Born: Eleusis, Greece, 525 or 524 bc. Military Service: Fought in the Battle of Marathon, 490 BC, and probably at Artemisium and Salamis, 480 BC. Career: Wrote possibly over 90 plays; also acted in his plays; visited Sicily to produce plays for Hieron I of Syracuse, soon after the foundation of the city of Aetna, 476 bc, and again in 456 BC. Awards: Won his first playwriting prize in 484 BC, 12 subsequent prizes, some posthumously. Died: 456 BC.



[Works], edited by Martin West. 1990; also edited by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, 1914, Gilbert Murray, 1937, and Denys L. Page, 1972; translated by H.W. Smyth [Loeb Edition; bilingual], 2 vols., 1922-26; also translated by Richmond Lattimore, David Grene, and S.G. Benardete, in Complete Greek Tragedies series, edited by Lattimore, 2 vols., 1953-56; Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, in Plays 1-2, 2 vols., 1991; translated by David R. Slavitt, and edited by Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, 2 vols., 1998-99.

Fragments, edited by S. Radt. 1985.


Persae (produced 472 bc). Edited by H.D. Broadhead, 1960; as The Persians, translated by S.G. Benardete, in Complete Greek Tragedies, 1956; also translated by Anthony J. Podlecki, 1970; Janet Lembke and C.J. Herington, 1981; as The Persians, adapted by Roberta Auletta, 1993.

Septem contra Thebas (produced 467 bc). Edited by G.O. Hutchinson, 1985; as The Seven Against Thebes, translated by David Grene, in Complete Greek Tragedies, 1956; also translated by Peter Arnott, 1968; Christopher M. Dawson, 1970; Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon, 1974.

Prometheus Vinctus (attributed) (produced c. 466-59 bc). Edited by Mark Griffith, 1983; as Prometheus Bound, translated by Rex Warner, 1947; also translated by David Grene, in Complete Greek Tragedies, 1956; Warren B. Anderson, 1963; Paul Roche, 1964; Michael Townsend, 1966; Peter Arnott, 1968; James Scully and C.J. Herington, 1975.

Supplices (produced c. 463 bc). Edited by H. Johansen and E.W. Whittle, 1980; as The Suppliant Maidens, translated by S.G. Benardete, in Complete Greek Tragedies, 1956; as The Suppliants, translated by Philip Vellacott, 1961; also translated by Janet Lembke, 1975; Peter Burian, 1991.

Oresteia (trilogy; produced 458 bc). Edited by George Thomson, 1966; as The Oresteia, translated by Richmond Lattimore, in Complete Greek Tragedies, 1953; also translated by Philip Vellacott, 1956; Michael Townsend, 1966; Hugh Lloyd-Jones, 1970; Douglas Young, 1974; Robert Fagles, 1976; Robert Lowell, 1978; Tony Harrison, 1981; David Grene and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, 1989; Peter Meineck, 1998; as The Orestes Plays, translated by Paul Roche, 1962; as The House of Atreus, translated by John Lewin, 1966; as The Oresteia of Aeschylus, translated by Edward Wright Haile, 1994; adapted by Ted Hughes, 1999.

Agamemnon, edited by Eduard Fraenkel (includes prose translation). 1950; also edited by John Dewar Denniston and Denys L. Page, 1957, and Raymond Postgate, 1969; numerous translations, including by Louis MacNeice, 1936; Anthony Holden, 1969; Hugh Lloyd-Jones, 1970; D.W. Myatt, 1993.

Choephoroi, edited by A.F. Garvie. 1986; also edited by A. Bowen, 1986; as The Libation Bearers, translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, 1970.

Eumenides, edited by Alan H. Sommerstein. 1989; edited and translated by Anthony J. Podlecki, 1989; as The Eumenides (The Furies), translated by Gilbert Murray, 1925; as The Eumenides,translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, 1970.

Critical Studies:

