While Byron chose to tell the story of the Battle of Salamis short and sweet in The Isles of Greece – which, by the way, is part of a much longer poem, Don Juan -, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus wrote an entire play based upon it.
ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε
ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ
παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τέ πατρῴων ἕδη,
θήκας τε προγόνων: νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.
O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.
Aeschylus: The Persians
The Battle of Salamis According to Aeschylus
Can you imagine telling a story, with your audience hanging upon your every word, breathless with excitement or moved to tears – although they had heard the story many times before and know the final outcome? Because that’s exactly what Ancient Greek playwrights had to do; and Aeschylus pulled it off beautifully with The Persians.
Aeschylus & The Persians
Aeschylus (c. 525 – c. 456 BC) had the misfortune of having to fight in both Persian Wars: he first fought at Marathon in 490 BC, then in the naval battle of Salamis ten years later. His play, The Persians – the oldest surviving drama in the history of theatre – treats the subject of the second of those, Xerxes’s invasion of Greece. This makes it quite unusual in its theme: the Ancient Greeks didn’t go in for writing plays about contemporary events. In addition to being the oldest surviving play, The Persians also won first prize in the dramatic competition in Athens in 472 B.C. (If you ever see it on the bill of a theatre near you…!)
Together with Herodotus, Aeschylus is one of our main sources of the era. And when it comes to the Battle of Salamis, you really can’t beat the first hand account. Especially a poetic one.
A Greek Theatre
Picture the scene: A semi-circular amphitheatre, with the seats set into the hillside, brimming with a multitude of spectators dressed in chiton or in peplos; the stage below with a simple wooden skene at the back.
This very theatre in fact, directly below the Acropolis:
A Dramatic Entry
On the stage stands Queen Atossa, the mother of Xerxes, with the elderly Persian councillors – who are playing the role of the chorus. The scene is set in the royal palace at Susa: the queen and the councillors have just been discussing their premonitions about the campaign.
At this moment, a travel-weary Messenger enters and, as soon as he’s over the threshold, he bursts out:
O walls of all the East, O towers of might,
Persia, my home, thou haven of delight,
How in one blow our garnered bliss is fled,
All, and the flower of Persia fallen and dead!
As far as dramatic stage entries are concerned, you can’t much better that; Aeschylus set the standard for any incoming messengers for centuries to come. In one breathless sentence the disaster has been communicated – and the tone of the play has been set.
A somber tone.
For although a great Greek victory is being reported here on a Greek stage by a Greek author to a Greek audience, we’re watching a tragedy: the story is told from the point of view of the vanquished. Aeschylus puts the story of the Battle of Salamis into the mouth of a Persian messenger to Queen Atossa.
And the Messenger says:
All yonder, all is death. Alone I come
And beyond hope, to see the light of home.
Crowded with dead men miserably lost
Is Salamis, and the bay, and all the coast.
Our arrows served us not; the beakèd prow
Shattered our ships, and laid the bowmen low.
Salamis! Salamis! Oh, name of hate!
The dramatic utterances of the Messenger are counterpointed by the lamentation of the chorus; the enormity of the catastrophe is emphasised by the roll call of the Persian dead. It is an emotional scene, which captures the grief of the Persians and their sense of loss – without the slightest hint of triumphalism. Given that Aeschylus lost a brother in the Battle of Marathon, his ability to portray the Persians with sympathy is quite remarkable.
Eye Witness Reporting
The Messenger makes it clear that he’s telling the story of the battle and the defeat in the capacity of an eye witness, not as somebody who merely speaks from hearsay:
I heard not others’ tales. Myself was there
To read the full-told story of despair.
His description of the battle is compelling, vivid and authoritative; not only Aeschylus was there and can recall the scenes himself but he’s a writer of great expressive power.
Using the Messenger also allows him to present some scenes that he as a Greek couldn’t have witnessed: such as how Sikinnos, the servant of Themistocles, deceived Xerxes into thinking the Greeks were going to fly from Salamis during the night.
Some fiend or madman—whence he came, who knows?—
Greek-seeming, from the Athenian ranks drew near
To Xerxes’ self, and whispered in his ear
That, once the veil of hiding night should fall,
The Greeks would wait no more, but one and all
Leap to their oars, and, scattering left and right,
Make off to save their lives in headlong flight.
Xerxes gave ear, and reckoning not the while
Of heaven’s malignity or Grecian guile…
Or how the Persian fleet spent the night before the battle rowing in obedience to Xerxes’s orders…
In order and obedience all the fleet
Supped and prepared: each oarsman took his seat
And nimbly to the rowlock strapped his oar.
