Bust of Aeschylus
from the Capitoline Museums, Rome
|Born||c. 525 BC/524 BC
|Died||c. 456 BC
|Occupation||Playwright and Soldier|
Aeschylus (pronounced /ˈɛskɨləs/ or /ˈiːskɨləs/, Greek: Αἰσχύλος, Aiskhulos, c. 525 BC/524 BC – c. 456 BC/455 BC) was an ancient Greek playwright. He is often recognized as the father of tragedy, and is the earliest of the three Greek tragedians whose plays survive, the others being Sophocles and Euripides. According to Aristotle, he expanded the number of characters in plays to allow for conflict among them; previously, characters interacted only with the chorus. Only seven of an estimated seventy to ninety plays by Aeschylus have survived into modern times; one of these plays, Prometheus Bound, is widely thought to be the work of a later author.
At least one of Aeschylus' works was influenced by the Persian invasion of Greece, which took place during his lifetime. His play The Persians remains a good primary source of information about this period in Greek history. The war was so important to the Greeks and to Aeschylus himself that, upon his death around 456 BC, his epitaph commemorated his participation in the Greek victory at Marathon rather than to his success as a playwright.
There are no reliable sources for the life of Aeschylus. He was said to have been born in c. 525 BC in Eleusis, a small town about 27 kilometers northwest of Athens, which is nestled in the fertile valleys of western Attica, though the date is most likely based on counting back forty years from his first victory in the Great Dionysia. His family was both wealthy and well-established; his father Euphorion was a member of the Eupatridae, the ancient nobility of Attica. As a youth, he worked at a vineyard until, according to the 2nd-century AD geographer Pausanias, the god Dionysus visited him in his sleep and commanded him to turn his attention to the nascent art of tragedy. As soon as he woke from the dream, the young Aeschylus began writing a tragedy, and his first performance took place in 499 BC, when he was only 26 years old; He would eventually win his first victory at the City Dionysia in 484 BC.
The Persian Wars would play a large role in the playwright's life and career. In 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought to defend Athens against Darius's invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. The Athenians, though outnumbered, encircled and slaughtered the Persian army. This pivotal defeat ended the first Persian invasion of Greece proper and was celebrated across the city-states of Greece. Though Athens was victorious, Cynegeirus died in the battle. In 480, Aeschylus was called into military service again, this time against Xerxes' invading forces at the Battle of Salamis, and perhaps, too, at the Battle of Plataea in 479. Salamis holds a prominent place in The Persians, his oldest surviving play, which was performed in 472 BC and won first prize at the Dionysia.
Aeschylus was one of many Greeks who had been initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult to Demeter based in his hometown of Eleusis. As the name implies, members of the cult were supposed to have gained some sort of mystical, secret knowledge. Firm details of the Mysteries' specific rites are sparse, as members were sworn under the penalty of death not to reveal anything about the Mysteries to non-initiates. Nevertheless, according to Aristotle some thought that Aeschylus had revealed some of the cult's secrets on stage. According to other sources, an angry mob tried to kill Aeschylus on the spot, but he fled the scene. When he stood trial for his offense, Aeschylus pleaded ignorance and was only spared because of his brave service in the Persian Wars.
Aeschylus traveled to Sicily once or twice in the 470s BC, having been invited by Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, a major Greek city on the eastern side of the island; during one of these trips he produced The Women of Aetna (in honor of the city founded by Hieron) and restaged his Persians. By 473 BC, after the death of Phrynichus, one of his chief rivals, Aeschylus was the yearly favorite in the Dionysia, winning first prize in nearly every competition. In 458 BC, he returned to Sicily for the last time, visiting the city of Gela where he died in 456 or 455 BC. It is claimed that he was killed by a tortoise which fell out of the sky after it was dropped by an eagle, but this story is very likely apocryphal. Aeschylus' work was so respected by the Athenians that after his death, his were the only tragedies allowed to be restaged in subsequent competitions. His sons Euphorion and Euæon and his nephew Philocles would follow in his footsteps and become playwrights themselves.
The inscription on Aeschylus' gravestone makes no mention of his theatrical renown, commemorating only his military achievements:
The Greek art of the drama had its roots in religious festivals for the gods, chiefly Dionysus, the god of wine. During Aeschylus' lifetime, dramatic competitions became part of the City Dionysia in the spring. The festival began with an opening procession, continued with a competition of boys singing dithyrambs, and culminated in a pair of dramatic competitions. The first competition, which Aeschylus would have participated in, was for the tragedians, and consisted of three playwrights each presenting three tragic plays followed by a shorter comedic satyr play. A second competition of five comedic playwrights followed, and the winners of both competitions were chosen by a panel of judges.
Aeschylus entered many of these competitions in his lifetime, and various ancient sources attribute between seventy and ninety plays to him. Only seven tragedies have survived intact: The Persians, Seven against Thebes, The Suppliants, the trilogy known as The Oresteia, consisting of the three tragedies Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, and Prometheus Bound (whose authorship is disputed). With the exception of this last play—the success of which is uncertain—all of Aeschylus' extant tragedies are known to have won first prize at the City Dionysia. The Alexandrian Life of Aeschylus indicates that the playwright took the first prize at the City Dionysia thirteen times. This compares favorably with Sophocles' reported eighteen victories (with a substantially larger catalogue, at an estimated 120 plays), and dwarfs the five victories of Euripides (who featured a catalogue of roughly 90 plays).
One hallmark of Aeschylean dramaturgy appears to have been his tendency to write connected trilogies in which each play serves as a chapter in a continuous dramatic narrative. The Oresteia is the only wholly extant example of this type of connected trilogy, but there is ample evidence that Aeschylus wrote such trilogies often. The comic satyr plays that would follow his dramatic trilogies often treated a related mythic topic. For example, the Oresteia's satyr play Proteus treated the story of Menelaus's detour in Egypt on his way home from the Trojan War. Based on the evidence provided by a catalogue of Aeschylean play titles, scholia, and play fragments recorded by later authors, it is assumed that three other of Aeschylus' extant plays were components of connected trilogies: Seven against Thebes being the final play in an Oedipus trilogy, and The Suppliants and Prometheus Bound each being the first play in a Danaid trilogy and Prometheus trilogy, respectively (see below). Scholars have moreover suggested several completely lost trilogies derived from known play titles. A number of these trilogies treated myths surrounding the Trojan War. One—collectively called the Achilleis and comprising the titles Myrmidons, Nereids and Phrygians (alternately, The Ransoming of Hector)—recounts Hector's death at the hands of Achilles and the subsequent holding of Hector's body for ransom; another trilogy apparently recounts the entry of the Trojan ally Memnon into the war, and his death at the hands of Achilles (Memnon and The Weighing of Souls being two components of the trilogy); The Award of the Arms, The Phrygian Women, and The Salaminian Women suggest a trilogy about the madness and subsequent suicide of the Greek hero Ajax; Aeschylus also seems to have treated Odysseus' return to Ithaca after the war (including his killing of his wife Penelope's suitors and its consequences) with a trilogy consisting of The Soul-raisers, Penelope and The Bone-gatherers. Other suggested trilogies touched on the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (Argô, Lemnian Women, Hypsipylê); the life of Perseus (The Net-draggers, Polydektês, Phorkides); the birth and exploits of Dionysus (Semele, Bacchae, Pentheus); and the aftermath of the war portrayed in Seven against Thebes (Eleusinians, Argives (or Argive Women), Sons of the Seven).
