views updated May 21 2018


BORN: 524 BCE, Eleusis, Greece

DIED: 456 BCE, Gela, Italy


GENRE: Drama

Persians (472 BCE)
Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE)
Oresteia (458 BCE)
Prometheus Bound (unknown)


Considered the founder of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus is said to have set the paradigm for the entire genre in Western literature. His tragedies, exemplified by such seminal works as Prometheus Bound and the Oresteia trilogy, are widely praised as thoughtful and profoundly moving translations of tremendous feelings into the sublime language of poetry.

Unfortunately, only seven plays of Aeschylus have survived intact.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Noble Family Aeschylus, the son of Euphorion, was born in 524 BCE, of a noble family with Athenian citizenship in the deme, or village, of Eleusis. Not far from the growing city of Athens, Eleusis was sacred to the two goddesses of grain, Demeter and her daughter Persephone. It was also the center for the Eleusinian Mysteries, a principal mystery religion in ancient Greece. In 534, about ten years before Aeschylus was born, the Athenian dictator Peisistratus transferred the cult center of Dionysus Eleuthereus (“of Eleutherae,” a village on the border of Attica) to downtown Athens, just south of the Acropolis. Here Peisistratus instituted an annual festival, the Great or City Dionysia, which included public performances where songs and dances by a chorus alternated with solo recitations by a poet. In each performance, poet and chorus explored themes from the Greek myths. Before the end of the century the satyr play, a mythological farce, was added to the festival, and tragedians competed for a prize for the best play. Aeschylus began competing in 498, but did not win his first victory at the City Dionysia until 484. The success he enjoyed as a playwright for most of the fifth century was won after years of failure. Aeschylus married and had two sons, Euphorion and Euaeon, both of whom became tragic poets.

The Battle of Marathon When Aeschylus was a young man, the armies of the Persian Empire—based in the region now known as Iran—were advancing across the city-states of Greece toward Athens. The Persians had already conquered regions to the east of Attica—where Athens and Eleusis were located—and with the superior numbers of the Persian forces, many were expecting all of Greece to become yet another territory of the Persian Empire. Aeschylus, along with thousands of other Greeks, gathered at the Plain of Marathon on the eastern coast of Attica to fend off the Persian army. Ancient sources state that the Persian soldiers were anywhere from two hundred thousand to six hundred thousand in number, though modern estimates have been much lower. The Greek forces were certainly outnumbered; however, through skillful maneuvering on the battlefield, they drove the Persian armies back to the sea with only about two hundred soldiers lost. According to some accounts, one of those lost was Aeschylus's brother Kynaigeirus. The battle was considered a decisive victory for the Greeks, and it inspired Aeschylus to write a play titled Persians.

Persecution Aeschylus's plays, often noted for their religious and theological themes, concentrate on the great Panhellenic gods, with Zeus as ruler over Hermes, Apollo, Aphrodite, and Athena. Ancient authors thought it significant that Eleusis, where Aeschylus was born, was the religious center for the Eleusinian Mysteries, a mystery religion of great importance in ancient Greece. This religion was one that prohibited its followers from revealing its teachings and its rituals. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle relates that Aeschylus was impeached for revealing the secrets of the Mysteries but pleaded ignorance. In the third century ce, Christian writer Clement of Alexandria interpreted Aristotle's point to mean that, despite his Eleusinian origins, Aeschylus was never initiated into the Mysteries. His plays confirm the idea that his religious commitments were Olympian and Hellenic, not local.

According to Heracleides of Pontus, a pupil of Aristotle, the playwright was alleged to have revealed secrets of the Mysteries in his play Prometheus Bound; the audience of the play tried to stone Aeschylus, and the playwright took refuge. Aeschylus was later acquitted.

