Eumenides: Biography: Aeschylus
Little is known for sure about the life of Aeschylus. He seems to have been born about the year 525 BC, into an ancient family of the aristocracy, in the town of Eleusis. Eleusis was the home of the Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrated in honor of Demeter (whose name means Earth Mother) and Persephone, who reigned as queen of the Underworld for half the year, and whose coming up from the Underworld every year brought back the spring. A later legend tells us that as a teenager he had a dream in which Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy (in whose honor the festival of the Great Dionysia was held, at which Greek tragedies were performed), ordered him to compose tragedies. The official records of the annual dramatic performances in Athens tell us that his first play was put on in about 498, and that he was still composing plays in 458. Of the probably eighty-nine plays he composed, only seven complete ones have survived, along with some fragments.
The art of tragedy was still a new one when Aeschylus began to write; the contests in tragedy at the Great Dionysia only began around 534. The art included the choral odes that had long been sung and danced as part of religious festivals, as well as solo odes and spoken poetry, and the actors wore not only costumes but masks. As a creator of tragedy, Aeschylus not only wrote the words, he composed the music and choreographed the dances, directed the play, acted in it, and taught the other actors their roles. He also expanded the art: at first only one actor had spoken independently of the chorus (though the same actor could appear in several roles); Aeschylus added a second, and when a third actor was added later, he used all three, as in The Oresteia. For each competition, he, like all tragic playwrights, composed three tragedies and a light, farcical kind of play called a satyr play. These plays were not necessarily connected; The Oresteia is the only surviving example of a complete trilogy of plays. Of the satyr play that went with it, we know only that it was called Menelaus and depicted Menelaus among the satyrs. We also know that Aeschylus had the reputation of being the best composer of satyr plays in Athens, and the fragments of these plays that have been discovered do suggest that he showed a light and playful side of his talent in them.
The relationship of Aeschylus’s art to the changes that were going on in Athens in his day is a fascinating topic and quite relevant to any interpretation of the Oresteia. Athens threw off tyranny when Aeschylus was about fifteen, acquired a democratic constitution a few years later, and then became the main leader in the struggle against the Persian Empire. Aeschylus fought at Marathon, the great defeat of the Persians by the Athenians in 490, as the epitaph said to be his records: “Of his valor and fair fame the field of Marathon can tell, / and the longhaired Persian, who learned to know it there.”
Even though Athens had acquired a democratic constitution, the new government still had strong aristocratic elements, among which was the court known as the Areopagus, a fact of great importance for understanding The Eumenides.
After the Persian Wars, in 472, Aeschylus composed his first surviving tragedy, The Persians, telling of the decisive defeat inflicted on the Persian fleet by the Athenian fleet at the Battle of Salamis in 479, but telling of it from the Persian point of view. The other surviving plays: The Seven against Thebes (467); The Suppliants (463), Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides, the three plays of The Oresteia (458); Prometheus Bound (no known date, but some argue after The Oresteia).
During the years just before the first production of the Oresteia in 458, there was a bitter struggle in Athens, which involved violence and even some bloodshed, between the aristocratic party and those who favored a more complete democracy. The democrats succeeded in stripping the Areopagus of the broad powers of guiding the city it had held, leaving only the right to try cases of homicide. Pericles was on the democratic side, and emerged as the most influential leader of the now more completely democratic Athens after the time of troubles. One of the other big changes the democrats made was to end the alliance between Athens and aristocratic Sparta and to ally Athens with the more democratic Argos instead.
Whatever conclusion one reaches about exactly what Aeschylus was saying in The Eumenides about the Areopagus (scholars differ on this question), one thing is clear—in this play, he was ending his retelling of a legend from the heroic age in a way that connected it with the most controversial political questions of his own day, as Athens left its traditional past ever more completely behind and moved into a new world.
Aeschylus seems to have spent the last two years of his life in Sicily, and he died there in about 456.