Aeschylus’ The Persians at Epidvaros – A Triumph

As a lover of classical civilisation, who read and studied classical drama both at secondary school and Monash University in Melbourne, a trip to Greece in summer would not be complete without attending one of the annual performances staged at the famous Ancient Theatre at Epidavros, one of the best preserved from the Classical World and the inspiration for our own amphitheatre at Fairfield in Melbourne.

Each year the program comprises a selection from the 32 complete plays from the Classical era that have survived. This year’s program encompasses 8 plays drawn from the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Our time in Greece permitted us only one play to choose from this great literary array. For me, the choice was easy. Aeschylus’ The Persians.

All Greek plays speak across time to the challenges of life. They pose choices to the audience, not easy answers; the choices can be often terrifying and the decisions taken by the players tragic. But they are answers to living dilemmas.

The Persians is the oldest complete play to survive from the classical era and the only one drawn directly from actual historical events. Aeschylus was not only a playwright but also a former soldier, who served in the Athenian army during the campaign depicted in the play. He had lost his own brother in the fighting. He had “skin in the game” as you might say.

The Epidavros Amphitheatre – A standing ovation for the players following their performance. Photo: Jim Claven

The Historical Context – The Second Persian Invasion

The drama is set following the Athenian-led victory over the Persian invasion under their King Xerxes in 480BCE. This invasion saw the reputedly huge Persian Imperial army bridge the Hellespont – the modern day Dardanelles – crossing into Europe from Asia – and making its way across Thrace and down into central Greece and on to Athens itself. The Athenian and Allied forces – drawn from a number of Greek city states – were outnumbered and initially defeated on land at Thermopylae and at sea at Artemisium.

The Athenians, on the advice of the politician and general Themistocles, abandoned Athens – with the exception of the fortified Acropolis – to the ravages of the Persian occupation and transferred the population by sea to the Island of Salamis. The Allied army retreats to prepare its defence at the Isthmus of Corinth.

What followed was one of the greatest and unexpected victories of ancient times – the naval battle of Salamis. The Athenian fleet drew the larger Persian fleet into the narrow straits of Salamis and fearlessly initiated their attack, destroying the Persian fleet. The Persian Army was subsequently defeated at the battle of Plataea.

If the stones could talk – the seats at the Epidavros Amphitheatre. Photo: Jim Claven

Aeschylus’ The Persians

What does Aeschylus, the veteran and playwright, make of this event? Does he celebrate the great Athenian victory, mocking their enemy and his losses? No, he does not. There are of course many themes and sub-plots in any great drama. But the main one from Aeschylus’ play for me is that of the hubris of leadership and its terrible cost in war.

We hear of King Xerxes – with the exuberance of youth – seeking to better the legacy of his father King Darius by launching his invasion of the Greek mainland. In bridging the Hellespont, Xerxes is depicted as seeking to tame nature, challenging the Gods and a bad omen for the campaign. He is also seeking to conquer a land and a people, with an inherent strength. In doing so, he has taken the fate of a whole people on a journey that will lead to its destruction.

Aeschylus focuses the audiences’ attention on the terrible effect of the campaign’s defeat and its effect on a people. The Chorus – speaking for the people as a whole – is bereft as news arrives via a surviving messenger, confirming their foreboding. The ensuing drama is one of woe and distress, of the soil of Greece soaked with the blood of Persians, of the waters of Salamis now home to the dead, of wives soaking their beds in tears, of children who will no longer know their fathers, of mothers yearning for their dead sons, of betrothed women who have lost their suitors in death. As they try to cope, they wonder how they will ever return to a happy life.

Excerpt from the Aeschylus’ The Persians performance booklet.

This destruction has been wrought by the arrogance of power. Xerxes who had gathered the youth of his Empire and looked with arrogance on his many ships, had lost all by ignoring of the omens of doom. On his return to court, the defeated King cries out for his loss but his voice is drowned out by the wailing and appeals of the Chorus for the dead.

