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A History of Ancient Greek Literature/Chapter 10

< A History of Ancient Greek Literature



Æschylus, son of Euphorion, from Eleusis
(525–456 B.C.)

Æschylus was by birth an Eupatrid, of the old nobility. He came from Eleusis, the seat not only of the Demeter Mysteries, but also of a special worship of Dionysus-Zagreus, and close to Thespis's own deme Icaria. We hear that he began writing young; but he was called away from his plays, in 490, to fight at Marathon, where his brother Kynêgeirus met a heroic death, and he won his first victory in the middle of the nine years of peace which followed (484). Four years later he joined in the general exodus to the ships and Salamis, leaving the stones of Athens for the barbarians to do their will upon. These were years in which tragedies and big thoughts might shape themselves in men's minds. They were not years for much actual writing and play-acting. In 476 Æschylus seems to have been at the wars in Thrace; we have echoes of them in the Lycurgus* Trilogy and in the Persæ (esp. 866). Soon after that again he was in Syracuse, perhaps on a diplomatic mission, and wrote his Women of Etna,* in honour of the town of that name which Hiero had just founded (476–475) on the slopes of the mountain.

From 484 onwards he was probably the chief figure in Attic letters; though his old rivals Pratînas and Phrynichus, and their respective sons Aristias and Polyphradmon, among others, doubtless won prizes over his head from time to time, and, for all we know, deserved them. The earliest play we possess is the Suppliant-Women; the earliest of known date is the Persæ, which won the first prize in 472.

In 470 he was again in Syracuse, and again the reason is not stated, though we hear that he reproduced the Persæ there. In 468 he was beaten for the first time by the young Sophocles. The next year he was again victor with the Seven against Thebes. We do not know the year of his great Prometheus Trilogy, but it and the Lykurgeia* seem to have come after this. His last victory of all was the Oresteia (Agamemnon, Choëphoroi, and Eumenides) in 458. He was again in Sicily after this—the little men of the Decadence suggest that he was jealous of Sophocles's victory of ten years back!—and died suddenly at Gela in 456. His plays went in and out of fashion at Athens, and a certain party liked to use him chiefly as a stick for beating Euripides; but a special law was passed after his death for the reproduction of his tragedies, and he had settled into his definite place as a classic before the time of Plato. The celebrated bronze statue of him was made for the stone theatre built by Lycurgus about 330.

The epitaph he is said to have written for his tomb at Gela is characteristic: no word of his poetry; only two lines, after the necessary details of name and birthplace, telling how the "grove of Marathon can bear witness to his good soldierhood, and the long-haired Mede who felt it." It is very possible that the actual facing of death on that first great day remained with him as the supreme moment of his life, and that his poetry had failed to satisfy him. It often leaves that impression, even at its most splendid heights.

Of the ninety plays Æschylus wrote, we possess seven. The earliest, on internal grounds, is the Suppliant-Women—a most quaint and beautiful work, like one of those archaic statues which stand with limbs stiff and countenance smiling and stony. The subject, too, is of the primitive type, more suited for a cantata than for a play. The suppliants are the fifty daughters of Danaus, who have fled to Argos to avoid marrying their cousins, the fifty sons of Ægyptus. Their horror is evidence of a time when the marriage of first cousins was counted incestuous. They appeal for protection to Pelasgus, king of Argos, who refers the question to the Demos. The Demos accepts the suppliants, and the proud Egyptian herald is defied. The other plays of the trilogy had more action. In the Makers of the Bride-Bed* the sons of Ægyptus follow the Danaids, conquer Danaus in battle, and insist on the marriage. Danaus, preferring murder to incest, commands his daughters to stab their husbands on their bridal night; all do so except Hypermêstra, who is put on trial in the Danaides* for marriage with a cousin and for filial disobedience, and is acquitted by the help of Aphrodite. Our play seems to have been acted on the old round dancing-floor, with a platform in the middle, and images round it. There is no palace front; and the permanent number of fifty in the chorus throughout the trilogy suggests the idea that the old round choir may have been still undivided.

