Friday, June 11, 2010

Aeschylus, Themistocles & The Persians

In 472 BCE, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus wrote his earliest surviving play, The Persians. It was produced eight years after the Battle of Salamis and is considered a valentine to the heroes who fought in that epic naval encounter. The Persians is the first reference history has to the battle, and it may also be the first reference to Themistocles and his cleverness.

In the play, a Persian messenger relays the disastrous events of Salamis to the royal court in Susa. When Queen Atossa (King Xerxes' mother) asks how the battle started, the messenger's answer is rather odd: "A Hellene from the Athenian army came and told your son Xerxes this tale: that once the shades of night set in, the Hellenes would not stay, but leap on board and by whatever secret route offered escape, row for their lives." This incident is also mentioned in Book 8 of Herodotus' Histories, and is tied to Themistocles: "Themistocles...sent a man by boat to the camp of the Medes (Persians) with precise instructions as to what he should say." The man was identified as Themistocles' servant Siccinus, who told the Persian king that "…The Hellenes are utterly terrified and are planning to flee, and that you now have the opportunity to perform the most glorious of all feats if you do not stand by and watch them escape." Predictably, Xerxes ordered his admirals to surround Salamis with their ships, forcing a showdown between the two sides the next morning. The Greeks, thanks to Themistocles' knowledge of the windy and narrow straight between Salamis and Attica, soundly defeated the Persian fleet. It is this amazing victory that Aeschylus pays tribute to.

Oddly enough, the play was produced around the time Themistocles was ostracized from Athens. You would think that a play praising the Battle of Salamis would make people a little more grateful for his services, but instead they not only ostracized Themistocles, they even put a bounty on his head for supposedly working with a Persian agent! Thus the Hero of Salamis was forced to flee for his life, first west and then east, until he finally ended up in Persian territory where he eventually died. It is a strange end to one of Athens' greatest men.

None the less, his legacy lives on in various sources, including The Persians. It's even tempting to think that Aeschylus may have written the play as a reminder of Themistocles' tactical genius, perhaps in the hope that the people would vote not to ostracize the man responsible for winning Athens its freedom...