The Portrayal of Persians in “Histories” and “Persians”

crossing_the_hellespont_by_xerxes_with_his_huge_army
By H.A.Guerber (The story of Greeks) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, Said presents the idea of Orientalism. In Said’s definition of the concept, Orientalism is the Western view of the Asian world. This is marked by both positive and negative stereotypes that the West has about the East (Edward Said, Orientalism). This includes the feminization of Eastern cultures, the extravagant wealth the region has, and the practices viewed as “barbaric” by the Western world (Edward Said, Orientalism). Although the geographical origin of Orientalism has been lost to time, Orientalism is present in ancient Greek texts. At first glance, one could conclude that Herodotus’ Histories would be a text that would be impartial and neutral. That is because we as readers assume that subjects pertaining to history would have to be void of personal opinion. However, Histories reads less like a history textbook and more like a narration of a novel, peppered with antidotes, myths, and personal notes from the author himself. Although Herodotus himself states that, “My business is to record what people say, but I am by no means bound to believe it- and that may be taken to apply to this book as a whole”, he is still influenced by his values, ideals, and beliefs, which were Greek ones (Herodotus, p. 468). It is unknown what Herodotus personally believed, but it can be assumed that by writing Greek history, Herodotus thought Greek culture was worthy enough to preserve. Also, it is important to note that Herodotus rarely, if ever, interviewed actual Persians, despite writing about them in great lengths.

This is also true for Aeschylus’ Persians, which is a Greek tragedy. It follows the defeat of the Persians at the hands of the Greeks. Like Histories, Persians would seem to be a sympathetic portrayal of the Persians. After all, the play gives emotion to a faceless enemy. However keep in mind that the audience was Greek and the play took place only a few years after the defeat of the Persians. Also, Persians is given validity of how the Persians are portrayed because Aeschylus was an eyewitness at the battle of Salamis. However, the play takes place in a royal Persian court and not a battle field. Not only that, but how as readers are we expected to know what Aeschylus witnessed that day just by reading the play? He could have simply observed Greeks rather than Persians. So, although he was an eyewitness to a historical event, it holds little weight to a tragedy written in the eyes of Persian characters. Both Aeschylus and Herodotus have their own interpretation of how Persians were like. Herodotus tries to remain analytical and impartial while Aeschylus gives sympathy to his Persian characters.

However I argue that Orientalism is present in each of the author’s works, despite how good their intentions might have been. To understand Orientalism in Histories and Persians, we must look to an important figure in Persian history: King Xerxes. He is responsible for the Persian invasion into Greece and is a central character in both Histories and Persians. Many ideas of Orientalism are shown through his actions and the actions of the great army he commanded. Not only is the idea of Orientalism presented in Xerxes, but other negative traits, such as arrogance and cowardliness, are also shown, casting Persians in a negative light. However, one might argue why Xerxes represents all Persians, rather than just himself. Xerxes is the central figure-head to the Persian Empire. Not many other Persians are given personality like Xerxes, and it is through the actions that he commands that represent his people. A leader, whether a despot or a saint, he represents his nation.In many ways, Xerxes is Orientalism personified. Naturally as the king of the Persians, Xerxes was wealthy. When his army marched into Troy for example, “…he sacrificed a thousand oxen to the Trojan Athene” (Herodotus, p. 433). Even for frivolous things such as finding a beautiful tree, Xerxes, “…was moved to decorate it with golden ornaments and to appoint a guardian for it in perpetuity” (Herodotus p. 429). In that example, the wealth-giving almost borderlines absurd. Not only was King Xerxes wealthy, but even his army was drenched in luxury. Herodotus describes the wealth of Xerxes’ army in great detail. One passage describes the infantry as having, “…golden pomegranates instead of spikes on the butt-end of their spears, and were arrayed surrounding the other nine thousand, whose spears had silver pomegranates” (Herodotus, p. 432). The native Persians in the army, “…glittered with gold which he carried about his person in unlimited quantity” (Herodotus, p. 444). Not only was the wealth of the Persian military extravagant, but so was the number of the army itself. Herodotus estimates that the total number of men in the army was around five million (Herodotus, p. 481). There was even a corps of elite fighters known for their great numbers, they were, “known as the Immortals, because it was invariably kept up to strength; if a man was killed or fell sick, the vacancy he left was at once filled, so that its strength was never more nor less than 10,000” (Herodotus p. 443).

