Dafato Team | Jun 3, 2022

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Aeschylus (in ancient Greek Αἰσχύλος

The life of Aeschylus is very poorly known, around 525 B.C., in Eleusis in Attica, city of the mysteries in honor of Demeter to which he is initiated, he belongs to the noble class of Eupatrides, a great Athenian family. In his youth, he witnessed the end of the tyranny of the Pisistratides in Athens. Contemporary of the wars led against Persians, he takes part in ten years of interval in the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, in company of at least one of his brothers, Cynégire, who was besides one of the heroes of this war, and in that of Salamine in 480 BC. C. This period of war with a happy outcome left a lasting impression on Aeschylus, inspiring him eight years later in The Persians (472 B.C.), his oldest surviving tragedy, and more generally permeating the rest of his work. Aeschylus' first victory in the tragic contest was in 484 B.C., but his career was to begin as early as 500 B.C.. Of a total of about one hundred and ten plays, only seven survive today. Six of them were performed between 472 and 458 BC, in the Athens of Pericles: The Persians (472), The Seven Against Thebes (467), The Suppliants (perhaps 463) and the Oresteia, his thirteenth and last victory (458). Aeschylus then went to Sicily (where he had already gone, at the invitation of the tyrant of Syracuse Hieron, after the performance of the Persians). It is perhaps there that he composed the Prometheus in chains, the attribution of which remains doubtful. He died in Gelæa in 456 BC, according to the legend, by receiving a turtle on the head, thrown by a bird of prey which would have taken his bald head for a stone intended to break the shell.

Aeschylus is the author of 90 tragedies, he wins his first victory in the competition in 484 BC (he is victorious thirteen times in total). He counts among his rivals Pratinas, Phrynichos the Tragic, Chérilos of Athens, and later the young Sophocles who beats him in 468 BC. Only seven plays of Aeschylus have come down to us. Some of his lost plays are known only by their title (Iphigenia, Philoctetes, Penelope, The Mysians, The Thracian Women, The Salaminians), or sometimes by fragments as in the case of Niobe or The Myrmidons. The existence of certain other pieces can only be assumed, for example for the Prometheus Delivered and the Prometheus Firebearer which could have completed the Prometheus Chained as part of a trilogy.

The Persians

This piece (Πέρσαι

The Seven Against Thebes

Performed in the spring of 467 BC, The Seven Against Thebes (Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήϐας

The Suppliants

The Suppliants (Ἱκέτιδες

The Oresteia

This trilogy performed in 458 BC includes the following plays: Agamemnon (Ἀγαμέμνων

Prometheus in chains

Cette pièce (Supplier binder

Lost parts

Only the titles and a few fragments of other plays by Aeschylus have come down to us. We have enough fragments of some plays (with comments made by later authors and scholiasts) to produce rough summaries.

Les Myrmidons. - This play is based on the chants IX and XVI of the Iliad of Homer. Achilles remains in a silent indignation because of the humiliation made by Agamemnon in a great part of the play. The ambassadors mandated by the Greek army try to reconcile him with Agamemnon, but he only gives in to his friend Patroclus, who then fights the Trojan horses in Achilles' armor. The bravery and death of Patroclus are reported in the speech of a messenger, which is followed by the mourning.

Les Néréides. - This piece is taken from chants XVIII, XIX and XXII of the Iliad, we follow the daughters of Nereus, the god of the sea, who lament the death of Patroclus. In this work a messenger tells how Achilles, perhaps reconciled with Agamemnon and the Greeks, killed Hector.

The Phrygians, or The Ransom of Hector. - In this play, Achilles sits in silence to weep over the body of Patroclus after a brief discussion with Hermes. Hermes then brings the ransom of his son's body to the King of Troy, Priam, who succeeds in defeating Achilles in a spectacular coup de théâtre. A ladder is carried on stage and Hector's body is placed in one tray and gold in the other. The dynamic dance of the Trojan chorus as they enter with Priam is reported by Aristophanes.

Niobe. - The children of Niobe, the heroine, were killed by Apollo and Artemis because Niobe was gloating about having more children than their mother, Leto. Niobe sits in silent mourning for most of the play.

