Episode 27: The Bloody King

Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy, 1 of 3: Agamemnon. A terrible family curse. A wronged queen. The Trojan War was only the start of the bloodshed.

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The Oresteian Trilogy, Part 1: Agamemnon

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 27: The Bloody King. This show begins a trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, one of the four supremely important Ancient Greek dramatists whose work has survived from antiquity – a trilogy first produced in the spring of 458 BCE in the city of Athens. Today, we’re going to cover the first play in what is called the Oresteian trilogy, a play called Agamemnon. Agamemnon, in the works of Homer, is the brutal king of the Greeks during the Trojan War, and the play Agamemnon is about him coming home. The second play in the Oresteian trilogy, which we’ll cover in the next episode, is called The Libation Bearers. The second play is about Agamemnon’s son, Orestes – and a grisly crime that Orestes commits. And note that Agamemnon’s son Orestes is where the Oresteian trilogy gets its name. The final play in the trilogy – and we’ll cover this one two episodes from now – is called The Eumenidies. This third play is about a group of monsters pursuing Orestes for the crime that he’s committed, and what happens once he goes to Athens to seek justice.

In the trilogy that we’ll explore over the next few episodes, there will be cannibalism, and incest, and severed heads and horrifying betrayal, and a family inclined to murder, generation after nightmarish generation. The playwright Aeschylus is about to take us through some unforgettable darkness. But at the end of it all, though, at the end of the whole story, there will be hope – the best kind of hope in all literature – the kind that looks into the rusty barrels and bloody trenches of human experience and says that if we work together, if we are organized, and attentive, we can and will make things better for ourselves, and for those who come after us. Aeschylus isn’t quite the household name that Homer is. But he should be. Ladies, gentlemen, nymphs, satyrs, get ready for the father of ancient Greek drama, Aeschylus, and his masterpiece, the Oresteian trilogy. [music]

Homer and Aeschylus: Two Different Views of Time

Thomas Degeorge Ulysses

The Odyssey closes Odysseus’ murder of over 100 suitors, and then Athena intervening briefly to stop a war between Odysseus and the bereaved suitors’ families. Athena, though she forestalls a new bloodbath, has not given us any sense that she cares about peace or stability, and the Homeric epics with a bleak view of human history. Aeschylus, on the other hand, had a more progressive and optimistic view of humanity. The painting is Ulysse et Télémaque massacrent les prétendants de Pénélope by Thomas Degeorge (1812). Photo by VladoubidoOo.

I want you to think, for a minute, about the end of Homer’s Odyssey. It’s probably been a while, or maybe you didn’t catch my episodes on the Odyssey, so I’ll recap. At the end of this older Greek epic – the Odyssey – three hundred or so years older than Aeschylus’ plays – Odysseus finishes his odyssey, and he comes home to Ithaca. And when Odysseus gets there, he finds that over a hundred men have taken up residence in his palace, and that these men are courting his wife and devouring his food and livestock. Odysseus does not negotiate with these men. He coldly, calculatingly observes them in disguise, and then kills all of them. He rounds up female servants who have slept with the suitors, he forces them to clean the blood and gore of their executed lovers off the floor of his hall, and then Odysseus has the women hacked to death. He tortures an opportunistic herdsman who turned against him, having the man’s nose and ears cut off, and his genitals torn off. The Odyssey’s ending is a horrifying turn from the poem’s grand narrative about a journey home. In its final books, the Odyssey devolves into a story of one man’s almost psychotic desire for total and uncompromising revenge, and torture, and mass execution.

And then things grow worse. There are ramifications to killing over a hundred people. The slain suitors’ families come to Odysseus’ palace, seeking retribution. Didn’t they have a right to attempt to court the absent king’s wife? Odysseus had been gone for almost twenty years, after all. There had, admittedly, been a slight to his honor, but killing all hundred suitors – even ones who’d begged for their lives? Killing the women, who’d merely been trying to survive with the changing times? In the final book of the Odyssey, voicing these objections to the returned hero’s unnecessary mass murder, the families of the suitors appear, and they express violent incredulity. Odysseus, twenty years earlier, had already carried off the youths of Ithaca to fight the Trojan War, and none had returned but him! And now this butchery in the palace?

And things grow worse. The families of the suitors confront Odysseus in a rural spot near a cottage. Odysseus stands next to his father and son, and two loyal herdsman, and prepares for more indiscriminate homicide. But in the last minute, Athena intervenes, telling everyone to lay down their weapons. What survives in the Odyssey, as we saw in Episode 14, is an awkward, and disquieting ending. Whatever peace the goddess has brokered will not last. Odysseus, by his story’s end, has become as villainous and hubristic as any character in Homer. The poor families of the murdered men and women of Ithaca, in contrast, seem fully justified in their desire for vengeance. What will follow will be revenge against the vengeful Odysseus, and then revenge against that revenge, and revenge against that revenge, and more revenge, for generations, with cadenced breaks for each new cohort to grow and reach maturity. Thirteen episodes ago, we saw how this ending, however unsettling it is to us, is nonetheless consistent with the Homeric world view. To Homer, there is no ultimate forward progress toward betterment. There is only an endless rhythmic cycle of war and peace, and war and peace, and humanity is caught in it. It’s a beautiful cycle – it’s filled with each generation’s new hope and heroism, courage and cunning all around, but it’s also a cycle that devours everyone and leaves nothing behind except legends – legends which, as the Homeric Achilles tells us from Hades, do no good for the dead.

Homer’s worldview is captivating in its ruthlessness. It fit the cusp between the Greek Dark and Archaic Ages, when scholars believe that it was compiled. By that spring day in 458 BCE, when you and I went to the theater in Athens in the previous show, generations of Greeks from all over the Aegean had heard, read, and recited Homer. But also by this spring day in 458 BCE – again the day that Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy premiered, historical events had transpired that had begun to suggest that life might unfold in a way more meaningful than uncontrollable sequences of carnage and recuperation, and carnage and recuperation. Aeschylus, specifically, had thought a great deal about the idea of revenge. And in the Oresteian Trilogy – not just today’s play, but the entire Oresteian Trilogy – he explores revenge in a way that’s as deep, and profound, as anything else in world literature.

We’ll learn lots about Aeschylus, and the early history of Golden Age Athens, in this show. However, before we get into Aeschylus’ biography, and the historical context of the Oresteian Trilogy, I think you need to hear the story. So let’s start with some background.

Ancient Greek literature is sometimes challenging in its interconnectedness. It’s like a tree. The two great eighth century writers Homer and Hesiod are its root ball and trunk, along with some lost epic cycles – like the Cypria, the Nosti, the Telegony, and others. And attached to this trunk are large boughs like Aeschylus’ Oresteian Trilogy, a cycle of plays that involve Homeric characters, or Euripides’ The Trojan Women, which does the same, or Sophocles’ Cyclops, Ajax, and Electra – again, all stories about Homeric characters and their descendants. To the trunk of Ancient Greece’s epics, in short, are attached major limbs by fifth century tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and out on those branches are smaller limbs and leaves – myth collections, lyric poems and songs, and that kind of thing. I’m sure you get the analogy – nothing worse than belaboring a simple metaphor.