The Persæ (472) was the second piece of a trilogy. The first had the name of Phîneus,* the blind prophet of the Argonaut legend, who probably prophesied something about the greater conflict between Europe and Asia, of which that expedition was a type. The third was Glaucus;* but there were two pieces of that name, and the plot is not certain. The Persæ itself is modelled on the Phœnissæ* of Phrynichus: the opening words of the two are almost identical, and the scene in both is in the council-chamber of Susa, though in the Persæ it afterwards changes to the tomb of Darius. The Persæ has not much plot-interest in the ordinary sense; but the heavy brooding of the first scenes, the awful flashes of truth, the evocation of the old blameless King Darius, who had made no Persians weep, and his stern prophecy of the whole disaster to come, all have the germ of high dramatic power: one feels the impression made by "the many arms and many ships, and the sweep of the chariots of Syria," both in the choir-songs and in the leaping splendour of the descriptions of battle. The external position of the Persæ as the first account of a great piece of history by a great poet who had himself helped to make the history, renders it perhaps unique in literature; and its beauty is worthy of its eminence.

The Seven against Thebes came third in the trilogy after the Laïus* and the Œdipus.* One old version of the saga allowed Œdipus to put away locasta after the discovery of their relationship, and marry Euryganeia; there was no self-blinding, and the children were Euryganeia's. But Æschylus takes the story in the more gruesome form that we all know. The Seven gives the siege of Thebes by the exiled Polyneîkes, the battle, and mutual slaying of the two brothers. It was greatly admired in antiquity—"a play full of Ares, that made every one who saw it wish forthwith to be a 'fiery foe,'" as Aristophanes puts it (Rancæ, 1002). The war atmosphere is convincing, the characters plain and strong. Yet, in spite of a certain brilliance and force, the Seven is perhaps among Æschylean plays the one that bears least the stamp of commanding genius. It is like the good work of a lesser man.

Very different is the Prometheus, a work of the same period of transition as the Seven, and implying the use of three actors in the prologue, as the Seven probably does in the 'exodus.' The trilogy seems to have consisted of Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Freed,* and Prometheus the Fire-Carrier.* The subject is Titanic; it needs a big mind to cope with it. But it has produced in the hands of Æschylus and of Shelley two of the greatest of mankind's dramatic poems. Prometheus is the champion of man against the Tyrant Power that sways the world. He has saved man from the destruction Zeus meant for him, taught him the arts of civilisation, and, type of all else, given him fire, which was formerly a divine thing stored in heaven. For this rebellious love of mankind he is nailed to a storm-riven rock of the Caucasus; but he is not conquered, for, in the first place, he is immortal, and besides he knows a secret on which the future of heaven and earth depends. Zeus tries by threats and tortures to break him, but Prometheus will not forsake mankind. And the daughters of Ocean, who have gathered to comfort him, will not forsake Prometheus. They face the same blasting fire, and sink with him into the abyss. There is action at the beginning and end of the play; the middle part, representing, apparently, centuries rather than days, is taken up with long narratives of Prometheus to the Oceanides, with the fruitless intercession of Oceanus himself, and the strange entry of another victim of Zeus, the half-mad Moon-maiden Io, driven by the gadfly, and haunted by the ghost of the hundred-eyed Argos. The chorus of the Prometheus is perhaps in character and dramatic fitness the most beautiful and satisfying known to us on the Greek stage. The songs give an expression of Weltschmerz for which it would be hard to find a parallel before the present century. The whole earth is in travail as Prometheus suffers: "There is a cry in the waves of the sea as they fall together, and groaning in the deep; a wail comes up from the cavern realms of Death, and the springs of the holy rivers sob with the anguish of pity." In another place the note is more personal: "Nay, thine was a hopeless sacrifice, O beloved; speak—what help shall there be, and where? What succour from things of a day? Didst thou not see the little-doing, strengthless, dream-like, wherein the blind race of man is fettered? Never, never shall mortal counsels outpass the great Harmony of Zeus!" Zeus is irresistible: those who obey him have peace and happiness such as the Ocean-Daughters once had themselves. Yet they feel that it is better to rebel.

There is perhaps no piece of lost literature that has been more ardently longed for than the Prometheus Freed.* What reconciliation was possible? One can see that Zeus is ultimately justified in many things. For instance, the apparently aimless persecution of Io leads to great results, among them the birth of Heracles, who is another saviour of mankind and the actual deliverer of Prometheus. Again, it seems that Prometheus does not intend to overthrow the 'New Tyrant,' as Shelley's Prometheus does. He had deliberately helped him against the old blind forces, Kronos and the Titans; but he means, so to speak, to wring a constitution out of him, and so save mankind. But it needs another Æschylus to loose that knot in a way worthy of the first. We have some external facts about the second play. It opened when Prometheus came back to the light after thirty thousand years; the chorus was of Titans. The last play, the Fire-Carrier,* seems to have explained the institution of the Festival of Prometheus at Athens. Such 'origins' formed a common motive for drama.

The Oresteia represents the highest achievement of Æschylus, and probably of all Greek drama. It has all the splendour of language and the lyrical magic of the early plays, the old, almost superhuman grandeur of outline, while it is as sharp and deep in character-drawing, as keenly dramatic, as the finest work of Sophocles. The Cassandra scene in the Agamemnon, where the doomed prophetess, whom none may believe, sees the vision of her own death and the king's, awaiting her in the palace, is simply appalling on the stage, while in private study many a scholar will testify to its eternal freshness. The first play deals with the murder of Agamemnon on his triumphant return from Troy by a wife deeply sinned against and deeply sinning. The Choëphoroi ('Libation-Bearers') gives the retribution. Orestes, a child at the time of his father's death, has grown up in exile; he returns secretly to execute the blood-feud on Ægisthus, and, by special command of Apollo, to slay also his mother.

The Choëphoroi is in some ways the most complex of the dramas of Æschylus. There is a recognition scene (see p. 259), impossible in detail, but grand and moving; there is a definite plot by which the ministers of vengeance enter the palace; there is great boldness of drawing in all the characters down to the pathetic and ludicrous old nurse; there is the haunting shadow of madness looming over Orestes from the outset, and deepening through the hours that the matricide is before him and the awful voice of Apollo in his ears, and he struggles helplessly between two horrors, up to the moment when his mother's curses take visible form to him, and he flies from the grey snake-locked faces.

The Eumenides is dramatic in its opening, merely spectacular in its close. There is a certain grandeur in the trial scene where Orestes is accused by the Curse-Spirits, defended by Apollo, and acquitted by the voice of Athena, The gods, however, are brought too close to us, and the foundation of the Areopagus has not for us the religious reality it had for Æschylus. But the thing that most disappoints us, the gradual slackening of the interest till the 'pity and terror' melt away in gentle artistic pleasure, was, as every choric ode and most tragedies testify, one of the essential principles of Greek art. Shakespeare was with the Greeks. He ends his tragedies by quiet scenes among minor characters, and his sonnets with a calm generalising couplet. We end our plays with a point, and our sonnets with the weightiest line.

The general spirit of Æschylus has been much misunderstood, owing to the external circumstance that his life came at the beginning of an age of rapid progress. The pioneer of 490 is mistaken for a reactionary of 404. Æschylus is in thought generally a precursor of the sophistic movement, as Euripides is the outcome of it. He is an enthusiastic democrat of the early type. Listen to the pæans about freedom in the Persæ. That is the very spirit recorded by Herodotus as having made Athens rise from a commonplace Ionian state to be the model and the leader of Hellas. And the Persæ is not isolated. The king in the Suppliants is almost grotesquely constitutional; the Prometheus abounds in protests against despotism that breathe the true Athenian spirit; a large part of the Agamemnon is a merciless condemnation of the ideal of the conquering monarch. In the Eumenides, it is true, Æschylus definitely glorifies the Areopagus at a time when Ephialtes and Pericles were removing most of its jurisdiction. He was no opponent of Pericles, who was his 'chorêgus,' at least once;[1] but he was one of the men of 490. To that generation, as Aristotle's Constitution has taught us, the Areopagus was the incarnation of free Athens in battle against Persia; to the men of 460 it was an obsolete and anomalous body.

