Aeschylus The Father of Tragedy

aeschylusAeschylus was the son of Euphorion and his family belonged to the rural aristocracy, that of the Eupatrides. From a young age he worked alongside his father. Its name was related to the act of shearing the flocks.

He was born in 525 BC. in Eleusis, a city near Athens that was an ancient center of the Mysteries. From a young age he had visions of his wonderful future as a tragic poet, while according to some legend, the god Dionysus appeared to the young Aeschylus and motivated him to

His noble origin, his aristocratic upbringing, democratic freedom, the religious-mystical environment of Eleusis with the worship of Demeter and the great national struggles of the Greeks against the Persians, contributed to the formation of the pious and brave character of the poet and the high spirit that distinguished him.

Aeschylus is mentioned among the initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries and is said to have been trained in the Pythagorean School.
He was a deeply religious man and gave his works a ritual character, presenting the heroes included in a universal law through which they can walk. He is characterized as the Father of Tragedy. In relation to his other two great contemporaries, Aeschylus is attributed with height, Sophocles with beauty and Euripides with passion.

Aristophanes, in The Frogs, describes his temper as proud and severe, his feelings as pure and noble, his genius inventive, his style high, bold, and violent, full of aesthetic elements, while retaining a part of the ancient simplicity and rusticity rudeness.

Aeschylus was of the generation of the Median Wars, nurtured with the virtue of love for his country and freedom, and fought with great courage in the battles of Marathon, Salamis and possibly Plataea.
In fact, in the first of them, he was injured. It is worth noting that he considered his participation in the Battle of Marathon, the Battle of Artemisium and the Battle of Salamis as the greatest achievement of his life.

Perhaps in this day and age it seems strange, that a man who is considered one of the spiritual peaks of humanity, considered it a greater honor to have been a warrior than a peaceful citizen. This is indicative of the different perception of life and the value given to events by people over the centuries. This value that Aeschylus gave to his military action in the service of the country, we can appreciate in the text of the epitaph, which he himself composed and said:

He traveled twice to Sicily. On the first voyage, in 471 BC, he was invited by the artistic tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero, to teach his tragedies. There he will write Etna, in honor of the homonymous city that Hierona rebuilt on the ruins of the ancient city that was destroyed by the volcano.

We do not know exactly how many plays Aeschylus wrote. Titles from seventy-seven of his works have survived in library catalogs, but in total seventy tragedies and twenty satirical dramas are attributed to him, while the lexicographer Suidas attributes ninety-two works to him, that is, twenty-three tetralogies. Eleven of them are related to the Dionysian Mysteries, such as Semele, The Paramanes of Dionysus.

Given that only seven of his large number of works have survived, it is almost impossible for us to form a real idea of the tragic genius of this spiritual giant that was Aeschylus.

The seven tragedies that have been preserved are: Iketides, 490 BC, Prometheus Bound, 476-466 BC, Perseus, 472 BC, Seven of Thebes, 467 BC, Agamemnon, Hoiphoroi & Eumenides . The last three make up the Oresteia trilogy, composed around 458 BC. In the Oresteia, which is considered one of the greatest intellectual achievements, the course of humanity is examined, from the primitive law of self-righteousness to the positive law, which is based on reason and mutual respect.
“Persians” is an exception to the usually “tied” tragedies. Aeschylus made trilogies “bound” because of his religious beliefs and so that he could better express some traditional forms.

Aeschylus stands at a true turning point between the ancient mystical performances of the Mysteries and those turned into theatrical works, more accessible to the general public. No one before him had turned myths into suitable vehicles for the transmission of ideas. According to Aristotle, Aeschylus created the form of tragedy.

He increased the number of actors from one to two and introduced dialogue that allows the interpretation and study of faces. He also reduced the number of dance members from fifty to twelve. He gave the dance a role connected to the divine, while on the contrary the faces are humanized. The dance turns into a reflection of thoughts that the actors do not express and on the other hand it conveys the wisdom and prudence of what the actors do not want to say or say confusedly. The Dance of the Oceanids is considered the most perfect creation of classical theater and Greek poetry.

Aeschylus gave greatness to the tragedy, which before him it had not, in all its parts: in the subject, in the dance, in the persons, in the ideas, in the style, in the scenography. Victor Hugo, when referring to what characterizes Aeschylus, writes: Immensity!

In his works we find epic, lyrical and dramatic elements. The epic element is represented by the narratives and descriptions, such as the account of the battle of Salamis to the Persians. The lyrical element is covered by the great choral hymns and the leading actor’s monodies and duets. The faces are expressed in tones full of exuberance and grandeur which he introduced into the tragedy.

