitying his son are central to her analysis of the play.

H.’s work is also valuable for its ability to serve as an introduction to tragedy as a genre. Beginners will find important scholarly debates presented in a succinct and thoughtful manner. For instance, at one point in the introduction, H. surveys Aristotle’s description of tragedy in the Poetics, and proceeds with a brief history of scholarly attempts to locate the ‘tragic’ element of the Persians (16-19). Likewise, in the commentary H. tackles the complex question of early theater arrangements and stage properties (118-19). H.’s frequent references to meter and the attached metrical appendix (which scans all of the play’s sung lines) will help students appreciate this oft-neglected aspect of drama. The text H. prints is her own. She acknowledges a particular debt to West and Page, and offers no new emendations. Her apparatus criticus does not aim to be comprehensive; instead, it seeks to flag those places where “the text is uncertain enough to raise significant doubts about its factual, aesthetic, or ideological import.” (27) H.’s translation is clear and vigorous, striking a good compromise between fidelity and readability.

The volume also has much to offer experienced scholars. In addition to the broad foci outlined above, H.’s work contains a wealth of interesting detail. Even those well acquainted with the Persians will find aliquid novi here. Few scholars can match H.’s breadth: her treatment ranges from the performance history of the play within this century to the particulars of Zoroastrianism. The volume concludes with an extensive, slightly annotated bibliography.

I have only two real criticims of the volume. The first is methodological in nature. Even though her treatment of the play as cultural construct is sophisticated, it could arguably use even more nuancing. H.’s basic premise is that Athenian attempts at self-definition led Aeschylus to cast the Persians as “other”. What then are we to make of moments in the play when the Persians appear more ‘Greek’ than ‘Persian’? At line 187, for instance, Atossa recounts her dream of the two sisters, Asia and Hellas, and discusses the land allotted to each of them. Here the queen seems to adopt a Greek frame of reference, referring to the land possessed by Asia as barbaros. H. notes the incongruity, and claims that “the Queen sounds unusually Greek” here. (124) But H. does not go further and examine why Aeschylus has Atossa talk this way. In commenting on a similar instance elsewhere (the chorus’ description of their speech as barbara bagmata, lines 635-36), H. notes that “the Greek audience could apparently tolerate stage foreigners, who by convention spoke Greek, describing their own language as ‘barbarian’.” (153) H. is undoubtedly correct here, and most audiences probably gave the matter little thought. But what are the implications for her thesis if Aeschylus encodes the Persians as “other” at one moment and (at least partially) as “self” (i.e., Greek) the next? The examples above are perhaps trivial. But a related instance is less so. At lines 218-19 the chorus, having heard the queen’s dream, advise her to pray to the gods to accomplish good things for herself and her children and the polis and all her friends ( soi te kai teknois sethen/ kai polei filois te pasi). It is striking that the chorus here refer to Sousa/Persia/Asia as a polis. It is also harder to believe that the reference here is unwitting or conventional. Just six lines earlier, Atossa has sketched one of the main differences between the Persians and the Greeks: even in defeat Xerxes is not accountable to a polis ( ouch hupeuthunos polei, 213). Here the silence of H.’s translation emphasizes the difficulty she faces. Her rendering of lines 218-19 runs in part thus: “supplicate the gods to grant blessings on yourself and your children and all your friends” (51). What has happened to the term polei ? The commentary neither notes nor explains the omission. One could go on and examine the messenger’s reference to ‘holy’ Strymon (497), and the chorus’ references to ‘king Zeus’ (533) and to Dareios’ “citizens” ( politais, 556). (With regard to the last instance, H. provides Herodotean parallels for the usage, but to my mind does not satisfactorily explain it.) H. has shown convincingly that much of the play’s portrait of the Persians comes from Aeschlylus’ inscription of them as “other”. H. also allows that there are authentically “Achaemenid” aspects of the depiction. Yet by the same token, is there not a third component to the portrait, whereby Aeschylus, wittingly or not, encodes the great enemy not so much “other” as “self”? If this is so, where do the differences between Persian and Greek give way to similarities? And what are the implications for our reading of the play? It seems incumbent on H. to address systematically instances where the Persians appear to operate within ‘Greek’ frames of reference.

My second criticism is connected with the compact nature of the volume. Although H. does an admirable job of covering a tremendous number of topics in just over one hundred pages (introduction plus commentary), there are places where she is too concise, especially for undergraduates. Those without several years of Greek under their belts may need to look elsewhere for additional grammatical help. And those without a thorough grounding in Greek history could easily be misled by a few of H.’s remarks. At line 586, for instance, the chorus bewail the fact that the inhabitants of Asia will no longer pay tribute ( dasmoforeo) to the king. In her commentary, H. notes that “dasmos is particularly associated in Greek sources with the taking of tribute by Persia Under the democracy at Athens taxes were payable to the state, not to any individual” (149). While H. is of course correct here, she makes no differentiation between liturgies and eisfora, and beginning students might well conclude that fifth-century Athenians were generally taxed in a manner similar to today’s citizens of the industrial democracies. A similar potential for misunderstanding exists in H.’s discussion of lines 809-10, where Dareios prophesies the impending Persian defeat at Plataea. In discussing the way in which Persians set fire to Greek temples, H. says that “Lycurgus ( In Leocr. 81) and Diodorus (11.29.3) say that the Greeks swore an oath before the battle of Plataea not to rebuild the monuments the Persians burned down, but to leave them in their ruined state Pollitt (1972, 65-6) connects this oath with the scanty evidence for building activity in Athens between 479 and the eventual peace with Persia in 450 BC” (164). H.’s remarks leave the impression that the events referred to are uncontroversial. Yet to my mind the scholarly debates surrounding the historicity of the oath of Plataea and the historicity of the Peace of Callias are too important to be passed over in silence. In general, however, the places where H.’s concision hinders rather than helps are extremely few.

The small imperfections noted above should not detract from H.’s overall achievement; the publication of this volume is most welcome. H. combines solid scholarly contributions with a spirited defense of the Persians as theater, and does so in a volume that is both affordable and generally student-friendly. Her erudition and obvious enthusiasm for this under-appreciated drama may go a long way towards making it intelligible and even enjoyable for a new generation of students.