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The Oxford Classical Dictionary

Alan Herbert Sommerstein


(RE 13),

Athenian tragic dramatist

Life (?525/4–456/5 bc)

Aeschylus was probably born at Eleusis in 525/4 bc (Marmor Parium). He fought at the battle of Marathon (Marmor Parium; Vita 4, 11) and probably at Salamis (Ion (2) of Chios, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker 392 F 7). His first tragic production was in 499 (Suda αι 357 with π 2230), his first victory in 484 (Marmor Parium); thereafter he may have been almost invariably victorious, especially after the death of Phrynichus (1) c.473 (he gained thirteen victories altogether, Vita 13). Of his surviving plays, Persians was produced in 472 (his chorēgos being the young Pericles (1)) and Seven against Thebes in 467. Suppliants, part of a production which won first prize over Sophocles (1) (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 2256. 3), must be later than Seven (despite the predominant role of the chorus and other features once thought to prove it very early); its exact date is uncertain. The Oresteia (comprising Agamemnon, Choephori (‘Women Bearing Drink-offerings’) and Eumenides, with the lost satyr-play Proteus) was Aeschylus' last production in Athens, in 458. He had already visited Sicily once, possibly twice, at the invitation of Hieron (1) of Syracuse, composing Women of Aetna in honour of Hieron's newly founded city of Aetna (Vita 9) and producing Persians at Syracuse (ibid. 18; Eratosthenes in schol. Aristophanes Frogs 1028); after the production of the Oresteia he went there again, dying at Gela in 456/5. Prometheus Bound, if by Aeschylus (see below), may have been composed in Sicily and produced posthumously. His epitaph (Vita 11) makes no reference to his art, only to his prowess displayed at Marathon; this estimate of what was most important in Aeschylus' life—to have been a loyal and courageous citizen of a free Athens—can hardly be that of the Geloans and will reflect his own death-bed wishes (cf. Pausanias 1. 14. 5) or those of his family.

Two sons of Aeschylus themselves became dramatists, Euphorion (1) (who also restaged many of his father's plays) and Euaeon. A nephew, Philocles, was the founder of a dynasty of tragedians that lasted over a century.


(° denotes a known satyr-play). Aeschylus' total output is variously stated at between 70 and 90 plays. Seven plays have survived via medieval manuscripts, of which Prometheus Bound is of disputed authenticity (it was possibly composed by Euphorion and produced by him as Aeschylus' work). In addition there survive substantial papyrus fragments of °Netfishers (Diktyoulkoi) and °Spectators at the Isthmian Games (Theōroi or Isthmiastai).

Many of Aeschylus' productions were connected ‘tetralogies’, comprising three tragedies presenting successive episodes of a single story (a ‘trilogy’) followed by a satyr-play based on part of the same or a related myth. This seems to have been common practice in his day, though the production of 472 (Phineus, Persians, Glaucus of Potniae and °Prometheus the Fire-kindler) is an exception. Four tetralogies are securely attested:

(1) the Oresteia (see above); (2) Laius, Oedipus, Seven against Thebes, °Sphinx; (3) Suppliants, Egyptians, Danaids, °Amymone; (4) a Lycurgeia comprising Edonians, Bassarids, Young Men (Neaniskoi) and °Lycurgus. At least seven other tetralogies can be reconstructed with a fair degree of probability: (5) Myrmidons, Nereids, Phrygians (satyr-play unknown), based on Iliad 16–24; (6) Ghost-Raisers (Psychagōgoi), Penelope, Bone-Gatherers (Ostologoi), °Circe, based on the Odyssey but apparently with an innovative ending; (7) Memnon, The Weighing of Souls (Psychostasia), Phrygian Women (satyr-play unknown), based on the cyclic Aethiopis, ending with the funeral of Achilles; (8) The Award of the Arms (Hoplon Krisis), Thracian Women, Women of Salamis (satyr-play unknown), centring on the death of Ajax; (9) Semele, Wool-Carders (Xantriai), Pentheus, and perhaps °The Nurses of Dionysus, on the birth of Dionysus and his conflict with Pentheus (cf. Euripides' Bacchae); (10) Eleusinians, Women (?) of Argos, Epigoni, and perhaps °Nemea, on the recovery of the bodies of the Seven against Thebes and their sons' war of revenge; (11) Lemnian Women, Argo, Hypsipyle, °Cabiri, on the story of Hypsipyle and Jason (1). In some cases two tragedies seem to be connected but no third related one can be identified: (12) Prometheus Bound and Prometheus Unbound (if, as is likely, the title Prometheus the Fire-bearer (Pyrphoros) is no more than a variant form of °Prometheus the Fire-kindler (Pyrkaeus); (13) Phorcides and Polydectes (with °Netfishers), with Perseus (1) as hero; (14) Mysians and Telephus.

