Aeschylus Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

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


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.


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.


(The entire section is 1139 words.)