Aeschylus Biography

Biography (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

0111201627-Aeschylus.jpgAeschylus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Life

Aeschylus (EHS-kuh-lus), son of Euphorion, spent his youth as a soldier—necessarily, as his early life corresponds almost exactly with the Persian invasion of the Greek Peloponnese. He fought bravely at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, which may well account for the patriotic and political themes of his plays, although Greece was still a collection of city-states, not a political entity. The war with Persia claimed his brother Cynegeirus at Marathon. Some accounts list Aminias, a hero at Salamis, as another family member. Still, it is certain that Aeschylus felt great pride in his heritage. His own son Euphorion, whose works survive only as fragments, achieved almost as much fame as Aeschylus as a tragedian.

War probably delayed Aeschylus’s career as a dramatist until he was about thirty, and his first victory at the Dionysia did not occur until 485 b.c.e. He clearly was prolific and reportedly wrote from seventy-two to ninety plays. The number of prizes he won, thirteen, implies that the judges considered forty-two of his plays first-rate, since a new trilogy plus a satyr play made up each entry. This means that Aeschylus garnered first prize in nearly half or more than half of the contests he entered.

Hieron I, king of Syracuse, offered subventions to the celebrated poets of the day, so Aeschylus was probably at the height of his fame in 470 b.c.e. when he resided at Hieron’s court along with the lyric poets Pindar and Simonides. He died at Gela during his second visit to Sicily. Hellenistic legend concocted the tale that Aeschylus died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head, having mistaken it for a rock on which to crack the shell.

Aeschylus’s revived plays appeared in competition against new works, implying that they were considered a standard against which to measure new dramas. Aristophanes, in his comedy the Batrachoi (405 b.c.e.; The Frogs, 1780) removes Aeschylus from competing with his junior contemporaries Sophocles and Euripides in the celebrated contest of that play, further attesting to his special place.

Influence

Though only seven of his plays are extant, they confirm Aeschylus’s role as pioneer of Greek drama. In his works, he does not use a bipartite chorus but has three featured actors portray distinctive characters. The idea of protagonist, antagonist, and supporting actor, not codified until Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 335-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), in fact begins with Aeschylus. The chorus remains important for deepening, highlighting, or metaphorically embellishing dramatic narrative but never alters or influences action. Aeschylus’s successors Sophocles and Euripides further diminished the role of the chorus.

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Aeschylus Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek playwright{$I[g]Greece;Aeschylus} Aeschylus’s dramaturgy marks a major stage in the development of Western theater, especially tragedy.

Early Life

Knowledge of the life of Aeschylus (EHS-kuh-luhs) is limited by minimal and unreliable sources. A Hellenistic biography surviving in the manuscript tradition of Aeschylus’s plays is filled with ancient gossip, conjecture, and elaboration. The only extant portraits of the dramatist are probably not authentic.

Aeschylus was born about 525-524 b.c.e. in Eleusis, an Attic town about fourteen miles northwest of Athens. His father, Euphorion, a eupatrid, or hereditary aristocrat, had several children: at least two other sons, Cynegirus and Ameinias, and a daughter whose name is not recorded.

As the son of a eupatrid, Aeschylus belonged to one of the ancient and powerful landed families who had controlled Greece for generations but whose political power deteriorated in Aeschylus’s lifetime, especially in Attica. Aeschylus’s birthplace was an ancient city that had retained a sense of local pride despite its incorporation into the city-state of Athens many years before. While it is uncertain whether Aeschylus was ever initiated into the famous cult of Demeter at Eleusis, he certainly grew up within its shadow. Later in life, Aeschylus is said to have been prosecuted for revealing a mystery of Demeter in one of his plays but to have been exonerated on the grounds that he had done so unwittingly.

The young Aeschylus, benefiting from the wealth and prestige of his family, undoubtedly received a good education founded on the poetry of Homer. With such learning, Aeschylus developed a strong sense of a eupatrid’s civic responsibility and authority and was exposed to the traditional poetry, myths, and music on which his tragedies were later based.

If ancient tradition can be trusted, Aeschylus began composing plays as a teenager. His early dramatic career is poorly documented. Sometime between 499 and 496, he entered the Athenian dramatic competition at the Greater Dionysia with an unknown group of plays but did not receive first prize. There is no record of how many contests he entered before his first victory in 484, again with unknown plays.

As an Athenian citizen, the young Aeschylus lived through some of the most exciting years in that city’s history. In the tightly knit aristocratic society of late sixth century Athens, Aeschylus would have observed at first hand the turmoil associated with the murder of the Athenian prince Hipparchus in 514, the expulsion of Hipparchus’s brother Hippias in 510, and the constitutional reforms of democratic Cleisthenes in 508. The progression from tyranny to democracy in Athens inevitably meant less power for the eupatrid class. While the political position of Aeschylus and his family in this period is uncertain, these events undoubtedly encouraged the cautious conservatism that Aeschylus exhibited in later years.

