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Aeschylus

525 BCE – 456 BCE

Bust of Aeschylus- Roman Copy: Capitoline Museum, Rome. Public Domain ImageBust of Aeschylus- Roman Copy: Capitoline Museum, Rome. Public Domain Image “Aeschylus [is] the earliest Greek tragic poet whose work survives. Born at Eleusis, near Athens, of a noble family, he witnessed in his youth the end of tyranny at Athens, and in his maturity the growth of democracy. He took part in the Persian Wars, at the battle of Marathon in 490 (where his brother was killed) and probably at Salamis in 480 (which he describes in the Persians). At some time in his life he was prosecuted, it was said, on the charge of divulging the Eleusinian mysteries, but exculpated himself. He visited Syracuse at the invitation of the tyrant Hieron I more than once and died at Gela in Sicily; an anecdote relates that an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head and killed him. Soon after his death it was decreed as a unique honour that anyone who wished to produce his plays should be ‘granted a chorus.’ He had a son, Euphorion, like himself a tragic poet.

“Aeschylus wrote some eighty to ninety plays (including satyric dramas) and won his first victory in the dramatic competitions of 484.... Seven plays only have come down to us, six of which we know to have come from prize-winning tetralogies: the Persians, produced in 472, the Seven Against Thebes in 467, the Oresteia trilogy, comprising the Agamemnon, the Choephoroe, and the Eumenides, in 458, and the Suppliants.... The other surviving play, Prometheus Bound, has several features not found elsewhere in the plays. Its date is uncertain, but it seems not to be an early work.

“Aeschylus is generally regarded as the real founder of Greek tragedy: by increasing the number of actors to two and diminishing the part taken by the chorus he made true dialogue and dramatic action possible. Either he or Sophocles added a third actor, and three are used in his later plays. He also had a liking for spectacular effects and for mechanical devices. He displays a similar taste in his long and magnificent descriptions, e.g. of the battle of Salamis in the Persians and the fall of Troy in the Agamemnon. His language has a matching grandeur which to the succeeding generation seemed occasionally to border on the bathetic, to judge from the criticism in Aristophanes' comedy the Frogs. He coins long compound words and is lavish with epithets and bold metaphors, creating striking and memorable images which often gain in significance from repetition throughout a play or trilogy....”

from "Aeschylus." The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online.

Historical Contexts

Oresteia

Greek Tragedy

“Tragedy, one of the most influential literary forms that originated in Greece, is esp. associated with Athens in the 5th cent. BCE.... From the end of the 6th cent., if not before, tragedies were performed in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus, the City Dionysia. This remained the main context for tragic performances, although they occurred also at the Rural Dionysia, and (probably in the 430s) a competition for two tragedians each with two tragedies was introduced into the Lenea. In all these festivals the tragic performances were one feature of a programme of events which, at the City Dionysia, included processions, sacrifice, libations, the parade of war orphans, performances of dithyramb and comedy, and a final assembly to review the conduct of the festival.

“At the City Dionysia three tragedians generally competed each with three tragedies and a satyr-play. In charge of the festival was the archon, who chose the three tragedians. He also appointed the three rich men who bore the expenses of training and costuming the choruses. Originally the tragedian acted in his own play, but later we find tragedians employing actors, as well as the appointment of protagonists by the state. In a preliminary ceremony called the proagon it seems that each tragedian appeared with his actors on a platform to announce the themes of his plays. Ten judges were chosen, one from each of the tribes, in a complex process involving an element of chance. The victorious poet was crowned with ivy in the theatre.”

from "tragedy, Greek." Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Ed. John Roberts. Oxford University Press, 2007. Oxford Reference Online.

Classical Greece

Aegisthus' Murder- Athenian Red Figure Vase. 5th c. BCE: ArtStor: UCSD Slide GalleryAegisthus' Murder- Athenian Red Figure Vase. 5th c. BCE: ArtStor: UCSD Slide Gallery “The Classical Period begins with the Greek victories over the Persians in 490 and 480/479 B.C. and ends around the year 330 B.C. with the reign of Alexander the Great. .... It is during this period that the most renowned and influential philosophers, writers, and artists of Greece were active and democracy developed....

“...War with the Persians, waged by a shifting alliance of Greek city-states led by Athens and Sparta, dominated the early phase of the period to about 450 B.C. Greek victories at Marathon (490), Salamis (480), and Plataea (479) turned back Persian invasions of the Greek mainland. Following these victo

ries, Athens split from Sparta and continued the war with the purpose of taking back the territory of Ionian Greece lost to the Persians in the Archaic Period. To pursue the war, the Athenians created the Delian League, a confederation of city-states that became the basis of an Athenian Empire. The Athenians defeated the Persians in Anatolia and concluded a peace treaty in 449. During the last phase of this war, Athens had also fought a war with Sparta, Corinth, and their allies which also resulted in a peace treaty in 446....

“...Following the truces in the early 440s was a short period of peace during which Pericles, leader of Athens, undertook an ambitious building project on the Acropolis of Athens that saw the creation of the Parthenon and the chrys-elephantine statue of Athena by Pheidias. Tensions with its subject states and with Sparta grew, escalating in 431 in the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, a civil war between the Athenian and Spartan alliances that also exten

ded to the western colonies. The war proved disastrous for Athens, causing the destruction of an Athenian fleet at Syracuse in 413 and ending in the loss of its navy at Aegospotami in 405. The Spartans triumphed finally in 404 and imposed an oligarchic government on Athens....

“...Despite the turmoil of most of the Classical Period, Greek culture flourished. Greek philosophy sought to provide a rational explanation for phenomena, seeking to discover the underlying forms and order within nature and society. Philosophers such as Protagoras argued for the importance of subjective experience as a source of knowledge. Systems of rhetoric and logic developed that culminated in the fourth century with the work of Plato and Aristotle who sought to create ideal systems of government and ethics. Philosophies such as Stoicism and Epicureanism emphasized the cosmopolitan nature of humanity and sought to provide a more personal response to the troubles of the time. Drama, tragedies and comedies performed as part of religious festivals, became a major literary form during this time with the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides,

and Aristophanes. Theater and stage design began to develop in conjunction with these literary developments. Philosophers, writers, and artists traveled widely, bringing a measure of unity to Greek culture absent from its political life....”

from Neil Asher Silberman, John K. Papadopoulos, Ian Morris, H. A. Shapiro, Mark D. Stansbury-O'Donnell, Frank Holt, Timothy E. Gregory. "Greece." The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford University Press 1996. Oxford Reference Online.