Meantime the sunlight melted from the shore
And night drew on, and in their ships arrayed
Each man at arms, each bender of the blade
Waited. From rank to rank the word was passed
Down the long line, and on they moved at last,
Each to his station. All the long night through
Each captain rowing, rowing, kept his crew…
…to no purpose whatsoever:
And night wore on, and never sound nor sight
From the Greek fleet gave sign of secret flight…
In other scenes, Aeschylus speaks as a genuine eye-witness: when he describes the rousing battle-cry as the Greek ships surged forward to attack…
In splashed their foaming oars, and straining stirred
The briny furrows at the helmsman’s word,
And all the ships were out and clear to view.
The right wing led the van, in order due,
Behind it the whole fleet, prow after prow.
Then one great shout: “Now, sons of Hellas, now!
Set Hellas free, set free your wives, your homes,
Your gods’ high altars and your fathers’ tombs.
Now all is on the stake!”
Not a battle-cry that is quoted in Herodotus. In fact, when it comes to the actual description of the battle, we gain a lot more details from Aeschylus, poetry and all, than we ever had from Herodotus – who, after expanding over several pages about the dissent within the Greek camp prior to the battle, dismissed the actual fighting in a couple of miserly paragraphs.
…The first rammer was a Greek,
Which sheared away a great Sidonian’s crest;
Then close, one on another, charged the rest.
At first the long-drawn Persian line was strong
And held: but in those narrows such a throng
Was crowded, ship to ship could bring no aid.
Nay, with their own bronze-fangèd beaks they made
Destruction; a whole length of oars one beak
Would shatter; and with purposed art the Greek
Ringed us outside, and pressed, and struck; and we –
Our oarless hulls went over, till the sea
Could scarce be seen, with wrecks and corpses spread.
The reefs and beaches too were filled with dead,
And every ship in our great fleet away
Rowed in wild flight.
If you were a naval historian, from this description you could draw a map with little blue and red symbols of triremes and arcing arrows to illustrate the battle lines and the direction of the attack… In fact, somebody did just that.
A Classic Case of Hubris
This being an ancient Greek tragedy, it cannot of course be complete without considering the moral of the case; and the moral, given by the ghost of Darius, is pretty straightforward. The Persian defeat is due to a classic case of hubris, that is, excessive pride, a fatal flaw of character, on Xerxes’s part.
Not that Xerxes is for a moment excused. The invasion of Hellas is a crime, the crime of Hubris, dark but heroic; the crime of one who claims to be, for some fantastic reason or no reason at all, above human kind and above the law. Such Hubris is according to Greek beliefs the sin of sins, the forbidden fruit always tempting proud man to his destruction. For the truth is against him; he is not what he imagines. He is but a man like other men, and above him is the eternal law of God.
(Gilbert Murray: Preface to The Persians)
The concept of hubris was always very dear to the hearts of the Ancient Greeks and they attributed any number of disasters to this simple cause. The gods, to put it simply, don’t like humans get ideas above their status. Greek mythology is full examples of hubris resulting in the downfall of people, from Arachne (of spider fame) to Niobe (who cried rivers). The lesson is obvious: don’t compare yourself to gods.
He thought in fetters, like a slave, the holy Hellespont to bind,
And Bosphorus, the stream of God, refashion to his mortal mind.
With hammered bonds of iron he wrought for a great host a far-flung road,
And, not in wisdom, dreamed a dream that man could match himself with God,
Subdue Poseidon! What was this but madness of the soul?…
Forcing Poseidon to put up with a pontoon bridge across the Hellespont was bad enough in itself – Xerxes really should have stopped short of whipping the sea when the storm destroyed the said pontoon bridge! Then there was the small matter of burning temples and destroying statues as his army passed over Greece (including even an attempt on Delphi itself)… I think you get the picture. Really, when you listen to Darius, you’d think the Greek victory was a foregone conclusion (can’t think why the Greeks stressed so much before the battle).
Xerxes in Rags
Xerxes’s appearance at the end of the play – alone, in rags, the very image of defeat and downfall – and his ensuing interaction with the choir, mirroring that of the Messenger in the beginning of the play with the roll call of the Persian dead and the lamentation, is a sad and moving scene. And the lack of triumphalism again on the part of Aeschylus underscores the message about hubris more than anything else could have done.
In Xerxes’s own words:
Yea, look upon my face, and cry
Your fill. A thing of shame am I,
A thing born to bring misery
To land and house that cherished me.
Translations All quotes above (with the exception of the first one, which is a literal translation of the original Greek text) are from the translation by Gilbert Murray (1939), available on Project Gutenberg. You can find a more literal, prose translation by Herbert Smyth, on the Perseus Digital Library. You might also like: ⇒ The Battle of Salamis: Retold in Poetry ⇒ Salamis (According to Herodotus) ⇒ The Arms of Apollo ⇒ The Best Stories of Herodotus ⇒ Seeing a performance at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus