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Aeschylus: Ancient Greek Playwright

Updated on October 13, 2014
Bust of Aeschylus, Greek playwright.
Bust of Aeschylus, Greek playwright. | Source

The First Greek Playwright

Aeschylus (Αἰσχύλος) is hailed as the father of Greek tragedy. His plays are among the oldest surviving western literature. They are gripping, stately, troubling, and raise issues that are still pertinent today. They show a stern regard for justice, civil duty and the gods, while challenging the gods themselves to embody these principles.

Besides setting a high standard which later Greek tragedians strove to emulate (or, sometimes, rebel against), Aeschylus was an innovator, introducing a third actor into Greek drama, allowing characters to interact between each other instead of mostly talking to the chorus. In the political arena, he was an aristocrat, soldier and general during the glorious years of Athens' ascension and the Persian defeat.

Greek dramas were normally performed once only, but Aeschylus' works were so revered that a law was passed soon after his death allowing anyone to stage his plays again. He was, in essence, the Shakespeare of Athens. Yet he famously made no reference to his poetic genius on his tombstone, saying only:

Epitaph of Aeschylus

"This tomb hideth the dust of Aeschylus, an Athenian, Euphorion's son, who died in wheat-bearing Gela; his glorious valour the precinct of Marathon may proclaim, and the long-haired Medes, who knew it well."

~Aeschylus, Fragment 272

Bobby Kennedy Recites Aeschylus

We reach for great poets like Shakespeare to express our thoughts on sobering and tragic events. Here, President Kennedy's younger brother Robert reaches for Aeschylus to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after his assassination.

Birthplace: Eleusis, Greece

Ruins of ancient Eleusis (own photo).
Ruins of ancient Eleusis (own photo). | Source

Aeschylus: A Mini Biography

Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, a day's walk from Athens, in 525/4 B.C. (the ancient Greek calendar doesn't quite map to ours). He first competed in the annual Attic drama festival in honor of Dionysos in 499 B.C., and won his first prize in 484. (It was at these drama festivals that classsical Greek plays were performed, and at no other time.) As a playwright, he not only wrote the scripts for his plays, but probably served as one of the two main actors.

He fought at the Battle of Marathon which turned back the invasion of the powerful Persian Empire under King Darius in 490 B.C. Aeschylus was forty-eight when the Persians returned under Darius' son Xerxes and sacked the temples and holy center of Athens in 480. In that war, he fought in the pivotal sea battles of Artemesium and Salamis and the land battle at Plataea which put an end to the Persian threat once and for all (Fagles p. 15).

Aeschylus saw Athens arise from the ashes of the Persian Wars with pride in its defeat of barbarian aggression and in its own citizens, democracy, and arts. He saw the first stirrings of the Peloponnesian War, when Greek cities once drawn together in loose alliance by a common enemy now turned against one another, partly in resentment over Athens' growing high-handedness. The funds they had given to Athens to maintain her fleet in readiness against future Persian aggression were used instead to rebuild her shrines and temples, and she began to use her navy to keep the tribute flowing and her allies in line.

Aeschylus' plays celebrated and were a symptom of Athens' fleeting days of high glory. He must have seen the taint of imperialism beginning to tarnish her golden age. The frequent references to justice, hybris and tyranny in his dramas were stern warnings to his fellow citizens.

We don't have a record of when or why he left Athens, but he died in Gela, Sicily in 456 B.C. (Griffith p. 31) He had been a friend of Hiero, king of Syracuse on the island of Sicily, and had perhaps gone there to settle. Six of his seventy plays have survived, and probably a seventh as well, although there is scholarly debate over Prometheus Bound.

Fagles on Aeschylus:

After their struggle the people of Athens embarked upon a spectacular era of energy and prosperity, one of the great flowering periods of Western civilization. Physically the two noblest monuments of that age were the Parthenon of Ictinos and Pheidias, and the Oresteian trilogy of Aeschylus. Paradoxically, when one considers the durability of marble and the fragility of papyrus, the Oresteia is better preserved by far. But both were expressions of optimism as well as of artistic genius.

The Theater Where Aeschylus' Plays Were Performed

Theater of Dionysos, Athens, slope of the Acropolis. The pavement is Roman-period, but this is the theater where all Aeschylus' plays were originally performed for the festival of Dionysos.
Theater of Dionysos, Athens, slope of the Acropolis. The pavement is Roman-period, but this is the theater where all Aeschylus' plays were originally performed for the festival of Dionysos. | Source

The Dramas of Aeschylus: Summaries - His Seven (?) Surviving Plays

E-texts of Aeschylus' seven surviving plays are available on the Internet Classics Archive. Here are my summaries of them, to give you a sneak preview:

  • Persae or The Persians, originally performed in 472 BCE, is highly unusual in that it dramatizes history rather than mythology; normally only comedies could comment on current or recent events. The only other historical tragedy, the Capture of Miletos by Phrynichos, was so disturbing that the Athenians fined its author 1000 drachmas (Sidgwick p. vi). Aeschylus' audience was apparently more willing to hear about Persians rather than Greeks as the subjects of tragedy.

