Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 46.

David Rosenbloom, Aeschylus: Persians. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2006. Pp. 224. ISBN 0-7156-3286-8. UK£11.99/US$22.

Michael Lloyd,
School of Classics, University College, Dublin.

This book on Aeschylus’ Persians is another in the Duckworth series of Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy, to which the present reviewer contributed the volume on Sophocles’ Electra. The stated aim of the series is to provide ‘accessible introductions to ancient tragedies’ (back cover).

Chapter 1, ‘The Persians, History, and Historical Drama’ (pp. 11-38), sketches the historical background, with some remarks on Phrynichus and Simonides. The next five chapters offer a running commentary on the play: Chapter 2, ‘Fear’ (pp. 39-61, lines 1-248); Chapter 3, ‘Pathos’ (pp. 62-82, lines 249-597), Chapter 4, ‘A Tragedy of Succession’ (pp. 83-103, lines 598-786), Chapter 5, ‘The Synoptic Moment’ (pp. 104-121, lines 787-907), Chapter 6, ‘A Harvest of Tears’ (pp. 122-138, lines 908-1077). Finally, Chapter 7, ‘Interpreting and Reinterpreting the Persians’ (pp. 139-64), offers a brief account of other scholarly interpretations of the play and some discussion of its influence on later literature, especially Timotheus’ Persians. There are twenty-three pages of notes, a seventeen-page bibliography, a brief guide to further reading, a chronology, a glossary, and an index. At 224 pages, the book is considerably longer than what seems to be the norm for the series of 160-170 pages.

Rosenbloom’s thesis is that the play ‘dramatizes a fictionalized fall of the Persian empire to demonstrate how empire collapses through overextension and to avert such an outcome for Athens’ imperialism’ (p. 97). He recognizes that the play ‘is today enshrined in the anti-war and anti-imperialist discourse of western culture’ (p. 163), and the contemporary relevance of this approach is suggested by the presence in his chronology of the item, ‘2003- : Second Gulf War’ (p. 214).

Rosenbloom’s thesis depends on the existence in 472 of an Athenian empire which could have been perceived by Aeschylus and his audience as resembling the Persian empire. This is clearly a highly unorthodox view, given that the transition from Delian League to Athenian Empire is usually dated to the 450s. There are of course scholars who stress the more tyrannical aspects of Athens’ behaviour even in the 470s, but it is a long way even from the more extreme of these to the view that the Athenians would have seen anything of themselves in the Persians in 472. Rosenbloom dismisses Thucydides’ account (1.97; 3.10 etc.) of the league’s democratic assemblies as ‘myth-making’: ‘There is no independent evidence for such assemblies and they are inherently unlikely. Even if they did exist, they did not prevent Athens from dominating the “Delian League” in its own interests’ (p. 32). It might have been more useful to point out that Thucydides’ account of this period is expressly teleological (for example, 1.89.1; 1.97.2), and thus more likely to highlight evidence of growing Athenian power than to suppress it.

Rosenbloom believes that empire is inherently expansionist, and that the heirs of an empire are inevitably led into ‘calamitous overextension of their power and resources in an act of invasion intended to emulate the greatness of the fathers and to increase their legacy’ (p. 95). Herodotus certainly presents Xerxes’ invasion of Greece as the logical continuation of a tradition of Persian expansionism of which Darius was very much a part, but it seems a fatal objection to Rosenbloom’s argument that Aeschylus makes such a sharp distinction between father and son. The Persian empire may not be eternal (lines 739-41), but Darius had believed that it was destined for many more years of prosperity in addition to the succession of kings which he lists (lines 765-81). The premature disaster was due entirely to Xerxes’ avoidable errors. In the unlikely event that the Athenians drew a lesson from Persians for their own empire, it need not have been (as Rosenbloom suggests, pp. 94-96) that empire is inevitably disastrous. He argues both that Darius is as guilty as Xerxes (p. 102) and that he is ‘a transcendent paternal figure’ (p. 147) whose condemnation of imperialistic hybris should be heeded by the Athenians (pp. 146f.). An objection to this is that Darius’ authority rests on his career as a successful imperialist. In general, more thought could have been given here to the nature of the political message which should be expected from a tragedy. It would be more legitimate to say that Persians expresses truths about the world which are relevant to the Athenians (and to everyone else), than that it is directly addressed to specific features of Athenian foreign policy.

