The Seven: Some Possibly Relevant Background
The period of the Persian Wars and the aftermath were a period of intense political activity at Athens. In one generation, Athenians had expelled the tyrants, completely reorganized their commonwealth, and beaten back two Persian invasions. Such success was bound to inspire confidence in the Athenian commonwealth, a confidence that would lead first to to the hybris of the Athenian Empire and then to the ruin Athens suffered in the war with Sparta and her allies.
Since the lowest classes were needed to man the fleets that chased the Persians out of the Aegean, skillful and ambitious politicians (all of them wealthy aristocrats) who were determined that Athens should create a thalassocracy—that is, a naval empire—played upon the pride and resentments of the poorer classes. Xanthippus, Ephialtes, and Xanthippus’ son Pericles were determined to eliminate every check on the power of the Athenian assembly, but they were resisted by rival representatives of the old nobility.
This period of social and political conflict is the backdrop for the literary career of one of the greatest writers of the Greek language: Aeschylus. Aeschylus’ first surviving play, the Persians, produced in 472 is a meditation on Persian hybris and the divine vengeance they brought upon themselves. It is also a great celebration of the Athenian victory at Salamis. Could anyone have foreseen in 472 that Athens, in the next 50 years, would commit the same follies as the Persians? Aeschylus may not, but 14 years later in his greatest work, the trilogy known as the Oresteia, he explicitly compares the crimes of Agamemnon the sacker of Troy with the crime of the Asian king Priam and his son Paris. As an American might say: "Kinda makes ya wonder, don't it?"
Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes was produced in 467, only 11 years after Xerxes returned to Persia, having failed to conquer mainland Greece, though a few Persian garrisons remained until 465. The menace was still serious, however, and Athens had spent the previous decade in sweeping the Persians out of the Aegean and establishing her own empire. But hearing that the Persians were mustering another invasion force in Asia Minor, Athens in 467 sent Cimon son of Miltiades (the leader at Marathon in 490), with a fleet and 5000 hoplites. Cimon decisively defeated the Persians by land and sea.
The political picture was rapidly changing at Athens. Relations with Sparta had begun to grow tense, and Themistocles—the political genius who organized Greek resistance to Persia—had been ostracized in 472. But, perhaps unexpectedly, the leading position did not go to anyone in the Alcmeonid clan, which had been powerful before (and for a while, during) the Peisistratid tyranny and which led in the overthrow of Hippias. Cleisthenes, the grandson of the tyrant of Sicyon and son a prominent Alcmeonid, Megacles, had reorganized the Athenian political structure on the pretense of creating greater unity and equality, but the result was to weaken rivals to the Alcmeonidae. Nonetheless, the emerging leader was the young arch-conservative, Cimon son of Miltiades, who had generously collaborated with Themistocles during the wars. When other conservative aristocrats wanted to put their trust in the hoplites and rejected Themistocles’ strategy of evacuating Athens, the young Cimon, whose father had defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490, led a procession of young nobles to the acropolis where they dedicated their bridles—the symbols of their knighthood—to Athena.
Cimon’s policies were clear: war with Persia, peace with Sparta, and a maintenance of the successful status quo established by Cleisthenes the Alcmaeonid: a balanced constitution in which both the people and the aristocrats were able to carry out their proper functions, freed from the dictatorship of the mob and the oppression of an oligarchy. Under Cimon’s leadership, Athens became mistress of the Aegean, and was at peace both with her allies and with the Spartan alliance.
Cimion's very success antagonized the democrats led by Ephialtes and Pericles, and Pericles prosecuted him for bribery, during the scrutiny after his return from his victorious campaign on the Eurymedon River. Cimon was acquitted and might have stayed in power had he not made the mistake of going to the aid of the Spartan allies during the Messenian Revolt. But it is also possible that he was doomed by the emergence of a new kind of politics based as much on demagoguery as on personal influence. As an Alcmeonid (on his mother's side) aristocrat who pandered to the mob, Pericles could make both techniques work for him, and he may well have viewed poor Cimon—a brave and honorable man–as a political simpleton.
Cimon, who argued strongly for maintaining the alliance with Sparta, was at the height of his success and influence in Athens, when Aeschylus was writing his play, a work that Aristophanes appropriately described as “full of Ares.” I do not know which, if any side, Aeschylus took in the political struggle between Cimon and the Alcmeonids and their allies under the leadership of Xanthippus and his son Pericles. Pericles had produced the Persians, a play that seems to celebrate Themistocles and his victory at Salamis. And some progressive-minded historians have hastily assumed that this proves the existence of a three-way alliance of Aeschylus, Themistocles, and Pericles against Cimon and the conservatives. However, the Alcmeonids seem to have been against resistance to Persia, and the tales we hear of Themistocles’ corruption probably emanate from Alcmeonid sources. Pericles may well have wanted to change his image by acting as choregus for Aeschylus, as is often said, but it is just as likely that he was picked accidentally to produce the Persians, or, if there was a political scheme, Pericles might well have wanted to redeem his family’s reputation from the charge that they had been pro-Persian, as they most probably had been. To be fair to Pericles, he was a man of great learning and an appreciation for the finest arts in the Greek world.
We do know that Aeschylus was of a Eupatrid family from Eleusis, that is, he came from the most distinctive small town in Attica, with a deep religious tradition—the Eleusinian Mysteries—a place remote from the class struggles going on in Athens itself. He may have fought at Salamis and/or Plataea, but it is certain that he and his brother fought at Marathon under Cimon’s father, Miltiades. For the hoplite class and landed aristocracy, Marathon was the defining moment in Greek history and proved that it was farmer-soldiers, not the rabble who rowed in the fleet, that saved Athens. It seems likely that Aeschylus, like many landed aristocrats of his day, took the side of unity: the unity of the Athenian people against the barbarian invader, and the unity of all the Greeks who had resisted the invasion. In the Seven Against Thebes, he seems to suggest that it is better for the Athenians to rally against the enemy than to quarrel among themselves. This had been the policy of Themistocles and later of Cimon. But it was surely not the policy of Xanthippus and his son Pericles.
The whole play breathes the spirit of martial defiance, and though there are not many scholars (perhaps not one) who would agree with me, I think the enemy is still Persia. Why else emphasize the foreign tongue of the Argive attackers? Yes, Greeks were very sensitive to their dialect differences that sharply distinguished Spartans from Athenians, but what Athenian cares about the differences between Argives and Thebans? The panic-stricken chorus of women pray that gods will not allow the enemy to devastate a land that speaks the tongue of Greece (72-72) and later, not to abandon the city to an alien-speaking army (170). I am not suggesting that Aeschylus intended the audience to make an immediate connection, rather that he was framing his dramatic struggle in terms that would resonate with them: wild and impious aliens attacking a civilized city.
Let me be clear. I am far from saying that the play is a sort of tragédie a clef or a fable composed to argue a political position. What I am suggesting is that the situation of Athens in the years following the defeat and expulsion of the Persians is an assumed backdrop. If I am right about the Oresteia, then Aeschylus--like such later writers as Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Thucydides (in my view!) --lamented the war with Sparta and would have rather fought along side their former allies against resurgent Persia.