As to the religious orthodoxy of Æschylus, it appears certain that he was prosecuted for having divulged or otherwise offended against the mysteries, which suggests that he was obnoxious to the orthodox party. We may possibly accept the story, stated expressly by Clement, and implied by Aristotle (1111 a), that he escaped by proving that he had not been initiated, and consequently had nothing to divulge. For a distinguished Eleusinian not to have been initiated—if credible at all—would imply something like an anti-sacerdotal bias. Certainly he seems to have held no priesthoods himself, as Sophocles and Pindar did; and his historical position may well have been that of those patriots who could not forgive or forget the poltroonery of Delphi before the war (see p. 138). However this may be, he is in religious thought generally the precursor of Euripides. He stands indeed at a stage where it still seems possible to reconcile the main scheme of traditional theology with morality and reason. Euripides has reached a further point, where the disagreement is seen to be beyond healing. Not to speak of the Prometheus, which is certainly subversive, though in detail hard to interpret, the man who speaks of the cry of the robbed birds being heard by "some Apollo, some Pan or Zeus" (Ag. 55); who prays to "Zeus, whoe'er he be" (160); who avows "there is no power I can find, though I sink my plummet through all being, except only Zeus, if I would in very truth cast off this aimless burden of my heart"—is a long way from Pindaric polytheism. He tries more definitely to grope his way to Zeus as a Spirit of Reason, as opposed to the blind Titan forms of Hesiodic legend. "Lo, there was one great of yore, swollen with strength and lust of battle, yet it shall not even be said of him that once he was! And he who came thereafter met his conqueror, and is gone. Call thou on Zeus by names of Victory. . . . Zeus, who made for Man the road to Thought, who stablished 'Learn by Suffering' to be an abiding Law!" That is not written in the revelations of Delphi or Eleusis; it is true human thought grappling with mysteries. It involves a practical discarding of polytheism in the ordinary sense, and a conception—metaphorical, perhaps, but suggestive of real belief—of a series of ruling spirits in the government of the world—a long strife of diverse Natural Powers, culminating in a present universal order based on reason, like the political order which Æschylus had seen established by Athenian law. Compare it with the passage in Euripides (Tro. 884):—

"Base of the world and o'er the world enthroned,
Whoe'er thou art. Unknown and hard of surmise.
Cause-chain of Things or Man's own Reason, God,
I give thee worship, who by noiseless paths
Of justice leadest all that breathes and dies!"

That is the same spirit in a further stage: further, first because it is clearer, and because of the upsetting alternative in the third line; but most, because in the actual drama the one rag of orthodoxy which the passage contains is convicted as an illusion! The Justice for which thanks are given conspicuously fails: the 'noiseless paths' lead to a very wilderness of wrong—at least, as far as we mortals can see.

The only orthodox Greek writer preserved to us is Pindar. Sophocles held a priesthood and built a chapel, but the temper of his age was touched with rationalism, and the sympathetic man was apt unconsciously to reflect it.

About the positive ideas, religious and moral, implied in the plays of Æschylus, too much has been written already; it is difficult to avoid overstatement in criticism of the kind, and the critics have generally been historians of philosophy rather than lovers of Greek poetry. One may perhaps make out rather more strongly in Æschylus than in other writers three characteristic ways of looking at life. His tragedies come, as perhaps all great tragedies do, from some 'Hubris,' some self-assertion of a strong will, in the way of intellect or emotion or passion, against stronger outside forces, circumstances or laws or gods. Æschylus was essentially the man to feel the impassable bars against which human nature battles; and the overthrow of the Great King was the one thought that was in every Greek mind at the time. Thus the peril of human 'Hubris' and the 'jealousy of God'—i.e. the fact that man's will aims further than his power can reach—is one rather conspicuous principle in Æschylus.

