Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology/Aeschylus 1.

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
1965274Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology — Aeschylus 1.1870Various Authors

AE′SCHYLUS (Αἰσχύλος) was born at Eleusis in Attica in B. C. 525, so that he was thirty-five years of age at the time of the battle of Marathon, and contemporary with Simonides and Pindar. His father Euphorion was probably connected with the worship of Demeter, from which Aeschylus may naturally be supposed to have received his first religious impressions. He was himself, according to some authorities, initiated in the mysteries, with reference to which, and to his birthplace Eleusis, Aristophanes (Ran. 884) makes him pray to the Eleusinian goddess. Pausanias (i. 21. §2) relates an anecdote of him, which, if true, shews that he was struck in very early youth with the exhibitions of the drama. According to this story, "When he was a boy he was set to watch grapes in the country, and there fell asleep. In his slumbers Dionysus appeared to him, and ordered him to apply himself to tragedy. At daybreak he made the attempt, and succeeded very easily." Such a dream as this could hardly have resulted from anything but the impression produced by tragic exhibitions upon a warm imagination. At the age of 25 (B. C. 499), he made his first appearance as a competitor for the prize of tragedy, against Choerilus and Pratinas, without however being successful. Sixteen years afterward (B. C. 484), Aeschylus gained his first victory. The titles of the pieces which he then brought out are not known, but his competitors were most probably Pratinas and Phrynichus or Choerilus. Eight years afterwards he gained the prize with the trilogy of which the Persae, the earliest of his extant dramas, was one piece. The whole number of victories attributed to Aeschylus amounted to thirteen, most of which were gained by him in the interval of sixteen years, between B. C. 484, the year of his Hrst tragic victory, and the close of the Persian war by Cimon's double victory at the Eurymedon, B. C. 470. (Bode, Gesch. der Hellen. Dichtkunst, iii. p. 212.) The year B. C. 468 was tlie date of a remarkable event in the poet's life. In that year he was defeated in a tragic contest by his younger rival Sophocles, and if we may believe Plutarch (Cim. 8), his mortification at this indignity, as he conceived it, was so great, that he quitted Athens in disgust the very same year, and went to the court of Hiero (Paus. i. 2. §3), king of Syracuse, where he found Simonides the lyric poet, who as well as himself was by that prince most hospitably received. Of the fact of his having visited Sicily at the time alluded to, there can be no doubt; but whether the motive alleged by Plutarch for his doing so was the only one, or a real one, is a question of considerable difficulty, though of little practical moment. It may be, as has been plausibly maintained by some authors, that Aeschylus, whose family and personal honours were connected with the glories of Marathon, and the heroes of the Persian war, did not sympathise with the spirit of aggrandisement by which the councils of his country were then actuated, nor approve of its policy in the struggle for the supremacy over Greece. The contemporaries of his earlier years, Miltiades, Aristeides, and Themistocles, whose achievements in the service of their country were identified with those of himself and his family, had been succeeded by Cimon: and the aristocratical principles which Aeschylus supported were gradually being supplanted and overborne by the advance of democracy. From all this, Aeschylus might have felt that he was outliving his principles, and have felt it the more keenly, from Cimon, the hero of the day, having been one of the judges who awarded the tragic prize to Sophocles in preference to himself. (Plut. l. c.) On this supposition, Athens could not have been an agreeable residence to a person like Aeschylus, and therefore he might have been disposed to leave it; but still it is more than probable that his defeat by Sophocles materially influenced his determinations, and was at any rate the proximate cause of his removing to Sicily. It has been further conjectured that the charge of ἀσέϐεια or impiety which was brought against Aeschylus for an alleged publication of the mysteries of Ceres (Aristot. Eth. iii. 1), but possibly from political motives, was in some measure connected with his retirement from his native country. If this were really the case, it follows, that the play or plays which gave the supposed offence to the Athenians, must have been published before B. C. 468, and therefore that the trilogy of the Oresteia could have had no connexion with it. Shortly before the arrival of Aeschylus at the court of Hiero, that prince had built the town of Aetna, at the bottom of the mountain of that name, and on the site of the ancient Catana: in connexion with this event, Aeschylus is said to have composed his play of the Women of Aetna (B. C. 471, or 472), in which he predicted and prayed for the prosperity of the new city. At the request of Hiero, he also reproduced the play of the Persae, with the trilogy of which he had been victorious in the dramatic contests at Athens, (B. C. 472.) Now we know that the trilogy of the Seven against Thebes was represented soon after the "Persians:" it follows therefore that the former trilogy must have been first represented not later than B. C. 470, (Welcker, Trilogie, p. 520; Schol. ad Aristoph. Ran. 1053.) Aristeides, who died in B. C. 468, was living at the time. (Plut. Arist. 3.) Besides "The Women of Aetna," Aeschylus also composed other pieces in Sicily, in which are said to have occurred Sicilian words and expressions not intelligible to the Athenians. (Athen. ix. p. 402, b.) From the number of such words and expressions, which have been noticed in the later extant plays of Aeschylus, it has been inferred that he spent a considerable time in Sicily, on this his first visit. We must not however omit to mention, that, according to some accounts, Aeschylus also visited Sicily about B. C. 488, previous to what we have considered his first visit. (Bode, Id. iii. p. 215.) The occasion of this retirement is said to have been the victory gained over him by Simonides, to whom the Athenians adjudged the prize for the best elegy on those who fell at Marathon. This tradition, however, is not supported by strong independent testimony, and accordingly its truth has been much questioned. Suidas indeed states that Aeschylus had visited Sicily even before this, when he was only twenty-five years of age (B. C. 499), immediately after his first contest with Pratinas, on which occasion the crowd of spectators was so great as to cause the fall of the wooden planks (ἴκρια) or temporary scaffolding, on which they were accommodated with seats.

