Freedom and the Origins of Empire in Aeschylus' Persians

Rebecca Futo Kennedy

George Washington University

This paper argues the following: Aeschylus' Persians disguises a discourse of power beneath a rhetoric of 'freedom,' a rhetoric that is fundamental to 5th century Athenian imperialist mentality and  expansionist agenda.  'Freedom' in this play is constructed by the oppositional category of Persian tyranny: Attic and Hellenic freedom mean specifically not Persian tyranny. This definitional strategy reveals not only that the Athenians saw their democratic freedom as the basis for military power (Goldhill, 1988, 192), but that democratic freedom legitimized and supported their growing imperialism.  A close reading of the rhetoric of freedom within the play will reveal that the freedom offered others through Athens' military power is actually the origin of Athens' imperialism. 

Scholarship on the Persians has largely focused on the historical nature of the play; whether the play accurately represents the battle at Salamis (Podlecki, 1966; Fornara, 1966); and if not, how much value does the text have for historians (Pelling, 1997).  More recently, under the influence of Edward Saïd scholars have recognized the play as a paradigmatic text in the creation of the Other in a Greek/Barbarian dichotomy (esp. Hall 1996).  Goldhill (1988) seems to have first recognized Persians as participating in the political distinction between monarchical/tyrannical East and democratic Athens understanding the play "in the light of the developing polis ideology and the military values with which such ideology is necessarily linked" (193).  The play, Goldhill concludes, is one of the earliest documents to reflect democratic ideology.  Rosenbloom (1995), also offering a politicized reading of Persians, argues that the text questions Athens' growing hegemony by undermining the positive nature of naval power (whereas Goldhill understands the navy as being linked ideologically to the hoplite/military ideal).  In all of these interpretations of Persians, only Rosenbloom specifically addresses the developing Athenian Empire.  And no previous scholar has recognized the link between the developing democratic ideology and imperial expansion.

 The main arguments for the origins of an imperial ideology with Persians will be made through a close reading of the messenger speech at 353ff. Here I argue that Persians, rather than being a 'historical play', is mythologized.  And because this mythologizing gives structure to the varied emotions associated with the Athenian victory at Salamis, all Athenian gains are staged as loss by the Persians themselves and thus distanced from the aggressive military actions of the late 470's.  The growing imperialism of Athens is hidden by geographic and cultural distancing.  The masculinity of the Athenians is implied in contrast to the staged Persian effeminacy.  The pride and patriotism of the Athenians is only seen in contract to the loss, rage and chance of the defeated Persians and is connected absolutely with the winning of Greek freedom.  The discrepancy between reality and staged image is erased because the "idea" of freedom and the "idea" of a nationalist identity are substituted for the imperialist project.

What this means, in the end, I suggest, is that the imperial project itself, because of its sublimation, is co-opted into the drive for freedom.  The opposition constructed (and recognized by previous scholars) between tyranny and democratic freedom is a false dichotomy.  Freedom becomes the precursor to and a necessary element of tyranny.  Thus Athens is truly capable of being positioned within this play as both Savior and tyrant by virtue of the fact that the name of tyrant, in the character of the Persians and Xerxes, has been effaced.  It no longer exists, or rather, is no longer a threat.  Only power, the essence of the tyrant, remains.  But because it becomes attached to the idea of democracy and the patriotic zeal of Athens through a rhetoric of freedom, it is rendered useful, even desirable.  And by rendering this power, tyrannical though it is, desirable, the text serves as a foundation myth, so to speak, for Athens' emerging imperial aspirations.


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