“…for the land itself will be their ally”
Aeschylos, Persians, 786
Today Aeschylos’ tragedy “Persians” will be performed at the Acropolis theater, with Pericles son of Xanthippos as choregos. And I remember that he had promised, then, on the eve of the naval battle, in the wine-shop of Salamis. Since morning the Athenians have been coming to take a seat, while old warriors, men who lived the events, are arriving in Athens from all the Greek cities.
There is emotion in the air, a strange enthusiasm mixed with anger, as memories awake of the triumph of that victory, and also memories of the destruction of Athens by the barbarian.
Dexileos and I arrived early at the theater and were given seats in the third row. From there we can see the fifty-two year old Aeschylos, the veteran of Salamis, on the marble seats in front of us, along with his brother Ameinias and his elderly father Euphorion. We see the twenty-two year old Pericles, who, as they say, has political ideas that are popular among both the popular and aristocratic parties. We see Kimon, of the aristocratic party, who was the political adversary of Themistocles. We also see the young poet Sophocles, who is twenty-four and is already rivaling Aeschylos, and beside him the now elderly Simonides and the youthful Pindar, whose poetry is filled with lamentation and futility, but who, as a Boeotian, accepted with deep pain the just punishment of the Thebans after the battle of Plataea.
Suddenly my heart is beating powerfully. A tall twelve-year-old boy enters the theater, accompanied by a mature man wearing priestly garb. His black curly hair on the broad forehead and his serious face awaken in me the memory of the five-year-old Euripides, who watched the naval battle, seated in the sea-cave of Salamis. Some call the man accompanying him Mnesarchos, and I know now that he is that silent boy with the shining eyes, whom I envisaged crowned by the gods in the depths of time.
They go to the seats that are set aside for the leaders of Athens, on the right side, and I slip among the seats to approach him. I want to see him up close one more time, to see his big eyes that enclose a dark and rending knowledge.
His father looks at me curiously.
“A long time ago you gave me clean clothes, when I found myself at your home, bloodied, after the naval battle, I said. Euripides was five years old…”
The boy turns and looks at me. That was what I wanted—for him to look at me one more time with those intelligent eyes of his, that enclose all human anguish, an eternity fragmented by mortal pain. The same vision, I reflect. His head crowned by the gods, but this time, also bloodied. How painfully will he achieve that unknown eternity, I wonder.
And I thought, two or two and a half thousand years from now, I will meet you here.
Because two and a half thousand years are as yesterday.
There is a slight smile on his face.
Did he read my thoughts?
Dexileos wonders. “Who is he?”
“A boy I met on Salamis…”
“And how did a child enter the theater?”
“I heard that his father received special permission, because this particular boy witnessed the entire naval battle…”
The theater is packed. The performance will begin soon. Hearts are moved. The eating and drinking ceases and everyone waits in silence.
“And imagine that at this significant hour when the Athenians will remember their burned homes and the triumph of Salamis, Themistocles is in exile…,” I hear Dexileos whisper.
“The Athenians forget, Erichthion said about Miltiades, remember? They are doing the same now to Themistocles. They despise the man who has been their benefactor. He himself told them, just before he escaped to Argos: ‘You cannot bear to benefit too many times from the same benefactor,’ he said to them…”
“He made enemies, many enemies. His democracy was the power of the people, which he reinforced with his policies. He made the people a naval power that turned against the aristocratic party. Kimon and his political faction took advantage of every slander to get rid of him.”
“From the first moment he started the rebuilding of Athens, his enemies were rabid with envy. They could not bear to see him transform Athens into a new power; they even envied his walling of the city, linking it with the Piraeus.”
“But he was a visionary. He looked into the future, envisaged a city with more human laws and a more powerful, robust populace, master of the seas…”
“He is the one who has opened the door to Athens’ future glory, remember that…
When he dies, with a price on his head and despised by the very people he loved, then they will build him a grandiose monument…”
“He has been reduced to seeking asylum from the barbarian, can you imagine? From Artabanos. Themistocles, of all men.”
“Now they are saying that his ostracism was not a punishment but the satisfaction and release of the envy that rejoices when the mighty are laid low, the consolation of envy—deafness, as they said…”
“I learned that the Persian king, when he learned that the Athenian suppliant was Themistocles, shouted for joy and prayed to Ariman, the god of evil, that he always give such a mind to the enemies of Persia, so that they always send away the best men from their countries….”