In B. C. 467, his friend and patron king Hiero died; and in B. C. 458, it appears that Aeschylus was again at Athens from the fact that the trilogy of the Oresteia was produced in that year. The conjecture of Böckh, that this might have been a second representation in the absence of the poet, is not supported by any probable reasons, for we have no intimation that the Oresteia ever had been acted before. (Hermann, Opusc. ii. p. 137.) In the same or the following year (B. C. 457), Aeschylus again visited Sicily for the last time, and the reason assigned for this his second or as others conceive his fourth visit to this island, is both probable and sufficient. The fact is, that in his play of the Eumenides, the third and last of the three plays which made up the Orestean trilogy, Aeschylus proved himself a decided supporter of the ancient dignities and power of that "watchful guardian" of Athens, the aristocratical court of the Areiopagus, in opposition to Pericles and his democratical coadjutors. With this trilogy Aeschylus was indeed successful as a poet, but not as a politician: it did not produce the effects he had wished and intended, and he found that he had striven in vain against the opinions and views of a generation to which he did not belong. Accordingly it has been conjectured that either from disappointment or fear of the consequences, or perhaps from both these causes, he again quitted Athens, and retired once more to Sicily. But another reason, which if founded on truth, perhaps operated in conjunction with the former, has been assigned for his last sojourn in Sicily. This rests on a statement made more or less distinctly by various authors, to the effect that Aeschylus was accused of impiety before the court of the Areiopagus, and that he would have been condemned but for the interposition of his brother Ameinias, who had distinguished himself at the battle of Salamis. (Aelian, V. H. v. 19.) According to some authors this accusation was preferred against him, for having in some of his plays either divulged or profanely spoken of the mysteries of Ceres. According to others, the charge originated from his having introduced on the stage the dread goddesses, the Eumenides, which he had done in such a way as not only to do violence to popular prejudice, but also to excite the greatest alarm among the spectators. Now, the Eumenides contains nothing which can he considered as a publication of the mysteries of Ceres, and therefore we are inclined to think that his political enemies availed themselves of the unpopularity he had incurred by his "Chorus of Furies," to get up against him a charge of impiety, which they supported not only by what was objectionable in the Eumenides, but also in other plays not now extant. At any rate, from the number of authorities all confirming this conclusion, there can be no doubt that towards the end of his life Aeschylus incurred the serious displeasure of a strong party at Athens, and that after the exhibition of the Orestean trilogy he retired to Gela in Sicily, where he died B. C. 456, in the 69th year of his age, and three years after the representation of the Eumenides. On the manner of his death the ancient writers are unanimous. (Suidas, s. v. Χελωνημυῶν.) An eagle, say they, mistaking the poet's bald head for a stone, let a tortoise fall upon it to break the shell, and so fulfilled an oracle, according to which Aeschylus was fated to die by a blow from heaven. The inhabitants of Gela shewed their regard for his character, by public solemnities in his honour, by erecting a noble monument to him, and inscribing it with an epitaph written by himself. (Paus, i. 14. §4; Athen. xiv. 627. d. Vit. Anon.) In it Gela is mentioned as the place of his burial, and the field of Marathon as the place of his most glorious achievements; but no mention is made of his poetry, the only subject of commemoration in the later epigrams written in his honour. At Athens also his name and memory were holden in especial reverence, and the prophecy in which he (Athen. viii. 347, e. f.) is said to have predicted his own posthumous fame, when he was first defeated by Sophocles, was amply fulfilled. His pieces were frequently reproduced on the stage; and by a special decree of the people, a chorus was provided at the expense of the state for any one who might wish to exhibit his tragedies a second time. (Aristoph. Achar. 102; Aeschyl. vita.) Hence Aristophanes (Ran. 892) makes Aeschylus say of himself, that his poetry did not die with him; and even after his death, he may be said to have gained many victories over his successors in Attic tragedy. (Hermann, Opusc. ii. p. 158.) The plays thus exhibited for the first time may either have been those which Aeschylus had not produced himself, or such as had been represented in Sicily, and not at Athens, during his lifetime. The individuals who exhibited his dramatic remains on the Attic stage were his sons Euphorion and Bion: the former of whom was, in B. C. 431, victorious with a tetralogy over Sophocles and Euripides (Argum. Eurip. Med.), and in addition to this is said to have gained four victories with dramatic pieces of his father's never before represented. (Blomfield, ad Argum. Agam. p. 20.) Philocles also, the son of a sister of Aeschylus, was victorious over the King Oedipus of Sophocles, probably with a tragedy of his uncle's. (Argum. Soph. Oed. Tyr.) From and by means of these persons arose what was called the Tragic School of Aeschylus, which continued for the space of 125 years.