    The Persae dramatizes the anxieties of Queen Atossa, widow of Darius and her court (the chorus), waiting for news of her son Xerxes' expedition against Greece. The climax of the play comes when messengers arrive to recount the Persian defeat by Athens at the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C. This passage is especially important in that it is probably an eyewitness account, and some members of the audience would also have been participants in that battle. Interestingly enough, it doesn't quite match the version in Herodotus. Scholars debate the details, but we should probably take this as a simple reminder that witnesses to the same event don't all see or remember the same things.

  • The Seven Against Thebes was performed in 468. In this story, the two sons of King Oedipus are fighting for rule of his city Thebes after his death. Aeschylus chooses an innovative frame to avoid trying to stage a war on Athens' tiny stage. Messenger after messenger comes to Eteocles, the more mild-mannered and godfearing brother, to report on the champions whom his brother Polyneices has assigned to guard each of seven gates; Eteocles then dispatches a champion to fight them. In these descriptions we hear echoes of Homer's Iliad, champion versus champion. At last Polyneices stands waiting for his brother at the last gate, and Eteocles goes offstage to face his fate, despite the chorus' grim advice. Originally the tragedy ended with the report of their deaths, but later another playwright drafted a new ending, bringing in Antigone and her sister to provide a link to the later Oedipus tragedy written by Sophocles. The original ending of Aeschylus' play has been lost (Vellacott p. 16).
  • The Suppliants was written c. 463 BCE. It dramatizes the differences between Greeks and "barbarians" through an origin-myth about the ancestors of the Danaans (one of Homer's terms for pre-Greeks) and Egyptians. In this play, the fifty daughters of the legendary Danaos flee their would-be captors and husbands, who are also their cousins, the violent and brutish sons of Aegyptos. The Danaids, presented as god-fearing and virtuous maidens, take refuge in Argos (capital of Sparta) and beg for protection. The play ends with the Argives giving the maidens and their father sanctuary. The second and third plays of the trilogy, now lost, probably dramatized the sons of Aegyptus attacking Argos and capturing their brides, the murder of 49 out of 50 bridegrooms on their wedding night, and what to do with the one Danaid who refused to kill her new husband.

The Dramas of Aeschylus: Summaries Part II - His Most Famous Plays

During the Festival of Dionysos at Athens, a dramatist would submit three tragedies plus a satyr play (like a comedy, only more burlesque). The tragedies did not have to be linked in theme, but often were. The Oresteia is the only surviving Aeschylean trilogy, written (we think) in 458 B.C.

Experience Aeschylus

The Oresteia
The Oresteia

The plays of Aeschylus were live performances, not meant to be read (indeed, many in the audience could not read). So, if you can't get yourself to a modern theater performance, here's the second-best way to experience his work: as an audiobook. Yuri Rasovsky's adaptations are quite good. The Oresteia consists of the only Aeschylus trilogy to survive in full: Agammemnon (my favorite Greek play), the Libation bearers, and the Eumenides.

 

  • The Agammemnon is a powerful and unforgettable play telling of Agammemnon's triumphant return from Troy and his murder by his queen Clytemnestra and/or her lover. The play is filled with menacing irony. Clytemnestra greets her husband with the red carpet, quite literally, and he unwittingly falls for her menacing double entendres and flattery while she prepares to sacrifice him in vengeance for his murder of their daughter ten years before. (He'd slain Iphigenia as a human sacrifice to the gods to get fair winds for the voyage to Troy). During Agammemnon's absence, Clytemnestra had taken a lover, Aegisthus, who doesn't appear much until the later plays.

    The most tragic figure in this play is Cassandra, the Trojan princess captured by Agammemnon at the sack of Troy; she is the famous prophet gifted and cursed by Apollo for rejecting his advances, so that she always sees the future but never is believed. Throughout Agammemnon, she sees plainly in her wild ravings what is to happen, and heartbreakingly cries Apollo apollumi, "Apollo, Destroyer!" punning on his name. In the end she goes in to face her death with eyes open, for Clytemnestra has no pity for her husband's concubine. The murders occur offstage.

