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The articulate landscapes of Aeschylus’ Persians

Simone Antonia Oppen

Columbia University/ASCSA

            In Aeschylus’s Persians, Athens is rarely described while more distant Greek landscapes are repeatedly used to portray the human toll of Xerxes’ expedition. I explore how recently uncovered information about the venue of the play’s performance in 472 BCE relates to this landscape use. Aeschylus’s rendering of war’s desecration via description of the landscape may respond to traces of the 480-479 BCE invasions visible from the Athenian Acropolis’s south slope.

            Several scholars have read Persians in relation to its physical setting. Rehm considers the effect that the landscape visible from the Theater of Dionysus might have on this play’s original spectators, suggesting that the playwright’s vague “scenic focus” indirectly led the audience to survey traces of the Persian invasions and walls built from the debris they produced (2002: 240-1). Ferrari connects Persians 807-12 (citations of Aeschylus from Page, 1972), when Darius’s ghost predicts that Persian plunder of divine statues and burning of Greek temples will be requited at Plataea, to Athens’s devastation generally (2002: 29-30). Miles argues that Aeschylus sees the “dramatic power” of burnt sanctuaries in these lines, but she does not specifically connect this prediction to the landscape visible from the Theater (2014: 112-3). I revisit this topic in light of recent excavations on the Acropolis’s south slope.           

            Papastamati-von Moock presents postholes found during a 2012 excavation in the Theater’s auditorium as evidence for wooden seating (ikria) on the south slope (2015: 51-2). As the fill into which these postholes were sunk remains unexcavated, she dates the wooden theater they attest to the late sixth century BCE on the basis of textual evidence (2015: 53-6). She also untangles the hypothesis that the early fifth-century Theater was located in the Agora (e.g., Travlos, 1971: 537), by suggesting that the textual evidence describes two sets of ikria: one in the Agora (Plato Apology 26d-e, Laws 817c; Photios Lexicon s.v. ἴκρια, ὀρχήστρα); the other on the south slope (2015: 41-2, with primary-source citations for the latter location).

            Firm evidence for the Theater’s location allows for identification of what would be visible to whom during the 472 BCE performance: actors and chorus could survey the remains of the Older Parthenon (Miles, 2011: 663-5 with bibliography) and archaic Athena temple (Ferrari, 2002) above the Theater, while the audience could see the archaic temple of Dionysus Eleuthereus below. (Dörpfeld and Reisch suggest its destruction date is uncertain, 1896: 19.) The north wall Rehm cites (2002: 384n.19), reusing portions of burnt Acropolis temples, would be visible only during the pre-performance procession from the Agora to the Theater (Pickard-Cambridge, 1953: 59-61), provided we accept Korres’s argument for this wall’s Themistoclean date (2002).    

            Darius’s ghost’s description of desecrated Greek sanctuaries implicitly includes the Acropolis temples and potentially the archaic Dionysus temple. Yet, although the city is often mentioned (231, 233, 285, 286, 347, 474, 716, 824, 976), the Athenian landscape is only once described by name in this play. This singular description, the messenger’s response to the Queen’s question naming Athens, is evasive: Βα. ἔτ᾽ ἆρ᾽ Ἀθηνῶν ἔστ᾽ ἀπόρθητος πόλις; / Αγγ. ἀνδρῶν γὰρ ὄντων ἕρκος ἐστὶν ἀσφαλές (348-9). Commentators suggest Athens’s sack is not described because of Aeschylus’s sensitivity to his Athenian audience (Broadhead, 1960: 118n.349) or to avoid suggesting Persian success (Garvie, 2009: 180n.348-9), but these explanations are unsatisfactory in a performance venue where this sack’s traces would be visible.

            I suggest that the rarity of Athenian landscape description is part of a careful contrast that emerges upon comparison of other Greek landscape descriptions in Persians. The overwhelming majority portray Persian suffering (272-3; 302-3; 306-10; 317-9; 419-21; 482-507; 568-75; 595-7; 805-6; 816-20; 963-5). In this landscape use, Aeschylus appears to respond to the traces of the 480-479 BCE invasions constantly visible from the Theater by rarely describing Athens. Instead, he juxtaposes this physical setting to descriptions of Greek landscapes insistently articulating Persian suffering, thereby contrasting Greek monumental with Persian human loss.

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