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.
BORN: 524 BCE, Eleusis, Greece
DIED: 456 BCE, Gela, Italy
MAJOR WORKS: Persians (472 BCE)
Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE)
Oresteia (458 BCE)
23 Facts About Aeschylus
- 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.
- 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.
- According to some accounts, Aeschylus’s brother Kynaigeirus was lost to the Persian army in Marathon . The battle was considered a decisive victory for the Greeks, and it inspired Aeschylus to write a play titled Persians.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Aeschylus uses in his play Persians, 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.
- 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.
- Unfortunately, only seven plays of Aeschylus have survived intact.
Aeschylus was an ancient Greek tragedian as earlier mentioned, father of tragedy. Academics’ knowledge of the genre begins with his work, and understanding of earlier tragedies is largely based on inferences from his surviving plays. Legend!