The book contains many speculative and unsupported statements. For example, having observed that the Queen’s entry (line 155) interrupts the Chorus’s deliberations, Rosenbloom states: ‘The mistiming of the play’s staging is symptomatic of Persia’s misfortune. The Persians are unable to act at the right time or in the right measure’ (p. 49; cf. p. 77). This would, if true, be a remarkable use of stagecraft, but he offers no reason to believe that it has any such significance. He alleges that the trochaic tetrameters of the Queen’s first speech (lines 159-72) ‘indicate her emotional distress’ (p. 50) with no sense of any contradiction with the statement that a later conversation in the same metre (lines 215-30) ‘relieves the Queen and chorus of their premonition and anxiety’ (p. 58). The omen (lines 205-11) ‘has a meaning beyond the drama, symbolizing Delian Apollo’s “ravaging” the Persian eagle just as the Athenians sought vengeance “by ravaging the land of the king” (Thucydides 1.96.1)’ (p. 57), as if the same Greek word were used in each case (or that it would be relevant to Aeschylus even if it were). The Queen, describing her offerings, uses the kenning ‘a pure draught from a wild mother’ for wine (614f.), evidently implying that the juice from a wild vine has particular purity (cf. Cropp [[1]] on Eur. IT 163 for mountain cows, ‘unsullied by domestic and agricultural use’, in ritual contexts). Rosenbloom, however, states confidently: 'The “wild mother” (614) suggests the “mountain mother” Cybebe, whose temple at Sardis the Athenians and Ionians burned’ (p. 84), one of several highly speculative remarks on this passage. He believes, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, that ‘Darius condemns his son for actions he himself committed’ (p. 102). What is the evidence that the audience should be taking this into consideration? ‘Aeschylus allows a hint of Darius’ transgression to slip through -- Darius calls the Hellespont the Bosporus when castigating his son’ (lines 723, 746; p. 102). This supposedly reminds us that Darius bridged the Thracian Bosporus, although ‘Bosporus’ is also applied to the Hellespont by Sophocles (Aj. 884) and Rosenbloom offers no reason to doubt the usual view that Aeschylus was unaware of or indifferent to the distinction.

Assertions of the kind discussed in the previous paragraph may be unsubstantiated or implausible, but they are at least meaningful statements about the play. Rosenbloom is also prone to making fanciful observations of no apparent relevance. He is thus prompted by the fact that Pericles was the choregos of Persians to remark, ‘it is worth noting that Pericles would come to play Darius’ role in his lifetime: the “father” and exponent of empire as patrimony, whose prosperity and happiness would prove to be unsurpassable’, adding for good measure that the ghost of Pericles was raised in Eupolis’ Villages (p. 17). He says of the offerings which the Queen brings for Darius (lines 607-18), ‘Food and drink offerings counter Persian deaths by thirst and starvation (lines 482-84, 490f.)’ (p. 84), without explaining what could possibly be signified by the word ‘counter’. An even odder sequence of associations comes in his discussion of the kommos, which he compares for no apparent reason to laments for Adonis. ‘Adonis is a figure of luxuriant but unsustainable growth which ends in lament’ (p. 123), like the Persian empire. ‘Xerxes’ yoking of the Hellespont, a fruitless “marriage” which leaves Persian wives “yoked alone”, bringing barrenness to Asia, evokes Adonis as a “negative image of marriage and fertile union”’ (p. 123, quoting Detienne[[2]]). Always eager to find parallels between Persia and Athens, he concludes by remarking, ‘It is uncanny that while Athenian men were voting to invade Sicily in 415, tradition had it that Athenian women were celebrating the Adonia’ (pp. 123f.).

Rosenbloom is undoubtedly well-informed about Persians and its historical context, and this book is a politically engaged discussion whose underlying attitudes will be sympathetic to many. It is also both speculative and dogmatic, and this will impair its value to the readership at which it is ostensibly aimed.


[[1]] M. J. Cropp (ed.), Euripides: Iphigenia in Tauris (Warminster 2000) 186.

[[2]] M. Detienne (tr. J. Lloyd), The Gardens of Adonis (Sussex 1977) 106.