This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 53-59.

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AeschylusÆschylus, son of Euphorion, a scion of a Eupatrid or noble family, was born at Eleusis 525 B.C., or, as the Greeks reckoned time, in the fourth year of the 63rd Olympiad. His first occupation was in a vineyard, and his reverence for the god of the vine inspired him to follow the bent of his genius and contribute to the spectacles then newly established in honor of Dionysus. In his own words, as related to Pausanias, while still a stripling he was set to watch grapes in the country, and there fell asleep. In his slumbers Dionysus appeared to him and bade him turn his attention to the tragic art. When he awoke he made the attempt, and thus discovered his facility for dramatic composition. His earliest tragedy, composed when he was twenty-six years of age, failed to win the prize, and it was not until fifteen years later that he gained his first tragic victory. Meanwhile he had fought at Marathon, where he had gained some distinction, later taking part in the battles of Artemisium, Salamis and Platæa. As appears from his epitaph, written by himself and inscribed on his monument by the citizens of Gela, Sicily, where he died, he prided himself more on his military services than on his dramatic art.

This tomb the dust of Aeschylus doth hide,
Euphorion's son and fruitful Gela's pride;
How tried his valor Marathon may tell,
And long-haired Medes, who knew it all too well.

In a trilogy, or set of three connected plays, of which only his Persæ survives, he celebrated the glorious contests which he had witnessed, and for this also he gained the prize. Though defeated by Sophocles at his first attempt, the veteran Aeschylus regained his position with the series of which Seven Against Thebes was a part, and thenceforth his supremacy was undisputed. The real "father of tragedy" Aeschylus has been justly termed, certainly deserving this title far more than Thespis, for he it was who, as Aristophanes says, "first decked out tragedy with magificence."

Improvements Introduced by Aeschylus

Many were the improvements which Aeschylus introduced, especially in diminishing the importance of the chorus and in adding a second actor, thus giving prominence to the dialogue and making it the leading feature of the play. He removed all deeds of bloodshed from the public view, and in their place provided many spectacular elements, improving the costumes, making the masks more expressive and convenient, and probably adopting the cothurnus to increase the stature of the performers. Finally, he established the custom of contending for the prize with trilogies, or series of three independent dramas.


The closing years of the life of Aeschylus were passed in Sicily, which country he first visited soon after his defeat by Sophocles. At Syracuse his Persæ was several times performed at the request of the king, and here also he brought out his Women of Etna, celebrating the foundation of that city by Hiero and prophesying happiness for its inhabitants. Returning to Athens, he produced his Orestean trilogy, probably the finest of his works; but the Eumenides, the last of the three plays, revealed so openly his aristocratic tendencies that he became extremely unpopular, and returning to Sicily, died soon afterward at Gela. The story as to the manner of his death, that an eagle, mistaking his bald head for a stone, dropped a tortoise upon it to break the shell, is the sheerest fabrication, and, it would seem, entirely unnecessary to account for the natural death of an exile nearly seventy years of age.

Farewell to Athens

Very touching are the lines in which Aeschylus seems to bid farewell to his beloved city, which at his time of life he could hardly hope to see again. They occur in the Eumenides, which is one long glorification of Athens, her gods, her laws and customs, full of exhortations to reverence old-established institutions, and to preserve them from the arbitrary caprice of innovators, while invoking all blessings on the inhabitants.

Rejoice, rejoice ye in abounding wealth,
Rejoice, ye citizens,
Dwelling near Zeus himself,
Loved of the virgin goddess whom ye love,
In due time wise of heart,
You, 'neath the wings of Pallas ever staying,
The Father honoreth.
Rejoice, rejoice once more, ye inhabitants!
I say it yet again,
Ye gods and mortals too,
Who dwell in Pallas' city. Should ye treat
With reverence us who dwell
As sojourners among you, ye shall find
No cause to blame your lot.

Accused of Impiety

According to Ælian, Clemens Alexandrinus and others, Aeschylus was accused of impiety before the court of Areopagus, and this there seems no reason to doubt, notwithstanding the honors paid to him after death, for the Athenians were the most fickle of communities. Among other charges it was alleged that in one of his plays he had revealed the Eleusinian mysteries, and this was probably in the Eumenides, which is full of references to religious subjects. It is even said that his life was threatened while on the stage, and that he only saved himself by taking refuge at the altar of Dionysus.

