Greek Tragedian Aeschylus Dies

Aeschylus, the acknowledged master of Greek tragedy even during his lifetime, established many of the artistic and literary conventions of Western theater.

Summary of Event

It is beyond doubt that Aeschylus died in the town of Gela, Sicily, in about 456 or 455 b.c.e. Even so, as often happens when famous personages die, especially suddenly and in cultures that privilege mythic explanations of historical events, a clearly apocryphal version of that death is the one that survives. Such is the case for Aeschylus. Supposedly an eagle, while attempting to crack the shell of a tortoise for food, dropped it on the playwright’s bald head, mistaking it for a stone. As with most such explanations, this fanciful version of the event fastens on Aeschylus’s self-imposed exile to Sicily; the playwright’s sudden death, ironically after having survived three of the most devastating battles of the Greco-Persian War; and the undeniable fact that in regions with the topography of Sicily, birds of prey actually do obtain their food by cracking the tortoise shells on large rocks. Aeschylus
Hieron I of Syracuse

The indignity that the folkloric version of Aeschylus’s death ascribes to the most dignified of all the Greek tragedians also lampoons Aeschylus’s sober, conservative appearance and artistic outlook. The bust of Aeschylus in Rome’s Capitoline Museum portrays a man with piercing eyes, an aquiline nose, a full beard, and a high noble forehead, an unusual man for whom baldness actually enhances his appearance. Aeschylus was also a soldier of conspicuous bravery who had fought the Persians at the battles of Marathon (490 b.c.e.), Salamis (480 b.c.e.), and Plataea (479 b.c.e.). He came from one of Eleusis’s most noble families, and his brother Cynegirus met his death at Marathon.

It is clear that Athenians considered Aeschylus a great artist as well as a patriot. Soon after his death, all the clans (or phratries) of the city’s most ancient families displayed his bust adorned with the laurel wreath presented to victorious playwrights at the theater contest known as the Dionysia. Aristophanes’ comedy Batrachoi (405 b.c.e.; The Frogs, 1780) has his character of Aeschylus declare, “I am dead, but my poetry lives.” Even Sophocles stands aside in Aristophanes’ play rather than presume to challenge Aeschylus as the master of Greek tragedy. The herald of the ancient Athenian murder court known as the Areopagus blew the Tyrrhenian trumpet that traditionally opened its sessions in honor of Aeschylus. In doing so, he recalled the playwright who had celebrated both that court and Athens’ patron goddess Athena in his play Eumenides, part of his trilogy Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777). All of these are measures of Aeschylus’s fame.

The question to be answered is why a playwright so obviously celebrated, even during his lifetime, would have died so obscurely so far from the city he loved. Why would Aeschylus have remained for two extended periods of his life at the court of a Syracusan tyrant? It is clear that Aeschylus always had his detractors. Some viewed his plays as overly conservative, or they criticized the formalism of his set speeches and linear plotlines. In doing so, they privileged the dramatic tension of the tragedies of Sophocles (c. 496-406 b.c.e.), the irreverence of the tragicomedies of Euripides (c. 485-406 b.c.e.), or the elegant rhetoric of Thespis (before 535-after 501 b.c.e.) and Phrynichus (c. 510-c. 476 b.c.e.).

The Greek lexicographer Suidas (fl. 970 c.e.) claims that Aeschylus was brought before the very same Areopagus that had honored him, charged with having indirectly caused the deaths that occurred in the collapse of a theater that was staging one of his works. Rather than face a verdict, Aeschylus exercised the option available to every person accused of a criminal charge and chose voluntary exile, at Hieron I of Syracuse’s court. However, Aelian, a Greek historian of the second century c.e., declared that Aeschylus, who was a full member of the Demeter cult at his native Eleusis, had blasphemed by revealing the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and that to avoid a charge of religious impiety elected an extended residence in Sicily following 470 b.c.e.

Far more likely than either of these alternatives is the explanation that Aeschylus simply accepted Hieron’s invitation to stay at his court in the role of a distinguished literary personage. It was, indeed, the policy of the Sicilian tyrant to grant subventions to the famous artists of the day. The lyric poets Pindar (c. 518-c. 438 b.c.e.) and Simonides (c. 556-c. 467 b.c.e.) were definitely recipients of Hireon’s largess. This would also account for the second visit that Aeschylus made to Hieron’s court in the year before his death.


(Library of Congress)

Aeschylus certainly had his detractors, but no indication exists that there is anything suspicious in his death. Alone among the tragedians, his plays, numbering anywhere between seventy-two and ninety depending on the list one consults, received the extraordinary privilege of revival to compete with newly written plays. Neither Sophocles nor Euripides received such an honor. Indeed, it can be argued that the right of revival combined with the overwhelming power of Aeschylus’s output was one element paradoxically responsible for discouraging new playwrights after his death. Based on contemporary testimony, Aeschylus’s plays continued to win more than half of the theater contests held after their author’s death.

