AESCHYLUS (Αισχυλος) — a tragic poet recognized as the father of Greek tragedy, b. 525 BC in Eleusis (near Athens), d. 456 in Gela (in Sicily).

Aeschylus lived at during the foundation of democracy in Greece and during the Persian wars (he took part in the battles of Marathon and Salamis).

Seventy tragedies and two hundred satirical dramas have been ascribed to Aeschylus, of which seven tragedies (including a trilogy) have been preserved in their entirety: The Persians, Seven against Thebes, Suppliants, Prometheus Bound, the Orestes trilogy (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides), and about four hundred fragments. Aeschylus drew the themes for his tragedies from Greek mythology, Homer's epics, the works of the so-called cyclic poets, and from the history of his time (The Persians). Aeschylus developed the construction of Greek tragedy: he limited the role of the chorus, enlivened the dialogue and action (for example, by introducing a second actor, individualizing the language, and varying moods and masks). He introduced new means of expression (mime, descriptions and narratives, as well as asides to the audience), and enriched the musical elements. As a religious man and one attached to tradition, Aeschylus achieved a balance between the religious element and the theatrical mode in his tragedies.

In The Persians, he presented the defeat of the Persian armies in the battle of Salamis. His approach was original in that he showed the victory of the Greeks through the eyes of the defeated. The tragedy is remarkable for its profound humanitarianism and the sympathy it shows for the Persians, which is connected with its message, a warning not to overstep the boundaries set by the gods (this was, according to Aeschylus, the cause of the Persians' defeat). Seven against Thebes presents the tragedy of the family of Oedipus. The central problem involves the idea of fault and the punishment that visits the sons of Oedipus as the result of a curse that is cast upon him. The tragedy Suppliants is the most archaic in form. The context is the history of the daughters of Danaos, and Aeschylus takes up the problem of the necessity of a choice between breaking the sacred law of hospitality (i.e., ensuring protection to the suppliants), and exposing the state to the danger of war. Prometheus Bound is a cosmogonic drama (i.e., it concerns myths about the world's beginnings). Aeschylus differs from other ancient authors in that he presents Zeus as the first despot and tyrant, and Prometheus as the first heroic lover of mankind and the true initiator of all progress. This approach to the myth bore fruit in the idea of Prometheanism in modern times. The only trilogy preserved in its entirety is the Orestes, composed of the tragedies: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. The history of the Atrides clan was well known in ancient Greece, and Aeschylus presented it in a novel way as the drama of man struggling with faith, the will of the gods and his own conscience. Aeschylus also pays homage to the new social order of Athens, democracy (in the third play of the trilogy). The never-ending chain of fault and punishment in which each new crime demands a new payment is first removed by the law of the city-state as this law triumphs over the old clan law that proclaims a principle of bloody vengeance.

The world of Aeschylus' tragedies is based upon a religious-mystical-philosophical vision of man and divinity (including a moral-philosophical conception of Zeus, man's responsibility for his own deeds, and faith in the soul's life after death). The relations between man and divinity are marked by definite boundaries. If man oversteps these boundaries, the result is &upsilonβρις [hybris], i.e., pride or sin. The chief hero in Aeschylus' tragedies finds himself at first in a situation of trespass (sin, hybris), and this brings upon him and his whole clan an unavoidable force of destiny, for the highest law is that pride must be punished, where pride is to trespass the boundaries of ethos set by divine law. The fault of the hero results in blindness, madness, and then a fitting punishment sent by the gods. The hero and his clan find themselves in suffering and adversity. Their attempt to escape this condition leads to further trespasses and crimes, and these lead to further sufferings. The way out of the situation is either a redemptive desire to understand and acknowledge one's fault, or to become confirmed in ruinous blindness. The only law that lets man escape from the situation of sin is παθει μαθος [pathei methos] (Agamemnon 177), i.e., suffering that leads to the understanding of one's fault. In Aeschylus, suffering is a school of life that especially teaches moderation in conduct (σωφροσυνη [sophrosyne]) and brings purification.

