Aeschylus, the greatest poet-dramatist of ancient Greece, who met an absurd death, lived in the 5th century BC and went down in history as the father of tragedy.
He is often referred to as the founder of the trilogy genre. The texts of only seven of his works have survived to this day along with the titles of about seventy to ninety other plays. Their fragments have endured throughout time in the form of quotations, and archaeologists continue to come across these on Egyptian papyrus during excavations.
An outstanding poet, heroic warrior, and member of a sacred cult, Aeschylus lived a successful life, though, as hard as it is to believe, it ended in an absurd death.
Plays and battles of Aeschylus
Aeschylus was born in the city of Eleusina near Athens into a wealthy and noble family of aristocrats.
In his youth, he worked hard in the vineyards. According to legend, one day, he saw the god of wine-making and theater, Dionysus, in a dream. Dionysus is said to have urged him to turn his attention to the art of tragedy.
Aeschylus’ life coincided with a period during which Greece embraced the popularity of literary competitions. These took place during the Dionysian celebrations. In 484 BC, Aeschylus achieved his first victory in one of these contests.
A few years later, he was called up for military service at the height of the Greco-Persian conflicts. Together with his brother Cynaegirus, the poet valiantly defended Athens in the Battle of Marathon against the army of Darius I of Persia. Later on, he also participated in the naval Battle of Salamis, which was mentioned in the tragedy The Persians.
Aeschylus was one of the few initiated into the Cult of goddess Demeter. The secrets of the cults were so guarded that their revelation could result in a death sentence. The poet participated in the Eleusinian mysteries, which were rituals reflecting the connection between life and death.
According to Aristotle, Aeschylus failed to hold on to the secrets of the cult and demonstrated ritualistic elements on stage performances. As a result, he faced a trial, yet the poet was acquitted, owing to his exceptional military achievements.
Historians believe Aeschylus had a wife and two children. Remarkably, one of his sons, Euphorion, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a tragic poet.
Absurd death from a turtle
Aeschylus met his end in an unusual and tragic manner in Sicily in 455 BC. Prior to this, the Oracle had either predicted that a house would collapse on him and kill him, or something would possibly fall on his head. He therefore decided he would try to keep himself safe by remaining outdoors.
It is this, however, that led to his fateful end when, one day, as the tragedian had been spending time outside, an eagle mistook his bald head for a stone and dropped a tortoise on him in order to split it open and eat it.
In 455 BC, Aeschylus, known as the Father of Greek Tragedy, supposedly died in a very unexpected way. He was killed by a tortoise which was dropped from the air by an eagle. It's believed the eagle mistook his bald head for a rock suitable for the shattering of the tortoise's… pic.twitter.com/XGJ62r87Xu
— Morbid Knowledge (@Morbidful) July 17, 2023
Dramaturgy by Aeschylus
The literary work of Aeschylus is full of the patriotism and nationalism typical of that heroic era. His characters, who make poetic speeches and express themselves in sublime language, are known for their strength and nobility.
Only seven tragedies of the great Greek tragedian have survived. Among these are The Persians, Petitioners, Seven Against Thebes, and The Oresteia trilogy, consisting of the plays Agamemnon, Choephors, Eumenides, and Chained Prometheus, the authorship of which has been questioned by historians since the 19th century.
It is known that these surviving works were awarded the highest award at the festivals of Dionysius. In total, Aeschylus won the award thirteen times.
The earliest of his secured works is the tragedy The Persians, written around 472 BC. This is the only surviving example of a classic performance based on real contemporary events of that time. The play was based on the personal military experience of the poet, including his participation in the Battle of Salamis.
Composed in 458 BC, Oresteia is the only trilogy of Aeschylus that has been preserved in its entirety. It consists of the formerly mentioned plays Agamemnon, Choephori, and Eumenides and tells the bloody story of the family of the Argive King Agamemnon. The trilogy is devoted to the problem of personal revenge contrary to the foundations of public justice.
In addition to many outstanding tragedies, Aeschylus changed the theatrical art of that time for the better in many ways.
He was the first to introduce a second actor into the dramatic ensemble, accordingly reducing the role of the choir in the theater. Prior to this, only the choir and a single actor participated in the play.
Aeschylus also limited the number of choir participants to twelve members. He personally taught choral parts and introduced costumes and masks into performances.