Reminiscences Although little more is known or verifiable about Aeschylus's personal life, some reminiscences of Aeschylus have survived. Ion of Chios, a younger tragedian, recorded in his Visits that he watched a boxing match at the Isthmian Games with Aeschylus, and that one boxer received a terrible blow that made the crowd roar. “You see the importance of practice,” said Aeschylus, nudging him. “The one who was hit is silent, but the spectators cry out.” Ion may also be the source for Aeschylus's comment that his plays were “slices of fish

from Homer's great feasts.” Aristotle's pupil Chamaeleon reports a story that Sophocles told Aeschylus: “Even if you write what is appropriate, you do not know what you are doing when you compose.” The second-century ce author Athenaeus connected this remark with the story that Aeschylus composed while drunk, a story that sounds as if it might be “biographical fiction”—biographical information that is created from popular stories about a figure but that lack credibility.

Works in Literary Context

Given that Aeschylus wrote during the formative period of Greek theater and that no older dramas have survived, it is difficult to assess just how important Aeschylus was to the development of Greek tragedies for his contemporaries. However, Aristotle, writing a little over a century after Aeschylus's death, vouched for his importance in the history of the theater. Further, his continuing influence on composers and playwrights up to and including the twentieth century vindicates the important role attributed to Aeschylus in the development not only of tragedies but also of opera.

Aeschylus's Drama: His Innovations Although Aeschylus is the first playwright whose work has survived, he was not the first Athenian playwright. Much can never be resolved about the origins and earliest form of Greek tragedy, but it is widely accepted that tragedies were first performed at the festival of the Great Dionysia in about 534 bce. This was several years before Aeschylus was born. What form such tragedies took is also largely a matter of conjecture but Aristotle was later to credit Aeschylus with introducing a second actor. If nothing else this confirms that previous tragedy had been performed by a single actor with a chorus and that Aeschylus's first work was of this nature. Aristotle goes on to state that Sophocles was the originator of the third actor and Aeschylus has clearly accepted the development by the time of the Oresteia in 458 bce.

The importance of using more than one actor in a play may not be immediately apparent, but consider the effects one can achieve with multiple actors on stage at the same time. With only a single actor, a character can only have as his or her audience the chorus or the actual audience in attendance. However, when a playwright adds additional actors to a play, he or she is able to show the interaction between characters in order to attain higher levels of irony and tension, as audiences will inevitably be forced to evaluate the goodness or badness of each character. When a third character is added to a play, the possibilities continue to expand, for with three actors it is possible, for instance, for one to be hiding and listening to the other two without their knowing it. Consider the famous scene from Hamlet in which Hamlet is speaking with his mother in her bedroom while Polonius listens in. In this moment, the scheming of Hamlet's uncle and mother come to a head and Hamlet's madness is confirmed when he strikes Polonius dead, supposedly thinking he is slaying a rat running around behind the curtains of his mother's window. This climactic moment in Shakespeare's play would be impossible without Aeschylus's innovations.

Because Aeschylus was writing for the Greek theater in its formative stages, he is also credited with having introduced many features that became associated with the traditional Greek theater. Among these were the rich costumes, decorated cothurni (a kind of footwear), solemn dances, and possibly elaborate stage machinery.


Aeschylus's famous contemporaries include:

Sophocles (496–406 bce): Greek playwright whose most famous works focus on the life of Oedipus, including Oedipus Rex and Antigone.

Darius (549–485 bce): Persian king who attempted to assert his rule over Athens in 490 bce. His attempt was soundly thwarted.

Xerxes (519–465 bce): Persian king and successor of Darius. Like his predecessor, Xerxes tried to invade Greece. Xerxes's attempt on Greece is retold, in part, in the 2006 film 300.

Tarquin the Proud (?–496 bce): Last king of Rome. Upon his deposition, Rome turned into a republic, by many accounts the first of its kind, with elected officials, rather than dictators chosen based on their ancestry.

Pythagoras (c. 572–c. 490 bce): Greek mathematician. Not only was Pythagoras important in introducing mathematics as a subject of study, his work, including the Pythagorean Theorem, is still a cornerstone of modern mathematics.

Gautama Siddhartha (563–483 bce): A spiritual leader in India better known simply as the Buddha.