“I see that the history you are writing is enriched with all the captivating details…”
“That is why the public treasury is paying me, to gather information and to write the history of events in a captivating way. Besides, you sponsored me to become an Athenian citizen and made it possible for me to enter my son into the register of male Athenians…”
There is pain in his eyes. The same pain that always causes him to become silent. It is as if he is saying to me: without you I could not have lived. Without your feet I would not be able to run mentally beside the Eurotas on moonlit nights. Nor to remember how happy was my youth, when I did not know what the fates had in store for me. Without you I could not drink the wine or travel mentally on the moldy footpaths of Hades that haunt my nights.
He is trembling. Thin and pale. Only the fire in his eyes and the curly hair are reminders of the old Dexileos.
“Without you, my friend, I would not be here this evening, with my crutches, he says. It is only with you that I do not fear my incapacity. Next to you, I will not fear even death…”
His face is humble and tormented from all he has suffered. Dark from all the darkness that has destroyed his handsome body. And I am silent now. During the times we are together we argue for three hours and make up for two. But that is what keeps him alive. He wants to dispute whatever I say and do, to find the balance of his soul, he says. The peace he has lost.
He needs to hate me because I have both my legs, and then he forgives me with tears. I know that he feels closer to me than to his wife, his son, or his father. Because he needs me. And I pretend not to notice that. I try not to become angry when he torments me. It is thanks to him that I have my son today, I tell myself. It is thanks to him that my life had a few happy moments.
He helped me, with the intervention of Mnesiphilos, to become an Athenian citizen, a very difficult thing, because Athenian laws do not allow any stranger to become a citizen of their city. But Mnesiphilos invoked the bravery of Thoas, who had defected with his trireme at Artemision. And also the fact that my son was born of an Athenian mother, who was the daughter of Athenian cleruchs on Lemnos. Then he helped me to obtain a state subvention to build a small house near the house of Hippolyte’s grandmother, which is still in ruins. I will live here, I told myself, to remember Hippolyte and to look after Dexileos on his wooden invalid’s chair. I stayed in Athens because of him, but he does not know that. I like to find the best wines and to visit him every night, to sip wine and to remember the past. I will wait here for my Hippolyte to come. Because she will come. I hear her calling me, as Thoas used to call me, at the hour when the silence of night touches the mystery of the world. Her voice emerges from that cosmic zone of mystery and silence.
After the death of Aristodemos, Sparta was finished for me. On the day they notified me that they were offering me property so that I could live with my son in their city as an equal citizen of Sparta, I told them that I had decided to leave. I would search for my Hippolyte in all the cities, all the temples. Then I would go to Dexileos; nothing would keep me away from him. And I secretly dreamed that my son would realize my lost dream of becoming a sculptor. I took him from his eighth year to the workshop of Pheidias, to initiate him into the beauty of sculpture.
Derkylidas and Nikomedes had come to the basement of Mistress Eunike’s home, where I was still living, to bring me the notice. I had already packed my few belongings, my medicines and the parchments that the seer Megistias had left me. I had also obtained a warm tunic for my son. We would leave the following morning.
I thanked them as laconically as I could. Then I bid them farewell.
I have kept Sparta in my heart as something most sacred. I have kept the memory of Aristodemos and the love of Menoitos and Alkimachos. I have never forgotten them. Nor have I forgotten Pylades and Telemachos, or Lysippos, my fellow soldiers, nor Mistress Kallinike. I have an infinite affection in my heart for all of them. And even for the places.
For the crystalline waters of the Eurotas, for Parnon, for the Great Ring and the Small Ring, even for the altar of whipping, for the Menelaeion Road where I walked barefoot every day from my thirteenth year. For every moment I lived there, I have infinite affection within me. In the seven years since I left, I have returned twice. Everything was as I had left it. Except for their unstable politics after the exile of Pausanias.
The Spartans, too, had begun to be ungrateful toward those who benefited them. They were the ones who kindled the Athenians’ hatred of Themistocles, out of fear that he would fortify Athens. For my part, both times I had the same thought: that I could not have lived the rest of my life there. That I was never able to become a Spartan.
Even now, in the theater of the Acropolis, awaiting the opening of Aeschylos’ tragedy, I feel an enormous nostalgia for everything I lived through in Sparta, enormous gratitude. Because Sparta made me what I am.
Time strangely distorts the moments, such as the moments of battle. I am here, seated in the marble row. The tragedy of Aeshylos will begin at any moment. Anguish overcomes me. In this minimal time I see the path of my life. For years I have been troubled by the mist that shrouded my days. And at this supreme moment, between the sound that will mark the beginning and the silence that suddenly occurs, my life quickly unfolds with swift, clear images, firm, giving me to understand what the gods have given me, what they have taken away.
