Who was Aeschylus? - Ancient Greek Playss
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Who was Aeschylus?

theater of dionysos
The Theater of Dionysos in Athens

Aeschylus (ESS-kill-us) is the earliest playwright in any language whose plays survive today, though other Greek men did write plays a little earlier. Aeschylus lived in Athens in the late 500s and early 400s BC, so he saw the birth of Athenian democracy under Cleisthenes. He fought in the battle of Marathon. Aeschylus lived at the same time as Sophocles, though Sophocles was a few years younger.

Aeschylus wrote tragedies about the difficult choices men (not, in his view, women) have to make, and what happens as a result. His most famous plays are the three plays Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides. In Agamemnon, the king Agamemnon faces the consequences of his decision to keep his promise to the other kings, even though it meant killing his own daughter (Iphigeneia). In Libation Bearers, Agamemnon's son Orestes has to decide whether to kill his own mother, because she killed his father. And in Eumenides, a jury has to decide whether Orestes, having killed Clytemnestra, is guilty of murder.

When Aeschylus died, his tombstone did not even mention his plays. It just listed what he himself considered his greatest achievement: "I fought at Marathon."

Learn by doing: a Greek play-reading
More about Greek theatre: Sophocles

Bibliography and further reading about Aeschylus:

Greek Theatre, by Stewart Ross (1999). Easy reading.

Greek and Roman Theater, by Don Nardo. For teenagers.

The Oresteia, by Aeschylus, translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics). The most famous of the plays Aeschylus wrote. Fagles is a great translator! Includes a version for performance.

Aeschylus, by John Herington (1986). A discussion by a specialist about the life of Aeschylus and why his plays are written the way they are.

Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study, by H. D. F. Kitto (reprinted 2002). A classic discussion of the meaning of Greek tragic plays, by a specialist.

Or check out the Aeschylus article in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

More about Sophocles
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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