Not even Socrates was more unjustly accused of impiety than was the great tragedian whose works are filled with the grandest conceptions of divine power, mitigating the stern decrees of nature and of fate through the interferences of Olympian deities, with Zeus directing all things to a happy issue. Cicero tells us that he was a Pythagorean, and certain it is that he was strongly attached to the Dorian rites on which Pythagoras founded his spiritual system of religion. Throughout his dramas is shown the deepest veneration for the gods, the highest regard for the sanctity of an oath and of the nuptial bond, and a firm belief in the immortality of the soul.

If, in his political opinions he inclined to the aristocratic party, to which he belonged by birth, he was essentially patriotic, constantly warning the people to make a moderate use of their freedom, to avoid all blustering and excess, and especially to preserve the venerable court of the Areopagus, from which the democratic party had tried to wrest its power. Of this we have sufficient evidence in his verse, which, as Aristophanes says, "taught only the good and the true."

Qualities as a Tragic Poet

In the tone of his poems we recognize the high-minded Athenian whose sword had drunk at Marathon and Salamis the blood of long-haired Medes. His plays abound in military terms, and while breathing the utmost contempt for barbarian prowess, he often introduces on the stage the grotesque monsters whose images he had seen among the spoils of Persian camps. Even his diction is of the military type, his sonorous words striking on the ear like trumpet-sounds. Yet he held his own dramas in light esteem, declaring that they were but crumbs from the great banquet of Homer.

"Not only," says one of his critics, "had he fought at Marathon and Salamis against those Persians whose rout he celebrated with patriotic pride, but he had been trained in the Eleusinian mysteries, and was a passionate upholder of the institution most intimately associated with the political traditions of the past--the Areopagus. He had been born in the generation after Solon, to whose maxims he fondly clung; he belonged to that anti-democratic party which favored the Spartan alliance, and it was the Dorian development of Hellenic life and the philosophical system based on it with which his religious and moral convictions were imbued. Thus, even upon the generations which succeeded him the chivalrous spirit and diction of his poetry, and the unapproached sublimity of his dramatic imagination, fell, as it falls upon later posterity, like the note of a mightier age."

Such is the wonderful power of art in its highest forms, that tragedy, as set forth by the three great masters, and never treated with the same effect by their countless imitators, has ever been held the gravest, most moral and most profitable of all forms of poetry. "Why is it," asks a classical scholar, "that we thrill with horror when the death-cry of Agamemnon announces the wreaking of his doom? Why should we sympathize with Antigone as she sets forth on her sacred mission--the burial of her brother--forbidden by man, but enjoined by the command of Zeus? It is because in these and all other instances of the art of the Greek drama, while winged by the individual power of genius, is at the same time true to its purposes as an art, and in perfect harmony with Nature, who does not readily yield her secrets or teach her laws to all."

Aeschylus was the only man of his age, or indeed of any age, who can compare with the great master of the modern drama in sublimity of conception and grandeur of poetic imagery. As to the esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries and his immediate posterity there is sufficient evidence, and first in the Frogs of Aristophanes, who there describes his temper as proud, stern and impatient; his sentiments as pure, noble and warlike; his genius inventive, magnificent and towering; his style lofty, bold and impetuous, full of gorgeous imagery and ponderous expressions, while in the dramatic arrangement of his pieces there remained much of ancient simplicity and somewhat of uncouth rudeness. Dionysius of Halicarnassus lauds the splendor of his talents, the propriety of his characters, the originality of his ideas and the force, variety and beauty of his language. Longinus speaks of the bold magnificence of his imagery, though condemning some of his conceptions as rude and turgid and his expressions as sometimes overstrained. Quintilian ascribes to him dignity of sentiment, sublimity of ideas and loftiness in style, yet often overcharged in diction and irregular in composition. Such, as seen through the eyes of antiquity, was the Shakespeare of the Greeks.

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