Persia 28: The "Persians" of Aeschylus

The play Persae ("Persians") was written by Athenian nobleman, poet, and ostensible freedom-fighter Aeschylus (yes-kill-us), yet cleverly from a distinctly Persian perspective. It invited Greeks to variously exult or commiserate with the Persian misfortune, depending upon whether one was a Patriot or a Tory. It was also a subtle message from Persia, and along the lines of, “beware them that stand, lest they fall” (Cf I Cor. 10:12). Three other plays by Aeschylus (“Phineus”, “Glaucus”, and “Prometheus the Fire-lighter”, all now lost) were performed at the same Dionysia Festival of 472 BC with the “Persians” as a set, and likely also intimated the dangers of rebelling against and robbing a higher authority.

Many of the elite citizens of Athens were distressed by the burgeoning democratic movement in Athens, and wanted to restore a closer (less openly adversarial) relationship with the Crown, as well as their own standing. Aeschylus would plead that case even more powerfully in his Oresteian plays of 457 BC, which were written just after the extreme democratic reforms of Ephialtes had passed and all but abolished traditional aristocratic control. (The Oresteia of Aeschylus will be discussed in the next installment of the Persia series.)

The Greek invasion had in fact not been an ignominious failure for Xerxes, but a complete success, which makes his depiction in the “Persians” a parody, if not a complete farce (to those in the know). Xerxes had no reason whatsoever to mourn, at least sincerely, the numerous dead Persian magnates, who were called “princely men” by Aeschylus. On the contrary, Xerxes would have celebrated the everlasting glory he had won for himself under his Spartan kingly identity of Leonidas. He had also fully secured the Great Throne against many strong rivals. Three years after the “Persians” was performed (472 BC), Xerxes was firmly back in control of Sparta as well, and under a lofty new pseudonym, Archidemos, “Ruler of the People”.

Athens was badly damaged by the Persian attack, and in avengement of the treachery of Miltiades at Marathon. It had at least been spared the indignity of direct Persian rule and occupation, and as a reward for the more recent cooperation Persian received from Themistocles. Ancient Athens would however never gain its independence from the royal family. After the Greek cover of Themistocles had been blown at Salamis, it was Xanthippus/Pericles who took charge in Athens (upon the so-called Persian defeat and withdrawal of Xerxes from Greece). Tellingly, eight years later Pericles was continuing to manipulate Athens as the duly appointed producer (choragos) of Aeschylus’ play the “Persians”! In the play, Xerxes’ cousin Pericles (a.k.a. Artaphernes II son of Artaphernes/Cyrus the Great) is placed among the great “Captains of Valor” that commanded the massive forces under Xerxes. He remained more-or-less in the service of Xerxes after the war, and would marry the leading daughter of Xerxes.

The family of Pericles had itself earlier been accused in Athens of being Persian sympathizers (and rightly so), and Pericles/Xanthippus II suffered ostracism in 485/484 BC. He was however recalled to help “defend” Athens prior to the Persian invasion of 480 BC. His double-dealing in the war was evidently not sufficiently exposed to cause a second exile, although further precautionary measures may have been taken to keep his true royal identity concealed to commoners.

Such measures included patronizing anti-Persian drama (with pro-Persian undercurrents). In the “Persians” there is also an attempt to rehabilitate Themistocles, who is depicted as deceiving (rather than collaborating with) Xerxes during the Persian invasion. This bit of propaganda did not remove him from suspicion in Athens and Themistocles was ostracized sometime after the play was performed.

Note: The change in emphasis from the name Xanthippus to that of Pericles may have had more to do with cultivating his Joseph typecasting than distancing himself from a former ostracism. The name Pericles was apparently in use by the Battle of Salamis, and it is not clear when the name Xanthippus fell out of use. The name Pericles, “Far-Famed”/“Glory of Joseph”, will be analyzed in a later installment.)

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