Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third Millennium

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Lianeri, de Gruyter, Lee and N. Morley, London: Blackwell, , Antiquity and Modern Greek Culture, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, , Hardwick and S. Oxford University Press, , Boys-Stones, B. Graziosi and P. Vasunia, Oxford University Press, , Zajko Oxford University Press, , Bridges, E.

Hall and P. Ashgate, , Martindale and R.

Commemorating conflict : Greek monuments of the Persian wars in SearchWorks catalog

Blackwell, , Interest in him seems to have been first seriously reawakened in the 10 th century, from when the earliest and best manuscript, the Codex Laurentianus M dates; in the 11 th century Michael Psellus is to be found commending Aeschylus' 'obscure profundity'; by the 14 th both Thomas Magister and Demetrius Triclinius were producing annotated editions of the triad.

Between and Islam made strikingly little impact as an identifiable fact in Western minds, a situation which began to change rapidly in about , just after the first crusade, which begin in late The shedding of the blood of the Jews of Jerusalem was as much a cause for celebration as the victories over Islam, but it was indeed this crusade which made both the religion and the prophet-founder of Islam familiar concepts in the West.

It was born at more or less the same time as the romances of Arthur and Charlemagne, and contained as little truth value when it comes to the depiction of near -legendary foes. It formed the picture of the abominations practised under Muslim faith to be found in all the western epics and chansons de geste of this period, from the Song of Roland onwards; the Saracens are uniformly idolaters, and often seen as worshipping three gods — Tervagan or Termagant , Mahomet and Apollo a picture formed in photographic negative to the Christian trinity.

An additional factor was the identification, in a medieval poem entitled Vita Mahumeti, of the historical prophet Mohammed with a magus, or Asiatic magician forced to flee from Jersualem in the late fourth century, during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius. Mahumet's erotic magic ensures that she is suitably infatuated. Mamucius thus becomes ruler of Libya and the magus introduces the corrupting religion that threatens the Christian church.

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The knots of ancient and medieval prejudice are becoming difficult to disentangle. Even the appearance in of the first translation of the Koran into Latin, by the English scholar Robert of Ketton, did little to correct misperceptions. But in the seventh and final section of his Opus Majus circa AD , an early attempt at comparative religion, Bacon discussed the Saracens, Tartars, pagans, idolaters Buddhists , Jews, and Christians. He criticized the Muslims for the sensuality associated with Venus, and classified the Saracens as devoted to the end of pleasure — the main in life according to Darius in Aeschylus' Persians , and Xerxes' central 11 objective according to Cicero De Finibus 2.

Amongst Church reformers such as John Wy cliff e, one of the major forerunners of Protestantism, it had become possible to compare the schisms of the West with the unity and cohesiveness of Islam, and the perceptibly devout way of life led by many Muslims with the perceived decadence of many followers of Christ. It is also remarkable to observe the ease with which doctrinal parallels with Islam could be found by Christians, provided only that it was to their military or political advantage, once the Ottoman Empire had advanced into the Balkans.

In the late 15 th century the Pope could meet the Sultan to ask for help in winning Venetian backing against the French; in , Milan, Ferrara, Mantua and Florence financed an Ottoman attack on Venice. As late as , Elizabeth I could inform Sultan Murad II that Spain was a nation of idolaters, and propose an alliance with him based on ideology — strict monotheists against untrustworthy catholics. Some said that the Turks were the descendants of the Trojans, indeed of Priam, which would legitimize Ottoman rule in Anatolia and indeed present the Ottoman conquests of Greece and the Balkans as retribution for the deeds of Agamemnon.

Other westerners, more hostile to these non-Christians, argued that they were descendants of the Scythians and thus the obvious heirs to all the traits attributed to the ancient Pontic barbarians by ancient Greek and Roman writers. This xenophobic view legitimised constant military action against them — not as a war against infidels but as a bellum contra barbaros: as Rodinson puts it in Europe and the Mystique of Islam, 'to those Europeans brought up on Herodotus and Xenophon, this was an enticing notion'.

And this is the context in which Aeschylus' Persians first dawned upon the European Renaissance. Indeed, the earliest surviving Greek play to have been performed in antiquity became, appropriately enough, the first ancient Greek drama known to have enjoyed some kind of performance in the Renaissance. It was recited at an event which explicitly equated Achaemenid Persia with the Ottoman Empire, thus, for the first certain time in the western tradition, seeing 13 Aeschylus' Persians through a lens that was not only triumphalist but conditioned by Christian views of Islam.

It celebrated the victory of a western naval alliance, including the Venetians of the Heptanesian islands and led by John of Austria, which had defeated the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto. This feat has entered the European tradition as one of the defining moments in the creation of western liberty. Unfortunately a I9 th -century earthquake destroyed the island's administrative office where the original records of this event were housed, so it is necessary to rely on secondary sources stemming from the mid- 19 th century. Michael Sophianos of Chios, for example, translated Aristotle, collaborated on the seminal edition of the tragedies of Aeschylus published by Francisco Robortello in Venice, and became a professor of Greek at Padua.


