Aeschylus: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Sarah Burges Watson

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The texts and translations relating to this guide have been prepared by Sarah Burges Watson.

Philostratus Philostr. VA 6.10-11 says (in a playful passage) that the Athenians considered Aeschylus (ca. 525-456/5) ‘the father of tragedy’ because of his innovations in the genre. We have titles of over seventy plays; many fragments and seven complete tragedies survive. These include Prometheus Bound, whose attribution to Aeschylus is no longer accepted (see Griffith 1977), and the Oresteia, which, like all Aeschylus’ trilogies, is thematically connected. Sadly, the accompanying satyr play, Proteus, is lost. But we have substantial fragments of other satyr plays, a genre in which Aeschylus was thought to excel Diog. Laert. 2.133 Paus. 2.13.6. In tragedy, Aristotle Arist. Poet. 4, 1449a15 says that he introduced a second actor and reduced the role of the chorus. He won thirteen times in the Athenian dramatic festivals and, after his death, was afforded the unique honour of having his plays re-staged.


The Vita Life of Aeschylus transmitted with Aeschylus’ plays contains an eclectic mixture of fact, critical assessment, and apocrypha. Aristophanes’ comic portrayal of Aeschylus in the Frogs is an important (and acknowledged) source that provides invaluable insights into late fifth-century views about Aeschylus and his poetry. The Vita may also draw on biographical material from the Visits by Ion of Chios (fifth century), Heraclides of Pontus’ book on tragic poets, and Chamaeleon’s Concerning Aeschylus. Sources on Aeschylus are collected by Wilamowitz (1914) and Radt (1985).


The Vita Life of Aeschylus says that Aeschylus was the son of Euphorion and brother of Cynegirus, whose death at Marathon Herodotus Hdt. 6.114 describes. Diodorus Diod. Sic. 11.27.2, following Ephorus—probably mistakenly—gives Aeschylus another brother, Ameinias. He is followed by the Suda Suda s.v. Aeschylus. Ion of Chios Schol. Aesch. Pers. 429 and the Parian Marble MarmorPar. A 48 are among the sources which mention Aeschylus’ own participation in the Persian Wars. Aeschylus’ deme, Eleusis, also connects him to one of the city’s most important religious institutions—the Eleusinian Mysteries. Mysteries feature in several of Aeschylus’ plays. Aristotle Arist. Eth. Nic. 3.2, 1111a8 Anon. in Eth. Nic. 3.2, 1111a8 says that he was tried for revealing them and pleaded innocent on the grounds that he did not know they were secret.

Sicilian Visits

The Vita’s Life of Aeschylus testimony that Aeschylus spent time in Sicily appears to be sound, but different visits are conflated (see Herington 1967). Eratosthenes Schol. Ar. Ran. 1028a said that Aeschylus produced the Persians at the court of Hieron; it may have been on the same visit that he put on the Women of Etna (see Bosher 2012). The biographies of both Aeschylus and Euripides dwell on their sojourns with foreign monarchs (in contrast to that of Sophocles—see Sophocles: A Guide to Selected Sources). This de-Athenianization and transposition of the quintessentially democratic art-form to contexts of royal patronage probably reflects Hellenistic attempts to appropriate the literary past (see Hanink 2010).

Departure from Athens

According to the Suda Suda s.v. Aeschylus, Aeschylus left Athens for Sicily, where he was said to have died after the stage collapsed during one of his productions. The Vita Life of Aeschylus attributes Aeschylus’ departure to vexation at his defeat by Sophocles (a story found also in Plutarch Plut. Cim. 8, 483e) or Simonides. These alleged professional jealousies echo Aristophanes’ Frogs. The Vita Life of Aeschylus also suggests that the terror his Erinyes inspired in the Athenian theatre was a factor in his departure; a variant of this story is reported by Pollux Poll. Onom. 4.110. The fact that the Erinyes appear in vase paintings only after the Oresteia suggests that Aeschylus was the first to bring them onstage, and that they made a memorable impression. (See Frontisi-Ducroux 2007).


According to the Vita Life of Aeschylus, Aeschylus was killed (following an oracle) when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. Democritus Simpl. in Phys. 2.4 seems to have referred to this mode of death in a discussion about chance (tychê), but the connection with Aeschylus is probably later. (As Lefkowitz argues (2012: 175-6), it seems likely that Aristophanes would have mentioned it in the Frogs, had he known about it.) Tychê is an appropriate cause of death for a tragedian and the role of Zeus’ bird and the tortoise, from whose shell lyres were made, is a comic reversal of Aeschylus’ Zeus-centered teleology. In Aeschylus’ Psychagôgoi (fr. 275 Radt Aesch. fr. 275 Radt), Teiresias prophesies that Odysseus will die when struck by a heron’s dung; this may have inspired the even wilder mode of Aeschylus’ death.

