Fun facts about the ancient Greek playwright
1. Of the ninety or so plays Aeschylus is thought to have written, only seven have survived. And one of those we cannot be absolutely sure he wrote: scholars have questioned whether Prometheus Bound, one of the seven surviving plays attributed to him, is actually his work. The six plays that we can confidently attribute to Aeschylus are: The Persians (one of the few Greek tragedies to be based on recent real-life events), Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, and the Oresteia trilogy, comprising Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.
2. Aeschylus was the first of the great Greek tragedians – indeed, he helped to invent the genre. He may even have been the first to present three tragedies, as a linked trilogy of plays. He certainly helped to make tragic drama more a more impressive spectacle.
3. Despite this, his epitaph makes no mention of his plays – only his soldiering. Aeschylus fought in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, and it is for his part in the battle (which the Athenians won against the Persians) that Aeschylus is commemorated and praised in his epitaph. No mention is made of his role as the effective founder of ‘high’ Greek tragedy. The Greek poet and playwright Ion of Chios attested to Aeschylus’ military prowess, and praised Aeschylus’ performance at a later battle, at Salamis, in 480 BC.
4. Legend has it that Aeschylus died when a tortoise fell on his head. This story began with Valerius Maximus, who claimed that Aeschylus was unlucky enough to have his head mistaken by a rock. An eagle, flying overhead, dropped a tortoise onto the hapless playwright’s pate, in the hope of shattering it on the ‘rock’ it perceived below. Pliny the Elder adds the detail that Aeschylus had been staying out in the open in order to avoid a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object, and that this action – ironically – led to the fulfilment of the prophecy. But this, like lying to your boss to get a day off work, is a detail too far, and destroys the credibility of the tale: Pliny’s embellishment makes the whole thing sound like something out of Aeschylus’ own tragedies (or like the story of Oedipus, told by Sophocles, in which Oedipus’ efforts to avoid fulfilling the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother lead to him … well, you’ve guessed it). Whether the story has a grain of truth in it, we cannot say for sure, but it certainly has the ring of legend about it.
5. One of his sons went on to beat two of the greatest tragedians at the City Dionysia. Aeschylus had two sons, Euphorion and Euaeon (which ought to be enough vowels for anyone). Both sons followed in their father’s renowned footsteps and became tragic poets; in 431 BC Euphorion even beat both Sophocles and Euripides in that year’s competition.
Image: Bust of Aeschylus, in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks by Arthur Elam Haigh (1896); Wikimedia Commons.