Anyway, down in the hardwood core of the trunk were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The average Athenian, in 458 BCE, might not have known the myth of Cadmus, founder of Thebes, or Lycurgus, the mythological founder of the Spartan state and military, or Corinthos, the legendary first citizen of Corinth. But there’s a much better chance that she knew the major characters of Homer. When our writer for this show, again, Aeschylus, cooked up an idea for a cycle of plays, he assumed he could use a character from the Iliad and Odyssey, and that this character would be recognized by his audience. This character was called Agamemnon. And the first play in the Oresteian trilogy, the play that we’re about to spend a substantial amount of time with, is, again, called Agamemnon. [music]

Agamemnon and the Fifth-Century Athenian Imagination

Agamemnon gives this episode its title, and main idea – Episode 27: The Bloody King. For the past two thousand five hundred years, Agamemnon has not been a well-liked character. During the Trojan War, he’s the tyrannical King of the Greeks, taking the lion’s share of the treasure and loot, and stealing the champion Achilles’ beloved wife, and superintending the siege and conquest that costs tens of thousands of innocent lives. At the end of the Iliad, Agamemnon is eclipsed by Achilles, the Greek champion. But in the playwright Aeschylus’ most famous trilogy, Agamemnon takes center stage again. In the pages of Aeschylus, we learn more about merciless king Agamemnon – both who he was before the Trojan War, and what happened to him afterwards.

Abel de Pujol's The sacrifice of Iphigenia Agamemnon

Agamemnon’s murder of his daughter Iphigenia, minimally told in the Iliad, is an important forerunner story to the Oresteian trilogy. The painting is Le Sacrifice d’Iphigénie by Abel de Pujol (1822-5).

I think that to Aeschylus, and to his contemporaries in the democratic city of Athens in 458, Agamemnon was the most famous despot in their literary canon. Although Agamemnon was Greek, and although his forces won the Trojan War, Agamemnon was still an emblem of everything that Athenian democracy stood against. Agamemnon was a figurehead of the autocratic past, and the past looked like Homer – like the end of the Odyssey, with all of its mutilations and honor killings. In the past world of Agamemnon, tyrants and strongmen ruthlessly drove armies against one another for the sake of personal gain, with no checks against their power. The common man had no say in the whirlwind of autocratically sanctioned violence. The world of Agamemnon, and the world of Homer, however spectacular and full of grandeur and doom, were relics of a previous age to Aeschylus and his contemporaries – things to be sung about, and acted onstage, but not to be lived.

Aeschylus himself, a war veteran, along with thousands of other Athenian democrats, had fought a quarter century long war with a real life Agamemnon. This Agamemnon was not from mainland Greece, nor even the eastern Aegean. The autocrat that Aeschylus and his generation fought against was called the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and it had multiple Agamemnons – one named Darius, and another called Xerxes. Historically, these rulers were hardly as evil as the fictional Greek character Agamemnon, but to Aeschylus, and his family, and his friends, Darius and Xerxes were despots of an old world – they were self-aggrandizing, swaggering tyrants who built bridges over oceans and carried sumptuous luxury with them even on the battlefield. And so the main idea of this episode – Episode 27, the Bloody King, is that Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is about a fictional Homeric character, but the play is also, more largely, about all violent autocrats, old and new, and the fate that tends to befall them.

So, I’ve introduced two ideas here so far. One of them is that the entire Oresteian Trilogy is a sequence of plays about revenge – about how it works, the results that it produces, and the steps that humankind can take to move civilization out of generations of tit for tat violence. And the second idea, more prevalent to today’s play, Agamemnon, is that bloody kings, whether they’re Bronze Age egomaniacs like Agamemnon or the despotic Persian kings whom Aeschylus fought – that bloody, absolutist monarchies are a relic of the antique past. And I think that’s enough upfront information. Let’s begin the story, not by talking about Agamemnon, but about his great, great grandfather, a ruler named King Tantalus. [music]

Tantalus, Pelops, and the House of Atreus

The lands of Lydia, in the eastern Aegean, were a tumultuous place during the Iron Age. Occupying the western half of Asia Minor, Lydia had no geographical barriers to the east. When the Persians came, it was the first area of the Greek world to fall under the rule of Cyrus the Great. Lydia was thus in the central Aegean imagination a place somewhere between East and West, between civilized and savage, where great cities existed – Sardis, Smyrna, Ephesus, and Troy – but at the same time where barbaric regimes could invade and usurp entire regions in the blink of an eye.

family of agamemnon

The principal characters in the play Agamemnon, together with their ancestors. Graphic by Ian Johnston.

In the lands of Lydia, long before the Trojan War, there lived a king named Tantalus, a rich king, and perhaps a mad one. Tantalus committed two terrible transgressions. The first was an act of impiety against the gods, and the second was a gruesome wrongdoing against both deities and humanity. First, as Pindar and Euripides tell, Tantalus stole ambrosia, the food of the gods, from the table of Zeus, and Tantalus brought it back to his own table, and thereafter understanding the hidden mysteries of the Gods. But evidently this understanding was far too much for the mortal king Tantalus. Because the next crime he committed – perhaps out of madness – sealed not only his own fate, but cursed his descendants long after.

King Tantalus had a son called Pelops. And in an offering to the Gods, Tantalus chopped this son Pelops into pieces, and served the remains of Pelops to the gods. The Olympian pantheon saw what had been served to them, and responded quickly. The innocent boy, Pelops, was restored, and grew into a beautiful young man. As for Tantalus, his punishment was to stand rooted in a pool of water beneath fruit laden trees. When Tantalus lifted his hands up, the branches lifted the fruits out of reach. When Tantalus bent to drink, the water sunk beneath his feet. Tantalus’ punishment, in the darkest layer of Hades, was to endure eternal proximity to food and drink without ever being allowed to touch them. He’s where we get the word “tantalized.” So that’s what happened to Tantalus, the great grandfather of King Agamemnon. Let’s talk about Tantalus’ son, Agamemnon’s grandfather.

Tantalus’ son Pelops, who had been divinely restored, isn’t the end of the story. Though Zeus initially coddled, and favored Pelops, something happened that led Zeus to eventually throw the handsome young man out of Olympus. Pelops, once back on earth, wanted to marry a woman. Her name was Hippodamia. Hippodamia was the daughter of a king called Oenomaus, a king who’d been told in a prophecy that he’d be murdered by his son-in-law. Knowing this, the King Oenomaus, father of Hippodamia, had murdered eighteen men who’d courted his beautiful and much coveted daughter, and he had nailed their heads to the columns of his palace. King Oenomaus had killed all of them by inviting them to compete with him in a deadly chariot race – and King Oenomaus always won.

So, one would hope that young Pelops, second figure in Agamemnon’s lineage, seeing eighteen heads in various states of decomposition rotting on the pillars of his beloved’s castle, would intuit that he ought to seek out true love elsewhere. I believe that rotting heads on spikes are a fairly universal sign to keep your distance. But let’s not forget. Young Pelops had been dismembered by his own father and served as a meal. He probably wasn’t a marvel of psychological stability. Pelops saw those heads and spikes and said, “Ooooh. Yeah. Got to get in there.” And so, Pelops accepted the challenge of the chariot race, and he cheated – either by a miracle from Poseidon, or an extremely dirty trick involving King Oenomaus’ chariot driver – and won. King Oenomaus was dragged to death by his horses. And Pelops, the grandfather of Agamemnon, threw Oenomaus’ charioteer to his death.

And so Pelops and his wife Hippodamia lived happily ever after, in a palace with a bunch of heads staked to the front columns. What could possibly go wrong? Hippodamia’s father was a psychotic butcher who’d loved taking trophies of his kills. Pelops’ father had torn him to pieces and tried to serve him in a stew. And Pelops had even murdered Hippodamia’s father in an underhanded trick. Surely this healthy, normal couple would flourish and prosper! Well, Pelops and Hippodamia actually lived long enough to sire three children – the father, and the uncles of Agamemnon. And as you can imagine, these poor little apples didn’t fall too far from the crooked, child-killing, suitor-murdering, head-spiking psycho tree.

There were three sons in the next generation – there was Atreus, the father of Agamemnon, Atreus’ brother Thyestes, and their oldest brother Chrysippus. Chrysippus, at an early point, seemed to be the hope for the future. Old Pelops believed Chrysippus ought to inherit the throne. Chrysippus was strong, and just, and he would lift the kingdom out of ignominy and squalor, this firstborn son, Chrysippus. Unfortunately, the other two sons, Atreus and Thyestes, murdered him. Atreus and Thyestes were thereafter banished from their father Pelops’ kingdom, and their mother committed suicide. The two young men survived this trauma, though, and grew older, and were wed. Like their father Pelops, both Atreus and Thyestes, the survivors of the third generation after Tantalus, each had some sons.

Tieste-e-Atreo (De casibus)

Atreus serving Thyestes the flesh of his children. From a 1410 codice called Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes.

Time passed, and soon, Atreus discovered that his brother had betrayed him. Atreus’ wife had taken his brother Thyestes as a lover. This act of adultery took place in the midst of the two brothers vying for the throne of Lydia. After Atreus retook the throne, perhaps picturing his grandfather in his mind, he captured Thyestes’ sons. He chopped the boys into pieces, except for their hands and feet, and served the meat to Thyestes, afterwards taunting his bother with the severed parts, making unequivocally clear what he’d forced poor Thyestes to eat.

Thyestes was forced into exile. As Atreus’ own sons grew, Thyestes sought divine advice. An oracle told Thyestes that he must have sex with his own daughter – uh – in order to produce a male heir who would kill Atreus, and avenge the death of poor Thyestes’ sons. And Thyestes did so, and a boy was born named Aegisthus.

This brings us to the fourth generation of the cursed family that Ancient Greeks called The House of Atreus. Their story so far has involved theft from the gods, murder, infanticide, cannibalism, incest, and adultery, all, seemingly, increasing in quantity from generation to generation. And soon more murder was added to the list. Thyestes’ son, Aegisthus, did fulfill the prophecy, and murdered his uncle Atreus. And yet Atreus’ sons didn’t immediately exact revenge. Atreus’ sons were actually busy people – people you’ve met before. What could these two young men possibly do to top the crimes of their forebears? What could Atreus’ two boys, the fourth generation of the House of Atreus, do that could possibly be any more evil than killing children and serving them to their parents? They actually did something far, far worse. Their names were Agamemnon, and Menelaus. And they started the Trojan War.

And now that you know the history of the House of Atreus, down to Agamemnon. It’s time to begin the Oresteian Trilogy. I’ll be taking all quotes from the Robert Fagles translation, first issued by Penguin Books in 1979. [music]

The Watchman Atop the Palace

The Orestiean Trilogy, Part 1: Agamemnon

An autumn night hung over the palace of Atreus, the citadel of King Agamemnon. The lands of Argos, beyond the palace walls, were silent and dark. King Agamemnon had been gone ten years, and the campaign season for the present one was now finished. Soon, the waters of the Aegean would prove treacherous, and squalls would crush the returning boats. If the king didn’t return soon – if he didn’t complete that perilous 500 mile journey west across the Aegean and back up to Argos, he’d be gone all winter, and spend the better part of another year abroad in Troy.

Detail Taleides Painter Louvre F340 Agamemnon

A detail from the Taleides Painter’s illustration of Agamemnon intervening in the fight for the body of Patroclus, dated to about 520 BCE.

No one in Argos knew it yet, but the Greek forces had crushed their Trojan adversaries. A clever ruse had helped them get behind the Trojan fortifications, and once within the city, they had massacred their enemies. Ten years of stalemate, of living in a camp with minimal provisions, living only with other fighters, and slaves and concubines, had had an effect Greek forces. They hadn’t seen their families, nor children, nor, moreover, been immersed in the corrective ranks of civilized society. Instead, they’d lived alongside the hulls of their black ships, piled thick on one another like animals in cages. And so when the Greeks had broken into the beautiful city of Troy, they had done terrible things. Blood filled the stone walkways and soaked tapestries and textiles hung on walls. Women and children were raped and killed. Infants were tossed from high ramparts. The massacre in the city was animalistic, and merciless. And at its forefront stood two brothers, King Agamemnon, and Menelaus. There had been a divine hand in all the events. The meddling of Apollo, and Hera, and Aphrodite, and Athena, and Zeus had prolonged the violence of the war. But insofar as humankind were responsible, the archons of the slaughter that took place in Troy were Agamemnon and Menelaus, the sons of the House of Atreus.

Far from Troy, on the other side of the Aegean, Agamemnon’s household awaited his return. A watchman stood on a silent rooftop. This watchman was so accustomed to loneliness that it was his habit to talk to himself. And he stood there that night, and he waited for any sign – a sign that the war had finally ended, or that the king was returning, or perhaps, for the sight of Trojan ships arriving to make retaliatory war on Argos. The watchman said aloud that he was dog tired, and that he knew the shape of every single star. Nearly falling asleep, he shook himself awake, tried to sing a little, and wished that the House of Atreus hadn’t fallen into such a poor condition.

The watchman descended into a deeper sadness, but suddenly he saw light coming from the east. It was a signal fire – the one he’d been waiting for for a decade, a glow that to him seemed brighter than dawn. Agamemnon, the watchman thought, would finally return. The watchman’s jubilation changed into a more tempered caution. “Just bring him home,” said the watchman. “[A]nd then. . .the rest is silence. . .Aye, but the house and these old stones, give them a voice and what a tale they’d tell. . .[but] I never say a word.”1 This watchman, you see, knew that Agamemnon was coming home. But this watchman also knew some other things that had been going on in Argos – things that had changed in the king’s absence. The watchman, after watching the palace over the past ten years from atop his high perch, knew that all was not well in the House of Agamemnon. [music]

Clytemnestra and Iphigenia

The old men of Argos soon learned of Troy’s fall and of their master’s impending return. (And by the way the chorus of the play Agamemnon is made up of these old men of Argos.) The old men of the chorus recollected the day that King Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus set out for Troy – the anger with which the thousand ships had been launched, like birds going after a stolen chick. The Greek forces had gone to recover Helen, Menelaus’ wife, who’d been seduced by a Trojan prince named Paris. And Paris had forgotten something, the old men agreed. Paris had forgotten that when an unjust act is committed, fate catches up with the perpetrator.

Now, Helen had a sister. Helen’s sister’s name was Clytemnestra. And she was married to King Agamemnon. The marriage of the two beautiful sisters – Helen and Clytemnestra, to two powerful brothers – Menelaus and Agamemnon, had seemed both righteous and politically unbreakable. When the easterner Paris had taken Helen, the bonds of the double marriage had been violated. And so the signal fires that Troy had been taken indicated to Clytemnestra that her sister had also been recovered by the brothers. The old men of the chorus watched Queen Clytemnestra light sacrificial fires in the palace, fires that began to share the glow of the rising dawn. The old assembly was puzzled at the sight. What did Queen Clytemnestra know that they didn’t? What, exactly, was she sacrificing?