The earliest of the plays that still exists is The Persians (Persai), performed in 472 BC and based on experiences in Aeschylus' own life, specifically the Battle of Salamis. It is unique among Greek tragedies in treating a recent historical event rather than a heroic or divine myth. The Persians focuses on the popular Greek theme of hubris by blaming Persia's loss on the overwhelming pride of its king. It opens with the arrival of a messenger in Susa, the Persian capital, bearing news of the catastrophic Persian defeat at Salamis to Atossa, the mother of the Persian King Xerxes. Atossa then travels to the tomb of Darius, her husband, where his ghost appears to explain the cause of the defeat. It is, he says, the result of Xerxes' hubris in building a bridge across the Hellespont, an action which angered the gods. Xerxes appears at the end of the play, not realizing the cause of his defeat, and the play closes to lamentations by Xerxes and the chorus.
Seven against Thebes (Hepta epi Thebas), which was performed in 467 BC, picks up a contrasting theme, that of fate and the interference of the gods in human affairs. It also marks the first known appearance in Aeschylus' work of a theme which would continue through his plays, that of the polis (the city) being a vital development of human civilization. The play tells the story of Eteocles and Polynices, the sons of the shamed King of Thebes, Oedipus. The sons agree to alternate in the throne of the city, but after the first year Eteocles refuses to step down, and Polynices wages war to claim his crown. The brothers go on to kill each other in single combat, and the original ending of the play consisted of lamentations for the dead brothers. A new ending was added to the play some fifty years later: Antigone and Ismene mourn their dead brothers, a messenger enters announcing an edict prohibiting the burial of Polynices; and finally, Antigone declares her intention to defy this edict. The play was the third in a connected Oedipus trilogy; the first two plays were Laius and Oedipus, likely treating those elements of the Oedipus myth detailed most famously in Sophocles' Oedipus the King. The concluding satyr play was The Sphinx.
Aeschylus would continue his emphasis on the polis with The Suppliants in 463 BC (Hiketides), which pays tribute to the democratic undercurrents running through Athens in advance of the establishment of a democratic government in 461. In the play, the Danaids, the fifty daughters of Danaus, founder of Argos, flee a forced marriage to their cousins in Egypt. They turn to King Pelasgus of Argos for protection, but Pelasgus refuses until the people of Argos weigh in on the decision, a distinctly democratic move on the part of the king. The people decide that the Danaids deserve protection, and they are allowed within the walls of Argos despite Egyptian protests. The 1952 publication of Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2256 fr. 3 confirmed a long-assumed (because of The Suppliants' cliffhanger ending) Danaid trilogy, whose constituent plays are generally agreed to be The Suppliants, The Aegyptids and The Danaids. A plausible reconstruction of the trilogy's last two-thirds runs thus: In The Aegyptids, the Argive-Egyptian war threatened in the first play has transpired. During the course of the war, King Pelasgus has been killed, and Danaus comes to rule Argos. He negotiates a peace settlement with Aegyptus, as a condition of which, his fifty daughters will marry the fifty sons of Aegyptus. Danaus secretly informs his daughters of an oracle predicting that one of his sons-in-law would kill him; he therefore orders the Danaids to murder the Aegyptids on their wedding night. His daughters agree. The Danaids would open the day after the wedding. In short order, it is revealed that forty-nine of the Danaids killed their husbands as ordered; Hypermnestra, however, loved her husband Lynceus, and thus spared his life and helped him to escape. Angered by his daughter's disobedience, Danaus orders her imprisonment and, possibly, her execution. In the trilogy's climax and dénouement, Lynceus reveals himself to Danaus, and kills him (thus fulfilling the oracle). He and Hypermnestra will establish a ruling dynasty in Argos. The other forty-nine Danaids are absolved of their murderous crime, and married off to unspecified Argive men. The satyr play following this trilogy was titled Amymone, after one of the Danaids.
The only virtually complete (a few lines are missing in several spots) trilogy of Greek plays by any playwright that still exists is the Oresteia (458 BC); although the satyr play that originally followed it is lost, except for some brief fragments. The trilogy consists of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers (Choephoroi), and The Eumenides. Together, these plays tell the bloody story of the family of Agamemnon, King of Argos.
Agamemnon describes his death at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra, who was angry both at Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia and at his keeping the Trojan prophetess Cassandra as a concubine. Cassandra enters the palace even though she knows she will be murdered by Clytemnestra as well, knowing that she cannot avoid her gruesome fate. The ending of the play includes a prediction of the return of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who will surely avenge his father.
The Libation Bearers continues the tale, opening with Orestes arrival at Agamemnon's tomb. At the tomb, Electra meets Orestes, who has returned from exile in Phocis, and together they plan revenge upon Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Clytemnestra's account of a nightmare in which she gives birth to a snake is recounted by the chorus; this resulted in her ordering Electra, her daughter, to pour libations on Agamemnon's tomb (with the assistance of libation bearers) in hope of making amends. Orestes enters the palace pretending to bear news of his own death, and when Clytemnestra calls in Aegisthus to share in the news, Orestes kills them both. Shortly thereafter Orestes is beset by the Furies, who avenge the murders of kin in Greek mythology.
The final play of The Oresteia addresses the question of Orestes' guilt. The Furies pursue Orestes from Argos and into the wilderness. Orestes makes his way to the temple of Apollo and begs him to drive the Furies away. Apollo had encouraged Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, and so bears a portion of the guilt of the act. The Furies belong to the older race of the gods, and Apollo sends Orestes to the temple of Athena, with Hermes as a guide. There, the Furies track him down and the goddess Athena, patron of Athens, steps in and declares that a trial is necessary. Apollo argues Orestes' case and, after the judges, including Athena deliver a tie vote, Athena announces that Orestes is acquitted according to the rule she had just previously promulgated. She also renames them The Awesome Goddesses, and specifically extols the importance of reason in the development of laws, and, like The Suppliants, lauds the ideals of a democratic Athens.