Aeschylean plays not mentioned above include Archer-Nymphs (Toxotides), on the death of Actaeon; Athamas; Atalanta; Callisto; Carians or Europa; °Cercyon; Chamber-makers (Thalamopoioi); Children of Heracles; Cretan Women (on the story of Polyidus); Daughters of the Sun (Heliades); The Escort (Propompoi); Glaucus the Sea-god; °Heralds (Kerykes); Iphigenia; Ixion; °The Lion; Niobe; °Oreithyia; Palamedes; Perrhaebian Women (whose central character was Ixion); Philoctetes (see Dio Chrysostomus Orationes 52); Priestesses (Hiereiai); °Sisyphus the Runaway and Sisyphus the Stone-roller (if these two are different plays).


Aeschylus was the most innovative and imaginative of Greek dramatists. His extant plays, though covering a period of only fifteen years, show a great and evolving variety in structure and presentation.

The three earlier plays (Persians, Seven, and Suppliants) are designed for a theatre without a skēnē but containing a mound or elevation (tomb of Darius, Theban acropolis, Argive sanctuary, the two latter with cult-images on them). There are two actors only; the main interactions are less between character and character than between character and chorus (often expressed in ‘epirrhematic’ form, i.e. dialogue between singing chorus and speaking actor), and in two cases the chorus open the play in marching anapaests. There is a wide variety of structural patterns, some of them (like Septem contra Thebas 375–676, with its seven pairs of speeches punctuated by short choral stanzas) probably unique experiments, but all built round the basic framework of a series of episodes framed by entries and exits and separated by choral songs. The pace of the action is usually rather slow.

By 458 the dramatist had available to him a skēnē and probably an ekkyklēma and mēchanē also, as well as a third actor. Aeschylus makes imaginative, and once again very varied, use of the new opportunities. After composing the first half of Agamemnon entirely in his old style (with no actor–actor dialogue whatever), he centres the play on a verbal trial of strength between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, meanwhile keeping Cassandra long silent and then making her narrate Agamemnon's death prophetically before it happens. The house and its entrance are firmly controlled throughout by the ‘watchdog’ Clytemnestra. In the second half of Choephori the action increasingly accelerates as the climax approaches, and then abruptly slows as Clytemnestra for a time staves off her doom with brilliant verbal fencing. In Eumenides a series of short scenes, full of surprises and changes of location, and including a trial-scene with some virtuoso four-sided dialogue, leads to a conclusion mainly in the old epirrhematic mode for one actor and chorus (with a second chorus at the very end).

Aeschylus' plots tend to be characterized, not by abrupt changes of direction (peripeteiai), but by a build-up of tension and expectation towards a climax anticipated by the audience if not by the dramatis personae. He was quite capable of contriving peripeteiai when he wished, as witness Seven against Thebes where the whole action pivots on Eteocles' discovery that he has unwittingly brought about a combat between himself and his brother and thus fulfilled his father's curse; the trilogy form, however, encourages sharp changes of direction and mood between plays rather than within them.

In general the central interest in Aeschylean drama is in situation and event rather than in character. Even quite major figures in a play (like Pelasgus or Orestes) can be almost without distinctive character traits: if their situation gives them effectively no choice how to act, their personal qualities are irrelevant and are ignored. On the other hand, characters who make (or have previously made) decisions vitally affecting the action, when alternative choices were possible, are portrayed as far as is necessary for illuminating these decisions: Eteocles is usually calm and rational but can be carried away by strong emotions, Agamemnon is one who values prestige above all other considerations. The character most fully drawn is Clytemnestra, because the plot requires her to be a unique individual, ‘a woman with a man's mind’. In the Oresteia several minor characters are drawn with marked vividness, less perhaps for their own sake than to focus special attention on what they have to say.

