David Stuttard LOOKING at PERSIANS

David Stuttard (ed.) Bloomsbury Academic, London 2022
Hardback, pages 272,9781350227927 £76.50

It was an unexpected pleasure to receive a new volume about Persians. This time it was composed during the pandemic under the direction of D. Stuttard.  It is made up of twelve contributions from twelve different scholars together with an introduction by the editor himself. Persians is no doubt a special tragedy and any new contribution is always welcome. As we will see in this review, the volume fulfils the expectations any lover of Greek Tragedy could imagine.

Introduction, David Stuttard (Goodenough College, UK)

The introduction defines four areas leading to a complete outlook on Persians. These are: the historical frame; the Persian Wars; the typical Aeschylean stamp of a proper tragedy; the staging of the play; and the so-called afterlife and actual meaning of Persians.

How is it possible for a victorious force to show mercy to the defeated army? I totally agree with the pages dedicated to this topic. The author reminds us of Trojan Women and Hecuba by Euripides. In fact it is in a certain way contradictory - concerning Persians - the audience even clapping the words from the Messenger relating the battle at Salamis, cheering the Greeks and explaining the reasons for their courage and fighting power - Stuttard mentions the audience at Epidaurus 2020 but I have attended at least three different performances of Persians in Greece  and the reaction of the audience was exactly the very same at the very same verses, and on the other hand  a feeling of Aristotelian eleos (pity) is flying over the full play.  This is a very well observed reflection.

Persians on Stage  (1) Paul Cartledge(University of Cambridge, UK)

 Cartledge opens the series of long articles about the play. He mentions Phrynichus’ The Capture of Miletus and Phoenissae, Persai by Timotheus  and of course the Aeschylean production, linking them all to historical facts and mentioning Herodotus’ Historiae. To be remarked is the feeling of self-identity of the Greeks opposed to the barbarian.  To end, a mention of some translations and performances of the play in Indo-Iranian language and to the recent production at Epidaurus to commemorate 2500 years from the battle of Salamis.

Athens and Persia (2) Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (Cardiff University,UK)

After an impressive opening trying to transport the reader to the ancient theatre of Dionysus at the very moment of the première of Persians, Llewelyn-Jones offers again four items for discussion. What did the Athenian know about the extent of the Persian Empire, about the Persian story, about Persian Religion, about the Persian queens and finally about Persian language and culture? A lot of serious reflexions to conclude that the Aeschylean play is not at all a caricaturized vision of the enemy but an exotically fictional image of the Athenian imagination. Portraits made by the Greeks should be examined in detail.

Persians’ First Audience (3) Robert Garland(Colgate University,U.K.)

This is a very accurate and detailed examination of the play by Aeschylus. The author emphasises again and again in this puzzling work the contrast between the triumphant dramatization of a patriotic sentiment and the grief of the Persians, the vanquished versus the winners. Of course, this main idea was pointed out by the editor in his introductory chapter. I have enjoyed everything concerning the Ghost of Darius.

Imperial Stirring in Persians (4), Sophie Mills (University of North Carolina at Asheville, USA)

There is nearly nothing new in this article. Sophie Mills makes the same points as previous contributors. The Athenians were picking up as imperialists exactly where the Persians left off, she underlines.

Homeric Echoes of the Battlefield of Persians (5), Laura Swift (The Open University, UK)

It is necessary to move to the next chapter to find something different. Laura Swift brings Homer back and sets him face to face with Persians. She reminds us of the Iliad, insisting on the chapter where Achilles is equipped with his new armour. His shield is described in detail; there is a visible distinction between the field of peace and the field of war. Aeschylus echoes and adapts Homeric precedents to suit his audience’s beliefs regarding contemporary conflicts. A second section is dedicated to examining affinities between the catalogues of warriors in both Iliad and Persians. The third and last one deals with Xerxes as an epic hero. No doubt like Agamemnon, Xerxes has made mistakes out of pride and desire for glory which will cause damage to his people. He is supposed to be a leader fighting in the front line. The Persian ruler instead keeps on watching the battle from a distance on the top of the hill. This is certainly a pathetic image; the relationship of this extravagant leader to his troops is merely that of a tyrant, a distant observer. No doubt Xerxes has completed his journey from epic warrior to a crushed and forlorn figure. To conclude: do not miss this article; it is full of suggestions and clever reflections.