Confucius (551–479 bce): Chinese philosopher and writer whose wisdom can be found codified in the Analects.

Legacy The ninety plays that Aeschylus wrote were performed frequently after his death, and the tragic drama remained a living tradition in the hands of his successors, Sophocles and Euripides. Tragedy also exerted a decisive influence on the development of literary criticism: Aristophanes' comedy The Frogs (405 bce) is devoted to comparing and contrasting the tragic art of Aeschylus and Euripides, and both the literary form and specific tragedies were analyzed in Aristotle's profoundly influential treatise, Poetics (late fourth century bce). Later, imitations of Greek tragedy written in the first century ce by the Roman playwright Seneca exerted a powerful influence on the development of European theater during the Renaissance.

Tragedy's uniting of music and drama became the guiding inspiration in the creation of opera, and Aeschylus's work provided a model for major compositions by Richard Wagner.

Works in Critical Context

Aeschylus's work earned him a number of awards, and after his Persians was performed, Hieron, dictator of Gela and leader of the Greeks in Sicily, invited Aeschylus to stage the play in Gela. He also later commissioned Aeschylus to write Aetnean Women to celebrate the refounding of the city of Etna. In other words, Aeschylus did not labor in obscurity but was honored by the critics of his time. His impact on theater is still felt today, and his Oresteia is still considered a great companion piece for Homer's Iliad, the inspiration for Aeschylus's trilogy.

Persians Aeschylus uses in this play, although not for the first time, two actors in addition to the chorus and its leader. The original addition of a second actor in the Greek theater was attributed to Aeschylus by Aristotle, who had made a survey of early drama for his Poetics. The second actor, by increasing opportunities for contrast and conflict, was essential for the development from choral performance to drama. The costumes ranged from impressive outfits for the chorus, Queen Mother, and Darius to Xerxes's torn rags. The play builds from suspense to resolution. The emotions range from fear to pity. Greek literary critics from Gorgias to Aristotle saw this range of emotions as typical of tragedy. When the play was first performed at the Dionysia in 472 bce, it won first prize. The play remained popular in the decades after the author's death—Aristophanes even mentions it in one of his most famous plays—and the fact that it is one of the few plays of Aeschylus to survive to modern times is an indication of the regard in which it was held.

Oresteia In 458 bce, Aeschylus produced the Oresteia, which is the only surviving Greek trilogy and probably the playwright's last work. Oresteia includes the plays Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, and the lost satyr play Proteus. As both poetry and drama, the Oresteia is generally held to be Aeschylus's masterpiece and one of the greatest works of world literature. Its themes are presented with a power of poetry and a theatrical verve and creativity that are unprecedented. The chorus of the Furies in Eumenides was remembered for generations. The third actor and a new stage set are used with startling originality and impact to underline the plays' themes. These four plays of Aeschylus are the first plays that were written for the set on which tragedy was performed for the rest of the fifth century.


Aeschylus's play Persians deals with the historical figure Xerxes and how his hubris—extreme confidence—leads to his ultimate demise. Arrogance has long been one of the key subjects of literature and art. Aeschylus himself was undoubtedly familiar with Homer's Iliad, the primary events in which are set in motion by the hubris of Agamemnon and Achilles, two soldiers who battle over women and fame. Here are some other works that have hubris as their focus:

Macbeth (c. 1603), a play by William Shakespeare. In this play, one can understand Macbeth's fateful and murderous ambition as cultivated by his hubris—his supreme pride.

Moby-Dick (1851), a novel by Herman Melville. The unforgettable Captain Ahab pursues the white whale Moby-Dick to the point of self-destruction in Melville's classic.

Absalom, Absalom (1936), a novel by William Faulkner. Thomas Sutpen attempts to create a dynasty for himself in this Southern gothic novel.

Citizen Kane (1941), a film by Orson Welles. Welles wrote, directed, and starred in this film about the rise of fictional publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane.