  • Second is the Libation Bearers, named after the chorus. They are group of women sent by Clytemnestra to appease Agammemnon's unquiet ghost at his tomb. But Electra, the angry daughter of Agammemnon and Clytemnestra, has joined the group of mourners and has won their sympathy for her father. While they are at his tomb, Orestes, Electra's brother, returns from exile (banished by his mother) to avenge his father's death. There is a poignant recognition scene between the siblings. Electra and her friends whip up his courage for vengeance, although he sounds reluctant to kill his mother: he's more interested in attacking Aegisthus. In the end, Orestes must confront Clytemnestra first in disguise, then openly, and kill her at the play's end (again, offstage) in a mirror of the first play's ending.
  • In the Eumenides, the Erinyes (Furies), avenging spirits of his mother's ghost, haunt Orestes and drive him to take refuge at a shrine of Apollo on Athens' outskirts. There a trial ensues to end the cycle of murder and retribution. He is purified by Apollo, his patron, who argues that the son had to commit matricide to avenge his father; the Furies counter that he had no right to kill his mother. The Areopagus, the archaic council of elders of Athens, is asked to judge the matter. Athena, patron of Athens, comes down to preside over the trial. In the end, she must also judge, since the vote is balanced. The trial exposes the patriarchal foundation of Athenian democracy. Apollo argues that the father begets the child alone, and the mother is mere vessel; therefore murder of a husband is a greater violation than matricide. The Furies argue that the rights of the mothers and Earth are being overrun by Olympian, male rule of force. Athena must weigh all these arguments. Her response is complex, but feminist scholars lament her final verdict: born of Zeus alone, she has no mother, so she rules in favor of father and son against the mother. To look at it another way, she insists that civil bonds (marriage) take precedence over blood-ties. The Furies' wrath is appeased when Athena invites them to become the Kindly Ones, the Eumenides, to whom Athenians will plead for the justice of law, not retaliation.
  • Prometheus Bound, whose date (and even authorship) are much disputed -- Vellacott puts it at 463 B.C. -- again grapples with and questions Olympian justice; specifically the justice of Zeus. Prometheus, the Titan who helped Zeus overthrow the other Titans and rise to power with the Olympian gods, has been chained and impaled on a rock in punishment for giving humanity the gift of fire. Prometheus denounces Zeus as a young tyrant (do we hear a note of reproach against Athens?) In the middle of the play Io, a maiden raped by Zeus and transformed into a heifer, appears while fleeing a tormenting gnat sent by Zeus' vengeful wife Hera. Prometheus commiserates with the afflicted girl and predicts her eventual deliverance, as well as Zeus mellowing in time. Eventually she dashes off, still tormented but somewhat comforted. Finally Hermes appears as a herald of Zeus to try to dig a secret out of Prometheus, who has prophesied that Zeus will be deposed by a son, just as he deposed his father -- and only Prometheus knows who the mother will be. He refuses to reveal this information and remains unrepentant, ranting against Zeus' tyranny until (supposedly) the rock on which he's bound plunges in an earthquake and cataclysm triggered by Zeus' wrath. It's clear that in the later, lost plays, Zeus will have to treat Prometheus more gently to learn his danger, and Prometheus must tone down his diatribes.

Video of Aeschylus' Agammemnon

A Complete Stage Production of His Most Famous Play

In 1983, the BBC showed a National Theatre Production of the Oresteia directed by Peter Hall and translated by Tony Harrison. Masks in the style of ancient Greek theater masks— which served to project actor's voices as well as provide faces that could be seen from the top of the theater seats— evoke what this might've looked like to a Greek audience. Go to the Aeschylus' Agammemnon playlist for the rest of this dramatization.

Poll: The Best Greek Playwright

In Aristophanes' Frogs, the recently-deceased playwright Euripides challenges Hades for the Tragic Chair, and they fight a no-holds-bard Attic Idol competition in front of the god Dionysos to see who's the better playwright. Sophocles refuses to participate, judging Aeschylus his better. Now, let's have rematch! Which one would you vote for?

Who is the best classical Greek playwright?

See results

Aeschylus Bibliography - Sources Used for This Page

Prometheus Bound and Other Plays: Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians
Prometheus Bound and Other Plays: Prometheus Bound, The Suppliants, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians

Translator: Philip Vellacott. Penguin Books: New York, 1961.

Good translation and introduction discussing all four plays.

 
The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides
The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides

Translator: Robert Fagles, with notes and introduction by Fagles and W.B. Stanford. Penguin Books: New York, 1979.

Fagles is the translation that most classicists reach for first.

 
Prometheus Bound (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics)
Prometheus Bound (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics)

Greek only. Edited, with introduction and footnotes, by Mark Griffith. Cambridge University Press: New York, 1992 reprint.

 
Persae (Aeschylus) (English and Greek Edition)
Persae (Aeschylus) (English and Greek Edition)

Greek only. Edited with introduction and notes, A. Sidgwick. Oxford University Press: Bristol, 1982.

Old 1903 edition, recent reprint. Good for students of Greek.

 

What do you think about Aeschylus, Greek tragedy, or the myths Aeschylus wrote about? Sing out!

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    • mosaic lm profile image

      mosaic lm 9 years ago

      This is an amazingly well written lens. I read some Greek tragedy for high school but I don't remember much about them. Maybe it's time to revisit them. Your play summaries are fantastic. I'm going to have to go look for them! Great lens!

    • GypsyPirate LM profile image

      GypsyPirate LM 9 years ago

      Greek: The Bobby Kennedy YouTube is a wonderful addition to this lens, very touching. Greek tragedy has always had a certain pull for me, so I really enjoyed reading this. Well done!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I really enjoyed reading about Aeschylus today. Congrats on the mention in the Washington Post!

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 7 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      great read. i really enjoyed this lens,

    • Bellezza-Decor profile image

      Bellezza-Decor 7 years ago from Canada

      Greekgeek writes about ancient Greece ... who would've thunk it. Well done!

    • mythphile profile image
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      Ellen Brundige 7 years ago from California

      @Bellezza-Decor: Gotta use that classics MA every now and then...

    • nolinel lm profile image

      nolinel lm 4 years ago

      @Bellezza-Decor: :-)

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