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Fine Literature
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(c 525-456 B.C.)

Bust of Aeschylus

Although no contemporary writers or biographers provide much reliable information about the life of Aeschylus as it actually unfolded, it has been possible to reconstruct, from later ancient chroniclers and historians, a tentative outline. Aeschylus was born around 525 B.C.E at Eleusis, a town west of Athens and famous home of the cult of Demeter, a mystery cult which, through various rituals, prepared Greek souls for their transition into the afterlife.

His father was named Europhion and there is documentation of a brother who was later killed at the Battle or Marathon. The playwright matured under as the Athenian democracy regained power after a period of tyranny and sought to hold it against both internal and external threats. Significantly, his adolescent years saw the Athenians overthrow the tyrant Pisistratid family and establish the first democracy. The tension between democratic ideals and tyranny would eventually find its way into his plays, including Agagmemnon. Moreover, the ancient writer Pausanias wrote that Aeschylus' tombstone made no mention of drama's such as the Oresteia, but proclaimed his participation as a soldier in those famous Athenian military victories against the Persians at Salamis and Marathon which contributed to much to the growth of Athenian confidence and power. Athens returned the favor, since it regarded Aeschylus as one of the main representatives of its Golden Age, before the Peloponnesian War and the teaching of the Sophists had weakened traditional Athenian society.

Aeschylus is known to have fought with his brother for Greece against Persian invaders at Marathon in 490. It was the first successful major repulsion of the Persians by Greeks; Aeschylus was around thirty-five years old at the time. He went to war again at Salamis and Artemisium in 480 and possibly the next year at Plataea. By this time, however, his career as a dramatist was already well underway.

Aeschylus is thought to have written his first plays around the year 500, for the legendary dramatic competition, the Great Dionysa, at the Festival of Dionysus in Athens, where they were performed. The competition, held in the annually in the spring, drew the most talented playwrights from around Greece for several decades. Plays were composed in trilogies, three lofty tragedies in unsequential arrangement or on a common theme, and one satyr play, or burlesque comedy. They were then judged according to high aesthetic criteria as well as the approval of the general audience. Aeschylus won his first victory in 484 and went on to win twelve more after that. In total, Aeschylus wrote approximately ninety plays, the titles of about eighty of which are known. However, only seven tragedies of the prodigious playwright's works survive.

His earliest existing play is The Persians, presented in 472. A historical tragedy about the Battle of Salamís, set in Persia at the court of the mother of King Xerxes I, the play drew an invitation from Hieron I, tyrant of Syracuse, to performance before his court. It is highly probably Aeschylus drew on his own experiences at Salamis with the Persians, who had again invaded Greece around 480, in creating the famous play. Although Aeschylus was the undisputed champion of the competition at Athens for most of his illustrious career, he suffered a memorable defeat in 486 to a young Sophocles. There were not to be two in a row, for the next year Aeschylus produced his Oedipus trilogy of which Seven Against Thebes is the only survivor. The Oresteia, Aeschylus' masterpiece and his only intact trilogy, was writen in 458. Shortly after presenting it, the playwright traveled to Sicily for a second time. It was there also, in Gela, that Aeschylus died in 455-6 B.C.E. His son Europhion was a prominent dramatist in his own right, stealing victory from Sophocles and Euripides in a subsequent round of the competition his father had once dominated for so many years.

Aeschylus's innovations in the ancient dramatic form were fundamental. Chiefly, he was responsible for the introduction of a second actor. Whereas, previous to Aeschylus, plays had been more like recitations between a single actor and a chorus, the use of a second actor increased immensely the possiblities for flexible dramatic action and dialogue. He also expanded the presentation of drama by means of more elaborate costuming, stage machinery, and scenery. Majesty, profundity, and loft of language and theme are characteristic of the grand style of the so-called "Father of Tragedy."

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