(Αἰσχύλος). The son of Euphorion, born in the Attic deme of Eleusis in the year B.C. 525. [p. 36]
The period of his youth and early manhood coincides with the great national struggle which both Asiatic and European Hellas were forced to wage against the barbarians in the first twenty years of the fifth century. In this conflict he played the part of a brave soldier at the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, and his works abound in traces of the warlike and patriotic feeling of those stirring days. His brother Cynegirus met an heroic death at Marathon, and another distinguished soldier of Salamis, Aminias, is said to have been of the same family, but this is probably an error. We know little of the youth and education of Aeschylus, but it is certain that he began his career as a tragic poet before the age of thirty years, though his first victory was not gained till 485. About the year 470 he went to Sicily at the invitation of King Hieroof Syracuse. Here he composed his Aetnaean Women (Αἰτναῖαι), in honour of the newly founded city of Aetna. His departure from Athens has been ascribed to an indictment by the Athenians for profanation of the mysteries. But it was the policy of Hiero to attract literary men to his brilliant court, and the presence of Aeschylus there needs no more explanation than that of Simonides and Pindar during the same period. Later in his life he visited Sicily a second time, where he met his death in 456. Among the many mythical details with which tradition has surrounded the life of Aeschylus, it is said that he was killed by an eagle letting fall a tortoise upon his bald head, supposing it to be a stone. The high honour in which he was held by the Athenians after his death is shown by the fact that in later times it was made lawful to reproduce his plays in competition for the prize against new tragedies. [figure in text: Aeschylus. (Capitoline Museum.)]
Aeschylus is said to have produced seventy-two, or even ninety dramas, and to have gained the first prize thirteen times. As each poet competed with four plays (three tragedies and a satyric drama), it appears that Aeschylus was successful in more than half of all his contests. Only seven of his tragedies have come down to us. They will be described in what seems to have ben their chronological order.
(1) The Suppliants (Ἱκέτιδες) takes its name from the chorus representing the fifty daughters of Danas fleeing to Argos for protection from the sons of Aegyptus. The prominence of the chorus, the small number of characters, and the absence of a prologue mark this play as the earliest of those of Aeschylus which we have, and consequently the oldest Greek drama extant. Its undeniable merits are much obscured by the very corrupt state of the text.
(2) The Persians (Πέρσαι) is unique among the Greek tragedies which we possess in drawing its theme from history rather than from myth. The central point of interest is found in a splendid narrative of the battle of Salamis, but by an artifice of the poet the scene of the play is laid in Susa, and the laments of Atossa and the Persian nobles supply the tragic elements. The Persians was produced in B.C. 472, as part of a tetralogy consisting of the Phineus, Persians, Glaucus ποτνιεύς, and Prometheus the Fire-kindler (πυρκαεύς).
(3) The Seven against Thebes (Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας) was produced in B.C. 467, as the third play in a tetralogy of which the remaining pieces were the Laus, Oedipus, and the satyric drama called The Sphinx. It includes a magnificent description of the seven Argive champions and their Theban opponents, with the final victory of Thebes, and a hint, at the close, of the Antigon-motive, afterwards so finely worked out by Sophocles. In this play, as in the Persians, the martial spirit of Aeschylus finds ample room for manifestation. Both dramas are full of war, to quote the words of Aristophanes ( Frogs, 1021).
(4) The Prometheus Bound (Προμηθεὺς δεσμώτης), with its companion pieces the Prometheus Loosed (λυόμενος) and the Prometheus the Fire-bearer (πυρφόρος), treated the history of the rebellious Titan who steadfastly suffered the wrath of Zeus for his benefactions to mankind. The Prometheus Bound, the only play of the trilogy which has come down to us, depicts the hero, fettered to a rock in Scythia, and threatened by Hermes with a penalty still more severe. But he proudly refuses to submit to the will of the new ruler of Olympus, and at the close of the play he is struck by the thunderbolt, and, with the rock to which he is fastened, sinks out of sight. The second play described the final reconciliation and the liberation of Prometheus; while the third (see Westphal's Proleg. to Aeschylus, p. 207 foll.) probably celebrated the establishment of Prometheus in Attica as a benignant deity. No Greek tragedy has been more admired than the Prometheus Bound. In the grandeur of its action and the sublimity of character displayed, as well as in the exquisite pathos of some of its scenes, it stands almost unequalled. The Prometheus trilogy was probably produced either in B.C. 468 or 466 (Christ), or about ten years earlier (Wecklein).