Now imagine the context of this play. Classical drama was performed before the good and great of the polis. The leading citizens and their military were seated in the best seats near the stage, with the less influential or wealthy citizens seated further up.

So here is Aeschylus the veteran confronting the victorious Athenians – including the elite – with the hubris of power, of challenging fate and the human cost of war and. One of the final lines makes this message explicit as a warning to Athens as much as to their enemies. This is no flag-waving patriotic rant. This is a warning to those who seek to use what we would now call nationalist sentiment to send the young to fight and die in adventurous wars.

As someone who has researched Australia’s Anzac experience, there are many parallels that can be made. Aeschylus speaks to the cheering crowds sending their sons off to war only to be replaced by the silent return of the wounded and damaged veterans at wars end. Just as Homer’s Illiad depiction of violence and rage of war speaks to the experience of many modern veterans, so too does Aeschylus speak to veterans and their loved ones. Written 2,500 years ago, The Persians is a play for all time. As Assistant Professor Agis Marinis of the University of Patras writes, the play contains “a timeless warning.”

The scene where the Persian Queen and Chorus call for the dead King Darius to return from the underworld – image from of the rehearsal. The Persians by Aeschylus, directed by Dimitris Karantzas, Athens Epidaurus Festival Booklet

The Performance

The performance was from Panagiotis Moullas’ translation of Aeschylus’ play and the performance directed by Dimitris Karantzas, with adaptation by Dimitiris Karantzas and dramaturg Geli Kalampaka.

The actors provided a great performance. The play begins with the slow, gradual, entrance of the Chorus members, who are then joined by the Persian Queen. She wants to know what has happened to the Persian expedition led by her son Xerxes. She interacts with the Chorus as if they are part of her unconscious. Some writers say that this is the first dream sequence in theatre. They are then joined by the arrival of a messenger who falls to the ground, a survivor of the campaign, bringing the terrible news to the Queen and the Chorus. In despair, they appeal to the dead King Darius, calling him forth from the underworld for advice. Finally they are joined by the defeated King Xerxes, whose appeals for sympathy are faced by the cries of the Chorus on behalf of his dead men and their loved ones. Truth is speaking to power, as they dramatically surround Xerxes, until he is unseen in the crowd and the whole mass moves slowly off stage.

The visual interpretation of the ancient text was masterful. The stage included a raised ellipse or semi-circle, under which lighting was fitted. This created a sense of depth and movement on an otherwise flat stage. It allowed the actors to move across the stage, making their way around and up and down, as they interacted and revealed their altered moods.

The author at the Epidavros Amphitheatre. Photo: Jim Claven

One of the most dramatic displays was the scene when the Chorus join the Persian Queen in calling forth the ghost of the dead Persian King Darius the Great, father of the defeated Xerxes. They slowly lower themselves to the ground and begin to crawl towards the edge of the raised semi-circle, calling out for Darius to come up from the earth, from his home in Hades, to give them advice on how they should cope with this great military defeat. As they approach the edge, the lighting underneath the raised semi-circle slowly lightens, until it is gives the sense of an opening to another world, the world of the Dead, which the Chorus and Queen have called forth. This is a stunning dramatic creation.

Another startling addition is the sound used to enhance the feelings evoked by Aeschylus. As the Chorus learn of and take in the reality of the loss of the great Persian force and its social effect across the Empire, they are experiencing a nightmare. They cry out in despair for the dead and their loved ones at home. What better way to jolt the audience to this feeling than with the addition of discordant sounds – a distorted trumpet, screams and wails that fill the great amphitheatre – as the Chorus pull at their clothes and fall to the ground. This is an aural depiction of despair.

All in all an extraordinary dramatic recreation of Aeschylus’ play, providing a unique experience, which does justice to the power of the words and the great venue in which it was performed. Nothing less than a triumph for all involved.

Jim Claven is a trained historian, writer and published author. His latest publications include Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed and Grecian Adventure. He studied Classical Civilisation and English literature at Melbourne’s Monash University. For more information on the Athens Festival and the Epidavros program can be found on the Festival website – He can be contacted via email: