BMCR 2007.11.24

Aeschylus: Persians. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy

, Aeschylus: Persians. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2006. 224 pages : maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780715632864 $22.00 (pb).

Aeschylus: Persians by David Rosenbloom (R.) is one of the latest contributions to the Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy series. The series’ aim is to provide accessible introductions to ancient tragedies which discuss the main themes, trends in modern criticism, historical context and performance and adaptation history of a single play. R., author of a number of articles on tragedy in context, is ideally suited to show the historical implications of staging suffering Persians. R. discusses important themes throughout this book, but his decision to break up his discussions over a strict sequential reading of the play was unfortunate because it weakens his excellent treatment of this play by fragmenting his ideas. A diligent reader armed with the appendix will be able to reconstruct these ideas, but I felt that a thematic organization, or at least a treatment less akin to a commentary, would have served his purpose better.

The book is divided into seven chapters. Chapter 1, “The Persians, History, and Historical Drama” provides necessary background information on early tragedy, performance and precursors to Persians and Persian Wars history. In Chapters 2-6 R. interprets the play in sequence. Chapter 2, “Fear,” is an almost line by line reading of the parodos and Queen’s entrance (1-248). Chapter 3, “Pathos,” similarly treats the messenger’s entrance and the Queen’s re-emergence from the palace (249-597). Chapter 4, “A Tragedy of Succession,” looks closely at the raising of Darius’ ghost and the first part of his exchange with the Queen and chorus (598-748) while Chapter 5 (“The Synoptic Moment”) continues with Darius’ prophecy and ends with Xerxes’ appearance on stage (749-930). Chapter 6, “A Harvest of Tears,” focuses on the kommos and exodos. Chapter 7, “Interpreting and Reinterpreting Persians,” is divided into a section on major scholarly debates about the play and one on important adaptations and revivals. Following this are notes, a good bibliography, a guide for further readings, a chronology of historical and literary developments related to the play and a glossary of technical and Greek terms

Chapter 1 is essential reading for anyone about to tackle the play for the first time and is essential background as well for R.’s interpretation. In addition to providing historical and cultural context— important for a play about a real event — perhaps more importantly, the chapter introduces the key to R.’s interpretation of the play: that the play is “a negative example for the nascent Athenian empire” (38). R. reads against a common interpretation of Persians as a praise of Athenian triumph and instead suggests it is an anti-imperialist tract. My only hesitation about the chapter is that it makes a historical argument instead of providing an overview. R.’s historical context is actually a re-visioning of early fifth-century history (though a re-visioning I largely agree with), which is not necessarily the standard view of the development of the Athenian empire. His view of this development rests quite a bit on his interpretation of this play. Thus, the historical context is in part reconstructed through the play which the context is supposed to help illuminate — it is a circular argument. An overview more inclusive and then critical of other re-constructions of the period and the earliest phase of the empire might be better for a readership with only rudimentary of the fifth-century history. As it stands, he presents his re-visioning as if it were the orthodox view.

In the next five chapters, R. demonstrates how, in his estimation, Persians serves as a cautionary tale of imperial hubris. R. follows a strict sequence in his interpretation of Persians and at times, the companion reads more like a narrative commentary. While each chapter is given a title that suggests a theme, the titles are a bit deceptive. Instead of using distinctive sections of the play in sequence to present major themes, R. does a line by line reading of the play, moving back and forth between discussions of meter, themes, history and important imagery as if writing in a stream of consciousness. This is notable in Chapters 2 and 3, which sometimes get bogged down in various details. But even in Chapters 4-6, where R. starts to really hit his stride and writes more thematically and where evidence for his interpretation of the play abounds, the strictures of the sequential reading still linger. Here the move back and forth between various modes of interpretation and themes makes it difficult to follow R.’s arguments.

For example, one of the strongest threads of R.’s interpretation is how the hubris-atê -lament cycle functions as a fundamental aspect of imperialism. He sums up his argument in Chapter 2 in a section titled “Hubris, ate, lament,” after having just introduced the terms in a detailed look at the parodos. He suggests that the parodos follows the structure of hubris-atê -lament and that this reflects the structure of the tragedy as a whole; it is this cycle, he says, that establishes and reflects a “reversal of fortune of Persia’s imperialism” (46). He then turns to a discussion of the ambiguities of the word stegos and its significance for staging the play. We do not return again to the important theme of hubris-ate-lament for nearly sixty pages.