Responses to Literature

  1. In classical as well as contemporary literature, hubris is a common theme. Can you think of a figure from the real world who exhibits hubris? Who is this person? In what ways does he or she exhibit hubris?
  2. Read one of Shakespeare's plays. Take one of the scenes in which a number of characters are present and crucial to the effect of the scene. Now, in order to understand the importance of Aeschylus's innovation of using more than one actor in a play, try to rewrite this scene for just one actor.
  3. The concept of “biographical fiction” is important, especially when considering the lives of the ancients. Because little is known for certain about ancient figures, what we do know about them often comes in the form of stories based on some small, known fact about the figure. These stories, often false or fantastical, are called “biographical fiction,” and there are a good number of these stories floating around about Aeschylus. In order to understand how biographical fiction works, do a little research on a historical figure and then write a scene in which this figure interacts with his mother. Make sure to utilize some of the facts that you know about the figure.
  4. Compare Homer's representation of Agamemnon in the Iliad with Aeschylus's representation in Agamemnon. What are some of the key differences? What are some of the key similarities?



Aeschylus. Persians. Edited by H. D. Broadhead. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960.

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999.

——. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Denniston, J. D., and D. L. Page, eds. Aeschyli Agamemnon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Herington, John. Aeschylus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

Lebeck, Anne. The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies, 1971.

McCall, Marsh H. Aeschylus. A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972.

Murray, Gilbert. Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940.

Otis, Brooks. Cosmos and Tragedy: An Essay on the Meaning of Aeschylus. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. The Art of Aeschylus. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.

Scott, William C. Musical Design in Aeschylean Theater. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1984.

Zimmermann, Bernhard. Greek Tragedy: An Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.


views updated May 17 2018


The Greek playwright Aeschylus (524-456 B.C.) is the first European dramatist whose plays have been preserved. He is also the earliest of the great Greek tragedians, and more than any other he is concerned with the interrelationship of man and the gods.

Aeschylus was born at the religious center of Eleusis. His father, Euphorion, was of a noble Athenian family. In 499 B.C. Aeschylus produced his first tragedy, and in 490 he is reputed to have taken part in the Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians defeated the Persian invaders.

In 484 Aeschylus won first prize in tragedy in the annual competitions held in Athens. In 472 he took first prize with a tetralogy, three tragedies with a connecting theme and a comic satyr play. It embraced Phineus, The Persians, Glaucus of Potniae, and the satyr play Prometheus, the Fire Kindler. Defeated in one dramatic competition by Sophocles in 468, Aeschylus later won first prize with another tetralogy: Laius, Oedipus, The Seven against Thebes, and the satyr play The Sphinx. In 463 he won first prize with the tetralogy now known as The Suppliants, The Egyptians, The Danaids, and the satyr play The Amymone. In 458 he gained his last victory with the trilogy Oresteia. The date of another trilogy, the Prometheia, is unknown, but it was probably produced sometime between The Seven against Thebesand the Oresteia. Only 7 of the perhaps 90 plays that Aeschylus wrote are preserved. Aeschylus was acquainted with the Greek poet lon of Chios, and he may also have known Pindar, Greece's greatest lyric poet. Aeschylus's son and the descendants of Aeschylus's sister also wrote tragedies. The legend that Aeschylus stood trial for divulging the Eleusinian Mysteries but was acquitted on the grounds that he was never initiated may be simply a reflection of his religious environment. He was greatly influenced by the poet Homer, describing his own works as "slices of Homer."

Aeschylus retired to Sicily, and tradition says that he was ignominiously killed by an eagle which, in its desire to split open a turtle it was carrying, mistook his bald head for a boulder. His tomb at Gela in Sicily became a shrine, and his own epitaph recorded his military, not his literary, exploits.

Contributions, Style, and Philosophy

Because Aeschylus was writing for the Greek theater in its formative stages, he is credited with having introduced many features that became associated with the traditional Greek theater. Among these were the rich costumes, decorated cothurni (a kind of footwear), solemn dances, and possibly elaborate stage machinery. Aeschylus also added parts for a second and a third actor; before his time plays were written for only one actor and a chorus. He is said to have acted in his own plays and designed his own choral dances.

