Empathy with the enemy

In the spring of 472 BC the people of Athens queued up to see the latest play written by Aeschylus, the founder of Greek tragedy. The Persians was an unusual production, and not only because it was based on an historical event rather than the usual legends of the gods. What must have really shocked the audience was that it was told through the eyes of their sworn enemy, the Persians, who only eight years earlier had fought the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis.

It recounts the story of the expeditionary force sent by the Persian monarch Xerxes, and how the invaders were thoroughly routed by their Greek rivals. When a messenger brings news of the defeat of their army and navy at Salamis, the Persian council of elders cry out: ‘O grief and grief again! Weep every heart that hears / This cruel, unlooked-for pain.’ Instead of glorifying the Athenians, Aeschylus describes the wives of lost Persian soldiers, who ‘each with tender tears in vain, weeps out her lonely life’. The audience is encouraged to feel the personal sorrows of their military rivals and to see the battle from the perspective of the vanquished barbarians.

Although some Athenians watching the unfolding drama may have been gloating over their victory, Aeschylus was asking them to undertake the radical act of empathising with the defeated enemy just at their moment of triumph. Even more striking is the fact that Aeschylus had himself fought the Persians at the earlier Battle of Marathon, where his own brother had been killed. Perhaps when writing the play he was remembering that while 191 Athenians fell in the conflict, 6,400 Persians lost their lives. The imagined cries of Persian mothers and widows may have been haunting him ever since.

The point of seeing a play like The Persians today is to help expand our empathic imaginations – to encourage us to look at the world through other eyes. But if Greek tragedy isn’t to your tastes, you might consider watching a film which similarly attempts to depict war from the perspective of enemies, or which otherwise has a strong empathy angle. Where should you begin? Here’s my top five:

1.All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – the First World War from the perspective of a German footsoldier, and one the great pacifist movies of all time.

2.The Battle of Algiers (1966) – an extraordinary film about the Algerian War of Independence (1952-64) against French colonial occupation, viewed from both sides in the conflict.

3.Schindler’s List (1993) – Nazi businessman develops unexpected empathy with Jews via friendship with his accountant.

4.Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) – the first of Clint Eastwood’s pair of films about the Battle for Iwo Jima in the Second World War, this one through the eyes of Japanese soldiers.

5.Flags of Our Fathers (2006) – the second film in Eastwood’s pair, this time from the perspective of their US enemies.


I will be leading a workshop on empathy called ‘A Good Day To Think Beyond Yourself’ at The School of Life on Thursday June 23, as part of ‘A Good Week’, a global celebration of everything good


One thought on “Empathy with the enemy

  1. Roman, May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

    Also Roman, We have a Free Online Empathy Curriculum Project that we just launched and I wanted to see if you would like to partner with us to build it? see
    Let’s create a free, publicly available, online Empathy and Compassion Curriculum that brings together all the different models, approaches and ways of learning about empathy. Use all media; text, video, images forums, video conferencing, etc, etc. Have it be a continuously improving and deepening curriculum. An Empathy and Compassion Wiki of sorts.

    Edwin rutsch

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