Aeschylus (pronounced /ˈɛskɨləs/ ESS-ki-ləs; Greek: Αισχύλος, Aiskhulos; c. 524/525 BC – c. 455/456 BC) was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived, the others being Sophocles and Euripides, and is often recognized as the father of tragedy. His name derives from the Greek word aiskhos (αισχος), meaning "shame". 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; there is an ongoing debate about the authorship of one of these plays, Prometheus Bound.
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.
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 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 second-century A.D. 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.
The Greek art of the drama had its roots in religious festivals for the gods, chiefly Dionysus, the god of wine. During Aeschylus's 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'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 Persians
- Seven against Thebes
- The Suppliants
- Agamemnon - 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 - 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 Eumenides - 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 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 Bound
Influence on Greek drama and culture
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'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 Culture
Aeschylus'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.
During his presidential campaign in 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy quoted the Edith Hamilton translation of 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.