Aeschylus: Extract from "The Persians": The Battle of Salamis |
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Ancient Greece

Aeschylus: Extract from “The Persians”: The Battle of Salamis


Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the the first of the three great Athenian tragic dramatists or tragedians. He was the author of around 80 plays, of which only seven survive. He is reputed to gave fought at the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. and probably also at Salamis in 480 B.C. “The Persians” which was originally produced in 472 B.C. was the only tragic play, for which the subject matter was taken from recent history rather than the normal legendary background. Aeschylus seems to imply that the victories of the Greeks in the Persian wars deserve to be compared with the feats of the heroic age. The lack of the usual distance in time is, however, balanced by the exotic setting of the Persian court at Susa. The Messenger’s speech, which is the subject of the extract below, is the earliest account of the battle of Salamis, and, since Aeschylus almost certainly was a participant, or, at least, a spectator in, the battle, this account deserves to be taken seriously as a historical document, although there are significant discrepancies between it and the other Fifth Century account of the battle of Salamis, that of Herodotus in Book VIII of “The Wars”.

Ll. 384-432. A Persian messenger describes to Queen Atossa in the royal palace at Susa the catastrophic defeat of her nation by the Greeks at the naval battle of Salamis.

And night was passing, and the fleet of the Greeks did not try to make their sailing forth in any way unnoticed; when, however, radiant day with its white horses covered the sight of the whole earth, a shout like a roar first sounded triumphantly from the Greeks like a song, and, at the same time, returned like an echo, loud and clear, from the island crags; the fear was present among all the barbarians that they had failed in their purpose; for, then, the Greeks chanted their solemn paean, not as in flight, but as men rushing into battle with bold courage; and the war-trumpet with its blast set on fire all that side (i.e the Greeks). And, immediately, at the word of command, at the even stroke of the oar, they struck the deep briny, and swiftly they were all clearly to be seen. Firstly, their right wing, well-marshalled, led on, in order, and, secondly, their whole fleet advanced next, and, at the same time, it was possible to hear a loud shout, “Come on, O you sons of the Greeks, save your native land, save your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods, and the tombs of your ancestors; now, the contest (is) about everything (you have).” And, then, the clamour of the Persian tongue arose in return, and no longer was there time to hesitate. And, straightway, ship struck into ship with its brazen beak, and a Greek ship began the charge and breaks off all the stern of a Phoenician ship, and one (captain) steered his ship against another(ship). Now at first, the stream of the Persian fleet held out; but, when the majority of our ships had been collected in the narrow strait, and no help was possible for one another, they themselves were struck by their own bronze-beaked clashes, (and) they splintered their whole bank of oars, and the Greek ships in a circle, not without (good) sense, battered (them) on every side; and the hulls of our ships were overturned and the sea was no longer able to be seen, being full of wreckage and the slaughter of mortals. And the shores and reefs became full of dead bodies, and as many ships as there were in the babarian fleet every ship was rowed without order and in flight. They struck (them) and cut (them) in two with fragments of oars and pieces of wreckage as though (our men) were tunny-fish or some (other) catch of fish; loud wailing, together with shrieking, filled the water of the open sea, until the black of night hid the scene from our eyes. I could not tell you fully of the multitude of these disasters, not even if I were to give you a detailed account for ten days. For you can be sure (lit. know this well), that so great a multitude of men never (before) perished in a single day.

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