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And for the Christian identification of Xerxes with everything in opposition to Christian doctrine, it is unnecessary to go further than Milton's outspoken comparison of Satan's bridge from heaven to hell in Paradise Lost book 9 with Xerxes' Hellespontine contrivance: So, if great things to small may be compared, Xerxes, the liberty of Greece to yoke, From Susa, his Memnonian palace high, Came to the sea: and, over Hellespont Bridging his way, Europe with Asia joined, And scourged with many a stroke the indignant waves.

The Tragedy of Romantic Hellenism Aeschylus suddenly became far more accessible in the late 18th century, when the first translation of his complete dramas into any modern language the French version of by the Marquis J. Le Franc de Pompignan was followed in by the much more influential English-language translation by Robert Potter.

The Greco-Persian Wars Explained

And it is revealing that the first artistic response to Potter's translation, some chalk pictures by George Romney drawn in the s, the inspiration for the illustrations to Persians is plainly Turkish rather than Achaemenid fig. This is revealed in the costumes, the drapery, and above all the obeisant salaam of the chorus of Persian councillors. Romney had recently painted a portrait of Potter, and the chalk 15 sketches seem to have resulted from their conversations about the new translation of Aeschylus that took place during the sittings. The late 18th century thus intuitively visualized the ancient Persians as contemporary Turks.

It must not be forgotten that the Ottoman forces were still attempting to besiege Vienna in ; they failed, but between that year and the treaty of Jassy in there were no fewer than forty-one years of war between Turkey and either Austria or Russia. The Turks made notable advances in the years leading up to , and it was not until the s and s that the Ottoman Empire ceased to look like an immediately pressing threat to Christian civilization at large, and more like a promising pawn in Northern European superpower politics.

The turning-point was the Russian-Turkish war of , by the end of which the Austrians and everyone else agreed that that the Russians were a far worse threat to European stability than the Turks could now ever be. The possibility was considered of reviving the spirit of the crusades in order to re- annexe Constantinople, whose seizure by the Turks, and its status as the capital of Islam, had remained a constant irritant to western Europeans.

The early stages of preparation for the Greek uprising of thus took place in a cultural environment that had new access to the plays of Aeschylus as well as a set of popular conventions for impersonating Ottoman Turks in the theatre. A French Les Perses, inspired by Aeschylus, was in the early 19 th century dedicated to Alexandras Morouzis, Phanariot Prince of the Danubian principality of Moldavia, and may have been produced at his court in Jassy; Sophocles' Philoctetes - a profound statement of the pain of exile from the fatherland - had been staged in by the Phanariot community at Odessa.

This audience had come to this literary evening with an agenda: the play reading of the Persians served to sanction and strengthen ambitions of patriotic military action that remained subject to Ottoman-Turkish suspicion and retaliation. It was the result of a sudden inspiration, conceived and 17 produced when Shelley was intensely excited by the historical circumstances in southern Europe. His daughter-in-law Lady Jane Shelley describes this process: The south of Europe had awakened from its lethargy into a state of high political excitement, and it seemed as if the age of liberty were dawning in several places.

Spain and Naples had been revolutionized in the previous year; and the northern and central parts of Italy now endeavoured to follow the example It will become important to keep this in mind when the configurations of freedom and despotism within his poem are investigated.

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Shelley's interest in the Greek insurrection was therefore intensely personal as well as political. It was it this time that he completed the thousand-line drama, and it is scarcely surprising that more than a third of it involves direct commentary on the war between the Greeks and the Turks. Shelley writes, In was in the Preface to this drama that Shelley made his famous declaration, 'We are all Greeks Shelley was drawing on a tradition already inaugurated by the time of Thomas Maurice's The Fall of the Mogul , a tragedy 'attempted partly on the Grecian model', which borrows from the Sophoclean Oedipus, but also from Aeschylus' Persians.

The latter play is especially apparent in Maurice's battle narrative and the laments of his mutinous choruses of Brahmin and Zoroastrian priests, who predict that the persecution their religions have suffered will become 19 worse under their newest Islamic ruler, Nadir Shah, before the subject Hindu and Parsee peoples will one day be liberated from imperial oppression.

Shelley also synthesized contemporary Turk with ancient Achaemenid Persian. His scene is set at Constantinople, in the seraglio of Mahmud II, who was the Ottoman sultan between and From our point of view, however, the poem marks a pivotal moment.

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It is now through a major canonical author that all the ideological weight of the Persian wars becomes associated not only with the Ottoman Turks' occupation of Greece, but with Islam as the enemy of western liberty. The shift from masculine to feminine seems to allow Shelley to write much less warlike sentiments, thus creating an opportunity for more spiritual expansiveness;s 8 this chorus' fundamental role is to translate the specific events unfolding in into events of diachronic and cosmic significance, in which the current struggle is emblematic of, and an important step in, the march of history towards a transcendental notion of human Freedom.

