Biography of Aeschylus

Aeschylus is often called the Father of Tragedy. He, along with Sophocles and Euripides, are the big three of Greek tragic playwrights.  Only seven of the over seventy plays he wrote survive into modern times.  His surviving plays are The Persians, Seven against Thebes, The Suppliants, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers these last three are generally organized as a trilogy called The Oresteia, and The Eumenides.  Prometheus Bound has been attributed to Aeschylus but its true authorship is in dispute.

He was born circa 525 BCE in Eleusis as small village about 15 miles north of Athens proper and home to the Eleusinian Mysteries cult. His family was part of the old nobility of Attica and was  well off, but this relative wealth did not preclude Aeschylus from working the land.  A story is told that he was working in the family vineyard when he took a nap in the heat of the day and was visited by the God Dionysus. In the dream the god told him to start writing tragic plays.  Aeschylus obeyed the god and at 26 years old entered his play in the Athenian drama competition, the Great Dionysia. He won the Great Dionysia for the first time at age forty in 484 BCE.

Aeschylus introduced the idea of individual characters interacting with other individual characters in a play, before they had only spoken to the chorus, he also greatly expanded the number of characters that appeared in a drama. This allowed for the first time real conflict among the various roles.

Aeschylus lived in the time of the Persian Wars, where the Greek City-States resisted two invasions from the powerful Persian Empire.  Aeschylus along with his brother, Cynegeirus, fought in the Battle of Marathon, where the vastly outnumbered Athenian hoplites defeated the Persians. Cynegirus was killed in the battle.   Aeschylus also fought at the Naval Battle of Salamis and may have also fought at the Battle of Plataea.  There is no doubt that the Persian Wars greatly influenced Aeschylus’ writing.  His oldest surviving play is “The Persians” and is a great source of information about the war.

Aeschylus was married and had two sons, Euphorion and Euaeon, both became tragic playwrights.  Beside Cynegeirus, he had another brother named Ameinias who also fought in the Persian Wars, but survived.

Aeschylus traveled to Sicily at least twice to stage his plays for the local ruler. On his last visit he died at Gela.

Famously his grave stone inscription makes no mention of his dramatic prowess but instead says:

“Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;

of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, or the long-haired Persian who knows it well.”

Sources:

E. Christian Kopff, Ancient Greek Authors, (Gale Publishing, 1997).

Mary Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets. (University of North Carolina Press, 1981).

Thomas Martin, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. (Yale University Press,   2000).

Sarah B Pomeroy, Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History, (Oxford University Press, 1999).

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