BMCR 2001.04.09

The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus’ Persians and the History of the Fifth Century

, The emptiness of Asia : Aeschylus' Persians and the history of the fifth century. London: Duckworth, 2000. 191 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715629689. £40.00.

Thomas Harrison sets out to provide a reading of Aeschylus’ Persae that analyses the reciprocal relationship of literature and history as manifested in the play, thereby attempting to reconcile the exclusively literary or historical approaches to the tragedy adopted by the majority of scholars. Whilst in the past many have attempted to utilise the Persae as an accurate record of ‘what actually happened’ at Salamis, often comparing it with Herodotus’ account of the battle, at the opposite end of the spectrum the tragedy has been seen from an aesthetic point of view as a purely literary construct, without any consideration of the circumstances in which it was written and produced. Harrison’s approach is one that analyses the play not for its value as documentation of the sequence of events, nor as an isolated artistic production uncoloured by external factors, but as a product of the culture and mindset of those for whom it was performed, and thus as evidence for the ideologies current in Athens in 472 BC. In this, he seeks to show the play as more sophisticated than it has so far been seen to be.

After an introductory chapter which clearly summarises the play and sets out some of the difficulties which he sees as inherent in earlier critical approaches, Harrison divides his work into three main sections. The first of these, ‘Framing the Play’, broadly speaking, explores the ‘historical’ value of the play, examining to begin with the question of whether ‘historical tragedy’ such as this can be viewed as an accurate record of historical facts in the light of its dramatic intentions and its patriotic stance, which will inevitably result in some distortion of reality (Ch. 1). He then goes on to look at the much-debated issue of whether Aeschylus was expressing any political bias (in favour of Themistocles over Cimon, for example) through the medium of his work, warning that such an approach can be too simple and concluding sensibly that we cannot prejudge the playwright’s political stance (Ch. 2); this of course sits well with his resistance to the view of the play as evidence for historical events. Finally in this section he moves into a discussion of the Persae as a reflection of the ‘ideological assumptions’ (P.40) of author and audience, suggesting that this is where its greatest historical value lies. Here he also gives an indication of the way in which he will use both Herodotus and Thucydides to enhance his interpretation of Aeschylus (Ch. 3).

The book’s central section, ‘Finding Athens’, is structured around the Queen’s questioning of the Chorus concerning the whereabouts and characteristics of Athens (Persae 230-245) and examines the ideological concepts prevalent in Athens at this time as mirrored by the tragedy. The common link between the chapters in this section is their examination of Greek perceptions of issues drawn to their attention by the war. Harrison rightly takes the line that the play is not, for example, a reflection of what really went on at the Persian court; rather, it reflects how the Greeks envisaged such situations. The play’s portrayal of events from a Persian point of view, Harrison argues, allows the playwright to contrast Greeks and Persians, and to explore some of the perceived reasons for the Greek victory (Ch. 4). The Queen’s interrogation of the Chorus is broken down into four sections, and each is examined in turn. First, her ignorance of the whereabouts of Athens is set alongside Herodotus’ use of such questions concerning the locations of Greek states, as asked by Persians. He links this with what he sees as the delusion that they were the Persians’ primary preoccupation in ‘foreign policy’; such Persian curiosity was thus seen as natural by the Greeks (Ch. 5). We are then presented with an examination of the claim that they secured the salvation of Greece along with their use of this role in defeating Persia as a justification for their empire and the debate throughout Greece, as seen particularly in the work of Thucydides, concerning which city was primarily responsible for the victory over Persia (Ch. 6). There follows a chapter (Ch. 7) on the perceived Persian obsession with numbers and the supposed contrast between the Greek force, small in numbers but nonetheless triumphant, and the Persian army whose very size serves to conspire against it and only compounds the total destruction suffered by Xerxes. The final chapter in this section (Ch. 8) examines the contrast between Athenian democracy and Persian tyranny as seen in the play; here Harrison looks at the Greek view of the Persian government as unhealthily influenced by women and exercised by unaccountable kings who are viewed as divine and whose power suppresses any initiative on the part of their so-called advisors. By comparison, the Athenians are without a ‘shepherd’ or ‘sole commander’ ( Persae 241) and because of this are able to destroy the army of the Persians.

In the light of his preoccupation with the perceived contrast of Greeks and Persians, it is disappointing that in this section Harrison does not explore in full the sequence of the Queen’s questions. Although he quotes the passage in full (56) he fails to provide a detailed examination of two of the questions which clarify further this contrast. First of these is the question concerning the Athenians’ wealth ( Persae 237); the Queen receives here the reply that the Athenians have ‘a spring of silver, a treasury in the earth’. The fact that the Athenians’ wealth manifests itself as silver and not gold, which is symbolic of Persian luxury, is surely relevant here; it is also worth noting that the Athenians’ wealth does not take the form of personal finery or palaces but is from the very earth itself, and had recently been used to fund the fleet, a communal project to benefit the whole state. Secondly, the Queen asks whether the Greeks fight with bows and arrows ( Persae 239); again the contrast between the hoplite weaponry of spear and shield and the Persian light armoury, as seen throughout the play, is telling, being symbolic of Persian effeminacy. The fact that this is mentioned here, in a play concerned with a sea battle rather than one on land, is surely indicative of how crucial this was as a means of articulating the Greek/barbarian antithesis.

Harrison’s third and final section, ‘Conclusions’, re-examines some of the themes introduced in the first part; here he asks once again whether a political stance can be detected in the play. First he reconsiders the question of Aeschylus’ support for Themistocles, this time as opposed to his enemy Aristides (Ch. 9). It is worth pointing out here, however, that the ‘enmity’ of Themistocles and Aristides is far from clear cut. Harrison notes the story (Pp. 97-98) that they agreed before Salamis to ensure that their rivalry worked for the good of Athens, but there is also evidence to suggest that after the Persian Wars they were no longer in opposition.1 If we accept this, a reading of the Persae as supportive of only one of the two men becomes difficult to sustain. Harrison does assert, however, that not only are such questions incapable of proof, but should be subordinated to the more important questions concerning the Persae as a ‘snapshot in the development of Athenian democratic discourse’ (98), a reflection of the ideological contrast between democratic Athens and despotic Persia.2 At the same time, however, he suggests, the play reveals an awareness of tensions within this ideology and the complex political and social issues currently at the forefront, for example concerning the respective roles of land and sea forces or the part played by Sparta in the victory. Such complexity is heightened further when Harrison comes to consider the question of sympathy for Persia as seen in the play (Ch. 10). He asks, as have many critics before him, whether sympathy can be reconciled with the play’s ‘patriotic’ elements. He suggests that the distinction between virtuous Athens and impious Persia is more clear-cut in the Persae than in later fifth-century texts, where the Persian defeat comes to be used as a warning to Athens against excessive imperial expansion. He concludes that, although many critics have found the suggestion distasteful, the Persae is in fact a highly patriotic, even chauvinistic, play, whose Persian focus is not intended to invoke sympathy for the plight of the defeated but to point up the contrast between Athenian virtues and Persian vices.

Harrison does not, of course, view the Persae in isolation from other Greek literature concerning the same subject. Most importantly, he frequently reads it alongside Herodotus’ account of the Persian Wars, not looking for parallels or differences where historical detail is concerned but instead using the historian’s work as a point of comparison for the Greek perception of Persia and the victory at Salamis. Such a juxtaposition of the two texts is not in itself original but proves particularly enlightening in the book’s central section where Herodotus’ history complements Aeschylus’ drama to enhance the picture of Greek attitudes towards Persia. Harrison also looks to Thucydides’ work and touches upon the theme of the Persian Wars as seen through his eyes, considering in particular the idea that Thucydides’ account of the Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 BC is influenced by stories of the Persian defeat at Salamis. Aristophanes too is adduced as a source of evidence for the influence of the Persian Wars upon Athenian thoughts on Persia. These texts were all, however, written significantly later than the Persae, and one source which is curiously neglected by Harrison here, and given only cursory mention, is Simonides. Composed soon after the events concerned, and therefore roughly contemporary with Aeschylus, his Persian Wars epigrams and poems relating to the great battles are surely highly relevant to any analysis of Greek reactions to the defeat of Persia in this period.

Throughout his analysis, Harrison seeks also to consider the readings of the Persae produced by those critics who have gone before him; one of the merits of this book is that it presents a lucid and detailed overview of the major trends in twentieth-century scholarship relating to the play. Each chapter draws on, and often challenges, the work of the major scholars relevant to Harrison’s enquiry, and the index lists references to modern critics for ease of use. It is worth pointing out, however, that where the text of Aeschylus is quoted this is always in translation; Harrison never cites the original Greek, instead only occasionally transliterating a few words, which can be frustrating. This is particularly noticeable in passages where terminology with political implications is used. If, for example, we are considering the Queen’s question, ‘Who is shepherd over them and is sole commander of the army?’ (76, Persae 241), it would be useful to know the exact terminology used. An examination of the original text reveals that the word translated as ‘is sole commander’ is ἐπιδεσπόζει, which can have a range of connotations regarding the rule of one man over others, including the notion of slavery which is crucial to the Greek concept of Persia. An index of passages cited would also have been invaluable for reference purposes.

This is a reading which tackles a wide range of issues and themes to reveal the Persae as a complex work which is as multi-faceted as the society in which it was first performed. Harrison, by asking questions of his material which he suggests often resist straightforward answers, demonstrates that those who have sought in the past to produce a simple interpretation of ‘what Aeschylus (or his audience) thought’, have failed to perceive the subtleties inherent in the work and reflecting Athenian thought soon after the Persian Wars. Alongside this presentation of the play as a subtle blend of sometimes conflicting ideologies, however, his conclusion concerning the stark patriotism which he perceives as central to the play stands out boldly. By challenging our preconceived ideas concerning the nature and definition of tragedy, Harrison produces a thought-provoking reading from a new perspective. As an examination of the ideological contrast between Athens and Persia, and the perceived superiority of the Greeks as reflected by this one play, his analysis is both detailed and complex, but without sacrificing clarity of expression. By devoting a whole book to this one particular tragedy, with some help from other ancient authors as well as maximising his use of critical scholarship, Harrison presents us with a picture of the Persae as a microcosm of Athenian views of Persia in 472 BC.


1. See P.J. Rhodes in CAH V2, 64.

2. Although the idea of a clear-cut distinction between democracy and tyranny has often seemed attractive to historians, and particularly for discussions such as Harrison’s, the lines are often very blurred. P.J. Rhodes has kindly permitted me to consult a section of a forthcoming work in which he argues, contra Harrison, that the distinction we ought to seek is not between democracy and despotism but rather, more generally, between the institutions of the polis, not necessarily democratic, and Persian despotism. For this view of drama and democratic Athens see also L.J. Samons, II, Arion Third Series 8.3 (2000/1), 128-157, esp. 138-140.