For similar reasons, Aeschylean choruses nearly always have a strong and distinctive personality. Their words are often of the utmost importance in drawing attention to the deeper principles underlying events (even when they do not themselves fully understand these principles or their implications) and, together with their music and dance, in establishing the mood and theme of a whole play. The women of Seven, dominated almost throughout by fear, contrast sharply with the Danaids, utterly determined in their rejection of marriage and coercing Pelasgus by a cool threat of suicide; the Argive elders of Agamemnon, enunciators of profound moral principles yet unable to understand how these principles doom Agamemnon to death, share a trilogy with the Erinyes, hellish bloodsuckers yet also divine embodiments of these same principles. Aeschylus' choruses often have a substantial influence on the action; the Danaids and the Erinyes are virtually the protagonists of their plays, the women's panic in Seven causes Eteocles' promise to fight in person, while in Choephori it is the chorus who ensure that Aegisthus is delivered unguarded into Orestes' hands. Sometimes a chorus will surprise the audience near the end of a play (as when the Argive elders defy Aegisthus); it is a distinctly Aeschylean touch in Prometheus Bound when the hitherto submissive Oceanids resolve to stay with Prometheus despite Hermes' warning of apocalyptic destruction impending.

Aeschylus' lyric style is smooth and flexible, and generally easier of immediate comprehension than that of Pindar or Sophocles, provided the listener was attuned to a vocabulary that tended towards the archaic and the Homeric. In iambic dialogue, where he had fewer models to follow, he sometimes seems stiff compared with Sophocles or Euripides, though he can also create an impression of everyday speech through informal grammar and phraseology. He excels at devising patterns of language and imagery, elaborating them down to minute detail, and sustaining them all through a play or a trilogy.

Patterns of metre (and presumably of music) are likewise designed on a trilogic scale; in the Oresteia ode after ode ponders the workings of justice in syncopated iambics and lecythia, with variations and deviations to suit particular contexts (epic-like dactyls for the departure of the expedition to Troy, ionics for Helen's voyage and her welcome by the Trojans). Aeschylus' lyrics are mostly simple and perspicuous in structure, here too resembling Alcman or Stesichorus more than Pindar or Sophocles. He makes extensive use of marching anapaests as preludes to (and occasionally substitutes for) choral odes, and also in quasi-epirrhematic alternation with lyrics. The regular speech-verse is the iambic trimeter, but the trochaic tetrameter (characteristic of early tragedy according to Aristotle Poetica 1449a22) appears in Persians and Agamemnon.

Aeschylus is consistently bold and imaginative in exploiting the visual aspects of drama. The contrast between the sumptuous dress of Atossa at her first, carriage-borne entry and the return of Xerxes alone and in rags; the chaotic entry of the chorus in Seven; the African-looking, exotically dressed Danaids and their confrontation with brutal Egyptian soldiers; the purple cloth over which Agamemnon walks to his death, and the display of his corpse in the bath-tub with Cassandra beside him and Clytemnestra ‘standing where I struck’ (a scene virtually repeated in Choephori with a different killer and different victims); the Erinyes presented anthropomorphically on stage (probably for the first time), yet tracking Orestes like hounds by the scent of blood; the procession that ends the Oresteia, modelled on that at the Great Panathenaea—these are far from exhausting the memorable visual images in only six or seven plays, quite apart from numerous careful touches of detail (e.g. at the end of Agamemnon where Aegisthus, that ‘woman’ of a man, alone of those on stage has neither weapon nor staff in his right hand).


Aeschylus, like all truly tragic writers, is well aware of, and vividly presents, the terrible suffering, often hard to justify in human terms, of which life is full; nevertheless he also believes strongly in the ultimate justice of the gods. In his surviving work (leaving aside Prometheus), all human suffering is clearly traceable, directly or indirectly, to an origin in some evil or foolish action—Xerxes' ill-advised decision to attempt the conquest of Greece; Laius' defiance of an oracular warning to remain childless; the attempt by the sons of Aegyptus to force the Danaids to be their wives; the adultery of Thyestes with Atreus' wife; the abduction of Helen by Paris. The consequences of these actions, however, while always bringing disaster to the actors, never end with them, but spread to involve their descendants and ultimately a whole community; some of these indirect victims have incurred more or less guilt on their own account, but many are completely innocent. In some of Aeschylus' dramas, like Persians or the Theban trilogy, the action descends steadily towards a nadir of misery at the end. In the Oresteia, however, presumably also in the Odyssean trilogy, and not improbably in the Danaid trilogy, it proves to be possible to draw a line under the record of suffering and reach a settlement that promises a better future; each time a key element in the final stages is the substitution of persuasion for violence, as when in the Oresteia a chain of retaliatory murders is ended by the judicial trial of Orestes, and the spirits of violent revenge, the Erinyes, are persuaded to accept an honoured dwelling in Athens.