Aeschylus is a master of the grand style. His language is ingeniously elaborate. He loves to impress his audience, and he does not hesitate to display his geographic knowledge in long, pompous descriptions. His character drawing is handled chiefly through contrast. The chorus is not always more intelligent than the characters, but its importance is formidable. Some have said that the style of Aeschylus is more lyric than epic.

Corresponding with his grand style are his grand ideas. Mighty themes and mighty men cross his stage. Aeschylus has been described as a great theologian who attempts to present a purified conception of the godhead and who is deeply interested in the problem of theodicy, or vindicating the justice of a god in permitting evil. In a real sense, in the figure of the supreme Greek deity, Zeus, Aeschylus completes the concept of henotheism, concerned with the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods and developed by Hesiod and Solon.

The Plays

Modern scholarship has shown that the first of Aeschylus's plays was The Persians (The Suppliants was formerly thought to be the earliest because of its heavily lyric content). The Persians is the only play on a historical subject that survived from Greek drama. The play is set at the Persian capital soon after the Battle of Salamis. The queen, Atossa, is disturbed by a dream which portends disaster for her son Xerxes, who is on an expedition against the Greeks. A messenger arrives and announces terrible losses and defeat for the Persians. The ghost of Darius, father of Xerxes, warns against any further invasions of Greece.

This play is seen from a Persian point of view, and not a single Greek is mentioned. Aeschylus does not seek to glorify the Greeks but to show how an entire people can be guilty of national hubris, or pride. The gods are credited with the victory. Overweening hubris and imprudence can lead to destruction.

In The Suppliants the chorus is the protagonist. There are 50 sons and 50 daughters and only three characters: Danaus, Pelasgus, and the Egyptian herald. Pursued by the 50 sons of Aegyptus, the 50 daughters of Danaus seek refuge with Pelasgus, King of Argos. The Danaids do not want to marry the sons of Aegyptus, who are their cousins, and Pelasgus, after a democratic consultation, decrees that the State will protect them. The action ends with prayer and supplication to Zeus. Whether the theme of this play is abhorrence of incest is not clear; what is clear is the emphasis placed on Zeus as the upholder of justice.

Aeschylus was probably the first to dramatize the Oedipus story in The Seven against Thebes. The play concentrates on Eteocles, son of Oedipus and king of Thebes. The city is attacked by Polynices, Eteocles's brother, and six other warriors, and the brothers die at each other's hands. Eteocles is the first real character in Greek drama. This is the first play with a prologue and the chorus is less important. There is little action but considerable stiff stylization.

Prometheus Bound has often been described as a static play because the main character, Prometheus, is chained to a mountain peak and cannot move. He is being punished for defying the authority of the newly established cosmic ruler, Zeus, by bringing fire to mankind. Prometheus bemoans his lot and proclaims that he will be freed by a descendant of lo—Heracles—13 generations later. He indicates clearly that he has saved mankind from destruction and is the source of all knowledge. Zeus is depicted as an absolute tyrant and Prometheus as a suffering but defiant rebel. Both are guilty of hubris. Both must learn through suffering: Zeus to exercise power with mercy, understanding, and justice, and Prometheus to respect authority. Absolute power is no more acceptable than absolute defiance. Reason (Prometheus) and power (Zeus) must be balanced to promote a harmonious society.

Aeschylus's masterpiece is the Oresteia, the only extant trilogy from Greek drama. The three plays—Agamemnon, The Choephori, and The Eumenides—though they form separate dramas, are united in their common theme of dikeμ, or justice. King Agamemnon returns to his home in Argos after the Trojan War only to be murdered by his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, in collusion with her paramour, Aegisthus. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, is in exile; he is enjoined by Apollo to wreak vengeance on his mother and Aegisthus. Orestes' sister Electra assists him in carrying out the vengeance. For the killing of his mother Orestes is pursued by the blood deities, the Furies. On his flight he reaches Athens, where he is tried and acquitted by the tribunal, called the Areopagus. The Furies are gradually transformed into the "Kindly Ones," the Eumenides.