Aeschylus in Aristophanes’ Frogs

The Vita’s critical judgments are indebted to Aristophanes’ Frogs, as is the entire critical reception history of Aeschylus (see Hunter 2009). In Aristophanes’ multi-layered portrayal, Aeschylus adopts the role of Achilles from his Myrmidons, supplemented by the thundering rage of the Seven against Thebes and Aeschylus’ own warrior credentials. If the Contest of Homer and Hesiod Certamen is a model for the Frogs and not vice-versa (Richardson 1981: 2 with n. 5, Graziosi 2002: 176f., Rosen 2004), Aeschylus is aligned with Homer, whom he approves as a teacher of war (Frogs 1034-6). This matches Aeschylus’ Ath. 8, 347e alleged statement that his dramas were slices of Homer’s banquet. ‘Euripides’ is no obvious Hesiod, but it has been suggested that his sophistic unscrupulousness mirrors the negative traits of Odysseus in the Philoctetes story, on which all three tragedians composed (Hunter 2009: 44-6; on Hesiod as a proto-sophist see Boys-Stones/Haubold 2010). Antagonism between Achillean and Odyssean modes of heroism is built into the tradition (see Nagy 1999).

Nietzsche’s (Aristophanic) Aeschylus

Aristophanes’ Euripides characterizes Aeschylus as unintelligibly grand. Nietzsche, whose analysis of tragedy draws extensively on the Frogs and on traditions about poet’s lives, scorns ‘Euripides’’ insistence that everything should be intelligible, comparing Aeschylus’ poetry with a comet’s tail which points into the unknown (Birth of Tragedy 11 Nietzsche, BT 11). This obscurity came from his ‘unshakably firm foundation for metaphysical thought’ derived from the Mysteries (Birth of Tragedy 9 Nietzsche, BT 9) and was evinced by Sophocles’ Ath. 10. 428f Plut. fr. 130 Sandbach alleged remark that Aeschylus ‘did the right thing, but did it unconsciously’ (see also Sophocles: A Guide to Selected Sources). Euripides and Socrates, on the other hand, considered it wrong precisely because it was unconscious (Birth of Tragedy 12, 13 Nietzsche, BT 12 Nietzsche, BT 13).

For Nietzsche, this irrational element, measured by the prominence of music/the chorus, makes Aeschylus a quintessentially Dionysian poet. This idea contradicts Aristotle Arist. Poet. 4, 1449a15, but Pausanias Paus. 1.21.1 says that Aeschylus claimed to have been instructed to write tragedy in a Dionysiac epiphany, and several sources make Aeschylus a drunken poet Ath. 10. 428f Plut. fr. 130 Sandbach [Lucian] Dem. Enc. 15 Plut. Quaest. Conv. 1.5.1, 622e. Most importantly, Nietzsche is following Aristophanes, whose Dionysus, urged by Pluto to elect a saviour for Athens, chooses Aeschylus over Euripides, in obedience to his psyche (Frogs 1468).

Dionysus’ descent to Hades is originally sparked by a passion for Euripides and scholars have wondered why he changes his mind. If, in the final years of the Peloponnesian War, Athens’ greatness seemed irretrievable, it is perhaps unsurprising that she should turn for salvation to the warrior-artist of her most glorious days (cf. Dover 1993: 23-4, Porter 2006: 301-6). Aristophanes may also be responding to the comic poet Cratinus' charge (fr. 342) that he was excessively Euripidean (i.e. intellectual) by siding with the more traditional Dionysian/intoxicated poet (see Bakola 2010: 24-9). Mysteries are another important factor in Aeschylus' victory. At the start of the contest (886-7), he prays to Demeter, his Eleusinian “mentor”, that he may be worthy of her mysteries, exemplifying his devotion to Dionysiac concerns (see Lada-Richards 1999; Graf 1974: 40-51). The chorus calls Aeschylus a Bacchic Lord (1259) and later concludes that Euripides’ ‘Socratic chatter’ which casts aside music, tragedy’s true craft, in favour of petty intellectual quibbles, is the mark of one who is genuinely insane (1491-9). As Porter points out (2000: 114), Aristophanes had, in Nietzsche’s eyes (KSA 1, 549), ‘a deep elective affinity with Aeschylus…Equals are only recognized by equals’; presumably, Nietzsche would have counted himself among them.


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