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Why an ancient Greek tragedy has resonance in politics today — in India and beyond

What could the earliest extant Greek tragedy have to say about the recent elections? Nothing one would expect. Aeschylus’ Persians is partly a first-person account of the battle of Salamis in which the mainly Athenian fleet destroyed Xerxes’ invading Persian flotilla. In keeping with tragic conventions, there is no action, only reports of the battle, narrated by heralds to a chorus of elderly Persians staged before the tomb of Xerxes’ father, Darius. There is much lamentation and tearing of hair and repeated cries of woe for the dead warriors and their grieving families.

How could this possibly be a trope for the recent electoral victory and defeat of the contending parties? And yet the play, a commentator reminds us, was often recalled in contexts very different from the Greco-Persian conflict. It was one in a stream of Greek tragedies performed in Germany during the war years emphasising heroism, and the grief of women left waiting at home. More frequently the play was staged to protest against war, often in the former East Germany, explicitly anti-fascist and anti-imperialist, equating Xerxes with Hitler.

Later, it was inspired by US involvement in Korea and subsequently turned into a protest against the Vietnam War, then used to question the bombing in 1993 of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by the UN. Although emblematic of a Eurocentric view of the Orient (effeminate, disorderly, cruel and hierarchical), the play has more recently been viewed as emphasising the need for a more humane and pacific world order.

In the account of a defining battle in an ongoing tussle between two parties, we can read in it familiar electoral vocabulary: Fought between politically distinct formations with their respective allies, each with its resources of ground troops and skilled commanders who attack opponents, (albeit verbally), resorting both to bribery and threats, to undermine and defeat the opposition. Traps are set, deception and guile routine.

Key themes in the ancient play resonate with the present. Take the case of the numbers: The much greater strength of the invading forces (dutifully exaggerated by Herodotus somewhat later), corresponds with the exaggerated outlook that exit polls flashed across the country, making even the doubtful doubt their disbelief. These disparate and dubious figures (“such a huge flood of men… an invincible sea wave”) are apt metaphors for the deep asymmetry between the contenders. Nor do ships and men come cheap. The Persians greatly outnumbered the Greeks because of their much greater wealth and resources (Xerxes’ palace is “rich in gold”), a theme that runs throughout the drama, pitting might and wealth against determination and courage.

In the play, the catastrophe is multiply over-determined, for numerous contributory factors are adduced besides the ubiquitous divine-spirit. But for Aeschylus, the victory belonged entirely to the people, the ordinary citizens, not to their leaders. There was no implication that any particular Athenians were superior to their fellow combatants by birth, class, or rank. While numerous Persian nobility are named, not a single Greek leader is mentioned directly. This democratic depiction was as much at odds with Athenians as it is for the modern Indian voter, but the fundamental nature of the electoral process, as in the naval battle, is the temporary erasure of all distinctions of wealth and birth.

Those citizens (“called neither the slaves nor subjects of any single man”) fought for democracy and freedom. The narrative lifts the sea battle from just another fight between aggrandising monarchs to the ideological plane, represented through the polarities of freedom/ slavery, democracy/ tyranny. The self-image of the Athenians as democratic, non-hierarchical, espousing ideals of moderation and self-restraint, fit well with the moral dimension of traditional Indian political ideology, which was confronted, as the Athenians saw themselves confronted, with the loud arrogant and boastful rhetoric of their adversaries. In the Greek imaginary, the excessive wealth of the Persians led them to hubris and greater greed as they trampled on all that was regarded as decent and holy.

Although the play is titled, Persians (Persae), the invading host is regularly referred to as “the barbarian” a pejorative term at this time, cognate with its familiar adjective, “barbaric”. The acts of these invaders had all the hallmarks of what we now would call barbaric and unholy, the destruction of civic institutions (the city of Athens was razed, its sanctuaries defiled), meant that the gods themselves were battling on the side of justice and morality.

Tragedy according to Aristotle, writing a good three generations later, must have a tragic hero, whose fall from a position of greatness is the result of a flaw. Aeschylus had not read Aristotle, but commentators find the flawed figure necessary to tragic outcomes, in Xerxes.

Xerxes, combining foolishness with characteristic arrogance, is likened to a god (“an equal of the gods, born of the golden race”). He exacts the obedience masters demand of slaves. A familiar Greek trope characterised the Persians as a nation where only one man was free. His arrogance (hubris) comes from excessive power and wealth (His mother fears “great Wealth may kick up a cloud of dust from the ground and overturn prosperity”).

With the defeat of his forces, he returns to Susa. The transition is pictured in the rags his otherwise sartorial elegance is reduced to. His mother, Darius’ queen, acutely aware of the importance of his regal apparel, is more upset by his torn clothes than the prospect of the wholesale slaughter of Persian forces (845-8).

The defeat of the Persians, the queen fears, will result in loss of control over his vast empire. The chorus laments that imperial rule is in danger, that the king’s subjects will no longer prostrate themselves before him, or keep their opinions to themselves (“Men will no longer curb their tongues/for people are released to talk freely when a strong yoke has been removed”). Despite this, the Queen reminds them, whatever else happens, the King will remain unaccountable to the people (distinguishing him from the Athenian officials who had to have their “accounts” examined at the end of their tenure). Absolute rulers unlike democratic ones are immune to scrutiny.

Xerxes though defeated, was not dethroned. He went on to rule for another decade or more. But the spirit of freedom and democracy set alight by that struggle lived on for more than a century: A lesson that we are now perhaps fortunate to learn.

The writer taught Philosophy at Delhi University

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