Aeschylus, The Creator of Tragedy by Gilbert Murray, 1940; Aeschylus and Athens: Study in the Social Origins of Drama by George Thomson, 1941; Aeschylus in His Style: Study in the Social Origins of Drama by W.B. Stanford, 1942; Aeschylus: New Texts and Old Problems by E. Fraenkel, 1943; The Style of Aeschylus by F.R. Earp, 1948; The Harmony of Aeschylus by E.T. Owen, 1952; Pindar and Aeschylus by J.H. Finley, 1955; A Commentary on the Surviving Plays of Aeschylus by H.J. Rose, 2 vols., 1957-58; Collation and Investigation of the Manuscripts of Aeschylus by R.D. Dawe, 1964; Image and Idea of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, 1964, and The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure, 1971, both by Anne Lebeck; The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy by A.J. Podlecki, 1966; Aeschylus Supplices: Play and Trilogy by A.F. Garvie, 1969; The Author of Prometheus Bound, 1970, and Aeschylus, 1986, both by C.J. Herington; Studies on the Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus by H.D. Cameron, 1971; Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Marsh H. McCall, Jr, 1972; Aeschylus: Playwright Educator by R.H. Beck, 1975; Aeschylean Metaphors for Intellectual Activity by D. Sansome, 1975; Aeschylean Drama by Michael Gagarin, 1976; The Authenticity of Prometheus Bound by Mark Griffith, 1977; The Stagecraft of Aeschylus by Oliver Taplin, 1977; Dramatic Art in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes by William G. Thalmann, 1978; Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound: A Literary Commentary, 1980, and Aeschylus: Oresteia: A Literary Commentary, 1987, both by Desmond J. Conacher; The Phoenician Presence in The Seven Against Thebes by Roland F. Perkins, 1980; Problem and Spectacle: Studies in the Oresteia by William Whallon, 1980; The Early Printed Editions (1518-1664) of Aeschylus: A Chapter in the History of Classical Scholarship by J.A. Gruys, 1981; Tradition and Dramatic Form in the Persians of Aeschylus by Ann N. Michelini, 1982; The Art of Aeschylus by Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, 1982; Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes by Froma I. Zeillin, 1982; Studies in Aeschylus by R.P. Winnington-Ingram, 1983; Language, Sexuality and Narrative: The Oresteia, 1984, and Aeschylus, The Oresteia, 1992, both by Simon Goldhill; Apollo and His Oracle in the Oresteia by Deborah H. Roberts, 1984; Musical Design in Aeschylean Theater by William C. Scott, 1984; The Logic of Tragedy: Moral and Integrity in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, 1984, and An English Reader’s Guide to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, 1991, both by Philip Vellacott; The Oresteia: Iconographic and Narrative Tradition by A.J.N.W. Prag, 1985; Studies in Aeschylus by Martin West, 1991; Aeschylus: The Earlier Plays and Related Studies by D.J. Conacher, 1996; Aeschylean Tragedy by Alan H. Sommerstein, 1996; The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy by Anthony J. Podlecki, 1999; The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus’ ”Persians" and the History of the Fifth Century by Thomas Harrison, 2000.

Aeschylus was the first of the three famous poets (Sophocles and Euripides are the other two) who, from antiquity onwards, have been celebrated as the great tragic dramatists of ancient Greece. In accordance with the conventions of the tragic festivals at Athens, Aeschylus based most of his plays on ancient myths, dating back to the Mycenaean Age at the dawn of Greek civilization; however, like the other Greek tragic poets, he invested this legendary (and, occasionally, historical) material with new, often contemporary, meanings of his own. Whether from choice or because of a convention of early Greek tragedy, Aeschylus composed most of his tragedies in the form of connected trilogies. (Three tragedies, not necessarily related in subject matter, followed by a semi-comic satyr-play, remained the normal requirement for those competing in the tragic festivals throughout the classical period.) A brief survey of his extant plays will illustrate the wide-ranging material of his themes (theological, ethical, and, in the loftiest sense of the term, political), most of which are well suited, by the grandeur of their dramatic conceptions, to the trilogic form of composition.

Persae (The Persians), Aeschylus’ earliest extant tragedy (and the earliest Greek tragedy which we possess), is exceptional in that it is not part of a connected trilogy. It is of particular interest also because it is the only extant Greek tragedy based on historical, not mythological, material. The Persians is, however, by no means merely ”dramatized history.” Rather, in his treatment of the recent defeat of the Persian despot Xerxes and his Persian fleet by the Athenians at Salamis, Aeschylus ”mythologizes” history to present a striking illustration of the tragic theme of koros, hubris, ate: excessive confidence in wealth and power, leading to an act of outrage (in this case, that of Xerxes overstepping the divinely ordained limits of his rule), which brings down the swift retribution of the gods. To present his material in tragic rather than in ”historical” terms, the poet takes certain bold liberties with the factual material and employs typically Aeschylean touches of symbolism (such as the striking image of ”the yoke of the sea,” constraining the great sea-god Poseidon, for Xerxes’ bridge of boats across ”the sacred Hellespont”) to stress the overreaching ambition of the Persian King.