The men of the chorus watched Clytemnestra. They knew that she had been “growing strong in the house / with no fear of [her] husband” (108). And the old men of the chorus knew that all was not well between Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. Because ten years before, as Agamemnon had set out to make war on the city of Troy, Agamemnon had done something terrible. The chorus remembered the circumstances of his terrible act a decade ago. As the Greek armies had prepared to go to war,
Weatherbound we could not sail,
our stores exhausted, fighting strength hard-pressed,
and the squadrons rode in the shallows. . .
where the riptide crashes, drags,
and winds from the north pinned down our hulls. . .
sheets and the cables snapped
and the men’s minds strayed,
the pride, the bloom of Greece
was raked as time ground on,
ground down, and then the cure for the storm
and it was harsher – [the prophet] cried,
“My captains, Artemis must have blood!” (110)

The old men of the chorus remembered this, and they knew that Queen Clytemnestra remembered it. King Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. The Greeks had taken Iphigenia out to the ocean, and forced her over an altar there. They gagged her. Her soft saffron colored robes blew in the sand, and they murdered her, so that the winds would take them to Troy. The poor young woman had been killed so that the war could start in earnest. And when Agamemnon killed his daughter, the chorus agreed, “he slipped his neck in the strap of Fate, / his spirit veering black, impure, unholy, / once he turned he stopped at nothing” (110). [music]

A Herald at Dawn

The chorus’ leader addressed Clytemnestra, and the chorus asked her why she was lighting the sacrificial fires. And Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon replied, her first line in the play, “Let the new day shine – as the proverb says – / glorious from the womb of Mother Night” (112). What a magnificent first line for a major character in world literature, by the way! “Let the new day shine – as the proverb says – / glorious from the womb of Mother Night” (112). Wow. Anyway. The chorus leader asked Clytemnestra about the end of the Trojan War, and the queen explained how a system of signal fires had relayed news of the Greek victory back to Argos. Clytemnestra said the Greeks were at that moment making lodgings in the houses of Troy.

Ancient Argos Agamemnon city

The archaeological site of Ancient Argos, said to have been the city of Agamemnon. Photograph by Ploync.

Left to themselves, the old men of the chorus mused on the queen’s words. Paris, they said, had insulted Greek hospitality unforgivably by stealing Helen away – the Gods would no longer hear his prayers. And yet Agamemnon had also committed a terrible affront. And many Greeks had died grisly deaths all for the sake of Menelaus’ wife. The chorus knew that in the lands of Argos, the families of dead Greek soldiers were “mutter[ing] / in secret and the rancor steals / towards our staunch defenders” (119). Separately, the men of the chorus discussed the breaking news, and meanwhile a herald arrived on a ship. The man landed at the beach near the palace and ran up to the assembly of old men, kneeling before them.

This newly arrived herald was a Greek, and he’d come from Troy. He had been in the Trojan War for the past ten years, and he ran his fingers gratefully through the soil of his homeland. He told the chorus of old men to welcome King Agamemnon home when the king arrived. “[G]reet him well – so many years are lost,” said the herald. “[Agamemnon] comes, he brings us light in the darkness. . .Give him the royal welcome he deserves!” (121).

The chorus asked the recent arrival from Troy what conditions had been like, and the herald told them. For ten years they’d been penned up into the ships like livestock, inhabiting “marshy flats” (123) and “gullies” (123), being preyed on by lice, and sleet, and in the summer, beatingly hot, windless days. But, the herald said, it had ultimately been worth it. They’d won.

Queen Clytemnestra came out of the palace. By all appearances she was joyous at the victory in the war, and the impending arrival of her husband. “What dawn,” she asked, “can feast a woman’s eyes like this? / I can see the light, the husband plucked from war / by the Saving God and open wide the gates. . .As for his wife, / may he return and find her true at hall, / just as the day he left her, faithful to the last” (125). Queen Clytemnestra wheeled and turned back into the palace. The chorus discussed her words with some dubiety, and then talked about the fate of Menelaus, whose ships had been separated from the main Greek armada during a terrible storm. They pondered beautiful Helen, who had come into Troy on a wedding day of blood that harkened the coming of hell. And the chorus thought about how violence begat violence, over the course of generations – that there was a certain kind of personality that sought grandeur, and wealth, and finery, and would do horrible things in their pursuit. And the chorus said while warmongers and tyrants passed down their desperate and destructive need for distinction and power, meanwhile in humble dwellings, just, decent people thrived for generations, well loved by the gods. With this sentiment, the chorus finished their song. And at just this moment, riding in his chariot, returning to his palace amidst heaps of sparkling plunder taken from Troy, King Agamemnon momentously arrived home.

Agamemnon Arrives with Cassandra

The king’s servants carried gold and bronze treasures. But half hidden behind him in his chariot was his favorite piece of plunder from the Trojan War. It wasn’t a gold statue, or throne, or fine suit of bronze armor. It was a girl. She was a princess, and her name was Cassandra.

The old men of the chorus pressed in around him and expressed their satisfaction at his return. In return Agamemnon thanked them for their loyalty, and then turned to his wife Clytemnestra. Momentously, the queen announced that the anguish of a woman with an absent husband was intense and terrible, as hers had been. Clytemnestra said that she wished their son, Orestes, were there to be with them, and then bid him to come down from his chariot. Rich red tapestries were laid between the chariot and the palace doors.

Agamemnon said she was fawning over him too much. He didn’t need to walk on a red carpet. He was no glittery, effeminate eastern king. After they exchanged further remarks, Agamemnon removed his travelling boots and stepped down from the chariot. Behind him came the Trojan princess Cassandra, dressed as a sacred priestess of Apollo. As everyone gazed at Cassandra, Agamemnon explained that his new concubine must be treated kindly, because he considered her “The gift of the armies, / flower and pride of all the wealth we won, / she follows me from Troy” (139). He said he might walk on the fine red tapestries, after all.

Clytemnestra didn’t bat an eyelash. Of course he should walk on the tapestries, she said, just like Zeus trampling red grapes into wine. And the King, and the Queen vanished into the palace.

The Dark Oracles of Cassandra

Outside, the old men of the chorus conversed worriedly. They were elated that the king was back, but still, a foreboding sense of dread hung over them – dread mixed with a choking panic. A minute later Queen Clytemnestra reemerged from the palace, and addressed the newcomer Cassandra. “Won’t you come inside?” said Queen Clytemnestra. “I mean you, Cassandra. / Zeus in all his mercy wants you to share / some victory libations with the house. . .Down from the chariot, / this is no time for pride. Why even Heracles, / they say, was sold into bondage long ago, / he had to endure the bitter bread of slaves” (142).

John Maler Collier - Cassandra

John Collier’s Cassandra. Collier’s painting captures the pain and fatigue of this Trojan heroine after she endured a ten year war and awful abuses at the hands of the Greeks.

But the captive Trojan princes Cassandra would not speak. The chorus bade her to speak, but Princess Cassandra still refused. Queen Clytemnestra was not pleased. “Unless she’s like a swallow,” said the queen, “possessed / of her own barbaric song, strange, dark. / I speak directly as I can – she must obey” (143). After more tense words, the captured princess still refused to speak, and the queen turned and angrily went back into the palace.

When the queen left, Cassandra finally stepped down from the chariot. Her speech, when she finally spoke, was broken and confused. “God of the iron marches,” she said. “Apollo Apollo my destroyer – / where, where have you led me now? what house – [?]” (144). They told her. She was in the House of Agamemnon. “No,” said Cassandra. “[T]he house that hates god, / an echoing womb of guilt, kinsmen / torturing kinsmen, severed heads, / slaughterhouse of heroes, soil streaming blood. . .babies / wailing, skewered on the sword, / their flesh charred, the father gorging on their parts” (145).

The captured princess Cassandra began a series of dark prophecies. She knew she was in a terrible place and saw that terrible things would continue to happen there. Her visions were horrifying, and at the climax of them, Cassandra saw a female figure, wielding a net, and a male figure, killed as though gored to death with the black horn of a bull. The chorus could not make sense of these visions, and thought her mad. Cassandra cried and saw visions of her family – her venerable old father Priam, making sacrifices, and the last embers of the burning city of Troy. She saw visions of frightening creatures cavorting atop the roof of the palace of Agamemnon, preparing for dreadful things to come.

