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Aeschylus, father of Aesimedes

Aeschylus (2), father of sculptor Asterion

Aeschylus (3), father of Symmachus

Aeschylus (4), son of Euphorion

life of Aeschylus

Birth of Aeschylus at Eleusis in Attica c. 525/524

Death of Aeschylus at Gela in Sicily c. 456/455

No reliable contemporary source provides us with any detailed information about the life of Aeschylus, but later sources allow us to piece together an outline. The Parian Marble informs us that Aeschylus was thirty-five years old at the battle of Marathon. A bit later, the same source asserts that Aeschylus died at the city of Gela in Sicily in 456/55 and informs us that he was sixty-nine years old at the time. This would place his birth at 525/4.

Later sources (the Life of Aeschylus and a scholarly commentary on Aristoph. Frogs 886ff.) identify Aeschylus’ place of birth as Eleusis, the most famous center for the cult of Demeter in Greece. Aristophanes alludes to this birthplace at Aristoph. Frogs 886-7 when he has Aeschylus call upon Demeter who nurtured his spirit. Aristotle comments that one can let slip “things which are impious to tell” (ἀπόρρητα) “just as Aeschylus and the mysteries,” by which he surely means the mysteries of Eleusis. Revealing these secrets to the uninitiated was a capital offence, and later ancient scholarship reported elaborate tales of the author's unintentional impiety (he accidentally revealed too much about the mysteries in one of his plays) and its consequences. According to one version, Aeschylus was almost murdered on stage.


Aeschylus produces his first play 500/499-497/496

Aeschylus’ first victory 484

The Suda article on another tragic poet, Pratinas, tells us that Pratinas competed with Aeschylus in the first years of the fifth century. The Parian Marble, a chronology of the ancient world preserved on a third century BC inscription, tells us that Aeschylus won his first victory in the same year that Euripides was born, 485/4. Since we know that tragedies were performed in the early spring, we know that Aeschylus’ victory took place in 484 rather than in the second half of 485.

Number of victories by Aeschylus: 13

Number of plays composed by Aeschylus: ??

The Vita (section 13) reports thirteen victories, the Suda's article on Aeschylus twenty eight. Most scholars assume that the Suda's article would include victories outside the City Dionysia, the main festival at which tragedies are performed. The lower figure would account for fifty two plays (since each victory reflects the fate of an entire tetralogy).

contacts with Sicily

During Aeschylus’ lifetime, Sicily was home to some of the richest and most powerful Greek states. Later tradition records at least two different periods during which Aeschylus visited Sicily.

Aeschylus produces the Women of Aitna in Sicily 476/475

Aeschylus produces a performance of the Persians at Syracuse: 472/1-456/5

In 476/475, Hieron, the tyrant of Syracuse and the most powerful single man in the Greek world, founded the city of Aitna. According to the Vita, Aeschylus composed the play Women of Aitna, “presenting it as a favorable omen for the fortunate life of those who were founding the city” (Vita Aeschyli 9: οἰωνιζόμενος βίον ἀγαθὸν τοῖς συνοικίζουσι τὴν πόλιν). The Vita Aeschyli18 simply observes that Aeschylus, being highly esteemed by Hieron, put on a successful performance of the Persians in Sicily. Since the Persianswas performed for the first time in 472, we know that this visit must be separate from the time in which he put on the earlier Women of Aitna.

The Parian Marble informs us that Aeschylus died at Gela, but we cannot be certain that he did not die during the same trip in which he staged the Persians. The Vita is especially problematic and contains many problems, but, whatever the chronology, Aeschylus probably had extensive dealings with the great men who held power in Sicily.