The dramatic element is most emphasized in his last tragedies. It is represented by dialogue, stage technique, and other means, as in the case of Prometheus in the prologue. Aeschylus also made bold experiments in the field of stage technique, achieving great and fantastic effects. He used the knowledge of mechanics by lifting heavy weights, causing earthquakes, collapses and lightning, with cranes, hydraulic systems, pulleys, etc.

Aeschylus incorporated tragedy into a fantasy and painful events that reveal the existence of other things or values accessible to man, beyond the obvious values of physical life or death, happiness or pain. And it shows that after man achieves them, his spirit can conquer death.

The matter he uses as the basis of tragedy is a divine issue, superhuman, mirrored on the earthly plane. His themes are based on the Heroic Age, but he adapts them to his own tragic perception and that of his contemporaries. Thus, the subjects may not always be majestic in themselves, but he gives them with his art the grandeur they have lost. Victor Hugo characterized Aeschylus incapable of moderation and almost wild, with a special grace that resembles the flowers of inaccessible places.

In his works, the mystical tradition and his belief that everything in nature has a soul and that God and his emanations, which are the gods, rule everything. That the Forces of Nature and what we now call natural laws, are spirits at the service of the Divine Plan of evolution and Destiny that guides us all. He tries to make sense of free will and human initiative and to reconcile them with God’s plan. He does not hesitate to raise the great problems arising from the existence of divine providence and the arrogance of human existence.

The idea of fate has a dominant position in his works. He tries to express it in a visible and tangible form to the point where it loses its abstract character. Patten observes that, for this reason, the majestic images, the bold scenes, the transcendental thoughts are created, because the terrible presence of Fate causes terror and surprise. Hence the infinite majesty of the figures who appear fighting such an “enemy” and their wondrous immobility before the leveling hand of Fate which they themselves cause.

The belief that man is master of everything is an insult and human encroachments and excesses are punished ostensibly by God and actually by man’s own faults. Thus the wise Aeschylus formulates questions clearly to the audience, such as: “why are there good people so unhappy and bad people so happy?”, and prefers to give moral lessons, showing that unhappiness is not always a punishment but can be a form of purification .

Fate gives each man his own share of happiness or unhappiness, which is both hope and threat. When one exaggerates his own share then you lead to infamy and upon him falls the Law of Justice and balance which determines the purifying punishment, which has a positive and moral purpose, that man may learn through suffering.

He himself respected the gods but believed in forces even higher than them, Necessity and Fate. In Prometheus Bound he contrasts the invincible power of Zeus with the irresistible will of Prometheus. Its theme refers to an esoteric tradition that symbolically describes the sacrifice of Prometheus and how mankind received the gift of fire from Prometheus to develop the arts and Sciences. Fire is an element of nature and symbolizes the mental spark or intelligence that man received at a given historical moment, which gave the spiritual impetus to humanity in its evolutionary path until today.

For Aeschylus, tragedy was purely pedagogical in the highest sense of the term and offered moral lessons, which establishes him as a visionary of humanity. He spent most of his life in Athens but for unspecified reasons towards the end of his life he seems to have left it. According to Clement of Alexandria, Aeschylus was accused of impiety before the Supreme Court, because he revealed in his work Eumenides, the Mysteries of the Eleusinians.

However, in this trial he was acquitted. Aristophanes cites a political disagreement with the Athenian public as the reason for his departure. Some claim that he was stoned or exiled, which is not proved by the facts, because if he had been sentenced to exile for impiety, then in his absence his plays would not have continued to be performed and awarded in Athens. A well-founded version states that he broke his vow of silence on secret matters in the play Prometheus Bound, in which he revealed in some verses initiatory knowledge, and was thus forced to flee.

Aeschylus died at the age of seventy at Gela on his second trip to Sicily. A version from the Roman era tells that an eagle that had captured a heavy turtle, or according to others a shell, let it fall on his bald head, mistaking it for a stone. Although it is the custom of eagles to drop their victims from a height upon rocks before devouring them, yet the unusual cause of his death, and the fact that the eagle was dedicated as a bird to Zeus, and the tortoise to Apollo, raises suspicions of symbolism in the story. It is possible that a legend was woven around the alleged infidelity of the poet, regarding the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

When his death became known the Athenians paid him great honors, and his numerous prized tragedies were again put on the stage. As far as is known, no other poet was given such honors, nor were his works performed after his death. It is said that for centuries afterwards artists and poets went on pilgrimage to his tomb in Sicily.