The chorus of old men from Argos was awestruck at Cassandra’s strange speech and foreboding visions. They asked her about the origins of these visions. She had been given a partial gift from Apollo, she said, when she had refused to bear him a child. Cassandra could see the future, and told others of her visions, but they were never believed. And she followed this explanation with another vision – a compound of horrifying things – disemboweled children, a woman waiting to kill a man, like a viper, like a sea monster lurking in a nest of rocks, and at the end of her oracle, Cassandra said, “Believe me if you will. What will it matter / if you won’t? It comes when it comes, / and soon you’ll see it face to face. . .Agamemnon. / You will see him dead” (152-3). She, too, she said, would be killed – she could already see a cleaver with her blood on it. So saying, the captured princess Cassandra went toward the palace doors and exclaimed, “Murder. / The house breathes with murder – bloody shambles!. . .I know that odor. I smell the open grave” (157). After a few more words, the Trojan princess turned and went into the palace.

The King in the Cauldron

The old men of the chorus heard a terrible clamor from within the palace. They heard king Agamemnon screaming. Chaos broke out in the ranks of the chorus. Some proposed that the guards should be summoned and sent into the palace. Others panicked, distraught that new rulers might be coming into the land of Argos. Just as they resolved to root out what had happen, the palace doors burst open.

In the threshold of the palace, Clytemnestra stood alongside a silver cauldron. The cauldron contained the gory remains of Agamemnon, wrapped in a bloody robe. Cassandra, murdered, lay on the other side silver cauldron from the queen. Queen Clytemnestra approached the chorus imperiously, and began a long speech. [music]
I brooded on this trial, [said Clytemnestra], this ancient blood feud
year by year. At last my hour came. . .
I did it all. I don’t deny it, no.
He had no way to flee or fight his destiny. . .
our never-ending, all-embracing net, I cast it
wide for the royal haul, I coil him round and round. . .
and then I strike him
once, twice, and at each stroke he cries in agony. . .
So he goes down, and the life is bursting out of him –
great sprays of blood, and the murderous shower
wounds me, dyes me black and I, I revel
like the Earth when the spring rains come down,
the blessed gifts of god, and the new green spear
splits the sheath and rips to birth in glory! (160-161).

And again these quotes are taken from the Robert Fagles translation, first published by Penguin Books in 1979. Needless to say, the chorus of old men of Argos was shocked. They couldn’t believe that Clytemnestra would exult over her murder. She said her heart was steel, and that she had done what was just. Agamemnon, said Clytemnestra, had murdered their poor daughter just so that he and his ships could get favorable winds to blow them to the Trojan War.

The elders of the chorus could only gawk. One of them said that she was like a divine fury. And Clytemnestra said that indeed a spirit had possessed her to do the killing. [music]
You claim the work is mine, call me
Agamemnon’s wife – you are so wrong.
Fleshed in the wife of this dead man,
the spirit lives within me,
our savage ancient spirit of revenge. (164)

Clytemnestra by John Collier, 1882

John Collier’s Clytemnestra (1882). The painting, with its bloody ax and the resolute expression of the heroine, crackles with the same power as some of Aeschylus’ best lines.

The chorus could not disagree, with her, but still, they saw that no good would come of the killing. From the palace, a new character emerged. His name was Aegisthus. He was Agamemnon’s cousin. And second cousin. And Clytemnestra’s lover. Now, a recap on Agamemnon’s family tree. Or bush. The parents of Aegisthus and Agamemnon were brothers. Agamemnon’s dad had killed some of Aegisthus’ siblings, and fed them to Aegisthus’ dad. Aegisthus’ dad had then been told to have sex with his daughter, thus resulting in the birth of Aegisthus. And when he came of age, Aegisthus had murdered Agamemnon’s dad. So, while Agamemnon had been away during the ten year Trojan War, Aegisthus had made a move Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra hated her husband because he had murdered their daughter in a sacrifice, and so, out of mutual loathing for King Agamemnon, his wife and his cousin slash second cousin Aegisthus had murdered him. Aegisthus is a major character in the Oresteia – he’ll be around for a little while.

So, everyone had plenty of cause to hate everyone else, and Aegisthus, needless to say, believed that his brutal murder of his cousin slash second cousin – what the hell, let’s just say cousin – Aegisthus believed that his killing of Agamemnon was entirely justified. In fact, Aegisthus came right out of the gates explaining his motivations to the old men of the chorus. Aegisthus gave a particularly lurid account of Agamemnon’s father dismembering children and feeding them to his nemesis – again Aegisthus’ father. Aegisthus himself was unrepentant about the murder. Agamemnon had deserved the agony of death, he said.

The chorus of old men from Argos responded to Aegisthus with bitter hostility. In their eyes, Agamemnon’s cousin was a usurper who had slaughtered the rightful king. Aegisthus would answer for the murder, they said. But Aegisthus spat at this idea. He had been justified, and dismissed their threats. Swords were drawn, but Clytemnestra restrained both sides. The last three lines of the play Agamemnon end in ominous tones. “I promise you, you’ll pay, old fools – in good time, too!” (172), said Aegisthus. And the leader of the elders from Argos said, “Strut on your dunghill, you cock beside your mate” (172). Queen Clytemnestra cautioned her lover Aegisthus a final time. “Let them howl,” she said. “[T]hey’re impotent. You and I have power now. / We will set the house in order once for all” (172). And that’s the end. [music]

Breaking from the Story for Now. . .

That, again, was the end of Agamemnon, the first of the three plays in the Oresteian trilogy. I can remember the first time I read that play, when I turned the final page and said to myself, “Whoa – did that just happen?” And ever since then, I’ve been addicted to Ancient Greek literature. So, you know there are two more plays coming, and because of various clues I’ve given, you can probably guess what happens during the next part of the story. Queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus set up a surprisingly peaceful and forward thinking regime, eventually expressing compunction for their murder, and the land of Argos enjoys an era of peace and – no, I’m just kidding. Things quickly become horrifyingly bad. I love that joke. Tell me if it gets old. Well, put simply, there are many, many more shocking scenes and amazing speeches, and in the next program we’ll continue out the story of the House of Atreus. For now, though, I want to talk a bit about Aeschylus – what we know about who he was, historically, and how his biographical experiences may have influenced the amazing plays that he wrote.[music]

“The Persians Who Landed There Were Witnesses to His Courage”

Aeschylus is a giant in literary history for many reasons. For our purposes today, one of those reasons is that he’s the first person we’ve come to in this whole podcast that we actually know a bit about. As for Hesiod, or Homer, or the biblical prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, or even the archaic Greek writers we’ve covered like Sappho and Pindar, we know very little – in some cases with these folks we don’t even know if they were real people. But with Aeschylus, we have some much more widespread biographical fragments, and we also have records of the period of history in which he lived. We know about historical events that he experienced, and, seeings as this podcast is called “Literature and History,” it’s time to talk a bit about the extraordinary period of time in which Aeschylus lived.

After Aeschylus died – just a couple of years after producing the plays we’ve just been talking about, by the way – he was old by 458 BCE, when the Oresteian trilogy won him the first place laurel crown at the Dionysia festival. Ah, but, anyway, after Aeschylus died, according to one chronicler, his headstone bore a peculiar inscription. This great Athenian playwright’s headstone said, “Under this stone lies Aeschylus the Athenian. . .the grove at Marathon and the Persians who landed there were witnesses to his courage.”2 So why should this epitaph seem odd to us? Well, to put it simply, the inscription says nothing about his plays, or his revolutionary work in the theater. Instead, it makes reference to something that happened 35 years before he died, something so pivotal, and so definitive to the history of Athens that it actually overshadowed all of old Aeschylus’ dramatic achievements. This event was the Battle of Marathon, in which Aeschylus fought, a decisive battle against the Persian Empire that happened in 490 BCE. Aeschylus also fought at the Battle of Salamis against the Persian fleet ten years later, a naval battle waged southwest of Athens, in which the Greeks scored a decisive victory. In both cases, the Greeks were purportedly vastly outnumbered, and due to their superior equipment and military tactics, they scored unlikely triumphs. So Aeschylus had been hip deep in the most perilous, risky, hair raising battles in Athenian history. By the time of his death he was venerated for the literature that he produced. But I guess even more so, he was venerated for his military service.

