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Death at Marathon

In response to:

September 11 at the Movies from the September 21, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of the films United 93 and World Trade Center[NYR, September 21], Daniel Mendelsohn has a good deal to say about Aeschylus’ Persians—our earliest surviving Greek tragedy and, like the two films he was reviewing, a dramatic memorial of real events that took place only a few years before it was produced. In the end he prefers Aeschylus’ play to Greengrass’s and Stone’s movies, in part because Aeschylus’ play set its recent, traumatic historical event within the larger historical and moral contexts needed to make sense of it.

What Mendelsohn says about the play is accurate and well said. In one detail about Aeschylus’ life, however, he fell victim to a slip in memory: he writes that Aeschylus “lost a brother in the aftermath of the great naval triumph at Salamis” in the year 480, the very triumph which was the subject of his tragedy Persians. But the playwright’s brother Kynegeiros was killed ten years before that, in the aftermath of the battle at Marathon; I’m guessing the slip in memory was caused by the specific circumstance of that death, which Herodotus’ brief mention makes memorable and which has to do with ships: Kynegeiros had an arm cut off by one of the invaders when he gripped the stern of a Persian ship as it was trying to pull away from the beach.

The slip is small and takes nothing away from Mendelsohn’s insightful comparison of Aeschylus’ play with the two films about our own recent tragedy. It may even be a useful slip if it reminds us that the poet’s memories of the battle at Marathon will have been profound and may have helped prepare his sympathetic response to the Persian defeat at Salamis when it came ten years later. He fought at Marathon along with his brother, so he was there to mourn him and to help bury him, with the 191 other Athenians who fell in the battle. He will also have seen the very many bodies of fallen enemies that lay over the battlefield; Herodotus was told there were 6,400 of them. His own loss will have made him think of others who had lost men close to them. It won’t have escaped him that many Persian women had been widowed that day, that many more Persian mothers than Greek ones had lost their sons.

Peter M. Smith

Associate Professor of Classics

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Daniel Mendelsohn replies:

I am very grateful indeed to Professor Smith for pointing out the slip in my reference to Aeschylus’ brother, Cynegirus—an error which he rightly attributes to the fact that the gruesome death took place during some Greco-Persian skirmishing near a ship, a detail of the Battle of Marathon which I wrongly transposed to the Battle of Salamis, a famous naval battle. I am the more red-faced because I only recently finished writing a long note to one of Cavafy’s unfinished poems, entitled “And Above All Cynegirus,” in which the poet has occasion to remind us, sardonically, of the fact that glibly alluding to the death of Aeschylus’ brother was a topos much beloved of certain professional intellectuals, writing in Greek at the height of the Roman Empire, whose penchant for invoking the story of Cynegirus—intended to demonstrate their own high-classical bona fides—became a tiresome cliché. I fear that in this case, the addled allusion to Cynegirus’ sorry fate was mine!

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