The Oresteia is concerned with the problem of evil and its compounding. The evil of the Trojan War brings on evil at home, which in turn must be avenged. In the act of vengeance another evil is also committed, for the ancient law says that "unto him that doeth it shall be done." How can this seemingly endless chain of evil be broken? Aeschylus proclaims that Zeus is the answer to this problem of theodicy. Aeschylus believes that suffering is an innate part of the pattern of the universe and that through suffering emerges a positive good.

Albin Lesky has noted (1965) that "Aeschylean tragedy shows faith in a sublime and just world order, and is in fact inconceivable without it. Man follows his difficult, often terrible path through guilt and suffering, but it is the path ordained by god which leads to knowledge of his laws. All comes from his will."

Further Reading

A good study of the plays of Aeschylus is Herbert Weir Smyth, Aeschylean Tragedy (1924). Another treatment, which includes other writers' views on Aeschylus, is Leon Golden, In Praise of Prometheus: Humanism and Rationalism in Aeschylean Thought (1966). More specialized studies of Aeschylus are Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy (1940); Friedrich Solmsen, Hesiod and Aeschylus (1949); J. H. Finley, Jr., Pindar and Aeschylus (1955); and Anthony J. Podlecki, The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy (1966). Peter D. Arnott, An Introduction to the Greek Theatre (1959), includes scholarly background material as well as an in-depth treatment of Aeschylus and the Agamemnon.

Chapters discussing various aspects of Aeschylus's works are contained in the following books: Gilbert Norwood, Greek Tragedy (1920; 4th ed. 1953); H. D. F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study (1939; 3d ed. 1961), Form and Meaning inDrama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of Hamlet (1956; 2d ed. 1968), and Poiesis: Structure and Thought (1966); William Chase Greene, Moira: Fate, Good, and Evil in Greek Thought (1944); and D. W. Lucas, The Greek Tragic Poets (1955; 2d ed. 1959). A fine work, which includes discussions of Aeschylus and his times, is Albin Lesky, Greek Tragedy (1938; trans. 1965; 2d ed. 1967). □


views updated Jun 11 2018


Born: 524 b.c.e.
Eleusis, Greece
Died: 456 b.c.e.
Gela, Italy

Greek playwright

The Greek playwright Aeschylus was the first European dramatist whose plays were preserved. He was also the earliest of the great Greek tragedians (writers of serious drama involving disastrous events), and was concerned with the common connection between man and the gods more than any of the other tragedians.

Early life

Aeschylus was born to a noble and wealthy Athenian family in the Greek town of Eleusis. His father was Euphorion, a wealthy man of the upper class. Aeschylus's education included the writings of Homer (Greek poet who lived during the 800s b.c.e. and wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey ). In fact it was Homer who proved most inspiring to Aeschylus when he began to write as a teen. He entered his tragedies into the annual competition in Athens and won his first award as a young adult in 484 b.c.e. Aeschylus' writings were strongly Athenian and rich with moral authority. He carried home the first place award from the Athens competition thirteen times!

As a young man Aeschylus lived through many exciting events in the history of Athens. Politically the city underwent many constitutional reforms resulting in a democracy. Aeschylus became a soldier and took part in turning back a Persian invasion at the Battle of Marathon (490 b.c.e.). Nevertheless, Aeschylus's plays left a bigger mark in Greek history than any of his battle accomplishments.

Contributions, style, and philosophy

Because Aeschylus was writing for the Greek theater in its beginning stages, he is credited with having introduced many features that are now considered traditional. Formerly plays were written for only one actor and a chorus. Aeschylus added parts for a second and a third actor as well as rich costumes and dance.

