Aeschylus: Understanding The Father of Tragedy

“He who learns must suffer.” This Aeschylus says in Libation Bearers, and it distills himself. The first tragedian was a man who lived through bloodshed and found meaning through trauma.

Apr 21, 2021By Lynnie McIlvain, BA Classics (Classical Studies)
Bust of Aeschylus, ca. 1st-2nd century CE, Cornell University Library; with The Death of Aeschylus, Tobias Verhaecht, 1576, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Aeschylus was the first of the Greek tragedians. He lived during the Classical Era in Ancient Greece and survived a period of great military turmoil. Aside from being a brilliant playwright, he was also an honored veteran of The Persian Wars, including some of their most famous battles. 


Who Was Aeschylus?

Bust of Aeschylus, ca. 1st-2nd century CE, Cornell University Library


Aeschylus was born in 525 BCE in Eleusis, the famous site of the Eleusinian Mysteries. This is the author credited with popularizing tragedy as a respected genre of poetry. Aeschylus expanded the form of tragic theatre by the time that he passed away in 455 BCE. He died in the Sicilian city of Gela, where he had journeyed in a state of self-imposed exile, possibly due to a professional conflict after losing the first place at the City Dionysia to Sophocles. 


It is thought that he was righteous after losing to someone with less experience than himself, the father of tragedy. After his contributions to the production of tragedy, one might understand why he felt indignant enough to retire to his well-traveled haunt in Sicily. 


portrait of aeschylus
Portrait of Aeschylus, Ambriose Tardieu, 1820-1828, The British Museum


Perhaps Aeschylus’s most prominent contribution to the tragic theatre is his addition of the second actor. Previously, the Greek dramatic actor could only engage in dialogue with the chorus. This meant that many plays could be more easily interpreted as long, complicated monologues with the occasional intercession from the chorus. By adding another actor, Aeschylus heightened the interpersonal tension onstage and opened the possibilities for plots driven by more than one character. 

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He was inventive with his use of theatrical machinery as well. He is credited with the first uses of stage devices such as the ekkyklema and the mechane. The ekkyklema is a wheeled device used primarily to wheel “corpses” onto the stage for dramatic effect; the mechane is a crane-like machine used to lift actors in divine scenes, such as Medea in the scene of her flight on the Sun Chariot. Following Aeschylus, the use of these devices became commonplace and conventional. 


The Entertaining Tale of Aeschylus’s Death

death of aeschylus
The Death of Aeschylus, Tobias Verhaecht, 1576, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


There is a prevailing story of Aeschylus’s death, and it is perhaps not what the poet himself would have liked to be remembered by. When Aeschylus was a young man, an oracle gave a prophecy that he would perish after being struck by a falling object in the skull. According to lore, this came to pass when Aeschylus was sixty-seven and visiting the land of Gela. 


Certain birds of the Mediterranean will eat tortoises. However, to open them, they need to drop them from a great height to break their shell open and expose their insides. The legend states that it was a falling tortoise that killed the great father of tragedy–presumably because a large bird mistook his bald head for a smooth rock onto which it could drop its midday meal. But Aeschylus has much better things to be remembered by, though it’s true that the myth of his death is entertaining.


Of Glorious Valour

corinthian helmet
Corinthian type helmet, 500-490 BCE, The Royal Ontario Museum


Aeschylus served in both Persian Wars and was a veteran of many axial battles. Namely, he fought in both the Battles of Marathon and Salamis, and his brother perished in the Battle of Marathon. Scholars believe that Aeschylus himself may have been wounded in this battle, and it is the only battle noted in his epitaph


His epitaph reads:


 “Aeschylus, the Athenian, Euphorion’s son, is dead. This tomb in Gela’s grainlands covers him. His glorious valor the hallowed field of Marathon could tell, and the longhaired Persians had knowledge of it.”


What a way this is to live. Aeschylus lived in a time of great despair and thus of great intensity. Men could truly be heroes in that time, performing heroic feats. In Aeschylus’s lifetime, men won battles against all odds when they should have lost. Yet it was also true that in order to do so, they killed many other men and did terrible, bloody things. It was a time of vast suffering but also of hope which shone brighter in proportion. 


