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The Life of Aeschylus

By 1911 Edition of an Encyclopedia

Aeschylus - Greek Playwright Aeschylus

Aeschylus - Greek Playwright Aeschylus

AESCHYLUS (525-456 B.C.), Greek poet, the first of the only three Attic Tragedians of whose work entire plays survive, and in a very real sense (as we shall see) the founder of the Greek drama, was born at Eleusis in the year 525 B.C.


His father, Euphorion, belonged to the ``Eupatridae'' or old nobility of Athens, as we know on the authority of the short Life of the poet given in the Medicean Manuscript (see note on ``authorities'' at the end). According to the same tradition he took part as a soldier in the great struggle of Greece against Persia; and was present at the battles of Marathon, Artemisium, Salamis and Plataea, in the years 490-479. At least one of his brothers, Cynaegirus, fought with him at Marathon, and was killed in attempting a conspicuous act of bravery; and the brothers' portraits found a place in the national picture of the battle which the Athenians set up as a memorial in the Stoa Poecile (or ``Pictured Porch'') at Athens.

The vigour and loftiness of tone which mark Aeschylus' poetic work was not only due, we may be sure, to his native genius and gifts, powerful as they were, but were partly inspired by the personal share he took in the great actions of a heroic national uprising. In the same way, the poet's brooding thoughtfulness on deep questions---the power of the gods, their dealings with man, the dark mysteries of fate, the future life in Hades--though largely due to his turn of mind and temperament, was doubtless connected with the place where his childhood was passed. Eleusis was the centre of the most famous worship of Demeter, with its processions, its ceremonies, its mysteries, its impressive spectacles and nocturnal rites; and these were intimately connected with the Greek beliefs about the human soul, and the underworld.

His dramatic career began early, and was continued for more than forty years. In 499, his 26th year, he first exhibited at Athens; and his last work, acted during his lifetime at Athens, was the trilogy of the Oresteia, exhibited in 458. The total number of his plays is stated by Suidas to have been ninety; and the seven extant plays, with the dramas named or nameable which survive only in fragments, amount to over eighty, so that Suidas' figure is probably based on reliable tradition. It is well known that in the 5th century each exhibitor at the tragic contests produced four plays; and Aeschylus must therefore have competed (between 499 and 458) more than twenty times, or once in two years. His first victory is recorded in 484, fifteen years after his earliest appearance on the stage; but in the remaining twenty-six years of his dramatic activity at Athens he was successful at least twelve times. This clearly shows that he was the most commanding figure among the tragedians of 500-458; and for more than half that time was usually the victor in the contests. Perhaps the most striking evidence of his exceptional position among his contemporaries is the well-known decree passed shortly after his death that whosoever desired to exhibit a play of Aeschylus should ``receive a chorus,'' i.e. be officially allowed to produce the drama at the Dionysia. The existence of this decree, mentioned in the Life, is strongly confirmed by two passages in Aristophanes: first in the prologue of the Acharnians (which was acted in 425, thirty-one years after the poet's death), where the citizen, grumbling about his griefs and troubles, relates his great disappointment, when he took his seat in the theatre ``expecting Aeschylus,'' to find that when the play came on it was Theognis; and secondly in a scene of the Frogs (acted 405 B.C.), where the throne of poetry is contested in Hades between Aeschylus and Euripides, the former complains (Fr. 860) that ``the battle is not fair, because my own poetry has not died with me, while Euripides' has died, and therefore he will have it with him to recite''-a clear reference, as the scholiast points out, to the continued production at Athens of Aeschylus' plays after his death.

Apart from fables, guesses and blunders, of which a word is said below, the only other incidents recorded of the poet's life that deserve mention are connected with his Sicilian visits, and the charge preferred against him of revealing the ``secrets of Demeter.'' This tale is briefly mentioned by Aristotle (Eth. iii. 2), and a late commentator (Eustratius, 12th century) quotes from one Heraclides Pontius the version which may be briefly given as follows:--

The Seven against Thebes

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