Aeschylus and Democracy

The Eumenides is a work that, more than any other extant drama of Aeschylus (with the exception of the Persians), systematically converses with contemporary historical events.

Just a few years before the performance of the play, the radical politician Ephialtis had the political audacity to strip the Supreme Court, a traditional bastion of aristocratic interests, of the broad legal and political powers it had until then, allowing it only the power to hears certain murder cases.

At the same time, the faction of the democrats, of which Ephialtes was a prominent member, decided to abolish the alliance between Athens and Sparta, which had been concluded by the aristocratic faction, and to form a new alliance with Argos, which was then hostile to relations with Sparta.

The echo of these two historical events is clearly visible in the Eumenides. The work invests with the antiquity and validity of the myth the recent reform of the Supreme Court by Efialtis.

Athena stipulates that the competence of the Areopagite court, which she establishes, will be to adjudicate blood trials: that is, it will have the only substantive competence left to the Areopagites by Ephialtes.

Besides, the also recent alliance of Athens with Argos acquires a mythological foundation and legitimacy, as Orestes repeatedly promises, from the past of the myth, to the Athenians of 458 BC. that the Argives will be their eternal allies.

The age of the Oresteia is a time of rapid and profound transformations, but also of violent upheavals. Ephialtes’ democratic reforms led to his assassination, possibly orchestrated by reactionary aristocrats; and certainly the alliance with Argos was extremely unwelcome in the aristocratic fold.

In this fragile political atmosphere, there was widespread fear of civil strife in Athens — and it is exactly this possibility that both Athena (858-66) and the now propitiated Erinyes (976-87) exorcise in the Eumenides.

If indeed Aeschylus invented the episode of the trial of Orestes in the Areopagus, his conception must be considered a triumph of dramatic economy, as it simultaneously achieves multiple purposes.

First of all, it presents Athens as the place where the seemingly endless sequence of murders that plagued the royal house of Argos for generations is brought to an end, by legal means.

Then, he retroactively legitimizes, investing them with the authority of myth, two recent choices of the democratic faction with a strongly anti-aristocratic character: the reform of the Supreme Court and the alliance between Athens and Argos.

The old Aeschylus, who three decades earlier had played out his crowning life at Marathon, did not hesitate, just two years before his death, to defend, not without risks, a radical version of the democratic polity, which many at the time they considered him extreme and undesirable.

His works

Of his ninety works, only seven have survived, belonging to the time of his maturity, and many fragments. His early work has not survived. The dating of the tragedies, in general, is not certain.

The Persians (472 BC),

It is the only historical drama that has survived and its subject is inspired by the naval battle of Salamis; the poet, an eyewitness rather than a witness to the events, gives, in an extensive narrative, their description. The tragedy takes place in Susa, the capital of the Persian state.

Chorus, one of the Persian elders, and Queen Atossa, mother of Xerxes and wife of Darius, anxiously await the news of the campaign. A messenger brings the news of the terrible destruction in all its dimensions. Panicked, Xoros invokes the spirit of the dead king.

The ghost of Darius appears, from the realm of the dead, as an interpreter of calamity and a prophet of the coming final defeat of the Persians. The sad appearance of Xerxes, the culprit of the destruction due to his immeasurable pride, in mourning and mourning, seals the work in a climax of suffering.

Aeschylus deals with a recent historical event, giving it the grandeur of myth. Like the precursor of Phrynichus (476 BC, Phoenice), it shows not the Greek victory but the Persian devastation, with human understanding. The crash results from a divine decision and constitutes a punishment (tisin) of infamy (arrogance of power and its abuse). Divine justice is strong in the work and its meaning is gradually emphasized throughout its scope, revealing the important role it plays.

Seven against Thebes (467 BC)

The play is about the campaign of the Argive leaders against Thebes1 and the mutual killing of the two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, in a deadly confrontation, according to Oedipus’ curse. The tragedy takes place in the seven-walled city of Thebes, and Chorus consists of Theban virgins, who, frightened by the noise of the battle, ask for the help of the gods. The characters of the drama are Eteocles, a spy messenger, Antigone, Ismene and a preacher. The poet elaborates with particular persistence the character of Eteocles, while Polyneices does not appear on the scene.

The main idea of the tragedy is the ancestral sin, which burdens the Labdakid family, and the paternal curse that crushes the children; their predetermined fate demonstrates the omnipotence of destiny.

