When it comes to the theatre, any theatre, Athenian playwright Aeschylus is certainly one of the most important writers to have created words for actors to speak. Although he was not the first playwright in ancient Athens, he is credited with having brought Greek Tragedy to maturity. Often called the Father of Tragedy, Aeschylus was born about nine years after the first actor in the Athenian theatre, Thespis, gave his first performance.
Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, which is located about 17 miles northwest of Athens. As the son of Euphorion, he was part of a noble family. Early in his life, Aeschylus was already revealing that he had a bit of the dramatic in him. When he was a youth, he claimed that as he watched grapes ripen in a countryside vineyard that Dionysius, the shape-shifting Greek god of wine, theatre, agriculture and ecstasy, visited him in a dream and that the god had ordered him to write tragedies. Perhaps the grapes that surrounded him inspired that visitation by the god of wine. In any case, it’s said that Aeschylus set to work writing his first tragedy the next day and finished it with ease.
If Aeschylus was fated to become a tragedian, he also had the right stuff to be a solider. In 490 BCE, he fought bravely in the Battle of Marathon against the Persians and was wounded. A decade later, five years after he had won his first playwriting prize at the City of Dionysia in 485 BCE, he fought once again. This time it was in the decisive sea battle of Salamis; this contest, which once again turned Persian invaders away from the shores of Greece, would be important in ensuring Athenian dominance in the region for approximately the next 50 years.
As a writer, Aeschylus was a skilled innovator who added the second actor to tragedy. Up to that point, Greek plays featured one actor and a chorus. With this creative change, plays would be written for two actors and a chorus. Those two actors would play many roles within the course of one play.
When it comes to his message, Aeschylus was fairly conservative. Unlike some of his later counterparts, he revered the Gods and often wrote tragedies that were cautionary stories about pride, complacency and social order. His Oresteia, which is translated as “The Story of Orestes,” is the only true tragic trilogy that survives from that time period. The plays in the tragedy are The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides.
By the way, Aeschylus was also open to new innovations by others in the theatre. When Sophocles added the third actor to tragedy, Aeschylus accepted and utilized the device fully. The addition of the third actor helped to make ancient Greek plays less focused on the chorus and more driven by individual characters.
When is comes to output, Aeschylus wrote a slew of plays. With the ancient theatre of Athens, it’s often difficult to get an exact accounting of what was produced since so much has been lost. As an example, it’s estimated that Aeschylus wrote between 60 and 80 plays and won 13 first prizes at the theatre festivals but only seven of his plays survive, with three of those comprising The Oresteia.
For a war hero, Aeschylus could be a tad sensitive. It’s said that when he lost the tragic competition to young upstart Sophocles in 468 BCE that he was so hurt he left Athens for Sicily. That was not the only time that Aeschylus would venture to Sicily, where he proved to be extremely popular. Many of his plays were remounted on the island where he was a favorite of the king.
Aeschylus, like many playwrights and other influential people of the time, did find himself the center of controversy despite the fact that he was a fairly conservative citizen and loved the City of Athens. Around the year 456 BCE, he was tried before the Areopagus on charges that he communicated information about the Eluesian Mysteries. It appears after that trial that he went into self-exile, venturing back to Sicily.
It was in Sicily at Gela that he died. It is said that the great war hero and the Father of Tragedy was killed, ironically, when a large bird, mistaking his baldhead for a rock, dropped a tortoise shell on his polished cranium. It was an unlikely death for such an influential figure.
Aeschylus is buried at Gela. His epitaph reads:
“Aeschylus, Euphorion’s son
of Athens, lies under this stone
dead in Gela among the white
wheatfields; his glorious valor
the precinct of Marathon may
proclaim, and the long-haired
Persian, who knew him well.”
Many find it interesting that the final words about one of the world’s greatest playwrights mention nothing about his dramatic abilities. Then again, he was one of a few prominent dramatists during the Golden Age of Athens but one of many thousands who fought for their country. Perhaps, especially being in exile, he didn’t want that forgotten.