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Aeschylus | Biography

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Early Life and Military Service

The Greek dramatist Aeschylus, born around 525 BCE, is considered the father of tragedy. He was born in a small town near Athens and spent his youth working in a vineyard. In the traditional story told about the beginnings of Aeschylus's playwriting, the god Dionysus visited him in his sleep and commanded him to write tragedies. At the time, theater was still a new art form in Greece.

Aeschylus's first play was performed when he was about 26 years old. He later joined the military, fighting against the invading Persians at the historic Battle of Marathon. His brother was killed in the battle, and the loss may have deeply affected Aeschylus. He lived in a turbulent time for Greece, when Athenians had just adopted democracy. The Athenians were struggling to fight off both outside forces and would-be despots from within.

A Rising Star of Greek Theater

As Greek theater began to gain popularity, Aeschylus became a major participant in Athens's annual Great Dionysia dramatic competition. He began to compete in 499 BCE, and he won for the first time in 472 BCE for his play The Persians, a response to the Persian invasion, which threatened Greek dominance. His writing career continued to thrive during this time, although he lost the competition one year to the new playwright Sophocles.

The Oresteia and Aeschylus's Legacy

Aeschylus made major contributions to the development of Greek drama as a lasting literary form. Before Aeschylus, playwrights had used only a single character who interacted with the chorus. Aeschylus was the first Greek playwright to expand the number of characters in his plays, thereby creating additional conflicts and dramatic tension. He was also the first dramatist to present plays in a trilogy (cycle of three).

In his 60s Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia, the cycle of three plays including Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. This cycle continues to be his best-known work and represents three of the seven surviving plays from the 70 to 90 he wrote. Two years after writing the Oresteia, in 456 BCE, Aeschylus died on the southern coast of Sicily, which was then a Greek colony. A respected figure, he was given a public funeral, with dramas performed at his grave.

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