Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 20.

Thomas Harrison, The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus' 'Persians' and the History of the Fifth Century. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2000. Pp. 191. ISBN 0-7156-2968-9. UKú40.00.

Anthony J. Podlecki
UniversitÚ de Grenoble 3, France

The usefulness of this book is above all as a full presentation and fine-combing of modern views about the play. Harrison seems to have consulted and digested most of the scholarly work on Persai known to me (and some not known) -- I count 469 items in the bibliography -- and he is not sparing in his citation of other's views, especially those with whom he disagrees. His own position can be stated simply -- and it is not a particularly new one -- Aischylos' work is not a 'tragedy' in any accepted sense of that term, but rather an historicized mythologem, a cautionary tale, intended to celebrate the intense Athenocentrism of author and audience; it is nothing short of 'triumphalism' (his term, p. 112) run rampant.

The chapters are a series of extended glosses on various topics or themes in the play. Within fairly broad limits of historical accuracy (since this was a play some of whose audience, at least, fought in the battles described or mentioned), Aischylos was free to embroider or even distort the facts to suit his own purposes, emotional, patriotic, artistic or other (Chapter 1, 'Aeschylus the historian?', pp. 25-30). A propaganda battle may have been being waged in Athens at the time, involving, among others, the figure of Theseus, but those who over- subtly look for political allusions in the play 'presume that the Athenians sat in wait for such allusions' (p. 36), and such allusions in any case 'would surely have undermined the dramatic impact of the play' (p. 39); for Harrison the work 'belies any black and white political interpretation' (p. 38, Chapter 2, 'Politics and Partisanship', pp. 31-39). The Queen Mother, whether really named 'Atossa' or not, is only an extrapolation from a distorted Greek vision of the role played by women at the Persian court (Chapter 3, 'Aeschylus, Atossa and Athenian Ideology', pp. 40-48). The dramatist, following 'a concerted strategy of patriotic stimulation' (p. 53), 'frequently . . . finds the opportunity to highlight patriotic Athenian themes' (p. 52, Chapter 4, 'The Use and Abuse of Persia', pp. 51-57). The tendency of Greek writers to exaggerate the degree of Persian interest in things Greek is another species of Athenian self-representation (Chapter 5, 'Where is Athens', pp. 58-60). The Athenocentrism of the play looks to the future: ' . . . implicit in the Persians' celebration of Athens' achievements are Athens' imperial ambitions' (pp. 63f.); the play ' . . . provides . . . a charter for the Delian League' (p. 64, Chapter 6, 'Athens and Greece', pp. 61-65). So much emphasis is put on the variety and number of Persian forces, as well as their splendid and exotic accoutrements, because 'such magnificence reinforces the impression of the heaviness of the fall to come and of the achievement of the Athenians and Greeks in being the instrument of the Persians' destruction' (p. 72, Chapter 7, whose heading, 'The Emptiness of Asia', pp. 68-75, gives the book its title). Harrison here brings out clearly and forcefully the 'special relationship between the Athenians and the sea' (p. 68) and correctly notes how important control of the sea was to Athens' plans and imperial ambitions. (I here interrupt my sequential synopsis of Harrison's thesis in chapters 8 and 9 because I will take a closer look at these chapters below.) The play represents 'the high-water mark of Athens' conviction in her imperial project' (p. 110), and so cannot have been intended, as is sometimes maintained, to be read as a warning to the Athenians to rein in their own expansionist tendencies. In fact, those passages that seem to highlight 'more bloodthirsty or vengeful episodes' -- Harrison cites under this heading verses 424-27 and 459-64 -- are just another sign of 'the triumphalism evidenced elsewhere in the play . . . [S]uch passages reflect a relish in the details of the slaughter of the Persians' (p. 112, Chapter 10, 'Athens and Persia', pp. 103-15).

