With the beginning of the fifth century B.C., the city of Athens entered the most glorious era of its history. The tyranny of Peisistratus had been overthrown in 510, and a few years later there were important political reforms resulting in a complete democracy, the first in Europe. The Persian invasion took place in 480 B.C., and, by what then seemed to be an act of God, the massed power of Asia was defeated by a coalition of the tiny Greek city-states under Athenian leadership. Athens organized the Delian League and began slowly to transform it into an empire. The city became wealthy and powerful, the cultural and intellectual center of all Greece. The century opened by these events was marked throughout by an energetic enterprise and a flowering of genius in all areas of human activity that has rarely been paralleled in the thousands of years since.
Aeschylus, who was born in 525 B.C., lived through these stirring events and shared the pride of all Athenians in the achievements of their city. In a sense, Aeschylus was a founding father of this new Athens, for he was one of the famed "Men of Marathon," the gallant band who threw back the first wave of the Persian hordes. His dramatic works, his ideas, his philosophical attitudes are all examples of the creativity inspired by the Athenian golden age.
Aeschylus was the son of a prominent aristocratic family in which the composition of tragic poetry was a traditional craft. He was raised in Eleusis, a small town just outside Athens that was the center of an important religious cult. In 490 B.C., he fought as an infantryman at Marathon, and ten years later, during the great invasion, took part in the naval battle at Salamis and other military actions.
Aeschylus was evidently young when he began to write tragedy. The earliest known performance of his work was at the dramatic festival of 499 B.C., but it was not until 485 that he won first prize in the annual competition. In all, Aeschylus wrote nearly 90 plays, of which seven still survive. He was victorious at the festival thirteen times (for 52 plays).
Aeschylus was responsible for several very important innovations that had a decisive influence on the development of drama. The most significant of these was his introduction of a second actor, for there had been only a single actor and the chorus available in the past. One critic has written, "The addition of another actor did not double the resources of tragedy, rather it increased them fifty-fold. To bring two opposed or sympathetic characters face to face, to exhibit the clash of principles by the clash of personalities, this is a step forward into a new world, a change so great that to call Aeschylus the very inventor of tragedy is not unreasonable." In addition, Aeschylus reduced the size of the chorus from fifty to twelve members and increased the use of dialogue in his plays. All these changes gave a greater flexibility to tragedy and vastly increased the dramatic possibilities of what was until then primarily a choral medium.
Aeschylus was also renowned for the magnificence of his poetic diction, which surpassed that of all his contemporaries, and for the elaborate staging and pageantry of his productions (a good example of this is the colorful spectacle of Agamemnon's homecoming in The Oresteia). His works indicate that he was an ardent patriot and a firm believer in the Athenian democracy. He was also a serious religious thinker. In his hands the old myths became powerful expressions of crucial moral and theological problems. Imbued with the confident spirit of fifth-century Athens, Aeschylus wrote tragedies that were paeans of faith in the benevolence of the universe and the perfectibility of humanity.
Few details of his life are still remembered, and most of them serve mainly to whet the curiosity. Aeschylus was married and had two sons, Euphorion and Bion, both of whom carried on the family tradition of writing tragedy. At the dramatic festival of 468, Aeschylus was defeated by Sophocles, who was then at the beginning of his career, but nothing else is known about this event. There is also a story that Aeschylus was very bitter when defeated by the poet Simonides in a competition to write an epitaph for the soldiers who fell at Marathon.
Aside from his military service, Aeschylus left Athens only twice, both times to visit Greek towns on the island of Sicily. On his first trip, around 476 B.C., he was the personal guest of the tyrant of Syracuse and lived at the royal palace. While there, he wrote a tragedy in honor of the foundation of a new city on the slopes of Mount Etna.
On his second trip, shortly after the performance of The Oresteia in 456, Aeschylus died. According to a story current in ancient times, he had been sitting on a hillside near the town of Gela when an eagle flew by with a tortoise in its beak, searching for something hard on which to break the shell. Mistaking Aeschylus' bald head for a rock, the eagle dropped the tortoise, crushing his skull and killing him instantly.
Aeschylus was buried in Sicily. An epitaph he had written for himself was inscribed on his grave. In it, the tragedian whose life had been filled with dramatic victories and the acclaim of his fellow citizens revealed the experience of which he was most proud:
Under this monument lies Aeschylus the Athenian,
Euphorion's son, who died in the wheatlands of Gela. The grove
of Marathon with its glories can speak of his valor in battle.
The long-haired Persian remembers and can speak of it too. (Trans. Richard Lattimore)
A few years later, a bronze statue of Aeschylus was erected in the Theater of Dionysus at Athens. In recognition of the special place he had in the development of tragedy, the people of Athens made a rule permitting the works of Aeschylus to be performed at the dramatic festivals in competition with those of living poets. As a result, the tragedies of Aeschylus were produced often and won many additional victories after his death. His works became a standard by which all later tragedies were judged and against which all later dramatists were forced to measure themselves.
In the next hundred years, the Greek world underwent radical transformations and in many important respects Athens ceased to resemble the city known and loved by Aeschylus. Tastes and ideas changed. Some began to regard the language of Aeschylean tragedy as archaic. Others thought the style of his tragedies heavy-handed and artificial. The great religious and patriotic themes that lay behind his plays sometimes seemed shallow or irrelevant. But despite these challenges, Aeschylus was always looked upon as an almost superhuman master from the dimly remembered, glorious past. He was the legendary giant of tragic poetry, often criticized or parodied, but never ignored and never forgotten. Even today, Aeschylus is still respected as the first and greatest of tragedians.