In the fifth stanza of their first ode, while Mahmud sleeps on his couch surrounded by opium petals, they invoke the idea of Freedom, the mighty mistress; by stanza nine they are warming to the theme. It turns out that Freedom's splendour first 'burst and shone' from 'Thermopylae and Marathon'. With this move, the ancient Greek resistance against Persia and the contemporary struggle are explicitly associated. In a truly memorable image, maternal Greece is figured as mourning at the funeral of the infant Freedon, whose bier she follows through Time.

Himself an agnostic moral idealist, with leanings towards the epistemological and metaphysical theories of George Berkeley, 60 in this poem he had the chance to divorce the question of the political domination of Greece from the religious conflict between Islam and Christianity.

But faced with the history of monotheisms, he stepped back from such a radical step on its very brink. In the second long choral lyric, the famous 'Worlds on worlds are rolling over', the universe is run by the mysterious cosmic figure of 'the unknown God'. But this unknown deity, in Shelley's conception of the history of religion, has from time to time sent forth to humanity individual figures, including the 'Promethean conqueror', who trod the 'thorns of death and shame'. They are presumably Orthodox Christians, although they are endowed, like the chorus of Prometheus Unbound, with a vision that transcends their specific identity and place in space 21 and time.

Yet their own religious stance can never offer a parallel to the eclectic, mystical and global spirituality of the better known, mythical poem, which was profoundly affected by Shelley's interest in both Platonism and Hinduism. Here he tries to have his agnostic cake and eat it; Christianity is on the one hand just another temporary and contingent manifestation of humanity's relationship to the supreme Being; but, on the other hand, it is was in the past superior to, and more truthful than, pagan polytheism; it is now superior to the Islamic religion, and will undoubtedly outlast it.

He writes, The popular notions of Christianity are represented in this chorus as true in their relation to the worship they superseded, and that which in all probability they will supersede, without considering their merits in a relation more universalis He continues in this note to argue coherently and precisely for the necessity for agnosticism: that 'there is a true solution of the riddle [of the universe], and that in our present state that solution is unattainable by us, are propositions which may be regarded as equally certain'.

The true extent of Shelley's absorption of the 22 Christian imagery of the infidel emerges in the interchange between Mahmud and his henchman Daood. The Janizars have apparently not been paid, but Mahmud is unsympathetic: 'Go! This, to me, shows the extent to which the still stirring politics of and Utopian idealism of Hellas are compromised by its complicity in the ideology of the Christian crusade.

Hellas represents truly, from this point of view, the singular tragedy of Romantic Hellenism. It was certainly in imitation of Shelley's work that a whole tradition of patriotic Salamis texts was established in Victorian literature, including William Bennett's The Triumph for Salamis, a 'lyrical ballad' for twin choirs of young men and female virgins, whose imaginary setting is a circle on an Attic beach around the victory trophy. These young Athenians sometimes even forget that they are pre-Christian pagans, as when they execrate 'the fell barbarian', who was 'accursed of God', and lusted 'to crush the guiltless and the free'.

Retopicalising Persians It is not the point of this chapter to deny that Aeschylus' Persians has been adapted, revived or performed in relation to any conflict other than the west versus Islam.


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The tragedy has a reception history that embraces several other 23 wars. It may underlie, for example, Cervantes' play La Numancia c.

Cervantes had himself been wounded at the battle of Lepanto, so quickly associated with Salamis. Thomas Rymer considered redesigning Persians as a theatrical commemoration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Germany Nazi this time, not Prussian was thus once again equated with Aeschylus' presentation of Persia.? Although the play's patriotic sentiments have long since made it a favourite in Greece, 73 Karolos Koun's landmark staging of Persians was perhaps the first to use the play to criticize 'the barbarian within', the internal tyrant embodied in the hard right 24 wing of Greek politics; this famous production, which premiered at the World Arts Festival in London in , achieved great fame and certainly helped to foster the philhellene sentiment that was soon to put pressure on the Greek dictatorship of fig.

During subsequent revivals, the figures equated with the tyrannical Persian king become, paradoxically, Greeks themselves: the loathed dictators.

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In the German Democratic Republic a famous production by Mattias Braun, revived several times between i and , was partly an unusual for the GDR retrospective denunciation of fascism, and up to a point equated Xerxes with Hitler. The Berliner Ensemble produced another version in in which the Persian court was the epitome of 'western' military decadence, identified more with the Latin American dictatorships of that era than with North America Xerxes wore the khaki uniform of a junta commander and his mother a cocktail dress.

There is one further production that is required to fill out the picture, and that is Peter Brook's remarkable Orghast of Here Aeschylus' Persians was taken, almost certainly for the first time in history, to the land where it is actually set — the heart of the ancient Achaemenid 25 kingdom of Iran, an architectural backdrop that had so frequently inspired the imagination of set designers in Greece and elsewhere see fig.