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The Persians

  • By Aeschylus
  • Translated from the Greek by Anne Carson

    Issue 24

It is with profound pleasure that we support Denmark's Louisiana Literature. As a postscript to this year's edition of the festival, we present below a new translation by esteemed poet, classicist and 2018 guest Anne Carson.

The Persians, produced 472 B.C., is the oldest surviving ancient Greek tragedy. It is also the only one that deals with an historic event, namely the wars between Greece and Persia that took place when Xerxes, king of Persia, decided somewhat whimsically in 490 B.C. to invade and master Greece. He was defeated at the Battle of Salamis, in 480 B.C. This battle recorded the single greatest loss of human life in a single day in history up to that time. Aeschylus himself fought in the battle and witnessed its atrocities. Nonetheless, he chose to tell the story of the entire catastrophe from the point of view of his enemies. The Persians is one long lament for the folly of this battle, the hubris of Xerxes, the devastations of war in general, and the ruin of civilization that is its consequence.

I undertook to translate the opening scene of The Persians as a sort of game—to see if I could put the whole tragedy into the voice of the Chorus and have them ventriloquize all the other characters. As you see, I didn’t quite pull it off. The dynamic and emotional interchange with Queen Atossa, for instance, would be lost, and this loss would flatten the scene irretrievably. Tragic pathos depends to some extent on unexpectedness. And what’s exciting is when people yell at each other. Less so if they’re yelling at themselves. If I were to continue translating the play, I would revert to the conventional array of Aeschylus’ characters as he created them.

                                                                                                                                                                            - Anne Carson

Scene: Before the royal house of Persia
Chorus of Persian elders: “C”
Queen Atossa of Persia: “Q”

[Enter C]

I am what’s left.
They all steamed off to war,
the king, his million-man army, his ten-thousand-man navy,
the horsemen, the footmen, the ones skilled at the oar,
the rice and the servants,
the spears, sails, rudders, muscles, the entire functioning core
of the empire.
Flower of Persia.
I don’t feel well.
It’s been too long
they’re gone.
Let me frame my fear in a plain way:
Persia’s been a land empire many a long, long century.
Din of horsemen, crash of towers, sack of cities, these were our deep policy.
The gods said, Fine. The land is yours. But
Your fortune dips as soon as you start building

I feel unwell,
as I say.

[Enter Q]

Act One.
Enter Queen.
She has an emergency-room stare.
You’re pretty crazy right now, aren’t you? I say to her
and she just says, Where?
She says this two or three times.
Where? Where?
Her skirt is dragging.

[Q stands looking off, saying the odd word coincident with C or half a beat later]

The Queen and I are close.
I know I look like a cicada but I’m young inside.
She enters. I prostrate myself. She waves me up.
We talk.
All her talk is Xerxes.


Her son.


The future of Persia.


Gone to conquer Greece by land and sea.
Her body emits dreams of him at night, dreams buzz the room.
She says he yoked two women to his chariot,
a Greek and a Persian,
locking chains onto their necks
One woman (this was her dream) went quietly, biting her kimono.


The other lifted her heels and smashed the yoke.
Xerxes fell to the ground.
And he was suddenly aware
of his father standing beside him—
old dead Darius, a great tall oak tree of a man
and a Big Presence in Persian history.
The old king pitied his son.


In situations like this, one tears one’s robes.
Xerxes tore his robes.
(her dream goes on) there swooped down
rushing birds,
bloodying each other -
I tune out.
It may be I’m a little too much in love with her darkness
but my function is generally
I invoke the norm. I invent the norm.
Bloody birds, warring women—who knows how to read that? I say to her.
Sometimes dreams are just dreams.
But now, if Darius is sleepless—

[Q now alert]

if Darius is showing up in the crack of the door
with a deck of cards in his hand—
take a card!
Get him into the game again!
Because you know and I know, the dead are only as dead as they choose to be.
I stink of fear, she says.
I’ve tried to wash it off, I can’t.
Go pray to Darius, I say to her.
All will be well,
and she says, Yes, half-turning back.


But then she starts quizzing me about Xerxes’ expedition—
turns out she doesn’t even know where Athens is!
They tell this woman nothing!
What kind of weapons do they use, she asks, and who’s their king
and why does Xerxes want to master him?
Greeks have no king, I tell her,
(beginning to wonder how I’ll explain democracy)—
just then a Messenger arrives.

And as you know
a messenger
It’s never good news.

Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living.

“Light Passes” (2016), by Sarah Palmer, from the series Sea Garden. Courtesy the artist