In addition to these six works, a seventh tragedy, Prometheus Bound, is uniformly attributed to Aeschylus by ancient authorities. Since the late nineteenth century, however, modern scholarship has increasingly doubted this ascription largely on stylistic grounds. Its production date is also in dispute, with theories ranging from the 480's BC to as late as the 410's. The play consists mostly of static dialogue, as throughout the play the Titan Prometheus is bound to a rock as punishment from the Olympian Zeus for providing fire to humans. The god Hephaestus, the Titan Oceanus, and the chorus of Oceanids all express sympathy for Prometheus' plight. Prometheus meets Io, a fellow victim of Zeus' cruelty; he prophesies for her future travels, and reveals that one of her descendants will eventually free Prometheus. The play closes with Zeus sending Prometheus into the abyss because Prometheus refuses to divulge the secret of a potential marriage that could be Zeus' downfall. The Prometheus Bound appears to have been the first play in a trilogy called the Prometheia. In the second play, Prometheus Unbound, Heracles is supposed to free Prometheus from his chains and kills the eagle that had been sent daily to eat Prometheus' perpetually regenerating liver. Perhaps foreshadowing his eventual reconciliation with Prometheus, we learn that Zeus has released the other Titans whom he imprisoned at the conclusion of the Titanomachy. In the trilogy's conclusion, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, it appears that the Titan finally warns Zeus not to lie with the sea nymph Thetis, for she is fated to give birth to a son greater than the father. Not wishing to be overthrown, Zeus marries Thetis off to the mortal Peleus; the product of that union will be Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. After reconciling with Prometheus, Zeus perhaps inaugurates a festival in his honor at Athens.
When Aeschylus first began writing, the theatre had only just begun to evolve, although earlier playwrights like Thespis had expanded the cast to include an actor who was able to interact with the chorus. Aeschylus added a second actor, allowing for greater dramatic variety, while the chorus played a less important role. He is sometimes credited with introducing skenographia, or scene-decoration, though Aristotle gives this distinction to Sophocles. Aeschylus is moreover said to have made innovations in costuming—making the costumes more elaborate and dramatic, and having his actors wear platform boots (cothurni) to make them more visible to the audience. According to a later account of Aeschylus' life, as they walked on stage in the first performance of the Eumenides, the chorus of Furies were so frightening in appearance that they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labor.
Overall, though, he continued to write within the very strict bounds of Greek drama: his plays were written in verse, no violence could be performed on stage, and the plays had to have a certain remoteness from daily life in Athens, either by relating stories about the gods or by being set, like The Persians, in far-away locales. Aeschylus' work has a strong moral and religious emphasis. The Oresteia trilogy particularly concentrated on man's position in the cosmos in relation to the gods, divine law, and divine punishment. Aeschylus' abiding popularity is perhaps most evident in the praise the comic playwright Aristophanes gives him in The Frogs, produced some half-century after Aeschylus' death. Appearing as a character in the play, Aeschylus claims at line 1022 that his Seven against Thebes "made everyone watching it to love being warlike"; with his Persians, Aeschylus claims at lines 1026-7 that he "taught the Athenians to desire always to defeat their enemies." Aeschylus goes on to say at lines 1039ff. that his plays inspired the Athenians to be brave and virtuous.
Aeschylus' works were influential beyond his own time. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Regius Professor of Greek Emeritus at Oxford University) wrote extensively on Wagner's reverence of Aeschylus and the ensuing effect on his works. Michael Ewans argues in his Wagner and Aeschylus. The 'Ring' and the 'Oresteia' (London: Faber. 1982) that the influence was so great as to merit a direct comparison, character by character, of Wagner's 'Ring' and Aeschylus' 'Orestia.' Reviews of his book, while not denying Lloyd-Jones' views that Wagner read and respected Aeschylus, refute Ewans' arguments on the grounds that they seem unreasonable and forced.
Sir J. T. Sheppard argues in the second half of his Aeschylus and Sophocles: Their Work and Influence that Aeschylus, along with Sophocles, had a major part in the formation of dramatic literature from the Renaissance to the present, specifically in French and Elizabethan drama. He also claims that their influence went beyond just drama and applies to literature in general, citing Milton and the Romantics as his prime examples.
During his presidential campaign in 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy invoked Aeschylus on the night of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Kennedy was notified of King's murder before a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Indiana and warned not to attend the event due to fears of rioting from the mostly African-American crowd. Kennedy insisted on attending and delivered an impromptu speech that delivered news of King's death to the crowd. Acknowledging the audience's emotions, Kennedy referred to his own grief at the murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy and said: "My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black... Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world." The speech is now considered to be Kennedy's finest as well as one of the greatest speeches in American history.
The standard edition of Aeschylus is Martin L. West, Aeschyli Tragoediae: cum incerti poetae Prometheo (1998), 2nd edition.
AESCHYLUS (5 2 5-45 6 B.C.), Greek poet, the first of the only three Attic Tragedians of whose work entire plays survive, and in a very real sense (as we shall see) the founder of the Greek drama, was born at Eleusis in the year 525 B.C. His father, Euphorion, belonged to the "Eupatridae" or old nobility of Athens, as we know on the authority of the short Life of the. poet given in the Medicean Manuscript (see note on Life " authorities" at the end). According to the same tradition he took part as a soldier in the great struggle of Greece against Persia; and was present at the battles of Marathon, Artemisium, Salamis and Plataea, in the years 490-479. At least one of his brothers, Cynaegirus, fought with him at Marathon, and was killed in attempting a conspicuous act of bravery; and the brothers' portraits found a place in the national picture of the battle which the Athenians set up as a memorial in the Stoa Poecile (or "Pictured Porch") at Athens.
The vigour and loftiness of tone which mark Aeschylus' poetic work was not only due, we may be sure, to his native genius and gifts, powerful as they were, but were partly inspired by the personal share he took in the great actions of a hercic national uprising. In the same way, the poet's brooding thoughtfulness on deep questions - the power of the gods, their dealings with man, the dark mysteries of fate, the future life in Hades - though largely due to his turn of mind and temperament, was doubtless connected with the place where his childhood was passed. Eleusis was the centre of the most famous worship of Demeter, with its processions, its ceremonies, its mysteries, its impressive spectacles and nocturnal rites; and these were intimately connected with the Greek beliefs about the human soul, and the underworld.