We have hitherto spoken of Aeschylus as a poet only; but it must not be forgotten that he was also highly renowned as a warrior. His first achievements as a soldier were in the battle of Marathon, in which his brother Cynaegeirus and himself so highly distinguished themselves, that their exploits were commemorated with a descriptive painting in the theatre of Athens, which was thought to be much older than the statue there erected in honour of Aeschylus. (Paus. i. 21. §2.) The epitaph which he wrote on himself, proves that he considered his share in that battle as the most glorious achievement of his life, though he was also engaged at Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea. (Paus. i. 14. §4.) All his family, indeed, were distinguished for bravery. His younger brother Ameinias (Herod, viii. 84; Diod. xi. 25) was noted as having commenced the attack on the Persian ships at Salamis, and at Marathon no one was so perseveringly brave as Cynaegeirus. (Herod, vi. 114.) Hence we may not unreasonably suppose, that the gratitude of the Athenians for such services contributed somewhat to a due appreciation of the poet's merits, and to the tragic victory which he gained soon after the battle of Marathon (B. C. 484) and before that of Salamis. Nor can we wonder at the peculiar vividness and spirit with which he portrays the "pomp and circumstance" of war, as in the Persae, and the "Seven against Thebes," describing its incidents and actions as one who had really been an actor in scenes such as he paints.

The style of Aeschylus is bold, energetic, and sublime, full of gorgeous imagery, and magnificent expressions such as became the elevated characters of his dramas, and the ideas he wished to express. (Aristoph. Ran. 934.) This sublimity of diction was however sometimes carried to an extreme, which made his language turgid and inflated, so that as Quintilian (x. 1) says of him, "he is grandiloquent to a fault." In the turn of his expressions, the poetical predominates over the syntactical. He was peculiarly fond of metaphorical phrases and strange compounds, and obsolete language, so that he was much more epic in his language than either Sophocles or Euripides, and excelled in displaying strong feelings and impulses, and describing the awful and the terrible, rather than in exhibiting the workings of the human mind under the influence of complicated and various motives. But notwithstanding the general elevation of his style, the subordinate characters in his plays, as the watchman in the Agamemnon, and the nurse of Orestes in the Choephoroe, are made to use language fitting their station, and less removed from that of common life.

The characters of Aeschylus, like his diction, are sublime and majestic,—they were gods and heroes of colossal magnitude, whose imposing aspect could be endured by the heroes of Marathon and Salamis, but was too awful for the contemplation of the next generation, who complained that Aeschylus' language was not human. (Aristoph. Ran. 1056.) Hence the general impressions produced by the poetry of Aeschylus were rather of a religious than of a moral nature: his personages being both in action and suffering, superhuman, and therefore not always fitted to teach practical lessons. He produces indeed a sort of religious awe, and dread of the irresistible power of the gods, to which man is represented as being entirely subject; but on the other hand humanity often appears as the sport of an irrevocable destiny, or the victim of a struggle between superior beings. Still Aeschylus sometimes discloses a providential order of compensation and retribution, while he always teaches the duty of resignation and submission to the will of the gods, and the futility and fatal consequences of all opposition to it. See Quarterly Review, No. 112, p. 315.

