The earliest surviving among Aeschylus’ tragedies (472BC), the Persians is also the only extant Greek drama that deals with a historic event, Xerxes’ invasion of Greece and his defeat at Salamis in 480BC. Much has been written on the mythologizing of this play (Conacher 1996), its political relevance and patriotism (Podlecki 1999), and the ethnic stereotyping of the enemy (Hall 1988, 1989). This paper focuses instead on Aeschylus’ choice of turning the enemy into a tragic character and the extraordinary capacity of the tragic genre to universalize the human experience. In the play excess and exoticism, names and customs all conjure up the diversity of the Persians as opposed to the Greeks and yet the Persian cities are empty of men while women and elderly are left behind in a scenario all too familiar to a Greek polis. To what extent did the Athenian audience feel the tragic emotions of pity and fear? On the one hand, the excess and exoticism of the characters along with the reported triumph of the Greeks will have certainly triggered the pleasure of the victor reinforcing the values corroborating Greek identity versus the foreign enemy—first and foremost, moderation and the respect of human limits. Politics and patriotism would have been at stake. On the other hand, however, it will be argued, in the text Persian diversity is subdued into a common experience of suffering that transcends the enemy’s particular ethos and geography, its hybris and difference and that ultimately speaks of the human condition. It is at this level that the Athenian audience must have felt fear for themselves and pity for the defeated hence attaining to a new sense of identity that was rather human than ethnic and political.
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