His dramatic career began early, and was continued for more than forty years. In 499, his 26th year, he first exhibited at Athens; and his last work, acted during his lifetime at Athens, was the trilogy of the Oresteia, exhibited in 458. The total number of his plays is stated by Suidas to have been ninety; and the seven extant plays, with the dramas named or nameable which survive only in fragments, amount to over eighty, so that Suidas' figure is probably based on reliable tradition. It is well known that in the 5th century each exhibitor at the tragic contests produced four plays; and Aeschylus must therefore have competed (between 499 and 458) more than twenty times, or once in two years. His first victory is recorded in 484, fifteen years after his earliest appearance on the stage; but in the remaining twenty-six years of his dramatic activity at Athens he was successful at least twelve times. This clearly shows that he was the most commanding figure among the tragedians of 500-458; and for more than half that time was usually the victor in the contests. Perhaps the most striking evidence of his exceptional position among his contemporaries is the well-known decree passed shortly after his death that whosoever desired to exhibit a play of Aeschylus should "receive a chorus," i.e. be officially allowed to produce the drama at the Dionysia. The existence of this decree, mentioned in the Life, is strongly confirmed by two passages in Aristophanes: first in the prologue of the Acharnians (which was acted in 425, thirty-one years after the poet's death), where the citizen, grumbling about his griefs and troubles, relates his great disappointment, when he took his seat in the theatre "expecting Aeschylus," to find that when the play came on it was Theognis; and secondly in a scene of the Frogs (acted 405 B.C.), where the throne of poetry is contested in Hades between Aeschylus and Euripides, the former complains (Fr. 866) that "the battle is not fair, because my own poetry has not died with me, while Euripides' has died, and therefore he will have it with him to recite" - a clear reference, as the scholiast points out, to the continued production at Athens of Aeschylus' plays after his death.
Apart from fables, guesses and blunders, of which a word is said below, the only other incidents recorded of the poet's life that deserve mention are connected with his Sicilian visits, and the charge preferred against him of revealing the "secrets of Demeter." This tale is briefly mentioned by Aristotle (Eth. iii. 2), and a late commentator (Eustratius, 12th century) quotes from one Heraclides Pontius the version which may be briefly given as follows: The poet was acting a part in one of his own plays, where there was a reference to Demeter. The audience suspected him of revealing the inviolable secrets, and rose in fury; the poet fled to the altar of Dionysus in the orchestra and so saved his life for the moment; for even an angry Athenian crowd respected the inviolable sanctuary. He was afterwards charged with the crime before the Areopagus; and his plea "that he did not know that what he said was secret" was accepted by the court and secured his acquittal. The commentator adds that the prowess of the poet (and his brother) at Marathon was the real cause of the leniency of his judges. The story was afterwards developed, and embellished by additions; but in the above shape it dates back to the 4th century; and as the main fact seems accepted by Aristotle, it is probably authentic.
As to his foreign travel, the suggestion has been made that certain descriptions in the Persae, and the known facts that he wrote a trilogy on the story of the Thracian king Lycurgus, persecutor of Dionysus, seem to point to his having a special knowledge of Thrace, which makes it likely that he had visited it. This, however, remains at best a conjecture. For his repeated visits to Sicily, on the other hand, there is conclusive ancient evidence. Hiero the First, tyrant of Syracuse, who reigned about twelve years (478-467), and amongst other efforts after magnificence invited to his court famous poets and men of letters, had founded a new town, Aetna, on the site of Catana which he captured, expelling the inhabitants. Among his guests were Aeschylus, Pindar, Bacchylides and Simonides. About 476 Aeschylus was entertained by him, and at his request wrote and exhibited a play called The Women of Aetna in honour of the new town. He paid a second visit about 472, the year in which he had produced the Persae at Athens; and the play is said to have been repeated at Syracuse at his patron's request. Hiero died in 467, the year of the Seven against Thebes; but after 458, when the Oresteia was exhibited at Athens, we find the poet again in Sicily for the last time. In 456 he died, and was buried at Gela; and on his tomb was placed an epitaph in two elegiac couplets saying: "Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who perished in the wheatbearing land of Gela; of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, or the long-haired Persian who knows it well." The authorship of this epitaph is uncertain, as the Life says it was inscribed on his grave by the people of Gela, while Athenaeus and Pausanias attribute it to Aeschylus. Probably most people would agree that only the poet himself could have praised the soldier and kept silence about the poetry.
Of the marvellous traditions which gathered round his name little need be said. Pausanias' tale, how Dionysus appeared to the poet when a boy, asleep in his father's vineyard, and bade him write a tragedy - or the account in the Life, how he was killed by an eagle letting fall on his head a tortoise whose shell the bird was unable to crack - clearly belong to the same class of legends as the story that Plato was son of Apollo, and that a swarm of bees settled upon his infant lips as he lay in his mother's arms. Less supernatural, but hardly more historical, is the statement in - the Life that the poet left Athens for Sicily in consequence of his defeat in the dramatic contest of 468 by Sophocles; or the alternative story of the same authority that the cause of his chagrin was that Simonides' elegy on the heroes slain at Marathon was preferred to his own. Apart from the inherent improbability of such pettiness in such a man, neither story fits the facts; for in 467, the next year after Sophocles' success, we know that Aeschylus won the prize of tragedy with the Septem; and the Marathon elegy must have been written in 49 o, fourteen years before his first visit to Sicily.
In passing from Aeschylus' life to his work, we have obviously far more trustworthy data, in the seven extant plays (with W the fragments of more than seventy others), and par ticularly in the invaluable help of Aristotle's Poetics. The real importance of our poet in the development of the drama (see Drama: Greek) as compared with any of his three or four known predecessors - who are at best hardly more than names to us - is shown. by the fact that Aristotle, in his brief review of the rise of tragedy (Poet. iv. 13), names no one before Aeschylus. He recognizes, it is true, a long process of growth, with several stages, from the dithyramb to the drama; and it is not difficult to see what these stages were. The first step was the addition to the old choric song of an interlude spoken, and in early days improvised, by the leader of the chorus (Poet. iv. 12). The next was the introduction of an actor (inroxptr is or "answerer"), to reply to the leader; and thus we get dialogue added to recitation. The "answerer" was at first the poet himself (Ar. Rhet. iii. i). This change is traditionally attributed to Thespis (536 B.C.), who is, however, not mentioned by Aristotle. The mask, to enable the actor to assume different parts, by whomsoever invented, was in regular use before Aeschylus' day. The third change was the enlarged range of subjects. The lyric dithyramb-tales were necessarily about Dionysus, and the interludes had, of course, to follow suit. Nothing in the world so tenaciously resists innovation as religious ceremony; and it is interesting to learn that the Athenian populace (then, as ever, eager for "some new thing") nevertheless opposed at first the introduction of other tales. But the innovators won; or otherwise there would have been no Attic drama.
In this way, then, to the original lyric song and dances in honour of Dionysus was added a spoken (but still metrical) interlude by the chorus-leader, and later a dialogue with one actor (at first the poet), whom the mask enabled to appear in more than one part.