With respect to the construction of his plays, it has been often remarked, that they have little or no plot, and are therefore wanting in dramatic interest: this deficiency however may strike us more than it otherwise would in consequence of most of his extant plays being only parts, or acts of a more complicated drama. Still we cannot help being impressed with the belief, that he was more capable of sketching a vast outline, than of filling up its parts, however bold and vigorous are the sketches by which he portrays and groups his characters. His object, indeed, according to Aristophanes, in such plays as the Persae, and the Seven against Thebes, which are more epical than dramatical, was rather to animate his countrymen to deeds of glory and warlike achievement, and to inspire them with generous and elevated sentiments, by a vivid exhibition of noble deeds and characters, than to charm or startle by the incidents of an elaborate plot. (Ran. 1000.) The religious views and tenets of Aeschylus, so far as they appear in his writings, were Homeric. Like Homer, he represents Zeus as the supreme Ruler of the Universe, the source and centre of all things. To him all the other divinities are subject, and from him all their powers and authority are derived. Even Fate itself is sometimes identical with his will, and the result of his decrees. He only of all the beings in heaven and earth is free to act as he pleases. (Prom. 40.)

In Philosophical sentiments, there was a tradition that Aeschylus was a Pythagorean (Cic. Tus. Disp. ii. 10); but of this his writings do not furnish any conclusive proof, though there certainly was some similarity between him and Pythagoras in the purity and elevation of their sentiments.