Individual and Collective in Persians (6), Michael Carroll (University of St Andrews, UK)

This a detailed analysis of the text by Aeschylus insisting on the main idea that it dramatizes the tragedy both of Xerxes the individual and of Persia as a whole. Both tragedies are always presented alternately rather than being interwoven. There is also a commentary on the several yoke metaphors to be found throughout the play.

Land, Sea and Freedom; the Forces of Nature in Aeschylus’ Persians (7), Rush Rehm (Stanford University (USA)

I paid special attention to this article because I have read some years ago several of Rehm´s books on Greek Drama. There are six paragraphs: Representing the physical world in the ancient Greek Theatre: a fatal yoking; the land and seas of Greece; elemental and celestial allies; back to the earth: Persian and Athenian and finally “Natural Justice”.  Rehm underlines continuously that few (if any) Greek Tragedies include as many references to the land and its features as Persians. Very interesting his detailed analysis about yoking is significant, in a different way from Carroll’s outlook. In a certain way the four possible significances are examined; to harness animals to a plough; to join things together not normally united; the subjugation of people placed under the yoke of slavery; and finally the conjugal union of husband and wife. All those four different nuances can be checked all over the play. Geographical motives mentioned in the play are still there, Hellespont, Salamis, River Strymon, Plataea; nature shapes the Greek man, the Greek mind; there is a connection between environment, nature and man and this is very well reflected in Persians. Xerxes himself treats the natural world as his slave yoking it to his ambition and the forces of nature take its revenge. As a closing reflection Rehm reminds us that inconceivable and overwhelming disasters are already upon us. This is, no doubt, another reason to explain the continuous updating of this tragedy

The Persians love their children too (8), Alan Sommerstein (University of Nottingham, UK)

What is, as the play presents things, the principal cause of the Persians’ defeat? Sommerstein answers the question: they lose the battle of Salamis because they were successfully deceived. The author argues that in fact the Persian never expected to have to fight a naval battle at all. Persia’s downfall was due to a more fundamental delusion caused by god or gods. The second part of his article tries to point out the personal responsibility of Xerxes in Persia´s defeat. In the third section Sommerstein makes a very accurate examination of the wives and the mothers along the play. The chorus laments are about Persia not about personal situations. We are reminded of the famous Herodotus sentence; in peace sons bury their fathers but in wars fathers bury their sons. Then the author deals with Atossa as a mother and as a wife. No doubt she is the old Queen, but she is first of all a proper mother. Xerxes is addressed 13 times, mentioned mostly as pais.

To summarise; The Persians came to grief not because they were Persian but because they were human with weaknesses that are part of human nature. And the pain of learning that a husband or a son is dead or “missing in action” especially in a war that should never have been begun, is the same the world over.

Atossa, (9), Hanna Roisman (Colby College, Maine, USA)

This is a lovely chapter about Queen Atossa who seems to be the hub of the play´s action. Three different points of view can be mentioned. She could be considered as a plot device used for pillorying Persia while glorifying Athens. At the same time Aeschylus imbues Atossa´s persona with characteristics that present a cohesive image of credible woman; then we could say that she deserves to be considered a fully-fledged character. Finally, if we look at her as the only female character in the play, we could realize that she precedes in some ways Clytemnestra in Oresteia, both women being worlds apart. We could assume, then, that Atossa has mastered the art of doing what she wants while seeming to defer to the men around her. Hanna Roisman develops these main ideas throughout her paper; the grieving wife, the protective mother, the precursor of Clytemnestra to be identified alternately when meeting the chorus, then the Messenger, and later on Darius’ ghost. Some of the reflections Sommerstein presents in chapter 8 are to be found here again.  Roisman concludes Atossa is a woman with political power but she is not subversive; her ability to appear obedient yet retaining an independent mind is really impressive.

Theatrical Ghosts in Persians and Elsewhere (10), Anna Uhlig (University of California, USA)

Uhlig begins pointing out a striking juxtaposition of presence and absence when referring to Darius’ Ghost in Persians; a notion of distance, temporal, spatial and existential; myth and history marked this unique character. There is a contrast between Darius, dead but in a certain way “alive” as a ghost and his son, alive indeed but politically dead; I like the way the author develops this point of view. Darius’ return - she argues - transforms Persians from political propaganda into a deep meditation of the limits of human understanding and the homelessness of our suffering. Uhlig examines the Ghost of Clytemnestra in Eumenides, in some ways quite similar, some ways quite different and then moves to two fragmentary plays by Aeschylus, Psychagogoi and Psychostasia, the first one related to Teiresias’ prophecy concerning Odysseus in his travel to the Underworld, the second one related to Iliad when the souls of Memnon and Achilles are weighed. To underline, finally she shows that bringing ghosts on stage is a way of stressing the emotions in Greek Tragedy