But everything points to the fact that in the development of the drama Aeschylus was the decisive innovator. The two things that were important, when the 5th century began, if tragedy was to realize its possibilities, were (I) the disentanglement of the dialogue from its position as an interlude in an artistic and religious pageant that was primarily lyric; and (2) its general elevation of tone. Aeschylus, as we know on the express authority of Aristotle (Poet. iv. 13), achieved the first by the introduction of the second actor; and though he did not begin the second, he gave it the decisive impulse and consummation by the overwhelming effect of his serious thought, the stately splendour of his style, his high dramatic purpose, and the artistic grandeur and impressiveness of the construction and presentment of his tragedies.
As to the importance of the second actor no argument is needed. The essence of a play is dialogue; and a colloquy between the coryphaeus and a messenger (or, by aid of the mask, a series of messengers), as must have been the case when Aeschylus began, is in reality not dialogue in the dramatic sense at all, but rather narrative. The discussion, the persuasion, the instruction, the pleading, the contention - in short, the interacting personal influences of different characters on each other - are indispensable to anything that can be called a play, as we understand the word; and, without two "personae dramatis" at the least, the drama in the strict sense is clearly impossible. The number of actors was afterwards increased; but to Aeschylus are due the perception and the adoption of the essential step; and therefore, as was said above, he deserves in a very real sense to be called the founder of Athenian tragedy.
Of the seven extant plays, Supplices, Persae, Septem contra Thebas, Prometheus, Agamemnon, Choephoroe and Eumenides, five can fortunately be dated with certainty, as the archon's name is preserved in the Arguments; and the other two approximately. The dates rest, in the last resort, on the b&bauKaXiat, or the official records of the contests, of which we know that Aristotle (and others) compiled catalogues; and some actual fragments have been recovered. The order of the plays is probably that given above; and certainly the Persae was acted in 472, Septem in 467, and the last three, the trilogy, in 458. The Supplices is generally, though not unanimously, regarded as the oldest; and the best authorities tend to place it not far from 490. The early date is strongly confirmed by three things: the extreme simplicity of the plot, the choric (instead of dramatic) opening, and the fact that the percentage of lyric passages is 54, or the highest of all the seven plays. The chief doubt is in regard to Prometheus, which is variously placed by good authorities; but the very low percentage of lyrics (only 27, or roughly a quarter of the whole), and still more the strong characterization, a marked advance on anything in the first three plays, point to its being later than any except the trilogy, and suggest a date somewhere about 460, or perhaps a little earlier. A few comments on the extant plays will help to indicate the main points of Aeschylus' work.
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The exceptional interest of the Supplices is due to its date. Being nearly twenty years earlier than any other extant play, it furnishes evidence of a stage in the evolution of Attic drama which would otherwise have been unrepresented. Genius, as Patin says, is a "puissance libre," and none more so than that of Aeschylus; but with all allowance for the "uncontrolled power" of this poet, we may feel confident that we have in the Supplices something resembling in general structure the lost works of Choerilus, Phrynichus, Pratinas and the 6th century pioneers of drama.
The plot is briefly as follows: the fifty daughters of Danaus (who are the chorus), betrothed by the fiat of Aegyptus (their father's brother) to his fifty sons, flee with Danaus to Argos, to escape the marriage which they abhor. They claim the protection of the Argive king, Pelasgus, who is kind but timid; and he (by a pleasing anachronism) refers the matter to the people, who agree to protect the fugitives. The pursuing fleet of suitors is seen approaching; the herald arrives (with a company of followers), blusters, threatens, orders off the cowering Danaids to the ships and finally attempts to drag them away. Pelasgus interposes with a force, drives off the Egyptians and saves the suppliants. Danaus urges them to prayer, thanksgiving and maidenly modesty, and the grateful chorus pass away to the shelter offered by their protectors.
It is clear that we have here the drama in its nascent stage, just developing out of the lyric pageant from which it sprang. The interest still centres round the chorus, who are in fact the "protagonists" of the play. Character and plot - the two essentials of drama, in the view of all critics from Aristotle downwards - are both here rudimentary. There are some fluctuations of hope and fear; but the play is a single situation. The stages are: the appeal; the hesitation of the king, the resolve of the people; the defeat of insolent violence; and the rescue. It should not be forgotten, indeed, that the play is one of a trilogy - an act, therefore, rather than a complete drama. But we have only to compare it with those later plays of which the same is true, to see the difference. Even in a trilogy, each play is a complete whole in itself, though also a portion of a larger whole.
The next play that has survived is the Persae, which has again a special interest, viz. that it is the only extant Greek historical drama. We know that Aeschylus' predecessor, Phrynichus, had already twice tried this experiment, with the Capture of Miletus and the Phoenician Women; that the latter play dealt with the same subject as the Persae, and the handling of its opening scene was imitated by the younger poet. The plot of the Persae is still severely simple, though more developed than that of the Suppliants. The opening is still lyric, and the first quarter of the play brings out, by song and speech, the anxiety of the people and queen as to the fate of Xerxes' huge army. Then comes the messenger with the news of Salamis, including a description of the sea-fight itself which can only be called magnificent. We realize what it must have been for the vast audience-30,000, according to Plato (Symp. 175 E) - to hear, eight years only after the event, from the supreme poet of Athens, who was himself a distinguished actor in the war, this thrilling narrative of the great battle. But this reflexion at once suggests another; it is not a tragedy in the true Greek sense, according to the practice of the 5th-century poets. It may be called in one point of view a tragedy, since the scene is laid in Persia, and the drama forcibly depicts the downfall of the Persian pride. But its real aim is not the "pity and terror" of the developed drama; it is the triumphant glorification of Athens, the exultation of the whole nation gathered in one place, over the ruin of their foe. This is best shown by the praise of Aeschylus' great admirer and defender Aristophanes, who (Frogs, 1026-1027) puts into the poet's mouth the boast that in the Persae he had "glorified a noble exploit, and taught men to be eager to conquer their foe." Thus, both as an historic drama and in its real effect, the Persae was an experiment; and, as far as we know, the experiment was not repeated either by the author or his successors. One further point may be noted. Aeschylus always has a taste for the unseen and the supernatural; and one effective incident here is the raising of Darius's ghost, and his prophecy of the disastrous battle of Plataea. But in the ghost's revelations there is a mixture of audacity and na�t�characteristic at once of the poet and the early youth of the drama. The dead Darius prophesies Plataea, but has not heard of Salamis; he gives a brief (and inaccurate) list of the Persian kings, which the queen and chorus, whom he addresses, presumably know; and his only practical suggestion, that the Persians should not again invade Greece, seems attainable without the aid of superhuman foresight.
