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Catalogues and Popular Politics in Aeschylus’ Persae

Ben Radcliffe

Department of Classics, UCLA

In the aftermath of the defeat at Salamis, characters in Aeschylus’ Persae struggle to process the implications of the disaster for the political order of the Persian state. The question is addressed in the two catalogues that the Chorus recites of the Persian soldiers who fight and perish in the battle, one before (20-64) and one after (955-1001) the Messenger announces the defeat. I argue that stylistic modulations between the catalogues enact a political dispute between the Chorus and the royal family about how to frame the stakes of the disaster. In the first catalogue, the soldiers are classified by rank and listed in the order of their geographical origin within the empire; in the second, the names of the dead are listed with few epithets and in a random order. By representing the casualties in the second catalogue as bare names, the Chorus attempts to memorialize the dead as a collection of suffering, generic humanity unqualified by the social taxonomies of the empire. This conception of the army, I argue, mobilizes a broader set of questions concerning the political relation between the state (embodied by Xerxes) and the Persian people.

Lamentation is a politically fraught activity in Persae. The defeat at Salamis represents, within the drama, a profound rupture in the continuity of Persian imperial expansion (Saïd 1981, 1988; Grethlein 2010: 75-104; Sampson). The members of the royal family (Atossa, Darius, and Xerxes) attempt to mend the rupture and affirm the legitimacy of their family’s rule. They therefore lament Salamis as a tragedy for Xerxes personally but otherwise as an accident that does not fundamentally affect the calculus of imperial power. The Chorus of Elders, as Shenker (1994) observes, adopts a more critical attitude toward the dynasts, asserting that Xerxes’ recklessness has damaged the bonds between the state and the Persian people.

The Chorus’ capacity for overt criticism is limited by their professions of loyalty to the royal family (24, 58). They find an alternate medium to express their discontent, however, in the formal properties of catalogues. Their first catalogue is delivered in the parodos, before the news of the disaster has arrived. It qualifies the individual commanders by their place in the military hierarchy and by their origins within the geographical divisions of the empire, thereby prioritizing their function as subjects to the Persian state. The link between state power and categorization, I argue, can be traced to the genres of list-making with which the catalogues in Persae are most frequently compared: catalogues of ships and troops in the Iliad (Heiden; Elmer 2013: 86-104) and the inscribed lists of war-casualties in 5th c. BCE Athens (Loraux 1981: 33; Ebbott).

The Chorus’ second catalogue deviates from this tradition and from the style of their previous catalogue. It is formally anarchic: the names of the dead are not categorized by their place of origin or rank in the army, and the order of the list is apparently random. By removing organizational signposts and epithets, the Chorus represents the dead soldiers—and by extension, the Persian people—as a generic collectivity without any intrinsic relation to the Persian state. The possibility of such a stark disjuncture between the people and the state underscores the Chorus’ fears about the disintegration of the empire in the wake of Salamis (e.g., 584-97). But the Chorus, I argue, is also committing an act of reluctant protest against their destructive sovereign. Their alleatory list of the dead suggests that the laos is in essence a pure collection of names unsanctioned by the state's classificatory schemes. Indeed, the Chorus’ formal techniques of naming and listing complement contemporary theories of popular resistance to state power (Badiou, Rancière). In a text that has been seen as narratively static (Michelini 1982: 72), this crucial development in the relation between the Chorus, the king, and the dead occurs on the level of poetic form.

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Tragic Tradition

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