The most correct and lively description of the character and dramatic merits of Aeschylus, and of the estimation in which he was held by his contemporaries and immediate successors, is given by Aristophanes in his "Frogs." He is there depicted as proud and impatient, and his style and genius such as we have described it. Aristophanes was evidently a very great admirer of him, and sympathised in no common degree with his political and moral sentiments. He considered Aeschylus as without a rival and utterly unapproachable as a tragic poet; and represents even Sophocles himself as readily yielding to and admitting his superior claims to the tragic throne. But few if any of the ancient critics seem to have altogether coincided with Aristophanes in his estimation of Aeschylus, though they give him credit for his excellences. Thus Dionysius (De Poet. Vet. ii. 9) praises the originality of his ideas and of his expressions, and the beauty of his imagery, and the propriety and dignity of his characters. Longinus (15) speaks of his elevated creations and imagery, but condemns some of his expressions as harsh and overstrained; and Quintilian (x. 1) expresses himself much to the same effect. The expression attributed to Sophocles, that Aeschylus did what was right without knowing it (Athen. x. p. 428, f.), in other words, that he was an unconscious genius, working without any knowledge of or regard to the artistical laws of his profession, is worthy of note. So also is the observation of Schlegel (Lecture iv.), that "Generally considered, the tragedies of Aeschylus are an example amongst many, that in art, as in nature, gigantic productions precede those of regulated symmetry, which then dwindle away into delicacy and insignificance; and that poetry in her first manifestation always approaches nearest to the awfulness of religion, whatever shape the latter may assume among the various races of men." Aeschylus himself used to say of his dramas, that they were fragments of the great banquet of Homer's table. (Athen, viii. p. 347, e.) The alterations made by Aeschylus in the composition and dramatic representation of Tragedy were so great, that he was considered by the Athenians as the father of it, just as Homer was of Epic poetry and Herodotus of History. (Philostr. Vit. Apoll. vi. 11.) As the ancients themselves remarked, it was a greater advance from the elementary productions of Thespis, Choerilus, and Phrynichus, to the stately tragedy of Aeschylus, than from the latter to the perfect and refined forms of Sophocles. It was the advance from infancy if not to maturity, at least to a youthful and vigorous manhood. Even the improvements and alterations introduced by his successors were the natural results and suggestions of those of Aeschylus. The first and principal alteration which he made was the introduction of a second actor (δευτεραγωνιστής, Aristot. Poet. 4. §16), and the consequent formation of the dialogue properly so called, and the limitation of the choral parts. So great was the effect of this change that Aristotle denotes it by saying, that he made the dialogue, the principal part of the play (τὸν λόγον πρωταγωνιστήν παρεσκεύασεν), instead of the choral part, which was now become subsidiary and secondary. This innovation was of course adopted by his contemporaries, just as Aeschylus himself (e. g. in the Choephoroe 665—716) followed the example of Sophocles, in subsequently introducing a third actor. The characters in his plays were sometimes represented by Aeschylus himself. (Athen. i. p. 39.) In the early part of his career he was supported by an actor named Cleandrus, and afterwards by Myniscus of Chalchis. (Vita apud Robert. p. 161.) The dialogue between the two principal characters in the plays of Aeschylus was generally kept up in a strictly symmetrical form, each thought or sentiment of the two speakers being expressed in one or two unbroken lines: e. g. as the dialogue between Kratos and Hephaestus at the beginning of the Prometheus. In the same way, in the Seven against Thebes, Eteocles always expresses himself in three lines between the reflections of the chorus. This arrangement, differing as it does from the forms of ordinary conversation, gives to the dialogue of Aeschylus an elevated and stately character, which bespeaks the conversation of gods and heroes. But the improvements of Aeschylus were not limited to the composition of tragedy: he added the resources of art in its exhibition. Thus, he is said to have availed himself of the skill of Agatharcus, who painted for him the first scenes which had ever been drawn according to the principles of linear perspective. (Vitruv. Praef. lib. vii.) He also furnished his actors with more suitable and magnificent dresses, with significant and various masks, and with the thick-soled cothurnus, to raise their statue to the height of heroes. He moreover bestowed so much attention on the choral dances, that he is said to have invented various figures himself, and to have instructed the choristers in them without the aid of the regular ballet-masters. (Athen. i. p. 21.) So great was Aeschylus' skill as a teacher in this respect, that Telestes, one of his choristers, was able to express by dance alone the various incidents of the play of the Seven against Thebes. (Athen. l. c.) The removal of all deeds of bloodshed and murder from the public view, in conformity with the rule of Horace (A. P. 185), is also said to have been a practice introduced by Aeschylus. (Philos. Vit. Apol. vi. 11.) With him also arose the usage of representing at the same time a trilogy of plays connected in subject, so that each formed one act, as it were, of a great whole, which might be compared with some of Shakespeare's historical plays. Even before the time of Aeschylus, it had been customary to contend for the prize of tragedy with three plays exhibited at the same time, but it was reserved for him to shew how each of three tragedies might be complete in itself, and independent of the rest, and nevertheless form a part of a harmonious and connected whole. The only example still extant of such a trilogy is the Oresteia, as it was called. A Satyrical play commonly followed each tragic trilogy, and it is recorded that Aeschylus was no less a master of the ludicrous than of the serious drama. (Paus. ii. 13. §5.)

Aeschylus is said to have written seventy tragedies. Of these only seven are extant, namely, the "Persians," the "Seven against Thebes," the "Suppliants," the "Prometheus," the "Agamemnon," the "Choephoroe," and "Eumenides;" the last three forming, as already remarked, the trilogy of the "Oresteia." The "Persians" was acted in B. C. 472, and the "Seven against Thebes" a year afterwards. The "Oresteia" was represented in B. C. 458; the "Suppliants" and the "Prometheus" were brought out some time between the "Seven against Thebes" and the "Oresteia." It has been supposed from some allusions in the "Suppliants," that this play was acted in B. C. 461, when Athens was allied with Argos.

The first edition of Aeschylus was printed at Venice, 1518, 8vo.; but parts of the Agamemnon and the Choephoroe are not printed in this edition, and those which are given, are made up into one play. Of the subsequent editions the best was by Stanley, Lond. 1663, fo. with the Scholia and a commentary, reedited by Butler. The best recent editions are by Wellauer, Lips. 1823, W. Dindorf, Lips. 1827, and Scholefield, Camb. 1830. There are numerous editions of various plays, of which those most worthy of mention are by Blomfield, Müller, Klausen, and Peile. The principal English translations are by Potter, Harford, and Medwin. (Petersen, De Aeschyli Vita et Fabulis, Havniae, 1814; Welcker, Die Aeschyl. Trilogie Prometheus, Darmstadt, 1824, Nachtrag zur Trilogie, Frankf. 1826, and Die Griech. Tragödien, Bonn, 1840; Klausen, Theologumena Aeschyli Tragici, Berol. 1829.) [R. W.]