The young playwright was also a soldier. In the first decade of the fifth century, the Persian Empire ruthlessly suppressed a revolt by Ionian Greek cities along the coast of modern Turkey and then invaded the mainland of Greece in retaliation for support of the Ionians. In 490, the Persian king Darius the Great was soundly defeated by united Greek forces at the Battle of Marathon, where Aeschylus fought and where his brother Cynegirus died. Ten years later, during a second Persian invasion of Greece by Darius’s son, Xerxes I, Aeschylus also participated in the naval battle of Salamis, at which the Athenians defeated the Persian fleet against great odds. Accounts of Aeschylus’s participation in other battles, especially at Plataea in 479, must be dismissed as examples of biographical exaggeration. These victories permanently curtailed the threat of Persian domination of the Greek mainland and brought about the period of Athenian political hegemony during which Aeschylus produced all of his extant plays.

Life’s Work

While the titles of at least eighty Aeschylean plays are known, only seven tragedies survive in the Aeschylean corpus. As entries in the Greater Dionysia always consisted of three tragedies plus one satyr play, about three-quarters of Aeschylus’s plays were tragedies. Plots for these plays were generally connected with the Trojan War or with the myths of Thebes and Argos. At the height of his dramatic career, Aeschylus, who acted in his own plays, was extremely successful. Of the twenty-odd productions attributed to his name, he was victorious at least thirteen times, maybe more; in addition, several of his plays were produced after his death.

Aeschylus’s earliest extant work, Persai (472 b.c.e.; The Persians, 1777), was first performed in Athens in 472, together with the lost plays Phineus and Glaucus Potnieus. This production, which won first prize, commemorated the Athenian victory at Salamis and includes Aeschylus’s own eyewitness account, placed in the mouth of a messenger. In choosing historical rather than mythical subject matter for this play, Aeschylus followed a contemporary, Phrynichus, who had earlier composed two historical dramas....

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Aeschylus Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The life of Aeschylus can be pieced together from ancient sources, especially from several biographies that survive in the manuscript tradition that are probably derived from an Alexandrian volume of biographies, perhaps by Chamaeloon. Aeschylus was born in about 525-524 b.c.e. in the Attic town of Eleusis. His father, Euphorion, was a Eupatrid (an aristocrat) and probably very wealthy. As a youth, Aeschylus witnessed the fall of Pisistratid tyranny in Athens and the beginnings of Athenian democracy, and he later lived through the Persian invasions of mainland Greece in 490 and 480 b.c.e. He is said to have fought at Marathon in 490, where he lost a brother, Cynegirus, and...

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Aeschylus Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201627-Aeschylus.jpgAeschylus Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Throughout most of the ancient world, the city of Eleusis, fourteen miles northwest of Athens, was known primarily as the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Mysteries, in the religious sense, are sacred rites of initiation. The Eleusinian Mysteries honored the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, told the story of Persephone’s abduction by Pluto, the god of the underworld, and offered their initiates a blessed afterlife. By the late sixth century b.c.e., the Eleusinian Mysteries were known in all parts of the Greek world, attracting worshipers both from Athens and from distant cities across the Aegean Sea. In 525-524 b.c.e., in this village filled with shrines, pilgrims, and...

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Aeschylus Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The tragedies of Aeschylus are dramas of incredible grandeur. Their language is intentionally elevated over the common speech of everyday life. Their focus is upon the great struggles of gods and heroes from the remote past. Their interpretation of Greek mythology presents sweeping historical or religious patterns rather than dwelling upon individual characters. Unlike Sophocles, who focused upon individual heroes in his dramas, or Euripides, who sought to bring even the gods down to the level of ordinary mortals, Aeschylus presented figures who were larger than life, figures who were entangled by forces even greater than themselves.

One of the sweeping historical patterns frequently encountered in Aeschylean tragedy is...

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Aeschylus Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aeschylus (EHS-kuh-luhs) was the earliest of the great tragic poets and dramatists of Athens, the predecessor of Euripides and Sophocles. He was the first dramatist whose tragedies (seven out of some eighty to ninety) have been preserved. He was the son of Euphorion, a well-born landowner of Eleusis, the city of the mysteries of Demeter. He fought in the battle of Marathon, 490 b.c.e., and possibly at Salamis. He won fame at Athens because of his tragedies and more than once visited Hiero, the king of Syracuse, to produce tragedies there. One tragedy, Women of Aetna, he produced to celebrate Hiero’s refoundation of Etna, which had been destroyed in the volcanic eruption of Mount Etna in 475...

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Aeschylus Biography (Drama for Students)

Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C. in Eleusis, Greece. His father, Euphorion, headed a wealthy, aristocratic family. Little is known about...

(The entire section is 477 words.)