Another is a conviction of the inevitableness of things; not fatalism, nor any approach to it, in the vulgar sense, but a reflection that is borne in on most people in considering any grave calamity, that it is the natural consequence of many things that have happened before. The crimes in Æschylus are hereditary in two senses. In the great saga-houses of Thebes and Mycenæ there was actually what we should call a taint of criminal madness—it is brought out most explicitly in Euripides's Electra. Orestes was the son of a murderess and a man who had dealt much in blood (πολυκτόνος). His ancestors had been proud and turbulent chieftains, whose passions led them easily into crime. But the crime is hereditary in itself also. The one wild blow brings and always has brought the blow back, "the ancient blinded vengeance and the wrong that amendeth wrong." This, most people will admit, is a plain fact; of course the poet puts it in a mystical or symbolical form. The old blood remains fresh on the ground, crying for other blood to blot it out. The deed of wrong begets children in its own likeness. The first sin produces an 'Arâ,' a Curse-Spirit, which broods over the scene of the wrong, or over the heart and perhaps the race of the sinner. How far this is metaphor, how far actual belief, is a problem that we cannot at present answer.

This chain of thought leads inevitably to the question, What is the end of the wrong eternally avenged and regenerated? There may of course be no end but the extinction of the race, as in the Theban Trilogy; but there may come a point where at last Law or Justice can come in and pronounce a final and satisfying word. Reconciliation is the end of the Oresteia, the Prometheia, the Danaid Trilogy. And here, too, we get a reflection of the age in which Æschylus lived, the assertion over lawless places of Athenian civilisation and justice.

In looking over the plays and fragments as a whole, one notices various marks both of the age and of the individual. It is characteristic of both that Æschylus wrote satyr-plays so much, and, it would seem, so well. These Titanic minds—ÆEschylus and Heraclîtus among Greeks, Victor Hugo and Ibsen and Carlyle among ourselves—are apt to be self-pleasing and weird in their humour. One of the really elemental jokes of Æschylus is in the Prometheus Firekindler,* a satyr-play, where fire is first brought into the world, and the wild satyrs go mad with love for its beauty, and burn their beards in kissing it! The thing is made more commonplace, though of course more comic, in the Sophoclean satyr-play Helen's Marriage,* where they go similarly mad about Helen. A definite mark of the age is the large number of dramas that take their names from the chorus, which was still the chief part of the play—Bassaræ,* Edôni,* Danaides,* &c. Another is the poet's fondness for geographical disquisitions. Herodotus had not yet written, and we know what a land of wonder the farther parts of the world still were in his time. To the Athens of Æschylus the geographical interest was partly of this imaginative sort; in part it came from the impulse given by the rise of Athens to voyages of discovery and trade adventure. Of our extant plays, the Prometheus is full of mere declamations on saga-geography; the Persæ comes next, then the Suppliants; and even the Agamemnon has the account of the beacon stations. Glaucus of the Sea,* Niobe,* and probably the Mysians,* were full of the same thing. The impulse did not last in Greek tragedy. Sophocles has his well-known burst of Herodotean quotation, and he likes geographical epithets as a form of ornament, but he keeps his interest in 'historiê' within due limits. Euripides, so keenly alive to all other branches of knowledge, is quite indifferent to this.

In the choice of subjects Æschylus has a certain preference for something superhuman or unearthly, which combines curiously with this geographical interest. The Prometheus begins with the words: "Lo, we are come to the farthest verge of the world, to where the Scythians wander, an unearthly desolation!." That is the region where Æschylus is at home, and his 'large utterance' natural and unhampered. Many of his lost plays move in that realm which Sophocles only speaks of, among

"The last peaks of the worlds beyond all seas,
Well-springs of night and gleams of opened heaven,
The old garden of the Sun."[2]

It is the scene of the Daughters of the Sun,* treating of the fall of Phaëthon; of the Soul-Weighing,* where Zeus balances the fates of Hector and Achilles; of the Ixîon;* of the Memnon;* and the numerous plays on Dionysiac subjects show the same spirit.

It is partly the infancy of the art and partly the intensity of Æschylus's genius that makes him often choose subjects that have apparently no plot at all, like our Suppliants and Persæ. He simply represents a situation, steeps himself in it, and lights it up with the splendour of his lyrics. Euripides tried that experiment too, in the Suppliants and Heracleidæ, for instance. Sophocles seems never to have risked it, except perhaps in the Demanding of Helen.* It is curious that Æschylus, unlike his successors, abstained entirely from the local legends. Perhaps it was that he felt the subjects to be poor, and that the realities of the Persian War had blotted out all less vivid things from the horizon of his patriotism.