Words and Pictures (11), Carmel MacGaldum Bary(formerly of University College,Ireland)

This is a quite interesting paper as I have been involved in staging Persians. No doubt it is very important to analyse the lexis and the opsis elements. Spectacle denotes sight, what we see and how we see it. The dramatist must encourage his listeners to see (take a picture of) what is sung or narrated before them. The author explains in detail how the dramatist gets through it. Aeschylus makes the audience pay attention to the text and enables it to translate words into images. The Chorus contains the main emotional power; it is to be remarked that its laments are male and not female laments. Concerning some opsis elements the importance of clothing throughout the play is not at all meaningless. The new clothes worn by Xerxes are nothing but a real change in fortune. There is some way a sad nostos, a real failure. Persians is a nostos drama too: a warrior homecoming from war, similar to Agamemnon. Words and images - in both plays - are very accurately used by Aeschylus to heighten tension and to stimulate the emotions.

National Theatre Wales, Persians 2010  (12) Mike Pearson(University of Aberystwyth,UK)

I have paid attention to this final contribution by eminent Prof. Pearson. It is difficult to review the story of a performance one has not attended. However, one can guess quite a lot from the paper of Prof. Pearson. Persians has been recently performed in a remote place in Wales: in a replica village constructed by the British Army in 1942 during the Second World War. Cilieni - its name - is a cluster of houses and other buildings with steel shuttered doors and windows; emptiness is profound: it is suitable to fulfil the necessary balance between desire and necessity of the stage director. The author explains that Persians is mostly a play of hybris and nemesis, which means in some way grief and chaos, and as we have seen all through the volume there are quite important emotions to be pointed out in the tragedy. Cilieni was perfect for this purpose. There is no attempt to modernise the text; Pearson continues explaining how rehearsals were organised and how elements of technology and media were inserted into the performance. Finally, the author explains the difficulties in order to shepherd and organise the audience and get them to an isolated site that few, if any, would have never visited before.  In the last paragraph Pearson  asserts that it resembled a live film. A production particular to one place and in one moment with no further live performance possible elsewhere. I totally agree; concerning Ancient Greek Drama there are a lot of performances here and there that are only suitable to one place and in one moment. They will not be performed again…. And in the meantime. How much do they cost? Such “innovations “ are they worth it?


Translation (David Stuttard,Goodenough College,UK)

A full translation of the original text follows. I must declare that I like it very much. It shows absolute fidelity and loyalty to the original and at the same time it is absolutely suitable for any stage director. I would underline this sentence: “stage directions may be surmised by the text”. I totally agree with this point of view, which Oliver Taplin explains in his Greek Tragedy in Action 1979.  I have enjoyed a lot when reading it aloud. I would say it is a real philological translation extremely useful also for theatre practitioners.

Bibliography and Index

The book closes with a selected bibliography related mostly to Persians. One would have liked to find any mention of books in other European Languages. The final INDEX has drawn my attention. Oliver Taplin is the only one mentioned without indication of the page where he is alluded. Quite surprising indeed because in fact he is only mentioned by Prof. Carmel MacGaldum in her article. I think Stanford´s Greek Tragedy and the Emotions, 1983 should have been mentioned in that list too.


This is an excellent book. As with any book made of different contributors, repetitions are unavoidable, even if the editor tries and does his best. Most points of view and ways of approaching the play are contained in this volume. I have missed however a full chapter devoted to Xerxes; he is continuously examined and mentioned but in the same way as the Chorus and Atossa and the Ghost of Darius, but he is no doubt a singular character unique in Greek Tragedy. Persians is an inexhaustible play. And David Stuttard has done his best to try to drain even the last glass. After reading the book there is still a feeling of Aristotelian katharsis flying over. I wonder if I really was reading a book in my desk or attending an impressive performance at the Ancient Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. Such was my fascination.

Because I have translated Persians into Spanish and have staged the play according to my translation for that purpose, I feel obliged to declare that I have found many points of coincidence. At the same time there are quite a lot of fine suggestions for further studies in the volume. Please, read this book. It will not leave you indifferent.



                                                                                 José Luis  Navarro

                                                                                Euroclassica (Spain)