At least one of Aeschylus's 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 his success as a playwright.
LifeThere 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 CE 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.
In 510 BC, Cleomenes I (Aeschylus was 15 at the time) expelled the sons of Peisistratus from Athens, which would lead Cleisthenes to power. His reforms included a system of registration that emphasized the importance of the deme over family tradition. In the last decade of the 6th century, Aeschylus and his family were living in the deme of Eleusina.
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' 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. He became a national hero when he was killed trying to draw a retreating Persian ship back to shore. 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. Ion of Chios was a witness for Aeschylus's war record and his contribution in Salamis.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. Heracleides of Pontus recollected that the crowd watching the play tried to stone Aeschylus. He then took refuge at the altar in the orchestra of the Theater of Dionysus. When he stood trial for his offense he pleaded ignorance. He was acquitted, with the jury sympathetic to the wounds that Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus suffered at Marathon. According to the 2nd-century AD author Aelian, Ameinias, Aeschylus's younger brother, helped his brother get acquitted by showing the jury the stump of the hand that Ameinias lost at Salamis, where he was voted bravest warrior. The truth is Cynegeirus lost his hand, and would later succumb to them at Marathon, and the award for bravery at Salamis went to Ameinias of Pallene, not Aeschylus's brother from Eleusis.
Aeschylus travelled to Sicily once or twice in the 470s BC, having been invited by Hiero I 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 472 BC, Aeschylus has staged four plays, all of them financed by an up and coming politician, Pericles.
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 when dropped by an eagle; however, this story is very likely apocryphal. Aeschylus's 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's gravestone makes no mention of his theatrical renown, commemorating only his military achievements:
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Personal lifeAeschylus married and had two sons, Euphorion and Euaeon (both of whom would become tragic poets). His nephew, Philocles (his sister's son), would also become a tragic poet. He had at least two brothers, Cynegeirus and Ameinias.
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's 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' 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's 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, comprised the titles Myrmidons, Nereids and Phrygians (alternately, The Ransoming of Hector).
Myrmidons was based on books 9 and 16 in Homer's Iliad. The plot follows Achilles, who sits in silent indignation over his humiliation at Agamemnon's hands for most of the play. Envoys from the Greek army attempt to reconcile him to Agamemnon, but he yields only to his friend and lover Patroclus, who then battles the Trojans in Achilles' armor. The bravery and death of Patroclus are reported in a messenger's speech, which is followed by mourning.
Nereids was based on books 18, 19, and 22 of the Iliad, follows the Daughters of Nereus, the sea god, lament Patroclus' death. In this play a messenger tells how Achilles, perhaps reconciled to Agamemon and the Greeks, slew Hector.
In Phrygians, Achilles sits in silent mourning over Patroclus, after a brief discussion with Hermes. Hermes then brings in King Priam of Troy, who wins over Achilles and ransoms his son's body in a spectacular coup de théâtre. An enormous scale is brought on stage and Hector's body is placed in one scale and gold in the other. The dynamic dancing of the chorus of Trojans when they enter with Priam is reported by Aristophanes.
One of his lost plays, Niobe the heroine's children have been slain by Apollo and Artemis because Niobe had gloated that she had more children than their mother, Leto. Niobe sits in silent mourning on stage during most of the play. In the Republic, Plato called the line "God plants a fault in mortals when he wills to destroy a house utterly." immoral.
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 PersiansThe earliest of the plays that still exists is The Persians (Persai), performed in 472 BC and based on experiences in Aeschylus's own life, specifically the Battle of Salamis.It is unique among surviving Greek tragedies in treating a recent historical event rather than an 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 ThebesSeven 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's 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.
The SuppliantsAeschylus 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 OresteiaThe 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.
AgamemnonAgamemnon 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 BearersThe 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 EumenidesThe 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 the Furies The Eumenides (The Good-spirited, or Kindly Ones), and specifically extols the importance of reason in the development of laws, and, like The Suppliants, lauds the ideals of a democratic Athens.
Prometheus BoundIn addition to these six works, a seventh tragedy, Prometheus Bound, is uniformly attributed to Aeschylus by ancient authorities. Since the late 19th 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 480s BC to as late as the 410s. 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.
Influence on Greek drama and cultureThespis 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's 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, 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's 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's abiding popularity is perhaps most evident in the praise the comic playwright Aristophanes gives him in The Frogs, produced some half-century after Aeschylus's 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.
Influence outside of Greek CultureAeschylus's 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's Oresteia. 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.