Corresponding with his grand style were his grand ideas. Mighty themes and mighty men crossed his stage. Aeschylus has been described as a great theologian (a specialist in the study of faith) because of his literary focus on the workings of the Greek gods.

The plays

Modern scholarship has shown that the first of Aeschylus's plays was The Persians. It is also the only play on a historical subject that has survived in Greek drama. This play is seen from a Persian point of view. His theme sought to show how a nation could suffer due to its pride. Of his ninety plays only seven are still preserved.

Prometheus Bound is perhaps Aeschylus' most well-known tragedy because of his depiction of the famous Prometheus, who is chained to a mountain peak and cannot move. He is being punished for defying the authority of the god Zeus by bringing fire to mankind. Zeus is depicted as a bully and Prometheus as a suffering but defiant rebel. Both are guilty of pride. Both must learn through suffering: Zeus to exercise power with mercy and justice, and Prometheus to respect authority.

Aeschylus' masterpiece is the Oresteia, the only preserved trilogy from Greek drama. The three plays are Agamemnon, The Choephori, and The Eumenides. Though they form separate dramas, they are united in their common theme of justice. King Agamemnon returns to his home after the Trojan War (490480 b.c.e.; a war in which the Greeks fought against the Trojans and which ended with the destruction of Troy) only to be murdered by his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. The king's children seek revenge that ultimately leads to their trial by the gods. The theme of evil compounding evil is powerfully written.

Albin Lesky has noted, "Aeschylean tragedy shows faith in a sublime [splendid] and just [fair] world order, and is in fact inconceivable [unthinkable] without it. Man follows his difficult, often terrible path through guilt and suffering, but it is the path ordained [designed] by god which leads to knowledge of his laws. All comes from his will."

According to legend, Aeschylus was picked up by an eagle who thought he was a turtle. The eagle had been confused by Aeschylus's bald head. Aeschylus was killed when the eagle realized its mistake and dropped him.

For More Information

Beck, Robert Holmes. Aeschylus: Playwright, Educator. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1975.

Herington, John. Aeschylus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Spatz, Lois. Aeschylus. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.


views updated May 29 2018


c. 525 b.c.e.–c. 456 b.c.e.


Early Years.

The tragic poet Aeschylus was born in Eleusis—now a suburb of Athens—in 525 or 524 b.c.e. and died at Gela in Sicily 68 years later. The dates of his life place him squarely in the formative period of the golden age of Greek classical culture. When he was born, Athens was ruled by a tyrant named Hippias, but following Hippias' exile in 510 b.c.e., Athens opted for a constitutional government in which political power was vested in a popular assembly where all citizens could vote. Aeschylus' formative period therefore coincided with Athens' development as a democracy. Aeschylus presented his first tragedies in the seventieth Olympiad—that is, the period between the seventieth and seventy-first Olympic Games, which puts the date between 499 and 496 b.c.e. In 490 b.c.e. Aeschylus fought at Marathon where the Athenians defeated a Persian expeditionary force that landed there, and he lost a brother in the battle. Ten years later, Aeschylus was in the thick of the naval battle off the island of Salamis where the allied Greeks defeated the Persian fleet. These experiences with the Persians in battle inspired his production of The Persians in 472 b.c.e. as the second of a trilogy of tragedies; the first was titled Phineus and the third Glaucus Potnieus. There was no apparent connection between the three dramas, and the satyr play which was the last play in Aeschylus' production—Prometheus the Firebearer—must have been a burlesque of the myth that told how Prometheus gave fire to mankind. The Persians differed from the other plays by Aeschylus produced on the same day because its subject was taken from contemporary history, and it was a patriotic tribute to the courage of Athens.

Aeschylus and Sicily.

