Battle of Salamis (oil painted by Wilhelm von Kaulbach in 1868)

I highlight this week two significant events that concern the Greek culture. The first is the staging of The Persians of Aeschylus in the ancient Greek theater of Epidaurus This Saturday, June 25, it can be seen via Zoom, at 3:00 p.m. in our country, through this link.

The second is the death of the Hellenist Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, on the 21st of the current month at the age of 98, which I will briefly refer to at the foot of this note.

The Persians

The Persians is the first tragedy of Aeschylus. Although in advance of this author there were other playwrights -Tespis, Quírilo, Frínico or the satirist Prátinas-, of these we do not keep any piece, so Esquilo happens to be virtually the creator of the Attic tragedy.

This is how the Hellenist Gilbert Murray baptized him in a famous work, Aeschylus. The Creator of Tragedy, in which he emphasized that he introduced the second dramatic character, relaxed the monologues and reduced the choruses, bringing the former dithyrambo to stage grandeur.

Aeschylus, creator of the tragedy (ca. 526-525 BC – ca 456-455 BC)

Professor Murray also highlights that this prolific author gave his pieces religious character by showing in them the presence of divine forces which, in their reading, are those that ultimately seem to settle the fate of mortals (remember that at the end of the Trachini, Sophocles, through the mouth of the choir, exclaims: « And in all this nobody walks but Zeus », v. 1278). His tragedies, consequently, have an aura of sacredness that confers solemn majesty on his dramaturgy. Later, after the deserved success of the pieces by Sophocles and the popular acclaim of those of Euripides, who seemed to have eclipsed Aeschylus’ fame, Aristophanes, in the critical balance of the three great tragic events, ends up giving the hand to Aeschylus.

The Persians is the only one of his tragedies that deals with a historical theme -the victory of the Greeks against the Medes in the battle of Salamis– His remaining pieces do so on mythical themes. Before Aeschylus, Frínico had already addressed this issue in his Phoenicians, from 476 BC. C., which is not preserved but of which we have news by scoliasts. In this work the Persian defeat was reported by a eunuch in the prologue to the tragedy; in Aeschylus’s, on the other hand, the disaster is part of the representation itself.

After the repeated victories of the Hellenes –Marathon (490 BC), Salamis (480 BC) and Platea (479 BC)Aeschylus, who had fought in the first two, took as a stamp of honor his participation in such deeds, as revealed by the epitaph that, they say, he composed for his tomb: “In this tomb lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, Athenian, dead in Gela, the one rich in wheat. Of its value that the famous forest of Marathon speaks, and the Medo with long hair, which has proven it well ”. Also in such contests one of his brothers fought who lost a hand in the fierce confrontation between Asia and Europe, foreshadowing what would also happen to Cervantes in Lepanto, as a couple fighting between Asia and Europe two millennia later.

Battle of Marathon (490 c. C.) in which the Greeks defeated the Persians

The Persians was represented in Athens in 472 BC. C., and Esquilo obtained the maximum award in the Dionysian festivities. This happened eight years after the battle of Salamis, a warlike event that must have been strongly engraved in the thought of the Athenians. Subsequently it was staged in the magnificent theater of the then kingdom of Syracuse to which Aeschylus had been invited by the tyrant Hieron I – great patrons whose court also hosted Pindar, Simonides and Bacchilides -, the poet himself taking over the entire régie of the piece. It is recorded that in the first performance Pericles, then 23, acted as a Korean.

In order to elaborate this tragedy the playwright does not place himself on the victorious terrain of the Greeks, but on that of the vanquished. He did it not only to show the pain of the Persians for the defeat, but also – and especially – to suggest to his compatriots not to humiliate the vanquished, at the same time to empathize with her pain since Týche this time tipped the balance in favor of the Hellenes, but luck can be changeable. Stand out with such tips sublime values ​​of the human -the compassion of the neighbor in afflicting situations-, at the same time that shows how harmful the hybris (pride), which exemplifies with the wild behavior of King Xerxes who tried to twist the designs of the phýsis (nature) by building a bridge over the Hellespont in order to invade Greece. According to E. Francois, a former Greek professor at the UBA, following the opinion of Heraclitus, « If the sun wanted to go beyond the limits it has set, the Erinnias, servants of Justice, would know how to find it », in allusion to a force, as invisible as it is powerful, that maintains cosmic harmony.

Aeschylus’ theater. A very young Pericles acted in one of his pieces

According to the Greek imagination, that reckless daring must have irritated Poseidon, the god of the sea. That is why the reading the Greeks made – of the fact that a small number of their rowers and hoplites might have defeated the mighty Persian army – was that the gods must have intervened in victory. These would not have wanted a single man to rule Asia and Europe, being also a wicked man who belittled the sacred by putting chains to the sea. Aeschylus, faithful to old Apollonian precepts tending to moderation -medèn ágan (nothing too much); gnôthi sè autonom (know yourself), that is, be aware of your limits, as mortal – and to the teachings of the wise Solon, he advises restraint and respect for the vanquished.

A few words about the storyline:

The Persians opens with the parliament of the Susa Chorus of Elders, sung next to Darius’ tomb. To these, the intrepid Xerxes, before marching to the fight, entrusted them to watch over his kingdom. The elderly are distressed at not having any news, so they sense the possible defeat. They only know that the Persians made a bridge with the ships with which to sail the Hellespont to attack the Hellas by water and by land. That everything has been neatly calculated but, the restless elders wonder, What mortal will be able to escape from the deceitful cunning of Destiny, who will be able to withdraw from their networks? Picture similar to that of the beginning of the Agamemnon, another climate tragedy.

