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Aeschylus*

Born: 525 BC

Died: 455 BC

City/ region: Eleusis, Attica

Affiliation: Greek

Occupation: Playwright, citizen soldier

Aeschylus was born in the town of Eleusis, about 10 miles north west of Athens. His father was Euphorion, a wealthy member of the Eupatridae (Athenian nobility) and consequently Aeschylus was well educated in the three Ps: poetry, philosophy and politics.

He was a natural poet and took great inspiration from Homer, but a religious experience was to have an even more profound effect on Aeschylus’ literary pursuits. As a young boy he was sent to watch over a vineyard one day, and while taking a nap, the god Dionysus appeared to him in a dream. Being the god of vines and the grape harvest this might not have seemed particularly strange, but his request certainly was; he commanded Aeschylus to focus all his artistic skill on producing tragic plays.

The concept of drama was still relatively new in those days. It had evolved out of sacred dances at religious festivals, with the introduction of a single actor to exchange dialogue with the chorus. Aeschylus had always enjoyed watching the plays performed at the local festival of Dionysus held in Eleusis every winter, but it was not exactly considered high art. However, being a pious boy Aeschylus knew that gods appearing in dreams are not to be ignored. So the very next morning Aeschylus began writing.

It turned out he was rather good at it, and was soon entering his own plays in the winter Dionysia at Eleusis. But as his skill improved so his aspirations grew, and before long his sights were set on performing one of his plays at the great city Dionysia held in Athens every spring.

The highlight of the festival was the drama competition. Every year three tragic plays were performed to a huge audience in the theatre of Dionysus at the foot of the acropolis, and a panel of judges awarded the prize for the best play. Aeschylus knew he had to do something extraordinary to impress the panel, so he made a bold decision... and introduced a second actor. Now he could have two characters on stage at the same time, speaking to each other instead of just to the chorus. The cost of such a production was substantial, but unlike most playwrights who had to find wealthy patrons, Aeschylus had enough wealth to finance his own productions. So, in 499 BC, when he was only 26 years old, he entered his first play in the Great Dionysia.

It didn’t win. In fact no one even remembers what it was called now, although at the time it generated quite a stir with its new fangled format. Some even accused Aeschylus of cheating by adding another actor! But determined to win the first prize, Aeschylus continued to write and enter plays in the Dionysia every year. He introduced further innovations, including a third actor, as well as rich costumes and props. However it wasn’t until 15 years later in 484 BC that he finally won the first prize, aged 41. He went on to win the first prize another twelve times, and produced around ninety plays during the course of his life.

Throughout his life and works he displayed a keen interest in man’s relationship to the gods. This was possibly a result of being inducted into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult of Demeter whose rituals were likely connected with preparing the soul for the afterlife. However no one really knows, as initiates were sworn under penalty of death not to divulge their secrets. It was alleged that Aeschylus had placed clues about the secret rites into one of his tragedies, Prometheus Bound. An angry mob even attacked and tried to kill him, but he fled the scene. When he stood trial for his offense, Aeschylus pleaded ignorance and was only spared because of his brave service in the Persian Wars.

The Persian Wars played a large role in Aeschylus’ life. In 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought to defend Athens against Darius' invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. Although Athens was victorious, Cynegeirus died in the battle. He became a national hero because he was killed trying to draw a retreating Persian ship back to shore. In 480 BC Aeschylus was called into military service again, this time against Xerxes' invading forces at the Battle of Salamis, and then the Battle of Plataea the following year. Salamis holds a prominent place in The Persians, which was performed in 472 BC and won first prize at the Dionysia.

Aeschylus married and had two sons, Euphorion and Euaeon, both of whom followed in their famous father’s footsteps to become tragic poets. His nephew, Philocles (his sister's son), also became a tragic poet.

Aeschylus frequently visited Sicily and served in the court of Heiron I of Syracuse, proving influential in securing political alliances between Athens and Syracuse. In 474 BC he accompanied Heiron to Magna Graecia and served in the combined Syracuse and Cumae fleet at the naval battle of Cumae. The Greeks won a great victory, so Aeschylus was not only the hero of Marathon and Salamis, but now also a defender of Greek freedom against the Etruscans. At Heiron’s request he recorded the victory in poetic verse and also immortalised it in one of his great historical plays, now lost. Aeschylus became a great friend of Heiron, and watched him win Panhellic victories at Delphi in 470 and Olympia in 468 BC.  

Aescylus continued to lead an active life right up until his death at the age of seventy. Whilst on one of his stays in Sicily he was taking a stroll along the beach when an eagle, mistaking his bald crown for a stone, dropped a tortoise on his head. Aeschylus died instantly, and was entombed in the Sicilian city of Gela.

Although in life he had been more famous for his plays than his battle accomplishments, in the epitaph he wrote for himself shortly before his death, Aeschylus chose to commemorate his participation in the battle of Marathon:

Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει
μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·
ἀλκὴν δ' εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι
καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος

Aeschylus the Athenian, son of Euphorion, here lies,
who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

*Biographies of the ancient Greek poets are somewhat spurious, as many traditions grew up well after their deaths. No contemporary biographies provide reliable evidence for the life of Aeschylus, so the facts we do know have been embroidered with a little imagination in the creation of this character bio.

 

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