importance and Influence of Aeschylus

The Vita Aeschyli offers a survey of Aeschylus’ contribution to tragedy. This type of judgment seems to be derived directly from the texts preserved in antiquity and is not as unreliable as the often fanciful reconstructions of Aeschylus’ life. Aeschylus, we are told (Vita Aeschyli 14), was “the first to make tragedy more grand by means of nobler emotions. He decked out the stage and stunned his audience with brilliant visual effects, with paintings and machines, with stage props such as altars and tombs, with trumpets, ghosts, and Furies.” He created for his actors costumes that were both elaborate and exotic, and contributed to the overall impression of grandeur. “Whoever thinks,” the Vita continues a bit later (Vita Aeschyli 16), “that Sophocles was the more effective composer of tragedy, thinks correctly, but let him consider how much more difficult it was in the time of Thespis, Phrynichos, and Choirilos (earlier tragedians whose work is now lost] to bring tragedy up to such a level of greatness than it was for one entering the scene at the time of Aeschylus to bring it to the perfection of a Sophocles.” The Athenians produced something called tragoidia in the generation before Aeschylus, but it was Aeschylus who largely seems to have created “tragedy” in the sense in which we now understand it.

Aeschylean tragedy is, above all, grand, massive and dignified. The language is heavy and, in the Greek, often difficult to understand, full of compound forms and complex metaphors. In the Frogs of Aristophanes (performed in 405), Dionysus, the patron god of tragedy, resolves to enter the Underworld and bring back with him the playwright Euripides, who had died in 407/6. Once Dionysus reaches the Underworld, however, the play turns into a contest between the recently deceased Euripides and Aeschylus, who had been dead for a half century. The elaborate confrontation between the two playwrights remains one of the best analyses of their styles and vividly portrays the way in which fifth-century Athenians viewed them. Aeschylus is parodied as pompous and incomprehensible, but the parody is affectionate and emphasizes as well the power of his language. In the end, Dionysus brings back with him not Euripides (as he had originally intended) but Aeschylus. Aeschylus held a firm grip on his fellow Athenians throughout the fifth century, and Aristophanes, Frogs illustrates the strength of this hold.

Only new tragedies were normally allowed at the tragic festival, but a special exception seems to have been made so that Aeschylus’ work could be revived after his death. According to several late sources, the Athenian people decreed shortly after Aeschylus’ death that his plays could be staged again, and Aeschylus’ work thus continued to win victories even after his death. In the opening of Aristophanes, Acharnians (produced in 425, more than thirty years after Aeschylus had died) the speaker describes how he had breathlessly anticipated a new performance of Aeschylus (Aristoph. Ach. 9-11). In the Clouds (first performed in 423, though our version is a revision from 418/17), an archetypal Athenian man of the older generation asks his son to recite for him poetry of Aeschylus (Aristoph. Cl. 1364). A change of taste against Aeschylus seems to have set in among younger Athenians. The son refuses and ridicules Aeschylus as pompous and old-fashioned. It is clear from Aristoph. Frogs that Athenians associated the poetic and theatrical magnificence of Aeschylus with the unprecedented wealth and material power which they acquired during the course of the fifth century. When the empire fell and Athens assumed a diminished position, Euripides surpassed Aeschylus in popularity.

Surviving Works

Production of Persians 472

Production of Seven Against Thebes by the young Perikles 468

Production of Suppliant Women 463?

Production of Oresteia Trilogy (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides) 458

Production of [Prometheus Bound] 450-425

The fragmentary remains of ancient records fortunately link five of Aeschylus’ plays to three separate dates. The Persians was performed in 472, and we even learn that the Athenian Perikles was the choregos, the wealthy Athenian who underwrote the cost of the production. At that point only in his early twenties, Perikles would a decade later become the most powerful man in Athens and would lead it during its period of greatest material prosperity. Perikles must have seen the production of the highly patriotic Persians, just eight years after the events which it describes, as a powerful device by which to bring his name before the Athenian people. The Seven Against Thebes was part of the tetralogy which was victorious in 468, while the Oresteia trilogy (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides) was performed ten years later, in 458.

Of the remaining two surviving tragedies traditionally associated with Aeschylus, the date of one is moderately controversial, while the other is extremely problematic. The Suppliant Women used to be dated very early in the playwright's career, perhaps as early as the 490s. The reasons for this were stylistic: the chorus dominates the play, there is substantial choral lyric and relatively little action. The play had generally impressed readers as stiff and archaic, and this suggested to most scholars that the play derived from a time when tragedy was still at an early stage of development.