What appears to be a consistent pattern of recognition during Aeschylus’s lifetime seems only to have increased after his death. The orator Lycurgus of Athens (396-325 b.c.e.) called for a bronze statue of Aeschylus to be erected at Athens. Bronze was reserved for larger-than-life statues of deities. At Gela, the town in which Aeschylus died, an epitaph said to have been written by the playwright himself is noteworthy for several reasons. It may be translated as follows:

This tomb hides the dust of Aeschylus,
Son of Euphorion and pride of Gela.
Marathon may tell how tried was his valor,
And the long-haired Medes, who knew it well, May do
  so too.

The epitaph is extraordinary, especially if Aeschylus did write it himself, first because it does not refer at all to Aeschylus as a playwright. Second, while it identifies Aeschylus as son of a noble of Eleusis, it mentions neither that city nor the city of Athens, in which Aeschylus had achieved his fame. Rather, it appears to adopt Gela as the playwright’s native city. It gives prominent mention, however, to Aeschylus’s heroism in the Greco-Persian War, and it forces this acknowledgment even from his enemies.

As with so much of the folklore surrounding Aeschylus’s death, in the case of the epitaph one must also read past the metaphor. Certainly, the death of Aeschylus was unexpected. An eagle, Zeus’s bird, was said to have been its agent; in other words, divine destiny took him. The epitaph that records a death far from home at the court of a tyrant who privileged the arts as well as military achievement would naturally focus on Aeschylus’s heroism in the Greco-Persian War. While extolling this, it simultaneously adopts the playwright as Gela’s honorary citizen, making Aeschylus’s tomb both a local shrine and a place of pilgrimage.


Aeschylus moved Greek drama clearly and finally away from a purely choral art to one that featured three primary actors in dialogue with the chorus. Sophocles’ plays would feature this device, thereby creating the exceptional dramatic tension which identifies his plays.

The three most famous Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all flourished within the fifth century. The productions of their plays dovetail and Greek dramatic style moves quickly from Aeschylus’s conservative patriotism to Euripides’ tragicomedy. The comic playwright Aristophanes poses the aesthetic question implicit in the contemporaneous lives of these three playwrights in his play Frogs, produced in 405 b.c.e., one year after the deaths of both Sophocles and Euripides. The central feature of the play is a rhetoric contest held between Aeschylus and Euripides in the Underworld to see who should receive the laurel crown.

Significantly, Sophocles withdraws from the contest in favor of Aeschylus, though Euripides remains—and loses to Aeschylus. This outcome reflects Aeschylus’s desire for a more elegant, rhetorically based dramatic form than it does public taste of the late fifth century.

Further Reading

  • Aylen, Leo. The Greek Theater. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. A nontechnical survey written from the perspective of a theater director contemplating the production of a Greek play. Contains a brief examination of theater logistics with separate chapters on production, choral dance, and a good discussion of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound.
  • Bieber, Margarite. History of the Greek and Roman Theater. 1939. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. A profusely illustrated volume that traces the development of ancient theater with chapters on every phase of ancient theater development.
  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Aeschylus: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. New York: Chelsea House, 2001. Presents important twentieth century criticism from a variety of perspectives, as well as a critical biography, a chronology of Aeschylus’s life, an index, and an introductory essay by Bloom.
  • Csapo, Eric, William J. Slater, and Judith Barringer. The Context of Ancient Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. An excellent work on the cultural, political, and historical context in which the ancient plays were produced.
  • Forman, Robert J. Classical Greek and Roman Drama: An Annotated Bibliography. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1989. A survey of the development of Greek and Roman drama with annotated references to editions, translations, as well as primary and secondary works of criticism.
  • Green, Richard, and Eric Handley. Images of the Greek Theater. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995. An impressive collection of depictions of performances, productions, actors, and stage settings as represented on ancient Greek pottery.
  • Mylonas, George E. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. Remains an excellent source on information about the rites of Demeter that were held in Aeschylus’s place of birth.
  • Pickard-Cambridge, A. W. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens. 2d rev. ed. Edited by S. Gould and D. Lewis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Contains information of the Greater Dionysia at Eleusis, the major Pan-Hellenic theater festival. Has been revised in line with modern archaeological findings.
  • Pickard-Cambridge, A. W. The Theater of Dionysus in Athens. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946. Remains the major source of information for the site of the Lesser Dionysia, the theater festival held at Athens.

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Aeschylus; Aristophanes; Euripides; Menander (dramatist); Pindar; Simonides; Sophocles; Thespis. Aeschylus