In the chainlike development of the trilogy, the first tragedy is an exposition of a crime that has been committed (hybris), and the second presents further trespasses done with the purpose of avoiding the consequences of the first crime. The tragedy that closes the trilogy may have one of two solutions: the hero understands his fault, shows contrition, accepts his suffering, then finally finds forgiveness, or he remains in his blind state and utterly destroys the fate of himself and his clan which according to ancient beliefs has shared in the fault of the evildoer.

Aeschylus' attempt to reconcile the traditional mythological ethics with the new ethics of the social order of democracy, to reconcile the religious plane with the civil plane, is particularly striking, as is his depiction of the nation in heroic terms and his presentation of the democratic system as superior to tyranny.

Aeschylus had a direct influence upon Sophocles and Euripides. Through the tragedies of Seneca he also influenced the creative work of the modern epoch (18th–19th centuries). The idea of Prometheanism influenced British poets (Byron, Shelley, Keats) and Polish poets (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Norwid, Wyspiański).

The works of Aeschylus have been published by H. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (B 1914); G. Murray (Ox 1937); and Mazon (P 1920-1925). The following editions have appeared in Polish translation: Tragedie Eschylosa [Tragedies of Aeschylus], trans. Z. Węclewski (Pz 1873); Eschilos. Tragedie [the same as above], trans. K. Kaszewski (Wwa 1895); Ajschylos Tragedie, trans. J. Kasprowicz (Kr 1913); Ajschylos Tragedie, trans. S. Srebrny (Wwa 19542).

H. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Aeschylos Interpretationen, B 1914; W. Porzig, Aeschylos, die attische Tragödie, II, L 1930, Gö 19542; J. Coman, L'idée de la Némésis chez Eschyle, P 1931; T. Sinko, Literatura grecka [Greek literature]; Kr 1932, I 2, 30-85; W. Jaeger, Paideia, B 1934 (Wwa 1962, I 257-284); N. Delcourt, Eschyle, P 1935; S. Witkowski, Tragedia grecka [Greek tragedy], Lw 1939, I 150-264; G. Murray, Aeschylus, The Creator of Tragedy, Ox 1940; R. Cantarella, Eschilo, Fi 1941; G. Thomason, Aeschylus and Athens, Lo 1941, 19672 (Ajschylos i Ateny, Wwa 1956); K. Reinhardt, Aeschylos als Regisseur und Theologe, Bn 1949; M. Untersteiner, Le origini della tragedia e del tragico Tn 19552; W. Steffen, Tendencje humanistyczne w tragediach Ajschylosa i Sofoklesa [Humanistic tendencies in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles], Meander 15 (1960), 563-573; V. Citti, Il linguaggio religioso e liturgico nelle tragedie di Eschilo, Bol 1962; U. Fischer, Der Telosgedanke in den Dramen des Aeschylos: Ende, Ziel, Erfüllung, Machtvollkeommenheit, Hi 1965; W. Kiefner, Der religiöse Allbegrift des Aeschylos, Hi 1965; J. de Romilly, Le tragédie grecque, P 1970, 19732 (Tragedia grecka, Wwa 1994, 49-75); Aeschylus, A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs 1972; O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, Ox 1977; T. G. Rosenmeyer, The Art of Aeschylus, Be 1982; B. Deforge, Eschyle, poète cosmique, P 986; M. L. West, Studies in Aeschylus, St 1990; Aeschyli trageodiae cum incerti poetae "Prometheo", St 1990; M. Maślanka-Soro, Nauka przez cierpienie ("pathei mathos") u Ajschylosa i Sofoklesa (Learning through suffering ("pathei mathos") in Aeschylus and Sophocles), Kr 1991; R. Chodowski, Ajschylos i jego tragedie [Aeschylus and his tragedies], Lb 1994.

Arkadiusz Gudaniec

<--Go back