In 1952, a scrap of papyrus, preserved in the dry climate of Egypt, was published, and this fragment showed that the trilogy of which Suppliant Women is a part was performed at the same time as a play by Sophocles. Since Sophocles’ first performance (and victory) both took place in the year 468 and since the Seven Against Thebes was victorious in 467, the Suppliant Women must be dated to one of the years between 467 and 458, when the Oresteia was produced shortly before his death. The fragmentary papyrus contains letters which may designate the name of the man who was archon at Athens in 463, and thus 463 is a good tentative date for the play.

More complex problems surround the Prometheus Bound. Recent scholarship has strongly suggested that Aeschylus did not even compose the Prometheus Bound. The basis for this conclusion is an exhaustive analysis of stylistic features which repeatedly portray the Prometheus as different from the six other plays still assigned to Aeschylus. Once the play is no longer securely associated with Aeschylus, it becomes dislodged from its chronological moorings. Mark Griffith, the scholar who has done the most work on the authorship of this play, believes that it was probably composed well after Aeschylus’ death. The play could conceivably have been produced at any time between 479 and 415, but the third quarter of the fifth century (450-425) seems to be the most likely time for its composition.

On the life of Aeschylus, see [Lefkowitz, 1981] 67-74, [Rosenmeyer, 1982] 369-376, [Lesky, 1966] 241-271, [Easterling, 1985] 281-295, 761-764. [Radt, 1985] 29-108 presents an exhaustive list of sources on the life of Aeschylus, but without translation.

    Conacher, D. J. Aeschylus' Oresteia: A Literary Commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. ix+229. Conacher, D. J. Aeschylus' Prometheus bound: a Literary Commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980. xii+198. Gagarin, Michael. Aeschylean Drama. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. xi+230. Goldhill, Simon. Language, Sexuality, Narrative, the Oresteia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. ix+315. Griffith, Mark. The Authenticity of Prometheus Bound. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. xii+419. Herington, C. J. Aeschylus. Hermes Books. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. ix+191. Kossatz-Deissmann, Anneliese. Dramen des Aischylos auf westgriechischen Vasen. Schriften zur antiken Mythologie. Mainz am Rhein: von Zabern, 1978. 4: xv+178. Lebeck, A. The Oresteia: a Study in Language and Structure. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971. xx+222. Lesky, Albin. A History of Greek Literature. New York: Crowell, 1966. xviii+921. Michelini, Ann M. Tradition and Dramatic form in the Persians of Aeschylus. Cincinnati Classical Studies. Leiden: Brill, 1982. 4: x+162. Prag, A. J. N. W. The Oresteia: Iconographic and Narrative Tradition. Chicago: Bolchazy Carducci, 1985. xi+213. Radt, Stefan. Aeschylus. Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Ed. Bruno Snell. Goettingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985. Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. The Art of Aeschylus. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982. 393. Scott, William C. Musical Design in Aeschylean Theater. Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England, 1984. xxi+228. Smith, Peter M. On the Hymn to Zeus in Aeschylus' Agamemnon. American Classical Studies. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1980. 5: xiii+91. Spatz, Lois. Aeschylus. Twayne World Authors Series. Boston: Twayne, 1982. 675: 207. Taplin, Oliver. The Stagecraft of Aeschylus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. vi+508. Thalman, William G. Dramatic Art in Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. Yale Classical Monographs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978. 1: viii+193. Vellacott, Philip. The Logic of Tragedy. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1984. ix+190. Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Studies in Aeschylus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. xiii+225. Zeitlin, Froma I. "The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Myth-making in the Oresteia." Arethusa 11 (1978): 149-184. Zeitlin, Froma I. Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes. Filologia e Critica. Roma: Edizioni dell' Ateneo, 1982. 44: 227.
Gregory Crane
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