I lived a few happy moments with Hippolyte, I reflect, there in the forbidden adyton of the temple. And a few more when I found Thoas on the deck of a sinking ship and held him in my arms. And one night by the Eurotas with Dexileos, both of us naked, bathed in the moist moonlight. And then, when Derkylidas brought me my son.
Those were my moments of happiness, I tell myself. Lived in that purity of happiness that brings the soul to ecstasy.
I count the moments and find that they are unbelievably numerous. As if they grow more numerous in their isolation.
Behold us…the Persians who set out for the land of Greece…
The chorus of elders has entered the palace of the king in Susa, and their deep voice falls on total silence. Not even a breath is heard now. Weighty and evocative, the words of Aeschylos immobilize time, charm it into taking this night along with it in its long journey.
Bit by bit, those terrifying images come to life, the drowned men with faces like white marble, the cries, the triremes with rams pinned in their innards, the wooden Hades. Atossa, the mother of Xerxes, comes on the stage, and appears to carry the entire human race in her pain. What Aeschylos wanted was for us to relive events, not from the transport of our triumph, but from the pain of the defeated. To realize our insignificance before what the gods ordain, and to be terrified at our actions when they do not respect the boundaries of restraint.
I am amazed that Atossa speaks of the prophetic dream. Aeschylos, too, believes in dreams, I reflect, and that comforts me. All of my life was marked with strange dreams, symbols of the soul out of its unerring, mantic knowledge. So completed is our life in the gods’ time, I tell myself. And Dexileos catches my thought, “dream or vision, he whispers, remember when I came looking for you on the eve of the battle? I needed to tell you that I had seen the calamity that was awaiting me…”
Such is the silence, that I cannot answer. With my eyes, I tell him that we will talk about that. This night and all the others when the soul is awake, we will talk about them over and over. You will prepare the drink of the gods, the ambrosia of the Mysteries, from water, barley, and pennyroyal leaves, or the other magic potion, kykeon, of barley-meal, grated cheese, wine, and wild honey, and I will remind you of our happy days. But now I want to hear the thundering voice that pronounces the divine word, the play. To hear every verse that contains pieces of our souls.
Some verses astound me, because they are the same words of Aeschylos, as I heard them then, at Cynosura.
They are neither slaves nor subjects of anyone
I remember that he said those words on the eve of the naval battle, and impressed Sohocles, who was an ephebe then. And when the ghost of Darius appeared we all shuddered.
For the land itself is their ally
He had said the same words. And he put them in the mouth of the dead man.
Because the dead man knows. And instead of triumph, we felt awe.
Later, I found the words of Aeschylos again, in the last scene, when Xerxes, in tatters and pitiful, enters the palace.
I will cry out a lamentation of tears
And we are weeping now. Because catastrophes are not only ours or those of others; they belong to all men. And that was Aeschylos’ intent: to evoke within us the man who suffers with and has compassion even for his enemy. To evoke awe.
Ply your oars and groan for me
Xerxes tears his already tattered clothing and the Chorus laments.
The play ends, and on no face is there the transport of victory.
Only awe. And a deep sympathy for the mourning of the enemy. For his suffering.
At the moment the line “Come, children of the Greeks…,” was heard, the entire audience stood to cheer with tears in their eyes. And all together, they completed the verse:
Free your homeland, free…
The marble wept. The age wept, which inscribed shudder in its depths.
“Themistocles’ name is nowhere…” I hear Dexileos whisper as we descend the steps.
I help him to walk on his crutches.
“Wherever he is, his soul is here…,” he goes on.
I see him move ahead to embrace Aeschylos. He is holding his crutch and advancing proudly among the Athenian aristocrats. It is the first time he has done that. The first time he is not ashamed of his handicap. And the thought crosses my mind: the words of Aeschylos have freed him; he no longer feels unfortunate. On the contrary, perhaps from this moment a different kind of happiness begins for him.
I, too, move toward the spot where Aeschylos stands. To touch him only, that is what I would like. His words freed my soul, as well. For seven years I have been plagued by the thought of going to the Oracle of the Dead, the Nekyomanteion, to talk with my brother, Thoas, and with my mother and Klytoneos. But I always put it off. To talk with Aristodemos who comes to me in my sleep, because he is expecting something from me.
In the morning I leave for the Nekyomanteion…” I say to Dexileos as we are mounting the carriage.
He looks at me in surprise.
“I’ll come with you.”
“On the way back, I will stop in Tegea…”
“What will you do in Tegea? Have you been there before…”
“It’s a matter involving Aristodemos…”