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When the god Dionysus enters the underworld in Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs, he discovers that the most talented person in every field of art holds there a seat of honor and that Aeschylus holds the chair of tragedy. When another tragedian, the recently deceased Euripides, descends into the underworld and claims the throne for himself, a contest between the two playwrights ensues with Dionysus presiding as the judge. Euripides manages to get in quite a few insults – he paints the style of the older tragedian as bombastic and repetitive – but ultimately Aeschylus is declared the winner. Not only are his lines considered "weightier" (in a joke established by means of an actual balance), but the advice he has for the troubled state of Athens is far more practical. Aeschylus, who claims he inspired his fellow Athenians to be more noble and warlike through the subject matter of his plays, is finally sent back to the world of the living to assist and educate the state.
Written more than half a century after his death, Frogs is revealing of the contemporary reception of Aeschylus. He belonged to the revered generation of Athenians who had fought in the Persian Wars, participating in the battle of Marathon in 490 and perhaps also in the naval battle of Salamis in 480. Indeed, the events and triumphant outcome of the wars are covered from a Persian perspective (as imagined by the Greeks) in Aeschylus’ play Persians.
Over the course of Aeschylus’ lifetime, however, the Athenian state underwent drastic changes. When Aeschylus was born in 525/4 in the nearby town of Eleusis, Athens had known quasi-monarchical (“tyrannical”) rule for over two decades. Before the end of the century, the political system was reorganized into a democracy. After the success of the Persian Wars, the power and influence of Athens in the Greek world grew, and its (populist) democracy grew along with it. But by the middle of the 5thcentury BCE, the expansionist spirit of the state brought Athens into conflict with a number of other city states, which eventually led to the troubles mentioned in Frogs.
Though probably from an aristocratic family, Aeschylus was a supporter of several democratic politicians – most notably the Athenian general Pericles, who financed Aeschylus’ play Persians. In one ancient anecdote, Aeschylus was accused – perhaps as part of a political feud – of divulging through his plays the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries. He was acquitted, fortunately, thanks to his family's military service. Aeschylus traveled to Sicily a number of times during his life, invited there by a local tyrant. He may even have died in Sicily, if we are to believe another ancient anecdote in which an eagle mistakes Aeschylus' bald spot for a rock on which to drop a large tortoise. Two of Aeschylus' sons went on to become tragic poets, one of whom even beat his father's old rivals Sophocles and Euripides in the City Dionysia, an Athenian theater festival spread over several days in which playwrights competed. Most of what we know about Aeschylus’ life, however, is derived from a later, often unreliable or inconsistent, biographical tradition.
Aeschylus is the first tragedian whose works survived (due to the growing prestige of the genre in his lifetime), though of the 70 to 90 titles attributed to him by ancient sources we only possess seven plays in a near-complete state: Persians (472), Seven Against Thebes (467), Suppliants (after 470), the Oresteia trilogy (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides) (458), and Prometheus Bound (date and authenticity uncertain). Aeschylus won first prize in the City Dionysia with the first six of these titles and the format of the competition is reflected in the Oresteia. In the Dionysia, each tragedian presented a tetralogy: a trilogy of tragic plays and one satyr play at the end for comic relief. Aeschylus was known for writing "connected" trilogies in which each play provides the next chapter of an overarching story featuring the same characters and themes. The Oresteia is our only surviving example of such a connected trilogy; the other extant plays are the only surviving plays from their respective tetralogies. In his career, Aeschylus allegedly won first prize in the Dionysia a total of 13 times.
Aeschylus earned his reputation as the father of tragedy by making a number of innovations. He added a second actor apart from the chorus, which allowed for far more dramatic interplay on stage (the same few actors still covered multiple roles between them). Aeschylus seems also to have been an enthusiastic adopter of new theatrical features, such as the ekkyklēma (a revolving platform on which prop corpses would have been rolled out after grisly off-stage action), a door in the skēnē (a stage-building) and dramatic costumes. And while his audience would have been familiar with the myths and legends that made up his storylines, part of the fun would have been anticipating the novel twists Aeschylus brought to his new adaptations of this old material.
Reading Aeschylus – or listening to him, as would have been the case for those sitting in the Theater of Dionysus – is an intense affair. His lines are often ambiguous; he makes copious use of imagery, mythic allusion, grand language, wordplay and riddles. Aeschylus' motifs and metaphors, furthermore, accrue greater meaning as the play or trilogy progresses. It is no wonder that in Frogs, Dionysus' balance dropped deeply when a verse of Aeschylus was placed on the scale.
Written by Barbara Vinck, Ph.D. candidate, Classics, Columbia University
A.H. Sommerstein. Aeschylean Tragedy. Duckworth (2010)
J.C. Hogan. A Commentary on the Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus. The University of Chicago Press (1984)