Well, I talked about the Persian Empire a bit during Episode 22 on Ecclesiastes. That was a while ago, and this and the next nine shows are all the drama of Golden Age Athens. And this drama was created during a century sandwiched by wars – the Persian Wars, at the beginning of the 400s, and the Peloponnesian War, at the end of the 400s. We’ll get to the latter war in a little while, once the literature does. For now, let’s stick with the Persian Wars – the Greco-Persian Wars. And let’s talk about how those wars affected Aeschylus, his contemporaries, and – oh yeah – pretty much everyone in the western world who were alive to witness them.

Aeschylus and the Greco-Persian Wars

The Achaemenid Persian Empire, which lasted from 550-330 BCE, is going to come up a lot more in this podcast. Eventually, we’re going to spend some time with its religion, Zoroastrianism, which was a main contributor to the gestation of Christianity. Zoroastrianism brought to the table modern religious ideas like good and evil, and heaven and hell, which continue to be central to the world’s major monotheisms. But for the purposes of today’s show, which is to understand the context of Aeschylus’ three Oresteia plays, we can cover Achaemenid Persia fairly quickly.

Achaemenid Empire 559 - 330 (BC)

The Achaemenid Empire at its greatest extent. Hindering the empire’s westward expansion, from the mid 490s to the mid 470s, was the central occupation of Aeschylus’ generation of Athenians.

This empire endured for two hundred and twenty years and eventually encompassed modern day Iran, parts of Afghanistan, all of Iraq, Egypt, Canaan, Asia Minor, and portions of the Balkan Peninsula. By the time the Persians and Greeks encountered one another, Persia had taken over Babylon, Mesopotamia, much of present day Turkey, and Egypt. They’d sent a generation of half Babylonian, half Judahite captives back to the lands of Canaan and subsidized the reconstruction of their temple. But when the Persians reached the world of the Aegean Sea, they met unexpected resistance. Over the course of more than two decades, the dozens of city states in the Aegean and Asia Minor took turns capitulating to the Persian aggressors, betraying their alliances with fellow Greeks, and holding fast against Persian advances, and inciting rebellions within Persian territory. Of all the city states that resisted the most staunchly and consistently, Athens and its brutish stepbrother, Sparta, top the list. It was one of the great surprises in world history that of all the civilizations that Persia had subsumed, tiny little Greece proved such a tough nut to crack.

The Persians ate Egypt for breakfast thirty-five years before they met the comparatively smaller city of Athens in battle for the first time. The nice thing about conquering Egypt was that everyone was more or less together in one place, along the river and delta. Egypt was by this point in history fairly ethnically diverse, and did have significant settlements out in the west and to the south. But in comparison to Greece, Egypt in 525 BCE was eminently conquerable. Their current dynasty of Pharaohs had ruled for almost a hundred and forty years. The Persians conquered this dynasty, and the lands of the Nile were theirs.

Now, contrast the Persian conquest into Egypt with the Persian ventures into Greece. If you were trying to take over Greece in 500 BCE, which the Persians were, you had a number of challenges to contend with. Even if no one had lived there, the Aegean world was a maze of islands, bays, isthmuses, settlements, hills, mountains, and tricky passes. Just exploring it would have been difficult. But exploring it when it was full of resistant locals, and when these locals conceded to be loyal to your empire only to double cross you later – this was really difficult. And it got no easier when, once you tried your divide and conquer tactics, those Aegean locals pretended to be loyal to you, only to make alliances with one another, or, in sudden unexpected windfalls, come to meet you in peace where you’d brought a large army expecting a war. The Persians were capable of fighting massive land battles – they’d taken Egypt this way in the spring of 525 BCE. But when they went into the Aegean they faced a multi-decade long war of attrition. Rather than an organized campaign forward, they were confronted by a geographical labyrinth, and a bewildering checkerboard of city states that fought one another, and banned together, and fought the Persians, and fragmented and fell in line, only to rebel again later. The Greeks were fantastically arrogant, and utterly unpredictable. To make things worse, meeting these forces in combat was always a distinct challenge. The Greeks were fewer in number, but they were tough, and they knew the turf. They were incredible oarsmen and sailors. Their weapons and armor made them particularly formidable. And they lived in an area of the world that, unlike Mesopotamia and Egypt, had not seen a slideshow of hundreds of years of different conquerors. You know, Canaan, for instance, had bowed under Egyptian rule, and then Assyrian, then Babylonian, all before the Persians arrived there, changed some of the street signs and tax rules, and then dusted off their hands. Greece, by contrast – particularly stronger mainland city states like Athens, Corinth, and Sparta, had no memories of acceding to foreign rule. These tough little civilizations, particularly Sparta, proved, quite shockingly, willing to fight it out to the last, rather than to accept the nominal rule of a foreign king. So to put it simply, from the Persian perspective, tiny, rocky little Greece seemed like it would be a nice gemstone to add to the crowns of Darius and Xerxes, once the Aegean world started nipping away at the westernmost part of the Persian Empire in the 490s. The problem was, Greece itself, and the leathery little city-states therein, were unlike anything the vast Achaemenid Empire had ever seen before. In the words of historian Tom Holland, and this is a great quote, “[T]he [Greeks], to [the Persians], were an enigma— and a challenge. All they ever did, it seemed to the Persians, was quarrel. This interminable feuding, which had helped immensely when it came to conquering them, also made them a. . .wearisome people to rule. Where the Lydians had their bureaucrats and the Judaeans their priests, the Greeks seemed to have only treacherous and floating factions.”3

So let’s bring it back to Aeschylus. Aeschylus was born in 525 BCE. And he died around 456. Over the course of his seventy or so years of life, Aeschylus saw Athens go from an unremarkable second rate dictatorship to a tightly run democracy that controlled the oceans of the Eastern Mediterranean. The day Aeschylus was born, his home city of Athens was a scrappy little kingdom, indistinguishable from its neighbors, and it was ruled ruled by a pair of brothers. When Aeschylus was 9, one of these brothers was assassinated and the other who increasingly oppressive, holding public executions of potential rivals. When Aeschylus was 15, he saw Athens at war for the first time – a Spartan invasion force led by an Athenian named Cleisthenes bore in and crushed the oppressive tyrant who’d been ruling in Athens. Cleisthenes then pushed for democracy, but the Spartan army who’d backed him wanted to make Athens into a client kingdom. The Spartans consolidated their power in the city, but they were beaten back by a gigantic popular uprising. And when Aeschylus was eighteen, the man who had proposed democracy and beaten the tyrant of Athens, again, Cleisthenes, returned, and the free speech, legislative input, and votes were extended to all free citizens of Athens. In 507, around his eighteenth birthday, Aeschylus saw the birth of Athenian democracy. Just when he was old enough to vote, too. No, just kidding. I don’t know what their voting age was. But it’s pretty neat that around his eighteenth birthday, democracy was first instituted in Aeschylus’ home city.

Anyway, as Aeschylus turned nineteen, and then twenty, he saw the countryside around Athens being restructured into what were called “demes,” or regional blocks. To resist old clannish tendencies and feudal centers around the city, Athenians broke the countryside up into subsections that fractured old power structures. During these years Aeschylus again experienced war, as Sparta returned to try and take the city that had rebelled a few years earlier. Sparta failed, along with its northern ally, Thebes. And a quote from Herodotus, I think, sums up what Aeschylus had seen by his twenty-first birthday. And here’s Herodotus.
And so it was that the Athenians found themselves suddenly a great power. Not just in one field, but in everything they set their minds to, they gave vivid proof of what equality and freedom of speech might achieve. As the subjects of a tyrant, what had they accomplished? Nothing exceptional, to be sure. With the tyrant gone, however, they had suddenly become the best fighters in the world. Held down like slaves, they had shirked and slacked; once they had won their freedom, [each citizen labored for himself].”4

In the first years of Athens’ democracy, Aeschylus saw statues and buildings being erected all around the Acropolis, or the central rocky promontory in Athens – a 5,000 seat Assembly, and a vast bronze statue of a horses and chariot. But Aeschylus wasn’t the only one who knew about these developments in Athenian history.