Eumenides 458 BC

 Eumenides, is the third and final play of Aeschylus’s “Oresteia” trilogy, is a profound exploration of justice, retribution, and the evolution of societal order. First performed in 458 BC, this play concludes the saga of Orestes, who is pursued by the Furies (Erinyes) for the matricide of his mother, Clytemnestra. “Eumenides” is notable for its innovative treatment of justice and the establishment of legal institutions, reflecting the societal transition from archaic forms of retribution to a more structured legal system. This essay examines the thematic richness, structural elements, character dynamics, and broader significance of “Eumenides” within the context of Greek tragedy and Aeschylus’s vision of justice.

The Suppliants (463 BC)

The fifty daughters of Danaus, brother of Egypt, usurper of the throne, arrive in a panic with their old father in Argos, to avoid marriage with the same number of their cousins who pursue them. In Argos, with which they are related due to their descent from Argea Io2, they ask for the protection of Pelasgus, king of the city, which is finally achieved by resorting to the popular vote for the salvation of the beggars. In tragedy, the choral element prevails over the dialogic.

The role of Chorus, composed by the Danaids3, is absolutely dominant throughout the work. The conflict between the king and the Danaids begins with a skeptical detection, passes into a tragic dilemma (war with the Egyptians or an insult to Icesius Zeus), to end in a complete agreement and the granting of immunity. The sanctity of asylum and the protection of begging are thus shown with special emphasis.

Prometheus Bound (463-456 BC)

It is the second part of the Prometheus trilogy (the two other dramas Prometheus Pyrphorus and Prometheus Lyomenos have not survived). The tragedy deals with the well-known myth of the insubordinate Titan Prometheus, who endures with silent disdain his hideous martyrdom, imprisoned in the Caucasus, for his great benefit to humanity (stealing fire from the gods and offering it to humans).

The poet dramatically transforms the mythological background (Hesiod) and creates a work of tragic grandeur, where all the figures are goddesses (Hephaestus, Oceanus, Oceanides, Prometheus, Hermes), except for Io, who represents humanity in the work. The action is located mainly in the Prologue, with the description of the impaling of Prometheus, and in the Exodus, where the Titan is crushed by Zeus, together with the Oceanids, in a fierce storm. The trilogy probably ended with reconciliation. Prometheus Bound is one of the most shocking works of world poetry, indicative of the poetic genius of Aeschylus.

Prometheus is a hymn to the powers of man, an attack against all arbitrary divine and secular authority. As a universal symbol, it expresses man with all his struggles, passions and pains, in his highest pursuits. It profoundly influenced all eras and became a a place of inspiration for poets and philosophers, such as Byron (“Prometheus” 1816), Shelley (“Prometheus Lyomenos” 1818), Nikos Kazantzakis (“Prometheus”, trilogy, 1944), Bob Lowell (“Prometheus Bound” 1967) , the Victorious Brettakos (“Prometheus and the game of a day” 1978) etc.

Oresteia (458 BC)

The “Oresteia,” is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus, is a monumental work that examines themes of justice, vengeance, and the evolution of societal order.The trilogy narrates the cycle of bloodshed within the House of Atreus and the eventual establishment of legal justice in place of personal vendetta.

The trilogy’s central theme is the progression from primal vengeance to civilized justice. Each play serves as a crucial step in this evolution, with characters embodying the various facets of justice. Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra represents the chaotic and personal nature of ancient retribution. Orestes’ matricide, driven by divine command, illustrates the conflict between personal duty and moral law. The establishment of the Athenian court in The Eumenides signifies the advent of rational legal order.

Another significant theme is the role of the divine in human affairs. The gods, particularly Apollo and Athena, play crucial roles in guiding the characters and shaping the narrative. However, Aeschylus also critiques the often arbitrary and morally ambiguous nature of divine justice, ultimately advocating for human reason and institutional justice.


The return to Argos, from the Trojan campaign, of the victorious Agamemnon with the captive Kassandra, daughter of Priam, is described. His wife Klytaimestra welcomes him triumphantly, with exaggerated and hypocritical manifestations. Cassandra, in a prophetic outburst, foretells the coming murders (slaughter of a soldier and a prophetess) by Aegisthus, cousin of Atreides Agamemnon, and Clytaimestra, who became his mistress, and who, after committing the two murders, try to justify themselves in Xoros for their crimes.

The Libation Bearers

A chorus of Trojan handmaidens together with Helectra, sister of Orestes, offer songs at the tomb of Agamemnon. Orestes, accompanied by his friend and cousin Pylades, returns from Phocis, where he had been sent to King Strofios, and is recognized by his sister. He then avenges his father’s massacre by killing Aegisthus and his mother Klytaimestra. The Erinyes, as punishing deities, pursue him and he is forced to take refuge in Delphi, seeking the advice of Apollo, who had suggested the murder.