So far, readers may judge for themselves the cogency of Harrison's position. The arguments in Chapters 8 and 9, which seem to me to be the core of the book, warrant closer scrutiny. In Chapter 8, 'Democracy and Tyranny' (pp. 76-91), Harrison argues that all other apparently valid 'tragic' readings of the play must be subordinated to -- and are in fact displaced by - - one continuous, single-minded and incessant attack by Aischylos on tyranny/monarchy as in every way inferior to democracy (especially, of course, Athenian democracy). Thus we must resist the temptation to see this as a domestic or familial tragedy: ' . . . you cannot have a domestic tragedy about the Persian royal family; in monarchies, the personal is political' (p. 77). Nor should we be seduced into feeling any sympathy whatever for the Queen who, according to Harrison, 'emerges as selfish, sceptical, and petulant' (p. 81). The Chorus, too, are continually sending us mixed signals: 'though the elders are constantly threatening to assert themselves, ultimately they remain perfectly supine' (pp. 81f.). Harrison appears to be objecting to what he takes to be inconsistency or vacillation on the part of the Chorus: they are 'loyal counsellors' but fall down abjectly before the Queen, and the counsel they give her is 'ineffectual,' 'equivocal.' They ascribe to Xerxes responsibility for the defeat at Salamis, but are not slow to gather round their defeated King and offer solace at the end.[[1]] But what else were we to expect? They may be for purposes of the play Persian elders, but they are also a Greek tragic chorus, and thus no more (or less) 'ineffectual' than the elders in Agamemnon. It is a mistake, or so it seems to me, to try to read into all of this a 'message' that individual initiative must inevitably collapse before or be overridden by totalitarian autocracy. Over-subtle, too, I believe, is Harrison's attempt to draw a contrast between on the one hand a democratic attitude to oracles as evidenced by the way Themistokles persuaded the Athenians that his interpretation of the Wooden-Wall oracle was the correct one, and on the other Darius' anguished realization at 739-52 that he had failed to understand an oracle concerning some disaster the Persians were destined to suffer. To me this is not a negative comment on the Persian King's 'monopoly over oracles' (p. 87), but rather a dramatic heightening of the inevitability of the Persian downfall.[[2]] I am unable to assess the truth of Harrison's assertion 'there is no evidence that the Persians believed that their kings were gods' (p. 87) although it seems certainly true that '[t]he impression that the Persians believe their kings to be divine is one that is built up progressively through the play' (p. 88). Once again this is grist to Harrison's view of the play's loaded political intent: ' . . . the Chorus . . . look forward to the end of proskynesis as one of the consequences of Persian defeat (588). Their dread and reverence on being confronted with Darius show, however, that their slavishness of mind is too deep-rooted' (p. 89).[[3]]

In Chapter 9, 'Themistocles and Aristides' (pp. 95- 102), Harrison reveals what he believes to be Aischylos' true message to the Athenians. He points out that the play's eulogy of Themistokles is muted by the fact that he is never named and is in fact balanced by the emphasis given to Aristeides' (again, not named) exploit on Psyttaleia (for that matter, Miltiades' success at Marathon too is given a passing nod at v. 475). This balance, Harrison suggests, is possibly 'connected to the theme of individual submission to the collective' (p. 97). The work is 'a snapshot in the development of Athenian democratic discourse' (p. 98). 'Everything in Aeschylus' play tends to the impression of Athenian unity, Athenian singleness of purpose' (p. 99). He urges us to understand the play 'as indicative of a consensus of values that the vast majority of Athenians could have subscribed to' (p. 100). This to me seems unobjectionable, if a trifle vague; and I confess myself mystified when Harrison attempts to counter the view that the play may have a religious (as distinct from a political and social) message by remarking that 'the religious argument of a play such as the Persians is one embedded in its other arguments' (p. 102).

Harrison wishes to subsume all other aspects of the play under the purpose that he deems to be overarching: glorification of Athens, her democratic institutions, the diversity of the points of view that must be given a voice in hers as in any democracy, and above all, her nascent empire. But to privilege the play's political message (even if this were the correct political message to be read into the work) at the expense of all other interpretations seems to me a distortion, a position that is unnecessarily exclusionist and one which must be belied by any ordinary spectator's or reader's reaction to the work. Our response to this, as to most great works, can be at many levels. Harrison seems to feel one must choose: praise of Themistokles' cunning, even duplicity, at Salamis or admiration for the unified Greek will to resist the invader; praise of Athens or a sympathetic understanding of Xerxes' predicament; sensitivity towards the Queen, Dareios and Xerxes as a family, albeit as royal family, in distress or condemnation of collective Persian hybris. But an interpretative strategy that may give more weight to one aspect while not at the same time denying validity to others seems to me more productive; interpretation is not, to use a phrase Harrison himself adopts, a 'zero-sum game'. Whatever emphasis one favours (my own has been to see the work as a defence of Themistokles at a critical time in his career), one must also recognize that its universal and continuing appeal has been that it so movingly and convincingly portrays the tragedy, the real tragedy, of Xerxes the overreacher, and the consequent collapse of his and his people's misguided imperial ambitions, at least as far as Greece was concerned.

Harrison's book, like the drama it analyzes, is bound to stir some controversy of its own, but if it challenges assumptions that some of us have held for a long time and perhaps rather uncritically, and gets us to look again at this enigmatic masterpiece and our aesthetic reactions to it, so much the better.


[[1]] 'The Chorus' violent mourning . . . through its implication of effeminacy, again suggests that Persia is beyond remedy' (p. 91). To me it suggests no such thing, but rather that King and subjects are united in a display of grief which, though it may seem immoderate, is defensible in view of the enormity of the disaster that they feel has befallen their nation.

[[2]] Harrison, like other commentators, suggests that this may be a back-reference to an actual oracle delivered or alluded to in one of the preceding plays, perhaps Phineus; or it may be one of those loose ends that appear sporadically in Aischylos and other writers: see Ruth Scodel, Credible impossibilities: Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitude in Homer and Greek Tragedy (Stuttgart 1999).

[[3]] A further refinement of the prostration-theme: 'The Persians on Psyttaleia involuntarily perform proskynesis through their deaths (prospi/tnontes, 461). They have learnt the proper object of their proskynesis (i.e. the Earth, whose divinity is genuine, not specious, like the King's), but too late' (p. 91). To me this is far-fetched.