Character and Motivation in Aeschylus' Persae

Haywood, Jan (2016). Character and Motivation in Aeschylus' Persae. Syllecta Classica, 27 pp. 29–63.



One of the most controversial aspects of Aeschylus' historical tragedy is its presentation of the Persian 'other'. Produced in 472 BCE, less than a decade after the Greeks' victory in the Persian Wars, the text has been read variously as a sympathetic portrait of the Persians who were defeated at Salamis, or as a robust defence of Greek ideals, showing little concern for the enfeebled Persians. This paper sheds further light on Aeschylus' complex presentation of his Persian protagonists, dividing the analysis into three parts. The first section situates Persae within a diverse suite of cultural responses to Persia shortly after the Persian Wars, and analyses the social-political backdrop of the play. The second section investigates the playwright's inclusion of an elaborate causal framework within the drama, demonstrating the various reasons that are cited by the different Persian characters in order to explain the Greeks' victory and the Persians' defeat. In the final section, the focus shifts to the chief protagonist of the drama, the Persian queen-mother, exploring the Queen's potent yet inconsistent understanding of and reaction to Xerxes' failed invasion. From this emerges a more nuanced understanding of Aeschylus' complex presentation of Persian character and motivation in Persae—a text that in certain ways pre-empts Herodotus' multi-layered account of the Persian Wars. For Aeschylus ultimately encourages his audience to understand the difficulties of unearthing historical causation, and to avoid a monolithic aetiology of the Persians' defeat.

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