Five years later came the Theban Tragedy. It is not only, as Aristophanes says (Frogs, 1024), "a play full of the martial spirit," but is (like the Supplices) one of a connected series, dealing with the evil fate of the Theban House. But instead of being three acts of a single story like the Supplices, these three plays trace the fate through three generations, Laius, Oedipus and the two sons who die by each other's hands in the fight for the Theban sovereignty. This family fate, where one evil deed leads to another after many years, is a larger conception, strikingly suited to Aeschylus' genius, and constitutes a notable stage in the development of the Aeschylean drama. And just as here we have the tragedy of the Theban house, so in the last extant work, the Oresteia, the poet traces the tragedy of the Pelopid family, from Agamemnon's first sin to Orestes' vengeance and purification. And the names of several lost plays point to similar handling of the tragic trilogy.
The Seven against Thebes is the last play of its series; and again the plot is severely simple, not only in outline, but in detail. Father and grandfather have both perished miserably; and the two princes have quarrelled, both claiming the kingdom. Eteocles has driven out Polynices, who fled to Argos, gathered a host under seven leaders (himself being one), and when the play opens has begun the siege of his own city. The king appears, warns the people,chides the clamour of women,appoints seven Thebans, including himself, to defend the seven gates, departs to his post, meets his brother in battle and both are killed. The other six chieftains are all slain, and the enemy beaten off. The two dead princes are buried by their two sisters, who alone are left of the royal house.
Various signs of the early drama are here manifest. Half the play is lyric; there is no complication of plot; the whole action is recited by messengers; and the fatality whereby the predicted mutual slaughter of the princes is brought about is no accidental stroke of destiny, but the choice of the king Eteocles himself. On the other hand, the opening is no longer lyric (like the two earlier plays) but dramatic; the main scene, where the messenger reports at length the names of the seven assailants, and the king appoints the seven defenders, each man going off in silence to his post, must have been an impressive spectacle.
One novelty should not be overlooked. There is here the first passage of &c voma, or general reflexion of life, which later became a regular feature of tragedy. Eteocles muses on the fate which involves an innocent man in the company of the wicked so that he shares unjustly their deserved fate. The passage (Theb. 597608) is interesting; and the whole part of Eteocles shows a new effort of the poet to draw character, which may have something to do with the rise of Sophocles, who in the year before (468) won with his first play, now lost, the prize of tragedy.
There remain only the Prometheus and the Oresteia, which show such marked advance that (it may almost be said) when we think of Aeschylus it is these four plays we have in mind.
The Prometheus-trilogy consisted of three plays: Prometheus the Fire-bringer, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound. The two last necessarily came in that order; the Fire-bringer is probably the first, though recently it has been held by some scholars to be the last, of the trilogy. That Prometheus sinned against Zeus, by stealing fire from heaven; that he was punished by fearful tortures for ages; that he finally was reconciled to Zeus and set free, - all this was the ancient tale indisputably. Those who hold the Fire-bringer (Ilup4 opos) to be the final play, conjecture that it dealt with the establishment of the worship of Prometheus under that title, which is known to have existed at Athens. But the other order is on all grounds more probable; it keeps the natural sequence - crime, punishment, reconciliation, which is also the sequence in the Oresteia. And if the reconciliation was achieved in the second play, no scheme of action sufficing for the third drama seems even plausible.' However that may be, the play that survives is a poem of unsurpassed force and impressiveness. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the development of drama, there seems at first sight little scope in the story for the normal human interest of a tragedy, since the actors are all divine, except Io, who is a distracted wanderer, victim of Zeus' cruelty; and between the opening where Prometheus is nailed to the Scythian rock, and the close where the earthquake engulfs the rock, the hero and the chorus, action in the ordinary sense is ipso facto impossible. This is just the opportunity for the poet's bold inventiveness and fine imagination. The tortured sufferer is visited by the Oceanic Nymphs, who float in, borne by an (imaginary) winged car, to console; Oceanus (riding a griffin, doubtless also imaginary) follows, kind but timid, to advise submission; then appears Io, victim of Zeus' love and Hera's jealousy, to whom Prometheus prophesies her future wanderings and his own fate; lastly Hermes, insolent messenger of the gods, who tries in vain to extort Prometheus' secret knowledge of the future. Oceanus, the well-meaning palavering old mentor, and Hermes, the blustering and futile jack-in-office, gods though they be, are vigorous, audacious and very human character-sketches; the soft entrance of the consoling nymphs is unspeakably beautiful; and the prophecy of Io's wanderings is a striking example of that new keen interest in the world outside which was felt by the Greeks of the 5th century, as it was felt by the Elizabethan English in a very similar epoch of national spirit and enterprise two thousand years later. Thus, though dramatic action is by the nature of the case impossible for the hero, the visitors provide real drama.
Another important point in the development of tragedy is what we may call the "balanced issue." The question in Suppliants is the protection of the threatened fugitives; in � Persae the humiliation of overweening pride. So far the sympathy of the audience is not doubtful or divided. In the Septem there is an approach to conflict of feeling; the banished brother has a personal grievance, though guilty of the impious crime of attacking his own country. The sympathy must be for the defender Eteocles; but it is at least somewhat qualified by his injustice to his brother. In Prometheus the issue is more nearly 1 The Eumenides is quoted as a parallel, because there the establishment of this worship at Athens concludes the whole trilogy; but it is forgotten that in Eumenides there is much besides - the pursuit of Orestes, the refuge at Athens, the trial, the acquittal, the conciliation by Athena of the Furies; while here the story would be finished before the last play began.
balanced. The hero is both a victim and a rebel. He is punished for his benefits to man; but though Zeus is tyrannous and ungrateful, the hero's reckless defiance is shocking to Greek feeling. As the play goes on, this is subtly and delicately indicated by the attitude of the chorus. They enter overflowing with pity. They are slowly chilled and alienated by the hero's violence and impiety; but they nobly decline, at the last crisis, the mean advice of Hermes to desert Prometheus and save themselves; and in the final crash they share his fate.
