This article considers how mourning is configured as a site of political and aesthetic conflict in Aeschylus’ Persae. Aeschylus represents the Persian defeat at Salamis as a catastrophe that unsettles the Persians’ habitual modes of visualizing and quantifying the empire’s population as an ordered whole. Drawing on the work of Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou, I show how characters in Persae construct novel representations of the war dead as social collectivities that do not fit into the hierarchical structures of dynastic rule. I focus on two passages that stage this work in granular detail: the Messenger’s list of dead commanders recited soon after he reports the defeat (302–330) and a second list of the dead sung by the Chorus in dialogue with Xerxes (955–1001). Each passage advances a polemical recount of the dead, at once reevaluating the scale of the disaster and reframing how individuals and collectivities destroyed in the war should be mourned and memorialized. The Messenger and Chorus thereby contest the efforts of the royal family to count the losses at Salamis according to the circumscribed terms of imperial administration. By tracing how the memorialization of the dead galvanizes conflicting efforts to count (or miscount) the community as a whole, Persae raises larger questions about the political affordances of aesthetic form.
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Research Article| April 01 2022
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Ben Radcliffe; (Mis)counting Catastrophe in Aeschylus’ Persae. Classical Antiquity 1 April 2022; 41 (1): 91–128. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ca.2022.41.1.91
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