The Persian king heard of the restructuring of power in Athens. It was of great interest, since his brother held a capital in the west part of present day Turkey, just across the Aegean from Athens. Athenians and their allies, all rising in power to the west, rebelled throughout western Turkey and burnt this capital to the ground. This insurrection took place around 498, when Aeschylus was 27 years old. And a few years later, in 494, Aeschylus saw one of the most remarkable people in ancient history come to influence in Athens. His name was Themistocles. And he believed in the navy. Over and above armies that they could muster on land, Themistocles believed that if the Athenians could control the water, they could control the Aegean world. He agitated for militarization. And it was a good time to be thinking about militarization. To the east, in the Aegean, Persia had taken the large and famous island of Miletus, one of Greece’s intellectual and cultural centers. And the Argives, a people to the north and west of Sparta and Athens, consolidated an alliance with Persia.5

The Persian beachhead and plain at Marathon, where Aeschylus fought before hurry some 26 miles back to Athens to guard the city from a secondary invasion force.

In 492, Aeschylus was thirty-three, and a gigantic Persian fleet began making its way down into the Aegean, conquering territories in present day Bulgaria and Macedonia. Persian ambassadors were sent to Athens and Sparta. In both places, they were convicted and killed. By 490, the Persians had conquered more Aegean territories, and they bore down on Athens. Aeschylus was 35 years old. He’d been at ground zero for a number of terrifically important moments in ancient history. And he was about to see more.

In August of 490, the Persian fleet landed. They beached their ships at a broad strip of flatland called the plain of Marathon, about twenty-five miles northeast of the city of Athens. Though Athens sought help from Persia, they learned just before the battle that no help would arrive. Worse, in this summer of 490, they learned that the Persian cavalry had been dispatched to flank their army. And so Aeschylus and his fellow soldiers, including his brother, hurried to Marathon to face the larger Persian infantry.

Athenian infantrymen of this period, including of course Aeschylus himself, used large circular shields, a meter in diameter, called hopla, from which we get the name “hoplites.” Their military formations required each man to lock shields and depend on his neighbors during each offensive or defensive maneuver. And as the Athenians looked across the Plain of Marathon in August of 490, you have to think that their new national identity as a democracy must have been intermingled with a sense that they were there voluntarily – just as in peacetime, each man was partly responsible for the rights and wellbeing of his neighbors.

What happened next was one of the great underdog victories of ancient history. The Athenian infantry didn’t just win. When the two armies crunched together the Athenians shattered the Persian invaders who’d showed up on their shores. Their weapons and armor were technologically superior. And I imagine that their resolve and will to throw themselves into combat was far greater than those of the confederated Persian armies, who were far from home and fighting a war that wouldn’t bring them any particular benefit or distinction. According to Greek records, 6,400 Persians and Medes died in the fighting, and only 192 Athenians. For every thirty-three soldiers Persia lost, then, Athens lost one. Are these figures exaggerated by the ancient historians? Almost certainly. But at any rate, Athens won. And according to the record, one of the dead Athenians was Aeschylus’ brother.

So following this victory at Marathon, what did the Greek infantry do? Did they wash their weapons in the sea, or drink to victory, or burn every single Persian ship? No, actually, though they did manage to burn seven Persian ships before the foreign fleet disembarked. The Athenian army knew that they had plenty to deal with. The Persian cavalry was out there. And so the Athenians undertook history’s most famous run. The modern marathon is named after the 26.2 or so miles that the Athenian infantry ran from Marathon back to Athens to make sure that Persian cavalry forces weren’t burning the city in their absence. It wasn’t. The battle of Marathon was an unqualified victory for Athens. And as a marathon runner, which I am – that’s usually when I listen to podcasts, by the way – training runs and stuff – anyway, as a marathon runner, I always imagine running a marathon after facing a gigantic land army, carrying a giant bronze shield the whole way, and doing the whole thing in armor and leather sandals, and not even having those little aid stations where people give you Gatorade and shout “Go runners!” and “Alright, looking strong!” The kind of day that Aeschylus had when the first marathon of history was undertaken – that kind of a day makes running a marathon in neon shorts and jogging shoes seem pretty wimpy by comparison. [music]

Aeschylus and the Greco-Persian Wars after Marathon

I think that the Battle of Marathon is referred to on Aeschylus’ tombstone because August of 490 was the moment at which Athens realized that it could not only face a superpower. It was the moment Athens realized it could be a superpower. Only, there was one thing still standing in the way, and this was that the world’s existing superpower, Persia, saw Marathon as a very minor incident. The loss of 6,000 or so infantrymen was not particularly significant to Persia. If the empire had been solely focused on moving westward, it’s difficult to imagine that the Aegean world would have proved too much of an obstacle. But Persia was a world empire, and like Assyria and Babylon before it, and Rome and the Sassanid Empire after, it had many fronts, and many challenges. After Marathon, to the south, in Egypt, Persia lost its king, and a new one soon came to power. The new king, Xerxes, decided it was time to finish his father’s campaign against those rowdy, polytheistic bumpkins over to the west in the Aegean. And Xerxes wanted to finish them with gusto.

Xerxes was advised to bring an elite strike force, probably of horse archers, to combat the hardened Greek phalanxes. For Xerxes, this was not sufficient. He wanted something immense – a land army so gigantic that a pontoon bridge had to be built across the Hellespont, and in other places mile wide canals had to be dug for his fleet.

So this response from Persia was slow, and colossal. Athens began hearing rumors of it in the second half of the 480s, as Aeschylus reached the age of 40. Imagine having fought wars your whole life, having lost your brother, and then, as you reach middle age, and expect a well-deserved respite from all your hard work, you hear that hundreds of thousands of people are inbound, that they’re bringing every conceivable kind of weapon and military conveyance, and they plan to reduce you and everyone you know to corpses and slaves. That was what Aeschylus experienced as he blew out the candles on his fortieth birthday cake.

But the late 480s weren’t all bad for Athens. In fact, the year 483 saw a remarkable stroke of luck for Aeschylus’ hometown, when a gigantic deposit of silver was discovered in the city’s territory. And Athens, listening to its veteran and statesman Themistocles, used this silver to undertake a naval militarization that was swift and remarkably effective, constructing hundreds of new elite vessels, rowed by three decks of oarsmen, called triremes. For the remainder of Athens’ classical period, the trireme would be the quintessence of the Athenian spirit – fast, versatile, far ranging, and soundly engineered. Most of all, the trireme was an emblem of democratic collectivism. Each trireme, with 170 salaried citizen rowers, needed perfect collaboration and communication in order to coordinate its remarkable eleven and a half mile per hour continuous speed and crucial ramming maneuvers.6 Aeschylus, and other Greek dramatists we’ll discuss, knew the decks of triremes well. [music]

Aeschylus and the Tent of Xerxes

So Athens built a great fleet with their new store of silver. They didn’t regret it. The year Aeschylus turned 45, Xerxes’ famous army of Persians bore down on mainland Greece. This second invasion, however, faced a consolidated front of Spartans and Athenians. Three major battles occurred in quick succession in the late summer of 480. The Persians lost huge volumes of ships in the Aegean due to an unlucky sequence of storms. They faced unexpectedly stalwart resistance as they tried to advance south through the famous pass at Thermopylae, where a small Spartan force could only be unseated after being betrayed by one of its allies. Though the Persians won Thermopylae, they lost a nearby naval battle called Artemisium. And what happened next sent Xerxes, and much of his jumbo army home for good.