The last and greatest work of Aeschylus is the Oresteia, which also has the interest of being the only complete trilogy preserved to us. It is a three-act drama of family fate, like the Oedipus-trilogy; and the acts are the sin, the revenge, the reconciliation, as in the Prometheus-trilogy. Again, as in Prometheus, the plot, at first sight, is such that the conditions of drama seem to exclude much development in character-drawing. The gods are everywhere at the root of the action. The inspired prophet, Calchas, has demanded the sacrifice of the king's daughter Iphigenia, to appease the offended Artemis. The inspired Cassandra, brought in as a spear-won slave from conquered Troy, reveals the murderous past of the Pelopid house, and the imminent slaughter of the king by his wife. Apollo orders the son, Orestes, to avenge his father by killing the murderess, and protects him when after the deed he takes sanctuary at Delphi. The Erinnyes ("Furies") pursue him over land and sea; and at last Athena gives him shelter at Athens, summons an Athenian council to judge his guilt, and when the court is equally divided gives her casting vote for mercy. The last act ends with the reconciliation of Athena and the Furies; and the latter receive a shrine and worship at Athens, and promise favour and prosperity to the great city. The scope for human drama seems deliberately restricted, if not closed, by such a story so handled. Nevertheless, as a fact, the growth of characterization is, in spite of all, not only visible but remarkable. Clytemnestra is one of the most powerfully presented characters of the Greek drama. Her manly courage, her vindictive and unshaken purpose, her hardly hidden contempt for her tool and accomplice, Aegisthus, her cold scorn for the feebly vacillating elders, and her unflinching acceptance (in the second play) of inevitable fate, when she faces at last the avowed avenger, are all portrayed with matchless force - her very craft being scornfully assumed, as needful to her purpose, and contemptuously dropped when the purpose is served. And there is one other noticeable point. In this trilogy Aeschylus, for the first time, has attempted some touches of character in two of the humbler parts, the Watchman in Agamemnon, and the Nurse in the Choephoroe. The Watchman opens the play, and the vivid and almost humorous sententiousness of his language, his dark hints, his pregnant metaphors drawn from common speech, at once give a striking touch of realism, and form a pointed contrast to the terrible drama that impends. A very similar effect is produced at the crisis of the Choephoroe by the speech of the Nurse, who coming on a message to Aegisthus pours out to the chorus her sorrow at the reported death of Orestes and her fond memories of his babyhood - with the most homely details; and the most striking realistic touch is perhaps the broken structure and almost inconsequent utterance of the old faithful slave's speech. These two are veritable figures drawn from contemporary life; and though both appear only once, and are quite unimportant in the drama, the innovation is most significant, and especially as adopted by Aeschylus. It remains to say a word on two more points, the religious ideas of Aeschylus and some of the main characteristics of his poetry. The religious aspect of the drama in one sense was prominent from the first, owing to its evolution from the choral celebration of the god Dionysus. But the new spirit imported by the genius of Aeschylus into the early drama was religious in a profounder meaning of the term. The sadness of human lot, the power and mysterious dealings of the gods, their terrible and inscrutable wrath and jealousy (ciya and 006vos), their certain vengeance upon sinners, all the more fearful if delayed, - such are the poet's constant themes, delivered with stange solemnity and impressiveness in the lyric songs, especially in the Oresteia. And at times, particularly in the Trilogy, in his reference to the divine power of Zeus, he almost approaches a stern and sombre monotheism. "One God above all, who directs all, who is the cause of all" (Ag. 163, 1485); the watchfulness of this Power over human action (363-367), especially over the punishment of their sins; and the mysterious law whereby sin always begets new sin (Ag. 758-760): - these are ideas on which Aeschylus dwells in the Agamemnon with peculiar force, in a strain at once lofty and sombre. One specially noteworthy point in that play is his explicit repudiation of the common Hellenic view that prosperity brings ruin. In other places he seems to share the feeling; but here (Ag. 730) he goes deeper, and declares that it is not iX00s but always wickedness that brings about men's fall. All through there is a recurring note of fear in his view of man's destiny, expressed in vivid images - the "death that lurks behind the wall" (Ag. 1004), the "hidden reef which wrecks the bark, unable to weather the headland" (Eum. 561-565). In one remarkable passage of the Eumenides (517-525) this fear is extolled as a moral power which ought to be enthroned in men's hearts, to deter them from impious or violent acts, or from the pride that impels them to such sins.
Of the poetic qualities of Aeschylus' drama and diction, both in the lyrics and the dialogue, no adequate account can be attempted; the briefest word must here suffice. He is everywhere distinguished by grandeur and power of conception, presentation and expression, and most of all in the latest works, the Prometheus and the Trilogy. He is pre-eminent in depicting the slow approach of fear, as in the Persae; the imminent horror of impending fate, as in the broken cries and visions of Cassandra in the Agamemnon (1072-1177), the long lament and prayers to the nether powers in the Choephoroe (315-478), and the gradual rousing of the slumbering Furies in the Eumenides . (117-139). The fatal end in these tragedies is foreseen; but the effect is due to its measured advance, to the slowly darkening suspense which no poet has more powerfully rendered. Again, he is a master of contrasts, especially of the Beautiful with the Tragic: as when the floating vision of consoling nymphs appears to the tortured Prometheus (115-135); or the unmatched lyrics which tell (in the Agamemnon, 228-247) of the death of Iphigenia; or the vision of his lost love that the night brings to Menelaus (410-426). And not least noticeable is the extraordinary range, force and imaginativeness of his diction. One example of his lyrics may be given which will illustrate more than one of these points. It is taken from the long lament in the Septem, sung by the chorus and the two sisters, while following the funeral procession of the two princes. These laments may at times be wearisome to the modern reader, who does not see, and imperfectly imagines, the stately and pathetic spectacle; but to the ancient feeling they were as solemn and impressive as they were ceremonially indispensable. The solemnity is here heightened by the following lines sung by one of the chorus of Theban women (Sept. 854-860) Nay, with the wafting gale of your sighs, my sisters, Beat on your heads with your hands the stroke as of oars, The stroke that passes ever across Acheron, Speeding on its way the black-robed sacred bark, - The bark Apollo comes not near, The bark that is hidden from the sunlight To the shore of darkness that welcomes all ! AuTxoRITIEs. - The chief authority for the text is a single MS. at Florence, of the early 1 ith century, known as the Medicean or M., written by a professional scribe and revised by a contemporary scholar, who corrected the copyist's mistakes, added the scholia, the arguments and the dramatis personae of three plays (Theb., Agam., Eum.), and at the end the Life of Aeschylus and the Catalogue of his Dramas. The MS. has also been further corrected by later hands. In 1896 the Italian Ministry of Public Instruction publishd the MS. in photographic facsimile, with an instructive preface by Signor Rostagno. Besides M. there are some eight later MSS. (13th to 15th century), and numerous copies of the three select plays (Sept., Pers., Prom.) which were most read in the later Byzantine period, when Greek literature was reduced to gradually diminishing excerpts. These later MSS. are of little value or authority.