It is interesting to compare the fragments of the three tragedians: fragments are generally 'gnomic,' and tend to show the bent of a writer's mind. Sophocles used gnomes but little. Reflection and generalisation did not interest him, though he has something to say about the power of wealth (frag. 85) and of words (frag. 192) and of wicked women (frag. 187). Euripides notoriously generalises about everything in heaven and earth. He is mostly terse and very simple—so simple that an unsympathetic reader misses the point.

"Love does not vex the man who begs his bread" (frag. 322).
"The things that must be are so strangely great" (frag. 733).
"Who knoweth if we quick be verily dead,
And our death life to them that once have passed it?" (frag. 638).

Sometimes, as in the opening speeches of Phædra and Medea, he treats subtly a point in psychology. He has much to say about wealth and slavery and power of speech. Æschylus simply never thinks about such things. He has some great lines on love (frag. 44), but his typical gnome is like that in the Niobe:*—

"Lo, one god craves no gift. Thou shalt not bend him
By much drink-offering and burnt sacrifice.
He hath no altar, hearkeneth to no song,
And fair Persuasion standeth far from Death."

It does "somehow spoil one's taste for twitterings." And so, above all, do his great dramatic speeches, so ruggedly grand that at first sight one is often blind to the keen psychology of passion in them—for instance, that in which Clytæmestra gives public welcome to her husband. She does not know whether he has been told of her unfaithfulness; she does know that she is utterly friendless, that the man whom she dreaded in her dreams is returned, and that the last hour for one or other of them has come. She tries, like one near to death, to leave some statement of her case. She is near breaking down more than once; but she gathers courage as she speaks, and ends in the recklessness of nervous exaltation:—

"Freemen of Argos, and ye gathered Elders,
I shall not hold it shame in the midst of you
To outspeak the love ye well know burns within me.
There comes a time when all fear fades and dies.
Who else can speak? Does any heart but mine
Know the long burden of the life I bore
While he was under Troy? A lonely woman
Set in a desolate house, no man's arm near
To lean on—Oh, 'tis a wrong to make one mad!
Voices of wrath ring ever in her ears:
Now, he is come! Now, 'tis a messenger:
And every tale worse tidings than the last,
And men's cries loud against the walls that hold her!
If all the wounds that channelled rumour bore
Have reached this King's flesh—why, 'tis all a net,
A toil of riddled meshes! Died he there
With all the deaths that crowded in men's mouths,
Then is he not some Gêryon, triple-lived,
Three-bodied, monstrous, to be slain and slain
Till every life be quelled? . . . Belike ye have told him
Of my death-thirst—the rope above the lintel.
And how they cut me down? True: 'twas those voices,
The wrath and hatred surging in mine ears.

Our child, sire, is not here: I would he were:
Orestes, he who holds the hostages
For thee and me. Yet nowise marvel at it.
Our war-friend Strophios keeps him, who spoke much
Of blows nigh poised to fall,—thy daily peril,
And many plots a traitorous folk might weave,
I once being weak, manlike, to spurn the fallen.

But I—the stormy rivers of my grief
Are quenched now at the spring, arid no drop left.
My late-couched eyes are seared with many a blight,
Weeping the beacon fires that burned for thee
For ever answerless. And did sleep come,
A gnat's thin song would shout me in my dreams,
And start me up seeing thee all girt with terrors
Close-crowded, and too long for one night's sleep!
And now 'tis all past! Now with heart at peace
I hail my King, my watch-dog of the fold,
My ship's one cable of hope, my pillar firm
Where all else reels, my father's one-born heir,
My land scarce seen at sea when hope was dead,
My happy sunrise after nights of storm,
My living well-spring in the wilderness!
Oh, it is joy, the waiting-time is past!
Thus, King, I greet thee home. No god need grudge—
Sure we have suffered in time past enough—
This one day's triumph. Light thee, sweet my husband,
From this high seat: yet set not on bare earth
Thy foot, great King, the foot that trampled Troy!
Ho, thralls, why tarry ye, whose task is set
To carpet the King's way? Bring priceless crimson:
Let all his path be red, and justice guide him,
Who saw his deeds, at last, unhoped for, home!"

  1. C. I. A. 971.
  2. Soph. frag. 870.