As the chorus afflicts, Atosa, the widow of Darius, appears, realizing that the eidolon (image) of the sovereign has appeared to him in dreams, revealing the defeat of Xerxes. Intrigued, the queen asks the choir where Athens is and who is its king; the elders reply that the Athenians are neither slaves nor subjects of any man, with what the tragedy refers to two forms of government: democracy and tyranny.

The dialogue is interrupted with the arrival of an angels (messenger) carrying the news of the Persian defeat and that the coasts of Salamis are strewn with corpses, although Xerxes, who has given the order to withdraw, managed to survive. The Greeks had about three hundred ships, while the Medes exceeded a thousand, but it seems that a god disliked the impious action of the attackers so he tipped the faithful of the balance against the Persian army, being defeated. He says that the Greek rowers, prisoners of enthusiasm, sang libertarian cries, while they went to meet the Persians. The historian Herodotus understands that the Greeks believed not to have acted alone but with the help of the aforementioned god of the shepherds, whom one of his people saw wandering in the middle of the fray.

Atosa, full of pain, invokes the divine Darius to help her with his advice. It is then that the majestic specter of the old monarch emerges. Aware of the naval defeat, Darío announces that in the future there will be another disastrous battle on land -in allusion to Plataea-, while continuing to advise that his people limit themselves to fighting in Asia by refraining from crossing the sea that, by divine design, is forbidden.

Darius I, the Great

To Xerxes, a prisoner of uncontrollable fury, the gods sent him an ate (blindness) that led him to persist in error and undertake his daring excess. Never, says Darius, does Zeus leave unbridled pride unpunished, and begs the elders to advise their son. that, putting aside his arrogance, he should conduct himself prudently and not sin against the gods. « In the meantime, I am flying to the kingdom of darkness. » Xerxes bursts onto the scene with his torn dresses regretting not having died in battle since he was born to ruin the land of his parents. The piece closes with the request of the dejected monarch to the choir of elders that they shave their beards as a sign of mourning and, moaning, return to their homes.

Aeschylus, in keeping with his intention to oppose Darius to Xerxes, It contradicts historical reality because the old king, in his later years, far from advocating moderation, thought to attack the Greeks to take revenge on the defeat of Marathon.

Xerxes, son and successor of Darius the Great

In this tragedy there is no action, but the discursive staging of a tragic situation, a kind of thrênos (funeral song) with which Aeschylus, in a calm and thoughtful attitude, proposes moderation and modesty: not to be proud of victory, at the same time feeling sorry for the vanquished. It is interesting to note that at no time does he mention the Greek chiefs since his purpose was not to exalt victory, which could have aroused the jealousy of the gods, but to account for defeat and pain of the victims.

Epidaurus and his theater

Epidaurus, ancient city of Argolis, was famous for the temple dedicated to Aesculapius, god of medicine. Hostels, a stadium, a gymnasium and a theater were added to its temple, which was also a kind of hospital, near which hot springs flowed, as a way of making pilgrims’ lives more pleasant.

The theater of Epidaurus

Every major city in the ancient world had its theater, always erected on a hill so that the natural decline of the terrain facilitates a good vision. That of Epidaurus is one of the best preserved; It has room for about 16,000 seated spectators. It is built in white limestone and open towards the sanctuary; behind the scene there is a privileged landscape, as a natural background. It was built in the 4th century BC. C .; It is the work of the architect Argivo Policleto the young and expanded in the following century to double its seats. Its koílon (grandstand), with excellent acoustics, is 119 meters in diameter; its orchestra, in which the choir performed, is circular and in its center was the statue of Dionysus, of which only the base remains. The scaena frons (stage), whose foundation was 27 meters long, is not preserved.

In this privileged setting, Epidaurias instituted by the Greek registrar Karolos Kuhn are celebrated who staged pieces with the participation of Katina Paximou, Irene Papas and Melina Mercouri, among other. The Epidaurus is considered one of the most beautiful and harmonious theaters of antiquity.

In memoriam

Francisco Rodríguez Adrados belonged to the illustrious pleiad of classicists from the University of Salamanca; Among these, I mention Antonio Tovar, Agustín García Calvo, the mycologist Martín Sánchez Ruipérez and Luis Gil Fernández; the latter, in full lucidity despite his very advanced age, is in my opinion the most profound and subtle of them all, for the core of any of his works.

The Hellenist Francisco Rodríguez Adrados died on July 21, 2020. (. / Esteban Cobo)

Adrados, of whom I was a student at Complutense, left a cyclopean work on classical and linguistic philology. He was a prominent Indo-European, as well as a renowned translator of Greek, Latin and Sanskrit texts. Since 1952, dictated chair of « Greek Philology » at the aforementioned university. After his retirement, he was honored as Emeritus Professor. He was a member of the Royal Spanish Academy and the Royal Academy of History. At the Higher Council for Scientific Research, he formed numerous disciples, one of the most outstanding, the Hellenist Carlos García Gual. Indefatigable, Don Francisco directed until his death important projects related to the classical world of which he stands out the monumental Greek-Spanish dictionary of which eight volumes have already appeared.

The author is a doctor of Philosophy and Letters (Paris IV, Sorbonne), a consulting professor at the UBA and directs the Imaginary Studies Center at the National Academy of Sciences of Buenos Aires.

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