The editions, from the beginning of the 15th century to the present time, are very numerous, and the text has been further continuously teristics. improved by isolated suggestions from a host of scholars. The three first printed copies (Aldine, 1518; Turnebus and Robortello, 1552) give only those parts of Agamemnon found in M., from which MS. some leaves were lost; in 1557 the full text was restored by Vettori (Victorius) from later MSS. After these four, the chief editions of the seven plays were those of Schatz, Porson, Butler, Wellauer, Dindorf, Bothe, Ahrens, Paley, Hermann, Hartung, Weil, Merkel, Kirchhoff and Wecklein. Besides these, over a hundred scholars have thrown light on the corruptions or obscurities of the text, by editions of separate plays, by emendations, by special studies of the poet's work, or in other ways. Among recent writers who have made such contributions may be mentioned Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Enger, Conington, Blaydes, Cobet, Meineke, Madvig, Ellis, W. Headlam, Davies, Tucker, Verrall and Haigh. The Fragments have been edited by Nauck and also by Wecklein. The Aeschylean staging is discussed in Albert Miller's Lehrbuch der griechischen Biihnenalter- .thiimer; in "Die Bihne des Aeschylos," by Wilamowitz (Hermes, xxi.); in Smith's Diet. of Antiquities, art. "Theatrum" (R. C. Jebb); in Dorpfeld and Reisch (Das griechische Theater), Haigh's Attic Theatre, and Gardner and Jevons' Manual of Greek Antiquities. English Verse Translations: Agamemnon, Milman and R. Browning; Oresteia, Suppliants, Persae, Seven against Thebes, Prometheus Vinctus, by E. D. A. Morshead; Prometheus, E. B. Browning; the whole seven plays, Lewis Campbell. (A. SI.)
| File:Aischylos Bü|
|Born|| c. 525 BC|
|Died|| c. 456 BC|
|Writing period||Ancient Greece|
|Subjects||Greek life and history|
|Notable work(s)||The Persians|
|Notable award(s)||Won at the Great Dionysia 13 times.|
|Children||Euphorion and Euæon|
Aeschylus (525 BC—456 BC) was an Ancient Greek poet and writer. He wrote about 70–90 plays. Only six of his tragedies have survived complete. Aeschylus was the earliest of the three greatest Greek writers of tragedians. The two others were Sophocles and Euripides.
One of his plays, The Persians, was about the Persian invasion of Greece. Aeschylus had fought in this war. People studying Greek history use his play as an important source of information. The war was so important to the Greeks and to Aeschylus, that the writing on his grave only talks about about his part in the Greek victory at Marathon. There is nothing about the plays he wrote.
Aeschylus was born about the year 525 BC in a small town called Eleusis, which is about 27 kilometers northwest of Athens. The date is based on counting back forty years from his first victory in the Great Dionysia. His family was rich, and his father, Euphorion, was a member of the Eupatridae, the ancient nobility of Attica. Pausanias wrote that Aeschylus worked in a vineyard until the god Dionysus visited him in his sleep. The god ordered him to write the first tragedies. His first play was performed in 499 BC, when he was only 26 years old.
In 490 BC the Persian army, led by Darius, landed in Greece and tried to take it over. Aeschylus, and his brother Cynegeirus, joined the army from Athens and fought against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. The Athenians were able to defeat the much bigger Persian army. This battle, which stopped Darius, was celebrated across the city-states of Greece. Cynegeirus died in the battle. In 480 BC, Xerxes I of Persia, tried to capture Greece. Aeschylus fought against them at the Battle of Salamis and at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. His oldest surviving play The Persians, performed in 472 BC, is set during the Battle of Salamis. This play won first prize at the Dionysia.
Aeschylus was one of many Greeks who joined the Eleusinian Mysteries. This was the religious cult to Demeter, and based in his home town of Eleusis. Members of the group learned mystical and secret knowledge. Members were sworn under the penalty of death not to say anything about the Mysteries to anyone. Aristotle wrote that some people thought that Aeschylus had shown some of the cult's secrets on stage. Other writers said that an angry mob tried to kill Aeschylus on the spot, but he ran away. Later, Aeschylus said he did not know that he had shown any of the secrets. He was saved from death only because of his brave service in the Persian Wars.
Aeschylus made two trips to Sicily in the 470s BC. He was invited by Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, a big Greek city on the east side of the island. On one these trips he wrote The Women of Aetna , in honor of the city founded by Hieron. He also restaged his Persians. By 473 BC, Aeschylus was the yearly favorite in the Dionysia, winning first prize in nearly every competition. In 458 BC, he returned to Sicily for the last time, visiting the city of Gela where he died in 456 or 455 BC. It is said that he was killed by a tortoise which fell out of the sky after it was dropped by an eagle. This story is probably only a legend. Aeschylus' work was so respected by the Athenians that after his death, his were the only tragedies allowed to be restaged in future competitions. His sons Euphorion and Euæon, and his nephew Philocles, all wrote plays as well.
Greek drama began with festivals for the gods, mainly Dionysus, the god of wine. During Aeschylus' lifetime, dramatic competitions became part of the City Dionysia in the spring. The festival began with an opening procession, then a competition of boys singing dithyrambs, and finally two dramatic competitions. The first competition was for three playwrights each presenting three tragic plays, followed by a shorter comedy. A second competition of five comedic playwrights followed, and the winners of both competitions were chosen by a group of judges.
Aeschylus took part in many of these competitions in his lifetime. He is believed to have written between 70 and 90 plays. Only six tragedies have survived intact: The Persians, Seven against Thebes, The Suppliants, the trilogy known as The Oresteia, consisting of the three tragedies Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. There is also the play Prometheus Bound, but this was probably written by someone else. All of the surviving plays won first prize at the City Dionysia. One book, the Alexandrian Life of Aeschylus, said that he won the first prize at the City Dionysia 13 times. Sophocles' won 18 times out of his 120 plays, and Euripides only had five wins out of about 90 plays.
, main character in Aeschylus' trilogy, The Oresteia]]
When Aeschylus first began writing, the theatre was new. Some playwrights like Thespis had made the cast bigger to include an actor who was able to talk with the chorus. Aeschylus added a second actor, allowing for more drama; and the chorus became less important. He is said to have been the first to use skenographia, or scene-decoration, but Aristotle said the first person was Sophocles. Aeschylus also added more details to the costumes, and had his actors wear platform boots, called cothurni, to help the audience see them better. When they walked on stage in the first performance of the Eumenides, the chorus of Furies were so frightening in looks that they made young children faint, old men urinate, and pregnant women go into labor.
His plays were written in the strict style of Greek drama. They were in verse and no violence could be performed on stage. The plays had to be set away from normal life in Athens, either by telling stories about the gods or by being set, like The Persians, in a far-away place. Aeschylus' work has a strong moral and religious emphasis. The Oresteia plays were about man's position in the universe in relation to the gods, the laws of the gods, and punishment from the gods.
Fifty years after Aeschylus' death, the comic playwright Aristophanes praised him in the The Frogs. Aeschylus is a character in the play and says that his Seven against Thebes "made everyone watching it to love being warlike" (line 1022); with his Persians, he says he "taught the Athenians to desire always to defeat their enemies" (line 1026-7). He says that his plays helped the Athenians to be brave and virtuous (line 1039ff).
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