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The New International Encyclopædia/Æschylus

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ÆS′CHYLUS (Gk. Αἴσχυλος, Aischylos) (525–?456-5 B.C.). The first of the three great Athenian tragic poets. He was born in Eleusis, and was of noble descent, being the son of Euphorion. He fought against the Persians at Marathon (490), Salamis (480), and Platæa (479); his epitaph celebrated his bravery on the field. He early turned to tragic composition, and, according to tradition, appeared first in 497 as a rival of the older tragedians, Pratinas and Chœrilus. His first victory, however, was not won until 485. We hear also that he wrote in unsuccessful competition with Simonides an elegy over those who fell at Marathon. He undertook, apparently, three journeys to Syracuse; one about 476–475, when he composed a play, The Ætneans, for King Hiero, in honor of the new city, Ætna, founded on the site of ancient Catana. He was back in Athens apparently in 472, but seems to have been again in Sicily between 471 and 469, when he had his play, The Persians, repeated there at Hiero's request. Soon after 458 he left his native city for Sicily for the last time, and died at Gela in 456–5. The story that he was killed by the fall of a tortoise from the talons of an eagle, which had mistaken the poet's bald head for a rock on which it could crack the shell of its prey, is probably only a popular tale applied to Æschylus, although it may owe its origin to a misinterpretation of a scene on his monument. The citizens of Gela erected a splendid tomb to him; by a decree of the Athenians a chorus was granted for his plays alone after his death, and in the fourth century, at the proposal of the orator Lycurgus, a bronze statue of him, as of Sophocles and Euripides, was erected in the theatre.

The productiveness of Æschylus lasted for more than forty years, during which he is said to have written ninety plays, of which twenty were satyr dramas. These tragedies were produced in groups of three, "trilogies," bound by a connecting thread of motive or interest, and each trilogy was followed by a satiric drama, of which genre Euripides' Cyclops is the only extant representative. We know seventy-nine titles in all, among them thirteen satiric plays. Only seven tragedies are extant, The Suppliants, The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound, and the trilogy, Agamemnon, Choëphori and Eumenides. Æschylus won thirteen victories during his lifetime; that is, he was successful with over half the trilogies he presented.

The Suppliants is, in form, the earliest of the extant tragedies; the date of its presentation is unknown. The chorus is still the principal feature, the choral parts standing to the dialogue in the approximate relation of 1 : 2. The name is taken from the chorus, which is composed of the fifty daughters of Danaüs, who have fled from Egypt to Argos in their attempt to escape their suitors, the sons of their uncle Ægyptus, and there beg for protection from the Argive king. The odes set forth the violence of the sons of Ægyptus, the unholy character of the union which they wish, and the maidens' fears. The actors only interrupt these odes and carry the action forward but slightly in our modern sense. Yet the play has dignity, adequately expresses noble sentiments, and contains choral songs of great beauty. It was apparently the first play of the trilogy; the other tragedies were The Egyptians, which had for its theme the marriage of the sons of Ægyptus, and The Danaids, in which the murder of the bridegrooms was accomplished, and Hypermnestra was brought to judgment for disobeying her father in sparing her husband.

The Persians was presented in 472, and is also very simple in its structure. It has great interest for us, since it is the earliest extant attempt of the Greeks so to treat contemporary history. The subject is the battle of Salamis, in which Æschylus took part. The scene is laid, however, at the Persian court, where the dowager queen, Atossa, is awaiting the return of Xerxes. The chorus consists of Persian elders, who give their name to the play. The story of the Persians' defeat is dramatically told by a messenger; then, at the advice of the chorus, Atossa summons the shade of Darius, in the hope that his wisdom can save the State; but he can only prophesy the defeat at Platæa. The appearance of the defeated Xerxes, and an ode of sorrow for him and his subjects, close the play. This was the second of the trilogy; the first was Phineus, the third Glaucus, but the plots of both are unknown to us. The trilogy won the first prize.

The Seven Against Thebes handled a favorite subject drawn from the cycle of Theban myths. It was the third of the trilogy, the first two being Laïus and Œdipus; the satiric play was 'The Sphinx. This trilogy was presented in 467, and also won the first prize. The extant play represents the conflict between Eteocles and Polynices for the throne. Œdipus, ill-treated by his sons after he had blinded himself, prayed that they might divide the kingdom with the sword. To defeat the purpose of that prayer, the brothers agreed to reign alternate years; but Eteocles, the elder, once upon the throne, refused to surrender control at the expiration of the first year. Polynices, having raised a large army at Argos, where he had married the daughter of king Adrastus, came to besiege Thebes, he and six other chieftains arraying themselves each before one of the seven gates. A messenger relates to Eteocles the preparations of the seven and their oath to die rather than leave Thebes, and then describes the appearance of each chief; when Polynices is reached, Eteocles can no longer control himself, and rushes forth to slay his brother and be slain himself.

The Prometheus Bound, produced about 470 B.C., was the first of a trilogy, of which the Prometheus Loosed, and probably Prometheus the Fire-Carrier, were the other plays. In punishment for his rebellion in stealing fire from heaven for mortals' use, Prometheus is chained to a crag on the confines of the world, where a vulture sent by Zeus is to feed continually on his liver. He declines the proffered assistance of Oceanus, boasts of his services to men, condoles with Io, who comes to him in her mad wanderings, and prophesies her future, and, finally, when visited by Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, bids defiance to him, and amid whirlwind and earthquake disappears from view. In the following play Hercules shot the vulture and released Prometheus, and in the third probably the story of Prometheus was brought into relation with a local Attic cult of the hero.

The remaining three plays, Agamemnon, Choëphori and Eumenides formed the Oresteia trilogy. In the first play Agamemnon returns from Troy to his home, where his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra, is living with her paramour, Ægisthus, by whom Agamemnon is treacherously murdered. This tragedy is not only the greatest of Æschylus' extant works, but rivals even Sophocles' King Œdipus for the first place among all Greek tragedies in the minds of critics. The Choëphori (The Libation Pourers) is named from the chorus of women who offer libations at Agamemnon's tomb. In this play Agamemnon's son Orestes returns to Argos to avenge his father's murder, and under a disguise obtains entrance to the palace, where he slays his mother and Ægisthus. This impious act of matricide was punished by the Furies. In the Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by these avenging powers until he is cleansed from his blood guilt and set free through the aid of Athene by the ancient court of the Areopagus. This trilogy represents the maturest work of Æschylus, and we may well doubt whether a greater was ever written.

The best critical edition of the text is by Wecklein (1885); edition with English notes by Paley (fourth edition, 1879), and many annotated editions of single plays; among these may be named Verrall's Septem (1887); Agamemnon (1889); Choëphori (1893). For complete translations consult: Potter, Blackie, and Plumptre; for separate plays, Browning, Agamemnon (London, 1887); Fitzgerald, Agamemnon (London, 1876); E. B. Browning, Prometheus, fourth edition (London, 1856); and Warr, Oresteia (1900).