Formal aspects

Not knowing the plays of the authors previous to Aeschylus, nor of his contemporaries until Sophocles, it is difficult to seize the specificities and the possible innovations of his theater. We know that Aristotle attributes to him the passage to two actors. On this subject, it is however rather difficult to imagine that certain tragedies of Aeschylus could have been interpreted only by two actors. One supposes therefore, either that he was the first to innovate in this direction, or, if Aristotle is not mistaken, that he had adopted the innovation of young Sophocles. Moreover, one can note that the theater of Aeschylus rests very little on the psychology of the characters: if it leaves a very broad place to the chorus, its plays privilege in any case the events, the dramatic impression intended to mark the spectators. The work of Eschyle is, according to the words of Jacqueline de Romilly, above all "immediate and concrete. Because it does not analyze. The ideas which express his theater are released all alone, under the blow of the anxiety, hardly clear, abrupt like revelations. The long songs of the chorus have consequently a purpose of dramatic effectiveness, "seeking, in the anguish, the sense of the action in progress." The extent of this dramatic construction overflows in fact the strict framework of the play: Aeschylus organizes his tragedies in coherent trilogies, in particular in trilogies "related", i.e. by a theme or even by a plot as in the example of the Oresteia. He is considered the inventor of the linked trilogy. In the same way, he controls the form and twists it to his liking, favoring changes of rhythm or using the kommos. This composition allows Aeschylus to create a world of anguish and intense images with "a violence of feelings and a force hardly sustainable".

The City in the face of disorder

The stake of Aeschylus' tragedies is almost always the civic order: except for Prometheus in chains, all the plays take place in the city, in front of the royal palace or a sacred place, and the tragedy is born from the questioning of the order. As Pierre Vidal-Naquet points out, "the tragic author displaces, inverts, sometimes suppresses the political order. It is the deviations that create the highlighting, or, in the etymological sense of the word, the staging." The main risk that threatens the city is war. Almost all the tragedies preserved by Aeschylus relate it (The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes), follow it (The Oresteia) or precede it (The Suppliantes): the evocation of the war, alive, haunting, is a well-known characteristic of the theater of Aeschylus which "resounds at every moment of the noise of the war", by the means of detailed descriptions, terrifying. But this evocation is never free: "the evils of the mass, these anonymous evils, tracing a whole network of suffering and mourning, serve especially to raise the responsibility of the leaders, whose role is precisely to avoid their people of such tests." Aeschylus is concerned to show this need for a lucid leader, and gives as well the example of the good king: Darius is thus given as an example, in counterpoint to his son; Eteocles, of the Seven marks the survival of the city as a priority: "Zeus, Earth, gods of my homeland, and you, Curse, powerful Erinys of a father, spare at least my city"; finally Pelasgos of the Suppliantes may accede to the prayers of the Danaids, but this does not prevent him from reaffirming the priority of the civic issue: "May they, these foreigners, not be a cause of ruin for us, and may an unexpected war not come out of this. Certainly, our city does not need them." Negative examples also exist, like Xerxes of course in The Persians. Agamemnon on his side is victorious but guilty of having led an unjustified, excessive war, and of having consented to the sacrifice of Iphigenia. These evils, the chorus denounces them throughout the first play of the Oresteia : the sufferings of the war have for cause " a woman who was more than one man ". In sum, Aeschylus shows his concern for political morality and his repugnance for hybris, whether it be the hybris of conquest, of the tyrant, or of the unruly people. This concern for good leadership and civic order is remarkable. "In all the myths that he borrows from the epic background he introduces this collective character of the city, essential in his own experience but anachronistic in the legend." And if the Oresteia seems to have for real stake only the race of the Atreides, it is only a process on the part of Aeschylus. For the conclusion of the Eumenides, which puts in scene the Areopagus, could only resound in a very particular way in the Athenian public: the trilogy represented in 458 certainly echoes the reforms of Ephialtes which reduce in 461 the role of the court, in particular its political influence, without one being able however clearly to seize if this final constitutes an apology or a criticism of the reform.