The Tragic Style Of Aeschylus 

aeschylus sketch
Sketch for the title page of an edition of Aeschylus. John Flaxman, ca. 1793, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


There is no play under Aeschylus’s authorship that is not bleak like a dry desert. Aeschylus was an author whose life was shaped inexorably by his experience as a soldier, and he writes like one. Other tragedians write as if to make the audience feel grief, to cry along with the characters. Aeschylus seems to write only to impart that emptiness which comes after tears—and perhaps also the rebellious spirit of hope that comes struggling out of that emptiness. 


In sum, his plays are brutal stories that tell of moral duty done at all costs and life lived despite the human horrors. This is evident in plays such as The Persians, the Oresteia trilogy, and Prometheus Bound. In these scripts, the characters are dealt harsh blows, and there seems for them little good at all in the world. There is only the truth of life, and this truth brings them each their own great suffering. And yet, they do not give up. 


bay of salamis piraeus
The bay of Salamis and Piraeus from Xerxes’ seat, William Simpson, 1880, The British Museum


All of this tragic suffering is included in his works. One of his most well-known works is The Persians, a play that handles the defeat of King Xerxes, son of Darius, at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis, primarily through the eyes of his mother. It premiered at the Greater Dionysia in 472 BCE, not even a decade after the devastating Greek victory against the Persians. (One should here be reminded of the fact that Aeschylus himself fought at the Battle of Salamis.)


Though it is hard to determine authorial intent for such ancient works, The Persians has long been received as a production that is sympathetic towards the defeated Persians. Indeed, there are times when Xerxes’s laments and the laments of his mother, Queen Atossa, are so poignant—so very human in a way that transcends culture or geography—that it feels hard for an audience member to imagine that they were written with the intent to do anything other than close that gap of pride between the victorious and the defeated. 


darius appearing atossa romney
The Ghost of Darius Appearing to Atossa, George Romney, 1778, Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly


There is a foundation for both the claim of sympathy and the claim of celebration—in fact, knowing what little scholars know about Aeschylus, there is perhaps a more solid claim that it is both. Aeschylus lived in that time of both hope and agony and was a soldier in his heart. It is not so unthinkable that he would rejoice in the preservation of the Greeks and in their great victory, celebrating with his comrades and commemorating it on stage. It is also likely that Aeschylus would sympathize with the Persians as a fellow soldier, as someone who also knows what it is like to bleed in battle and to suffer crushing defeats. 


War is hell” is the rhetoric of the poets. In the Agamemnon, Clytemnestra gives a lengthy speech upon discovering that Troy has fallen. She describes the previously-free people going beneath the slave’s yoke and mothers, children, and sisters clinging to the corpses of their fallen family and weeping. Here, the Trojans are pitiable, just as the Persians are. 


Human Perseverance in Aeschylus’s Work

prometheus and vulture
Prometheus and the Vulture, Honore Daumier, February 13, 1871, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


And yet, even above the bleakness, Aeschylus emphasizes pride and persistence. In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is the apotheosis of humanity in Aeschylus’s plays: forever resisting, forever preserving; even at his darkest moment, never giving in as his opponent tries to break him. He resembles at many points in the play, a soldier, one who stands on the battlefield with knees locked, without rejection of his fate. So then this is the thesis of the soldier-poet and his corpus: that no matter the hardship, it is always your choice alone to persevere. 


Aeschylus was not a poet to turn away from the ugly truths of life nor to embellish them. He did not want to make horrors softer or easier to swallow, and indeed, this was the anathema of what Aeschylus believed. He was interested chiefly in the pain and the reward for suffering which came struggling into the world after it: wisdom and the satisfaction of doing what needs to be done.

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By Lynnie McIlvainBA Classics (Classical Studies)Raised in Washington State, Lynnie is an alumna of the Clark College where she primarily studied Art History and English. She went on to obtain her bachelor’s degree from the University of Puget Sound in a field about which she is even more passionate: Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies. She currently lives in Tacoma WA, and quietly nurtures her love of literature and writing, foraging, and languages alongside her professional career in nonprofit development.