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Greeks And Persians Notes

Classics Notes > Greeks and Persians Notes

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Is it appropriate to say that the Athenians thought of the Persians as 'other'? Compare and contrast the different texts and pieces of material culture that you have studied, taking into account their specific contexts and purposes. It is no overstatement to say that the Greeks were fascinated by Eastern culture, and in particular by Persia: many Attic vases depict characters in 'oriental' dress; Athenian tragedies often had Eastern characters, or were set in foreign lands; the Eastern peoples supplied comic material for the comedies; Herodotus, the 'first' Greek historian chose as a major narrative thread the rise and fall of successive Persian kings. In short, the Persians crop up in all areas of artistic expression through the 5th century that we can trace. However, their portrayal in Greek literature, theatre and art is not a uniform one, revealing that the Greek attitude to Persia was an immensely complex one. In some areas the Persians are clearly thought of as 'other', in some cases with a pejorative nuance, on other cases not, and to complicate matters we have many instances too of Persians and Greeks being assimilated. It may be helpful to survey the material chronologically, as without a doubt attitudes towards Persia changed greatly over this period. The stereotypes of the Persian that were commonplace by the beginning of the 4th century were by no means ancient ones: the Persian empire was relatively new and had hardly begun to impinge on the Greek consciousness until the second half of the 6th century, when they overtook the lands of Croesus, and so the Eastern Greeks who were subject to him. Before this period there was a growing sense of a shared Hellenicity that arose from a number of diverse factors such as the foundation of Panhellenic institutions and cult centres and the diffusion of the Homeric poems and the alphabet throughout Greece, but on the whole we assume that the average Greek would have aligned himself more to his polis than he would have thought of himself as a 'Greek'. By the turn of the 5th century, we can expect that more and more Greeks would have heard of Persia. In 514 Darius invaded Scythia, going through Macedon and Thrace, on the northern edge of the Greek world; he also started to subdue the Greek islands, moving ever closer to mainland Greece. We have evidence that in this period Persia was seen as a powerful neighbour who could perhaps be used as an ally: Thucydides mentions that Hippias married a daughter to the son of the tyrant of Lampsacus in an effort to win favour with Darius1, and in 508 the Athenian demos appealed to 1 Thucydides 6.59.3

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Persia for help against Sparta. However, it was not until the crucial turning point of the Persian wars in both 490 and 480/79 that the Greeks really began to become interested in Persia. There were clearly mixed emotions surrounding their incredible victories: satisfaction at having successfully fought off a numerically much stronger enemy, pride in the fact that the Greek states had in fact managed to set aside their differences to fight off a common enemy, and interest in a people that may have felt very alien. Miller has emphasised strongly two important factors about the effect of the Persian wars on the Greek psyche: firstly that many Greeks would have come face to face with Persians either on the battlefield, or through negotiations; secondly, that a large amount of Persian loot was amassed in the aftermath of both Marathon and Plataea. Little of this remains, but the written descriptions of it are staggering: not just the weapons and armour of the dead soldiers2, but a large amount of textiles, furniture, gems, jewellery, drinking vessels, parasols, coinage, and even possibly a whole royal tent. While it is unclear how this material was dispersed through Greece, there was so much of it that it must have got quite far, and we know that a good deal was publicly displayed in sanctuaries. Xerxes' Hellespont cables were even displayed on the Acropolis in Athens. The wealth of such loot was immense: so much, that Thucydides, when detailing Athenian financial resources many years later, thought it necessary to include skyla Medika as one source of funds.3 The Persians had travelled in luxury, no Persian noble wanting to look worse off than another, and the king above all needing to appear the most impressive. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Greeks perceived the Persians as a people who lived in extravagant luxury; this was not helped by their assimilation of Lydia and Persia (both Eastern potentates), given the fabled wealth of Croesus. It is in this context that Aeschylus' Persae was first performed in

472. This is a text that above all others draws upon an image of the Persians as 'other'. In trying to transport the audience of the Athenian theatre to the exotic land of Susa, Aeschylus heavily emphasises the differences between Greek and Persian, with several strong character traits emerging. Firstly, the Persians are a wealthy race and lead a luxurious lifestyle: the play is filled with vocabulary of gold and wealth and softness, some of the first words of the play being 'we are guardians /of the sumptuous palace, rich in gold (poluchruson)'. From the riches left behind after Salamis and Plataea, it is easy to see how this could have become a 2 Such as the bronze helmet of a Persia dedicated at Olympia you can see today in the museum there 3 Thucydides 2.13.3

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commonplace about the Persians, and was presumably strengthened by the use of luxurious costumes in the play. Secondly, the Persians are effeminate and weak: the play lacks manly men as the chorus is too old, the character on stage most is Atossa, Darius is dead and can only appear in ghost-form, and Xerxes, when he does appear, is hardly the figure of a virile king, tearing at his robes. The marriage beds and cities of Asia are many times called 'unmanned' or 'manless'4, and the chorus and Xerxes take part in a very excessive, female lament at the end: this also shows their over-emotional side; Greek thought linked femininity with emotion, and masculinity with self-control. The Persians are also associated throughout the play with the bow, a cowardly weapon allowing you to shoot from afar without danger to yourself, while the Greeks are brave and use the spear. Thirdly, the way of rule in Persia is that of tyranny: the chorus do not have free speech5, they fawn in front of the queen6 and liken her and the two kings to deities7. Furthermore, Xerxes is an absolute ruler: as Atossa says, 'if he fails - he is not accountable to the community. Provided that he has survived he is still sovereign of this land'8 (which is very different from the Athenian practise of euthunai). We can see very clearly how Aeschylus and his audience conceived of the Persians as 'other' as the three character traits that emerge are the polar opposites of the Greek ideal: Athenians wanted to be hard, strong, manly, but above all democratic men. What is more, Aeschylus made an effort to make his text feel 'other', by the use of Ionian Greek words (which gave the play an Eastern touch) and also words believed to be Persian, lists of exotic Persian names, and references to the Persians worshipping elementary powers.

4 Persae 117, 289, 579, 730 5 They say to Darius: "Oh, we fear to meet thine eye, And we fear to make reply, For the awe that was about thee from of old." (Persae 694) 6 The address her as "O Queen most high, above all Persia's deep-girt daughters glorified" at 155 and say 'you do not have to repeat requests for us to help you by any word or action which lies within our power' at 173 7 Darius is described as "Griefless, unconquered, divine, he was then all in all to us" at 856, Xerxes is "And god-like among mortals doth he stand" at 76, and at 157 Atossa is described as "A god of Persia gave thee love, a god of Persia hast thou born". This is one aspect of Achaemenid culture that Aeschylus got completely wrong: there is no evidence that the Persians deified their kings. 8 Persae 214

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