(5) The trilogy composed of the Agamemnon (Ἀγαμέμνων), Choephori (Χοηφόροι), and Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες), comes last in the list, and is of special interest from the fact that it is the only complete trilogy which is extant from any of the Greek tragedians. In the Agamemnon the poet describes the return of the victorious king from Troy, and his murder by Clytaemnestra and her paramour Aegisthus. In the Choephori, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, now grown to manhood, returns, and with the help of his friend Pylades avenges the murder of his father by putting to death the guilty pair, and is himself, in turn, driven frantic by the Erinyes. In the Eumenides he flees to Athens, where he is tried, and by the advocacy of Apollo and the casting vote of Athen he is acquitted, and the family curse comes to an end. This great trilogy shows the genius of Aeschylus in its loftiest form. Each play is complete in itself, and yet each is but a single act in the [p. 37]
mighty drama of crime, vengeance, and expiation. The Agamemnon is the most powerful of the three plays, and probably the greatest work of Aeschylus, if indeed it is not the most impressive tragedy in existence. The trilogy is usually known as the Oresteia (Ὀρέστεια), and, with the satyric play Proteus (Πρωτεύς), was produced in B.C. 458.
The extant works of Aeschylus show a constant progress in dramatic art. He is said to have added a second actor to the one employed by his predecessors, and in his later plays he adopts, and uses with full mastery, the third actor first introduced by his younger rival, Sophocles. The choral parts, at first the most prominent feature both in extent and importance, gradually give way before the growth of the dialogue. In the scenic effects, too, Aeschylus made many improvements, using extraordinary means to excite wonder or awe. Like Wagner, he was both poet and musician, and, besides training his own choruses, he is said to have taken part as actor in the performances themselves.
The most characteristic feature of his poetry is its grandeur, both of thought and style, though he is none the less master of lyric beauty and tender pathos. His theology is stern and lofty, and pervaded by the idea of a destiny which controls all things, human and divine. But the hereditary curse that brooded over the families of Labdacus and Pelops was always aided in its destrnctive work by the folly and wickedness of the victims themselves. No poet, in fact, has stated more impressively than Aeschylus the inevitable connection between guilt and punishment. His style, it must be confessed, is sometimes so elevated as to seem almost bombastic, but this apparent fault is the natural result of the poet's mighty current of thought, which could not find vent in the ordinary channels of expression.
All the existing MSS. of Aeschylus are said by W. Dindorf to be derived from the Codex Mediceus (Laurentianus), which dates back to the eleventh century, and contains many valuable scholia taken from the ancient grammarians. It is the chief authority for the Choephori, of which, however, the text is in a bad condition. The Prometheus, Seven against Thebes, and Persians are more fully represented by MSS. than the other plays. Two codices of the fourteenth century (Florentinus and Farnesianus) supply that portion of the Agamemnon (lines 295- 1026) which is missing from the Codex Mediceus.
The Aldine editio princeps (1518) and the edition of Stanley (London, 1663) are worthy of note among the older editions. To these may be added among later works the editions of Hermann (Leipzig, 1852), Kirchhoff (Berlin, 1880), Weil (Leipzig, 1885), and the valuable critical edition of Wecklein-Vitelli (Berlin, 1885). Paley's (London, 1879) is the most convenient English edition of all the plays with notes. Annotated editions of single plays are numerous. Among the more recent are Wecklein's Oresteia (Leipzig, 1888), Schneidewin-Heuse's Agamemnon (Berlin, 1883), Allen's Wecklein's Prometheus (Boston, 1891), Teuffel-Wecklein's Persians (Leipzig, 1886), Tucker's Suppliants (London, 1889), and Flagg's Seven against Thebes (Boston, 1886). Dindorf's Lexicon Aeschyleum (Leipzig, 1873) is an indispensable work to the student. The best complete English translation is that of Plumptre; but for the Agamemnon and the Prometheus we are fortunate in having versions of great excellence by Robert Browning and Mrs. Browning respectively.