"The tragedy of divine justice

Aeschylus' repugnance for hybris is not only expressed by the denunciation of humans, but also by the role of the gods in the tragedies. Their weight in the events, and in the punishment of excess, makes the work of Aeschylus, according to Jacqueline de Romilly: "the tragedy of divine justice" par excellence. The weight of the gods in the defeat of Xerxes is thus underlined in The Persians: it is Ate, the deity of error, who leads the king astray and who punishes him, according to the messenger (Darius, who has returned from the dead, says nothing else in reply to the queen: "A god had undoubtedly touched his spirits. - Terrible god, to have so blinded him! " The gods have sided with Athens and are turning the tide of the conflict, as the messenger notes, "the gods are protecting the city of Pallas." This theme of the punishment of the hybris is found in The Suppliants, when these affirm: "Zeus precipitates the mortals of the height of their superb hopes in the nothingness" or, further, by praying the god: "Remove from your race the male demesne, worthy object of your hatred, and in the dark sea plunges the Woe with the black sides." One finds this weight of the divine decision in the other plays of Eschyle. In The Seven, Eteocles attributes in advance the Theban success to the gods in his introductory prayer, relayed then by the chorus. Even more, Eteocles introduces the theme of the curse and its fulfillment before the fight against his brother, but resigns himself: "To the misfortunes that the gods send no one can escape. The curse, precisely, feeds the whole Oresteia and extends from generation to generation, illustrated by a series of murders. That of Iphigenia is a sacrifice, but a corrupted sacrifice that leads to the criminal series: according to a reversal that recalls the Dionysian filiation, the murders are then depicted as sacrifices themselves, as well as that of revenge (that of Clytemnestra against Agamemnon, that of Orestes against his mother, that of the Erinyes against the murderer). And hybris is again the cause of the curse, as Pierre Vidal-Naquet points out: "Clytemnestra had suggested it cynically: a war that does not respect the gods of the vanquished would be a dangerous war for the victors. Agamemnon would say it even more clearly when describing the capture of Troy: revenge was ὑπερκότως, out of all proportion to the murder of Helen." This is why in the Oresteia, in the words of Jacqueline de Romilly, divine justice "confers on each event a higher scope and gives each gesture an extension charged with meaning, since it allows it to be part of a longer series and links it to a transcendent will." More precisely, according to Jean-Pierre Vernant, "Ēthos, character, daímōn, divine power, such are thus the two orders of reality in which the tragic decision is rooted in Aeschylus." Now, the Oreste leads to a conflict between deities, at the end of the Eumenides: Apollo supports Orestes, avenger of his father, but the Erinyes cry vengeance against the matricide. Orestes is acquitted by the Areopagus instituted by Athena. But it is Athena who tilts the judgment in favor of the accused and puts an end to the disorder. "The judgment remains undecided. The acquittal is obtained only by a procedural trick after Athena, by her vote, has restored the equality of the votes for and against Orestes." Divine justice prevails over human justice, and it is she who finally restores order. There remains once again the case of the chained Prometheus. This one seems at first glance to be an exception, as the play is performed between immortals and does not seem to affirm the principle of divine justice. But most of the analyses are based on the hypotheses concerning the Prometheus delivered which was to follow. For Jacqueline de Romilly it is the birth of divine justice in Zeus that Aeschylus would stage while Paul Mazon assumes that Prometheus could make in the lost play "the admission of his fault, or, at least, an acceptance of the fate that was done to him from now on." The delivered Prometheus undoubtedly offered the key to the coherence that was to lead the trilogy, and which today can only be the object of suppositions.

The glory of Aeschylus is immense. His plays were printed and spread from the early years of the 16th century. The English poet John Milton was inspired by him in his Samson Agonistes. But the greatness of his theater, his noble and sublime style where the concrete life is mixed with a deep religious fervor according to the proper character of the archaism, displeased the classical times: Jean Racine takes for model Euripides and quotes Aeschylus only once. In the XIXth century, with the revolution of the Romanticism, it is Victor Hugo who makes the song of the genius of Aeschylus, qualified of " poet hecatonic, magnificent and formidable. Aeschylus has none of the known proportions. He is rough, abrupt, excessive, incapable of softened slopes, almost ferocious, with a grace to him which resembles the flowers of the wild places. Aeschylus is the ancient mystery made man; something like a pagan prophet. His work, if we had it all, would be a kind of Greek Bible. In 1893, Paul Claudel translated the Agamemnon of Aeschylus; in his poem Eve, Charles Péguy evokes "the gigantic Aeschylus" whose song prefigures the word of Jesus and anticipates the Christian beauty; the philosopher Simone Weil also analyzing the work of Aeschylus, sees in "the story of Prometheus in chains as the refraction in eternity of the passion of Christ. Prometheus is the lamb slaughtered since the foundation of the world".


  1. Aeschylus
  2. Eschyle

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