In fact, the main interpretive line of R.’s book, that it presents a caution for Athenians and their own imperialism, is not forcefully or clearly made because it is often interspersed with discussion like that of stegos or kennings. Important aspects of the main argument, like the relationship between olbos, hubris and imperialism is mentioned at various points in earlier chapters but isn’t tied together until Chapters 5 and 6. The argument involving olbos would be much more powerful if it were built up more clearly in a thematic unit instead of spread out and fragmented. The same may be said of the imperialism theme as a whole. One of the passages that helps R.’s interpretation most is the list of islands/ poleis at 852-906. It should be R.’s trump card, the culmination of a strong argument that Persians really is warning the Athenians against imperial hubris. Instead, it becomes just another passage explicated in the sequential march through the play.

The study of Aeschylean meter in Persians is another victim of the commentary style of R.s book. R. makes some wonderful comments about how the meter is varied to represent different themes within the play. When discussing the parodos, R. introduces the idea that specific meters will link to specific recurring themes within the play. The Ionic a minore metre he calls “the cadence of the Persian voice” and says that the meter embodies the hubris and atê of Persia (42). In a discussion of the chorus’ hymn before Darius emerges on stage, R. reminds us of the use of the Ionic a minore as the meter of hubris and atê (87). Here, however, he suggests that it changes to lament. Thus the meter and its re-emergence in the play at key moments helps strengthen the underlying hubris-atê -lament cycle that he argues structures the play. But again, this discussion is fragmented and interspersed with other discussions and so the importance of the meter for expressing theme is obscured.

What also obscures this insightful discussion of Aeschylean meter is the use of undefined technical terms. Each of the metrical terms R. uses is defined in the glossary in the back but not within the course of the discussion as one would expect in an introductory book like this. An example (to keep with the Ionic a minore): “The hymn is rhythmically varied, but the first line, containing four Ionic metra, establishes its cadence, which grows increasingly Ionic before concluding with an iambic and dactylic epode” (86-7). While this might be clear to someone familiar with tragic meter, to the student reading the play in translation and not in Greek, it makes little sense and carries little significance. Since meter is an important part of R.’s discussion and since it is a significant part of Aeschylus’ art, it deserves a proper treatment, perhaps its own chapter where the terminology is clearly defined and the significance of the various meters is discussed in a cohesive manner instead of spread out and mentioned at various moments in the course of other discussions.

As R. moves along in the play, he gets stronger, and Chapters 5-6 are filled with exciting and provocative arguments, especially pertaining to his main theme of imperialism. It is at the end of Chapter 6, in fact, where he makes his boldest case. One problem, however, is that his proof for this case is scattered over 130 pages, lost among discussions of meter and clothing and agriculture and lists of names, instead of being built up in a clear and ordered fashion. Those familiar with the play know, in a sense, how he will make his point since, as resistant as scholars have been to the notion of this play as anything but patriotic, the anti-imperialism is there. But arguing at this point that this is the right interpretation because it is “appropriate” to follow Odysseus’ example in Sophocles’ Ajax here and because Iliad 24 tells the audience how to respond to an enemy’s defeat is not sufficient. Had he done a more obviously thematic reading of the play and ordered his chapters to show how each element builds upon the others to show the negative/cautionary side of the Athenian victory, I think it would have been much more believable and powerful when we finally get to the kommos.

I really enjoyed Chapter 7, in part because it is the most focused of all the chapters. It is divided into two halves, the first dealing with scholarly interpretations, the second with adaptations and revivals. The section on the scholarly consensus is strong, and R. makes his arguments here as to why his reading of the play is preferable to those of previous scholars. It would have made his own arguments stronger, I think, had he addressed these issues within the course of his analysis but, again, the commentary-style of his analysis makes this difficult. Also, the section ends abruptly, is followed by a ‘star’ symbol, and then begins anew with a new introduction and the section on revivals and adaptations. No attempt was made to integrate these as a single chapter and it is a bit awkward. The discussion of adaptation and revivals, though, I found very interesting since it shows much more clearly how posterity has viewed the Persians, and this is definitely in keeping with R’s thesis. It would have been better had he woven or linked the two sections together instead of treating them as two unconnected entities. Alternatively, perhaps these should have been two separate chapters.

In the end, the strict sequential reading of the play, because it follows the form of a commentary more than a companion, is the main weakness of the book. The goal of the series is to offer accessible companions to individual plays. R.’s reading is thorough, intriguing and at times provocative, but the structure he chose may alienate the intended audience. The attention to every detail in the order it arises may seem to them tedious. I enjoyed reading the book and I think R. gives a well-deserved treatment to a play too often ignored. But such a strict focus on individual words and lines in the sequential reading sometimes obscures the beauty of Aeschylus’ structure and the overall composition of the play instead of illuminating it.

I would like to be able to recommend this book to those with no background in Greek or Classics as intended by the series editors. However, it would be better used by advanced students and even faculty who may find themselves teaching the play for the first time. It is a thought-provoking interpretation but lacks the necessary reader-friendly structure of an introduction.

I found no major errors, typographical or otherwise.