One may argue why portraying the Persian’s wealth in Histories is considered negative. After all, great wealth certainly would be considered a positive attribute, along with a large army. However, the wealth contributes to the stereotype that Western civilization has towards Asia as a place of opulence. Also, the great number of soldiers in Xerxes’ military gives a sense that the Persians are dispensable and have a lack of individuality, therefore dehumanizing them. Another trait of Orientalism, the feminization of Asian culture and people, is also presented in both Histories and Persians. King Xerxes has his fits of emotion, such as suddenly crying as he thinks about “how pitifully short human life is” while watching a rowing-match (Herodotus p.433). This pattern of undignified “womanly” emotion is also evident in Persians as Xerxes and the other Persian men weep for their loss at the hands of the Greeks (Aeschylus, p.92). Persian women are also given traditionally masculine roles. For example, one of Xerxes’ officers, Artemisia, was a woman and he often held her advice to him in high regard (Herodotus, p. 447). Xerxes himself even remarks that, “”my men have turned into women, my women into men”” (Herodotus, p. 530). In Aeschylus’ Persians, it is not Xerxes who takes action, but his mother, Atossa, who tries to raise his father, Darius, from the dead. Even Herodotus finds it amazing that a woman such as Artemisia could even be an officer in the Persian army (Herodotus, p.447). It proves that it was rare for women to fight and it is possible that the Greeks at the time found it distasteful that Xerxes even allowed Artemisia to fight at all. With Xerxes remark, it certainly expresses the thought that the men in his army were becoming more womanly, while the women were taking charge; a shameful blow to the Persian Empire’s masculinity.

What was more insulting than the feminization of the Persians was the descriptions of barbarism and cruelty that they committed. Several examples were given in Herodotus’ Histories; one of them was the Persian governor of Sesto who was punished because he “collected women in the temple of Protesilaus at Elaeus and committed various acts of sacrilege” (Herodotus, p. 429). Facts about the Persians were also added, such as “…it is a fact that among the barbarians eunuchs are valued as being specially trustworthy in every way” (Herodotus, p. 536). When Pythius the Lydian, who treated Xerxes and his army with great hospitality, asked for his oldest son to be spared from the army, Xerxes orders angrily for the son to be cut in half (Herodotus, p. 431). Towns that treated the Persian army with kindness were met with ungratefulness: “The guests ate their fill and, after spending the night in the place, pulled up their tent next morning, seized the cups and table-gear and everything else it contained, and marched off without leaving a single thing behind” (Herodotus p.454). The Persians made a habit of burning down sacred temples, taking goods within the temples with them (Herodotus, p. 517). They also raped women and “some women were raped successively by so many Persian soldiers that they died” (Herodotus, p. 511). Despite these atrocities, it can be said that in war, any country would engage in these sorts of activities. Naturally, since Herodotus is Greek, highlighting the wrongs that were committed by the invading army is much more believable then writing the wrongs done by the Greeks themselves.

Now another argument is that the Greeks were not prejudice against the Persians at all and that Herodotus simply wrote an unbiased account of the history of the Persian wars. However, there is undeniable proof that the Greeks did not hold the Persians in a favorable light. Demaratus, a Greek working for King Xerxes, describes Greece fight to keep, “both poverty and despotism at bay” (Herodotus, p.448). Herodotus also describes Persians as tyrants several times in the text, such as calling Xerxes’ commanding officers “the tyrants of states” (Herodotus, p.522). Themistocles, commander of the Athenian fleet, described King Xerxes as, “…a man who does not know the difference between sacred and profane, who burns and destroys the statues of the gods, and dared to lash the sea with whips and bind it with fetters” (Herodotus, p. 538).

There are a few positive anecdotes of Persians in Herodotus’ Histories. For example, when a Greek sailor fought the Persians with bravery, they took pity on him and healed his wounds (Herodotus, p.480). However it is counteracted by the following sentence, “the other prisoners from this ship they treated merely as slaves” (Herodotus, p.480). Herodotus also mentions the chivalry of Persia, “…the Persians, more than any other nation I know of, honour men who distinguish themselves in war” (Herodotus, p. 499). In Aeschylus’ Persians, the Persians are portrayed as a feeling people who mourn the loss of their brothers, sons, and fathers in the lost war against the Greeks. Despite the few positive attributes that Herodotus and Aeschylus give to the Persians, the negative aspects far outweigh the positive. Even Persians at close inspection, portrays Persians poorly. In the entire play, the Persians lament about how poor their situation is but never try to move on with their lives. Persians is a tragedy, yes, but it was the decision of Aeschylus to make it that way. Understanding why the Greek authors wrote the Persians the way they did is using what Jonathan Culler describes as hermeneutics in his book “Literacy Theory” (Culler, p.62). Because the authors are Greek and because Greece went to war with Persia, we can assume that both Aeschylus and Herodotus had to have some negative view of the Persians. For Herodotus, it showed in his writing of the actions of King Xerxes and his army. For Aeschylus, it was his play intended for the Greeks to enjoy the suffering of their once mighty and power enemy. In any case, I do not believe that Aeschylus or Herodotus had written their views on the Persians entirely on purpose. It was their way of remembering the past as they saw it. Being Greeks, they were loyal to their country. However it also gives an example that any literary work should be taken with a grain of salt. This hold especially true when one does not have the account of another view point. I only wish that the Persians had their own records so that that the history of the Persian Wars would finally be complete.

Bibliography

  1. Aeschylus. Persians. New York: Oxford UP, 1981. Print.
  2. Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.
  3. Herodotus. The Histories. London: Penguin Group, 2003. Print.
  4. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.
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