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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.

Further Reading:

Connacher, D. J. Aeschylus: The Earlier Plays and Related Studies. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1996. A study of the Greek dramatist’s earlier works, with particular emphasis on his technique. Includes bibliography.

Goldhill, Simon. Aeschylus: “Oresteia.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Discusses the city of Athens, plot, revenge, language, divine frame, and political rhetoric in the most famous of Aeschylus’s plays.

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Latest answer posted March 4, 2016, 8:15 pm (UTC)

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Goward, Barbara. Telling Tragedy: Narrative Technique in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. London: Duckworth, 1999. The author examines the function of narrative in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Includes bibliography and index.

Griffith, M. The Authenticity of “Prometheus Bound.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Discusses the question of whether Aeschylus wrote Prometheus Bound.

Harrison, Thomas E. H. The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus’ “Persians” and the History of the Fifth Century. London: Duckworth, 2000. An examination of Aeschylus’s The Persians from the historical perspective. Includes bibliography and index.

Herington, C. J. Aeschylus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. An excellent introduction to Aeschylus for the general reader. One chapter is devoted to biography with a short annotated bibliography and a table of dates.

Herington, C. J. “Aeschylus in Sicily.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 87 (1967): 74-85. This discussion of the evidence for Aeschylus’ trips to Sicily gives a chronology as well as a citation of the ancient evidence in Greek.

Ireland, S. Aeschylus. Greece and Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 18. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Lefkowitz, Mary. The Lives of the Greek Poets. London: Duckworth, 1981. A translation and analysis of the Hellenistic biography of Aeschylus, otherwise unavailable in English, can be found in this book, which also includes a bibliography.

Lesky, Albin. Greek Tragedy. Translated by H. A. Frankfort. 3d ed. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A scholarly introduction to Aeschylus’s dramaturgy, with a brief summary of his life. A bibliography is included.

Lesky, Albin. A History of Greek Literature. Translated by James Willis and Cornelis de Heer. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996. Aeschylus’s place in the literature of ancient Greece can be traced in this standard history, which includes biographical information and a bibliography.

McCall, Marsh, Jr., ed. Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Murray, Gilbert. Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940. Written by one of the most important scholars of Greek tragedy in the twentieth century, this book begins with a biography of the poet but does not include the revision to Aeschylus’ chronology required by the papyrus find.

Podlecki, Anthony J. The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy. 2d ed. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1999. Contains an excellent life of Aeschylus in the first chapter and an interesting appendix on Aeschylus’s description of the Battle of Salamis.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. The Art of Aeschylus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Primarily a literary study, this work contains a short but good appendix on the life and times of Aeschylus. There is also an excellent “comparative table of dates and events” as well as a select bibliography.

Smethurst, Mae J. The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and No. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. An intriguing comparison of Greek and Japanese theater.

Smyth, Herbert Weir. Introduction to Aeschylus: Plays and Plays and Fragments with an English Translation. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1922-1926. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Smyth’s biography of Aeschylus, found in the introduction to volume 1, is still excellent despite being published prior to the discovery of the papyrus redating The Suppliants.

Spatz, Lois. Aeschylus. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Good starting place that discusses the background of the plays, dramatic conventions, style, characters, and chorus.

Sullivan, Shirley Darcus. Aeschylus’s Use of Psychological Terminology: Traditional and New. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. Sullivan examines the psychological aspects of the language used in Aeschylus’s tragedies. Includes bibliography and index.

Taplin, Oliver. The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: The Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy. Reprint. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Taplin focuses on Aeschylus’s stagecraft, particularly his use of dramatic visual devices.

Vellacott, Philip. The Logic of Tragedy: Morals and Integrity in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.” Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984. A good study of the major conflicts in the trilogy.

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