In dramas of the darker type described above, the gods are stern and implacable, and mortals often find themselves helpless prisoners of their own or others' past decisions; though they may still have considerable freedom to choose how to face their fate (compare the clear-sighted courage of Pelasgus or Cassandra with Xerxes or Agamemnon). Elsewhere, especially perhaps in Aeschylus' latest work, a different concept of divinity may appear. In the Oresteia ethical advance on earth, as the virtuous Electra and an Orestes with no base motive succeed the myopic Agamemnon and the monstrous Clytemnestra, is presently answered by ethical advance on Olympus as the amoral gods of Agamemnon and Choephori turn in Eumenides into responsible and even loving (Eumenides 911, 999) protectors of deserving mortals. Something similar may well have happened in the Prometheus plays.

Aeschylus is intensely interested in the community life of the polis, and all his surviving genuine works have strong political aspects. He seems to be a strong supporter of democracy (a word whose elements first appear together in the phrase δήμου κρατοῦ̑σα χείρ ‘the sovereign hand of the people’, Supplices 604) and of Athens' wars of the early 450s, while recognizing the overriding importance of avoiding civil conflict by conciliating rival interests (Eumenides 858–66, 976–87). To later generations, who from time to time continued to see his plays (cf. Aristophanes Acharnenses 10), Aeschylus, who may have come of age in the year of Cleisthenes (2)'s reforms and whose death coincided with the peak of Athenian power, was (as in Aristophanes' Frogs) the poet of Athens' greatness, of the generation of Marathon where he had lived what to him was the supreme day of his life. See also tragedy, Greek.

Life and works

R. P. Winnington-Ingram, Studies in Aeschylus (1983);Find this resource:

    A. J. Podlecki, The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy (1967);Find this resource:

      H. Hommel (ed.), Aischylos, Wege der Forschung (1974);Find this resource:

        E. Petrounias, Funktion und Thematik der Bilder bei Aischylos (1976);Find this resource:

          M. Gagarin, Aeschylean Drama (1976);Find this resource:

            O. P. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (1977);Find this resource:

              T. G. Rosenmeyer, The Art of Aeschylus (1982);Find this resource:

                W. C. Scott, Musical Design in Aeschylean Theater (1984);Find this resource:

                  S. Ireland, Aeschylus (1986);Find this resource:

                    A. Lebeck, The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure (1971);Find this resource:

                      S. D. Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia (1992);Find this resource:

                        M. Griffith, The Authenticity of Prometheus Bound (1977);Find this resource:

                          A. Wartelle, Bibliographie historique et critique d'Éschyle 1518–1974 (1978). On the textual tradition, R. D. Dawe, The Collation and Investigation of Manuscripts of Aeschylus (1964), and Repertory of Conjectures on Aeschylus (1965);Find this resource:

                            M. L. West, Studies in Aeschylus (1990).Find this resource:


                              H. Weir Smyth (Loeb, 1926): vol. 2 repr. 1957, with appendix of major new fragments by H. Lloyd-Jones;Find this resource:

                                D. L. Page (OCT, 1972);Find this resource:

                                  M. L. West (Teubner, 1990); fragments in S. L. Radt, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta 3 (1985);Find this resource:

                                    scholia in O. L. Smith, Scholia in Aeschylum (Teubner, 1976–). Also G. Italie, Index Aeschyleus, 2nd edn. (1964), with addenda by S. L. Radt.Find this resource:


                                      Persians, H. D. Broadhead (1960);Find this resource:

                                        Seven, L. Lupaş and Z. Petre (1981), G. O. Hutchinson (1985);Find this resource:

                                          Suppliants, H. Friis Johansen and E. W. Whittle (1980);Find this resource:

                                            Oresteia, G. Thomson (1966);Find this resource:

                                              Agamemnon, E. Fraenkel (1950), J. D. Denniston and D. L. Page (1957);Find this resource:

                                                Choephori, A. F. Garvie (1986);Find this resource:

                                                  Eumenides, A. H. Sommerstein (1989), A. J. Podlecki (1989);Find this resource:

                                                    Prometheus, M. Griffith (1982).Find this resource:


                                                      R. Lattimore and others in The Complete Greek Tragedies (1954–6; comm. by J. C. Hogan, 1984);Find this resource:

                                                        P. H. Vellacott (1956–61);Find this resource:

                                                          Oresteia: R. Fagles (1977);Find this resource:

                                                            H. Lloyd-Jones, 2nd edn. (1979).Find this resource:

                                                              Alan Herbert Sommerstein