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The contemporary theme in the Persaai of Aischylos Hunt, Marlene Rae

Abstract

The Persai of Aischylos is one of the few Greek tragedies with contemporary historical themes, and the only such play that has survived complete. This study undertakes to determine whether one can with certainty, or even probability, explain Aischylos’ choice of his unusual theme. Much information of doubtful value has been passed down as fact. Therefore, the method followed has been to accept nothing as fact until it has been substantiated by a careful examination of the evidence. An inspection of three theories concerning Aischylos' chief purpose in writing his other extant plays fails to produce a satisfactory explanation for the Persai. The remainder of the study is a consideration whether the reason for Aischylos’ choice of subject in this play can be found to lie in his attitude toward contemporary affairs: in his relation to the great victories of the Hellenes over the Persians, to the expansion of Athenian power by land and sea, and, above all, to the struggles of political factions within Athens. This involves an inquiry into Aischylos’ opinions about contemporary affairs and his inclusion of these opinions in his tragedies other than the Persai; a consideration of the nature of, and the circumstances surrounding, two fifth-century plays by Phrynichos that also had themes from contemporary history and that might have influenced Aischylos in his writing of the Persai; an examination of the nature of, and circumstances surrounding, the Persai itself. The conclusions reached are as follows: First, although one cannot say how much reference to contemporary events Aischylos felt he could justifiably include in his tragedies other than the Persai, one can at least observe that he did include material of this nature, since in two of the other extant tragedies there is positive evidence; moreover, in both these tragedies the contemporary allusion has a prominent place. Second, evidence outside the Persai reveals Aischylos only as a patriotic Athenian and not as a political partisan having special sympathy with, or antipathy towards, any of the leading political figures of his time. Third, evidence suggests the possibility that Phrynichos in writing his tragedies with contemporary themes was motivated by political partisanship or friendship with a leading political figure, Themistokles. Fourth, although Aischylos seems to have striven to make the Persai as tragic and universal, as possible, the nature of the theme he had selected made failure to create a really tragic drama almost certain. There are several possible motives that might have influenced the experienced dramatist in 472 to choose this subject: the urge to meet the challenge of handling a different theme in a more effective way than had a previous dramatist; the desire to convey a religious message of direct significance for the Athenians; the wish to help one who may have been a friend and who was certainly a fellow-patriot now in trouble, Themistokles. Aischylos was a dramatist who wrote on many levels, and in the case of the Persai all three suggested reasons for his selection of its subject, since they are compatible with one another, could have influenced him in varying degrees. Thus, in regard to the choice of a contemporary theme for the Persai one can only identify what was possible; to go beyond this into the realm of probability or certainty would be to go beyond the evidence.

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