A few years after Salamis, Aeschylus left Athens for Sicily, where the tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero, had founded a new city, Aetna, and wanted Aeschylus to celebrate the foundation with a drama. Aeschylus' play, The Women of Aetna, does not seem to have been a regular tragedy so much as a pageant honoring the new city; a couple surviving scraps of papyrus provide an inkling of what it was like. Aeschylus was back in Athens again in 468 b.c.e. when he took part in the tragic contest and was defeated by a new tragic poet, Sophocles, who made his debut this year. The following year Aeschylus won with a trilogy on the tragic figure of Oedipus, who was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. One of these tragedies survives: the Seven Against Thebes, which chronicles the conflict between Oedipus' sons. In 458 b.c.e. he produced his masterpiece, the Oresteia, the only complete trilogy to survive, consisting of three tragedies: the Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers, and the Furies. Shortly afterwards, he left Athens again for Sicily for reasons unknown. He may have been out of sympathy with some of the political developments in Athens. In any case, he died at Gela in Sicily around 456 b.c.e. According to legend, Aeschylus died when an eagle flying overhead mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on him to break the shell. The story is not quite credible but it supplies a piquant ending for a great tragedian. The epitaph on his monument at Gela which, according to tradition, he wrote himself, mentioned with pride that he fought in the battle of Marathon against the Persians, but omits any reference to his success as tragic poet.


D. J. Conacher, Aeschylus: The Earlier Plays and Related Studies (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1996).

Michael Gagarin, Aeschylean Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).

John Herington, Aeschylus (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986).

Shirley Darcus Sullivan, Aeschylus' Use of Psychological Terminology: Traditional and New (Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997).


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525/4-456/5 b.c.e .

Tragic dramatist


Claim to Fame. Aeschylus is the earliest of the three Greek tragedians, whose work has survived in more than fragmentary form, and so is the first extant European dramatist. If he was not the first tragedian, he seems to have been the founder of what is recognized as the distinctive genre of tragedy, in respect of its production and its dramatic possibilities. Born of an aristocratic Athenian family, he took part in the battles of Marathon (490 b.c.e.) and Salamis (480 b.c.e.) against the invading Persians. The report and consequences of the Greek victory at Salamis are the focus of his first surviving play, Persians (472 b.c.e.). His other surviving plays are Seven Against Thebes (467), Suppliant Women (463), and a trilogy consisting of Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides called Oresteia (458). The authenticity of a seventh play, Prometheus Bound, is in dispute. The last two years of his life were spent in Sicily, at the court of the tyrant Hieron; the ancient biographical tradition imagines this move as occasioned by feelings of rejection at the hands of the Athenians, but it can be explained simply by a desire for honor and more concrete recognitions of his genius. According to the traditional account, Aeschylus died after a passing eagle dropped a tortoise on his head.

Distinctive Art Form. The ancients recognized in Aeschylus the true founder of tragedy as they knew it: the grandeur which he seems to have introduced, and his crucial innovation of a second speaking actor (thus allowing interaction between individuals, not just between one individual and a chorus), made possible all the most distinctive features of the art form. Although by the end of the fifth century b.c.e. he seemed already formal and remote, his poetry retained (and still retains) a solemn grandeur and power unequalled in ancient literature. Moreover, his dramatic skill in the arrangement of scenes and introduction of characters has been rightly recognized as an essential part of his talent, although details of this ability are often only conjectural (for no stage directions from ancient plays survive). However, both his poetic and dramaturgical skill are always at the service of the great moral themes that bind his plays together, nowhere more impressively shown than in his Oresteia trilogy, in which the eternal questions of justice, human freedom, and destiny are worked out over several generations of the family of Agamemnon. The narratively connected trilogy—which was often used by Aeschylus but perhaps never by Euripides and Sophocles—allowed the playwright to examine the slow working out of these issues and to keep his focus on these themes, rather than on the particular stories of the individuals involved.


John Herington, Aeschylus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

Marsh H. McCall, Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972).


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Aeschylus (525?–456 bc) Earliest of the great Greek dramatists. Aeschylus is said to have been responsible for the development of tragedy as a dramatic form through his addition of a second actor and reduction of the role of the chorus. He was also the first to introduce scenery. His best-known work is the trilogy Oresteia, which comprises Agamemnon, The Choephori, and The Eumenides.