In Septem contra Thebas (The Seven Against Thebes) Aeschylus brings to a tragic conclusion (the lost plays Laius and Oedipus were the preceding plays of this trilogy) the treatment of another of his favourite themes: the working out of a family curse, inevitably fulfilled by the gods through the ”free” decisions of one of its doomed heroic victims.

In the Oresteia (The Oresteia), Aeschylus’ only extant trilogy, the poet combines, in magnificent fashion, both of the above two themes, that of a family curse and that of divine vengeance for a deed of hubristic outrage. In the first play, Agamemnon, Agamemnon suffers (by the murderous hand of his queen, Clytemnestra) both for the outrageous deed of his father, Atreus, against the children of his brother Thyestes, and for his own sacrifice (”impious, unholy and polluting,” however ”necessitous”) of his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to obtain favourable winds for his great assault on Troy. In the trilogy sequel, Choephoroi (The Libation Bearers), Orestes and Electra, loyal children of King Agamemnon, continue the sequence of ”blood for blood” by murdering, at the god Apollo’s command, the usurpers, Clytemnestra (their mother) and her paramour, Aegisthus. Only in the third play, the Eumenides (The Furies), is the curse on the family, and the attendant blood feud, resolved. In this play, Orestes takes refuge from Clytemnestra’s avenging Furies (the chorus in the play), first at Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi and then at Athens. Here the goddess Athena institutes a human court of justice (the Areopagus, which was a celebrated Athenian institution of some political importance in Aeschylus’ time), in which Orestes (and all homicides thereafter) will be tried. Orestes is acquitted by Athena’s casting vote and the Chorus of Furies, exactors of the old ”blood-for-blood justice,” are persuaded by Athena, daughter of Olympian Zeus, to become beneficent, though still awe-inspiring, guardians, supporting the new order of justice which Athena has instituted.

This brief review of The Oresteia highlights another feature of Aeschylean thought and dramatic structure which some scholars (most notably C.J. Herington in ”The Last Phase,” Arion 4, 1965) believe was typical of the trilogies (the Danaid and the Prometheus trilogies as well as the Oresteia) composed in the final period of the poet’s career. Thus, in the Danaid trilogy (only the first play of which, Supplices [The Suppliant Maidens], survives) a violent sequence of forced marriage and murderous requital appears to have been ”resolved” by the decision of one bride (out of the 50 sworn to slay their violent suitors) who chooses love instead of further bloodshed. As in The Furies, a goddess (in this case Aphrodite, as a fragment of the final play reveals) appears as a champion of this fruitful resolution.

Finally, the Prometheus trilogy seems to have presented a comparable sequence of tragic action leading to a positive finale. Prometheus Vinctus (Prometheus Bound) was probably the first play in the trilogy; we have only fragmentary knowledge of Prometheus Unbound and Pyrphoros (Prometheus the Firebearer), and the Aeschylean authorship of even the extant Prometheus Bound has been doubted by some scholars (see especially Mark Griffith, The Authenticity of Prometheus Bound and Martin West, Studies in Aeschylus). This time the struggle is between Prometheus, divine champion of men, bestower of fire and all the human arts, and Zeus, man’s would-be destroyer, here presented as a harsh and tyrannical new god, only recently established as lord of the Universe. That Zeus, the god of power and order, needs Promethean intelligence and foresight is established on the literal level by the fact that only Prometheus has the secret knowledge which can prevent Zeus falling from power. That intelligence and foresight are unavailing when suppressed by power, as demonstrated by the noble martyrdom of the enchained Prometheus, whose heroic defiance ends (in the finale of Prometheus Bound) in his further punishment in the lowest depths of Tartaros. Again the fragments of the trilogy (and other external evidence) suffice to indicate its probable denouement. Prometheus and Zeus are ultimately reconciled by their mutual needs. Zeus, saved by Prometheus’ foreknowledge, continues to reign supreme over a less troubled universe, and Prometheus, his ”cause” now vindicated, is re-established, under Zeus, as the bestower of the civilizing gift of fire (hence the third title, Prometheus the Firebearer) to men. Once again, if this symbolic interpretation of the evidence be sound, we find that the sequence of suffering presented in the trilogy ends in a triumphant resolution.

In this brief survey of the extant themes of Aeschylean tragedy, it has not been possible to do justice to the impressive dramatic structure of his plays and to the grandeur of his choral odes which,particularly in The Oresteia, are an integral part of that structure. While it is true, as Aristotle believed, that the plot is the soul of tragedy, in Aeschylus’ plays the plots are simple, both ”action” and ”characterization” being kept to the minimum necessary to expound, in compelling dramatic form, the recurrent and meaningful patterns of tragic experience.

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