Aeschylus, who was now aged 45, fought in the great naval battle at Salamis, a battle in which an outnumbered, beleaguered flotilla of Athenian ships defeated the Persian navy and sent it packing. Everything hinged on this battle. Athens itself had been abandoned to help with the general military maneuvers – the monuments erected on the Acropolis decades earlier were crushed, and the city was looted. The Battle of Salamis, if it had been lost, would have been the end of Athens, Greece’s fledgling democracy. But just Athens had achieved an unlikely victory at Marathon a decade earlier, careful maneuvering and misinformation tactics duped the Persians into a compromised position at Salamis, and Athens won. And the next summer, once Xerxes had left the war in the hands of his general Mardonius, an alliance of Greek armies including Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Megara faced the Persian empire a final time and defeated them. The Persian general Mardonius was killed.

And there’s a famous anecdote in Herodotus about the end of this battle – the final one that would be fought against the Persians in mainland Greece. The great king Xerxes, after he’d headed home in 480 after the disappointment at Salamis, had left his tent with his general Mardonius. This tent was purportedly lavish, the sort of thing that made most Greek palaces seem plain by comparison, and again this was simply King Xerxes’ campaign tent. Aeschylus had seen this tent. In fact, he may have seen a lot of it. The Oresteia plays, although they are by far Aeschylus’ most famous works, aren’t his only plays. He’d actually produced as many as 90 plays by the time he released the Oresteian Trilogy.7 An early play, The Persians, was produced in 472 BCE. And according to one study, the tent captured at the final battle against the Persians was on prominent display at the Theater of Dionysus in Athens. This famous Persian tent had been configured into a shade that hung over the orchestra area. And all around it, the wooden benches of the theater were crafted from the planks of Persian ships sunk during the previous decades of wars.8 Now, we don’t know how long these unique furnishings stayed there, in the Theater of Dionysus. But suffice it to say that as you sat in this theater in the 470s, 460s, and 450s, you were actually surrounded with bits and pieces of the defeated Persian campaign – their royal tent, the benches that their rowers sat on, the timber that kept their great fleet afloat. As Athens made a blindingly spectacular recovery from the Persian Wars during these decades, Athens didn’t forget how close it had come to annihilation.

Bloody Kings and Golden Age Athens

So let’s get back to the play we covered today, Agamemnon. We still have a ways to go with the Oresteian trilogy. But in addition to hearing the prologue and the story of the first of the three plays, you also now know a bit about the military career of their author, and how the Greco-Persian Wars of the early 400s were the definitive event in the early history of Golden Age Athens, lingering in the average Athenian’s mind as he or she sat down in the spring of 458 BCE to watch Aeschylus’ most famous plays. You know that Aeschylus’ audience might have actually been sitting on Persian lumber, and that maybe, a large tent, a little frayed at the edges, might have fluttered above the orchestra area where the play Agamemnon was staged, a tent which had once been the campaign headquarters of the great Persian king Xerxes.

Agamemnon is about the grisly death of a returning conqueror. Agamemnon has murdered his daughter Iphigenia, sped off to Troy, proved a horror to the city for a decade, and then, finally beaten it, destroyed it, killed its inhabitants, and made its princess into a personal sex slave. To the Athenians of 458 BCE, Agamemnon was more than just a villain from the storied Homeric epics. He was an archetype. Men like Agamemnon had ruled Athens before democracy had been installed there. Men like Agamemnon had filled an entire generation’s life with war. One man like Agamemnon had occupied Athens in the darkest hour of the democracy’s history just over two decades ago, and shattered the temples and statues that had once been literally a hundred meters behind the Athenians who watched Aeschylus’ plays, as they sat in the Theater of Dionysus in 458. And that previous Agamemnon’s tent, again, a bit worse for the wear by time, may have flapped and rippled above the stage as the actors playing Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus voiced their lines. A play about a bloody king was staged beneath and amidst the detritus of a real bloody king.

The play Agamemnon ends as do many of Aeschylus’ plays concerning tyrants. Hubris proves to be a lethal setback. The tyrant falls, humiliated. Even the first play of the Oresteian trilogy must have struck a powerful chord with Aeschylus’ audience, as they sat there on the remnants of a real conqueror’s failed expedition, hearing about another commander who also, eventually, faced failure and retribution. To the Athenians of the 450s, Agamemnon was just another bloated city sacker, another failed Xerxes, another blind megalomaniac who’d stepped too far, and stumbled.

Next Time

But Aeschylus knew, and his fellow Athenians knew, that history did not end with the toppling of a tyrant. The city of Athens was fifty years into the establishment of democracy the year that during the spring that Agamemnon was staged. And Athenians understood well enough that the collapse of an oppressive regime didn’t lead to credits rolling, happy outro music, and a bunch of montages in soft pastels. They knew that challenges continued to unfold. The playwright was 67 years old when Agamemnon was produced, and fifty of these had been lived in the democracy. An ending in which the tyrant fell, and everyone lived happily ever after, would just not do.

So in the next show, we’re going to hear the rest of the story – the same story that an incredible generation of Athenians heard in the mid-spring of 458 BCE and appreciated so much. The trilogy’s main character, Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, is going to come home and find that his uncle and mother have murdered his father. But unlike many similar revenge stories, [cough] Hamlet, Orestes’ tale does not end with just another retributive murder that signifies the coming of more – the slow and hideous generational blossoming of the curse of the House of Agamemnon. Orestes’ story, like the story of Athens, and we hope, like our own, is one in which a person can learn from his mistakes, in which natural proclivities can be overcome, and in which one, through great effort, can transcend the circumstances of his birth and determine the course of his own future. I can’t wait to finish up the trilogy with you. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you listen to the songs, I’ve got one coming up. If not, see you next time.

Still here? Nice. So I got to thinking. Throughout the course of this year, I’ve been neck deep in ancient history – in military campaigns, monumental inscriptions, and victory stele, and all that. And I’ve met a lot of really arrogant monarchs – ones like Xerxes, and Ramses II and Amenhotep III, and Tiglath-Pileser and Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar. And I decided to try and capture the essence of a toweringly – uh – ridiculously arrogant ancient monarch in a song. I thought I’d do something kind of minor, in, like, march time. Something like tango, or Spanish gypsy music. So this song is narrated from the perspective of Agamemnon, and it’s called “Hello, My Name is Agamemnon.” Thanks for listening to my show, and see you next time!

1.^ Aeschylus. The Orestia. Translated by Robert Fagles, with an Introductory Essay, Notes and Glossary by Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford. New York: Penguin Books, 1979. Kindle edition, p. 104. Further references are noted parenthetically.

2.^ Pausanias. Description of Greece. 1.14.5. Quoted in Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. Yale Nota Bene, Kindle Edition, locations 1941-3.

3.^ Holland, Tom. Persian Fire. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007. Kindle Edition, locations 2640-42.

4.^ Herodotus. Histories. 5:78. Quoted in Holland, Tom. Persian Fire. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007. Kindle Edition, locations 2492-95.

5.^ This was Agamemnon’s legendary city. The early defection of Argos, to Aeschylus’ Athenian audience in 458, would have made Aeschylus’ parallels between King Agamemnon and the Persian despots even more compelling.

6.^ Hale, John. Lords of the Sea: How Athenian Trireme Battles Changed History. Gibson Square, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 174.

7.^ See Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater: Revised Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Kindle Edition, p. 5.

8.^ See Broneer, Oscar: “The Tent of Xerxes and the Greek Theater.” University of California Publications in Classical Archaeology, 1: 1944.