The frog song

When frogs sing your praise without expecting a kiss in return, you must have accomplished something great. Aeschylus seems to have specialized at doing the right thing just right. As a citizen-soldier, he fought against the Persians at Marathon and Salamis. As a playwright, he won thirteen first prizes at dramatic competitions at the City Dionysia in Athens. As an artist, he had a reputation for complex imagery and diction, visually stimulating costumes, and dramas that engage with major moral problems. As a corpse he surpassed many of the living by winning fifteen posthumous victories with productions re-staged by others. Such an impressive array of achievements suffices to explain why Aeschylus is perhaps the most celebrated Eleusinian of all time.

Sleeping in the vineyard

Aeschylus was born in 525 BCE in Eleusis, an exceptionally important and proud deme (suburb) of ancient Athens. The famous sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, as well as the defenses erected by the Peisistratids, enabled Eleusis to behave almost like a proper polis (city-state), as reflected in the honors conferred on numerous outsiders by the Eleusinians. Aeschylus was the son of Euphorion, a member of an ancient, noble, and wealthy family of Attica. He was still fairly young when he was sent to watch grapes in the country; he fell asleep, but god Dionysus appeared in his dream and told him to turn his attention to the art of theater. According to tradition, he composed his earliest tragedy at the age of 26; he failed to win the first prize but he must have known he had found his vocation.   

Sons of Eleusis

At that critical junction, Aeschylus’ life took an unexpected turn as a result of Persian ambition. King Darius was eager to punish the Athenians for their military intervention on behalf of the Greeks of Asia Minor in the Ionian revolt. He assembled an army and launched an amphibious expedition against Athens (490 BCE). The Persian fleet landed at the bay of Marathon, roughly sixty kilometers (37 miles) west of Eleusis, on the other side of Attica. The Athenians summoned all available hoplites and marched against the invaders. Aeschylus fought to defend Athens against the “long-haired Persians”; so did his brother, Cynaegirus, who died valiantly when he attempted to prevent an enemy ship from sailing away. He tried to hold the stern with his bare hands but the crew cut them off (depending on the source, he lost one or both hands). It was a glorious moment for Eleusis and the sons of Euphorion; many years later, Aeschylus selected his participation in the battle of Marathon as his proudest achievement, the one event of a tumultuous life that he chose to engrave on his tombstone.  

The play

When the Persian fleet left, the Athenians returned to their peaceful activities. Aeschylus was still mindful of Dionysus’ command, so he decided to resume his career as a playwright. In 484 BCE he won his first tragic victory; for the next two decades, Aeschylus seems to have experienced an unbroken string of success. He produced between seventy and ninety plays, though only seven complete tragedies survive. Fragments of other plays have survived in quotations or on Egyptian papyri; among these are a few lines from a lost play called Eleusinians.

Fifth-century Eleusinians claimed that Theseus granted King Adrastus the favour of burying the Seven leaders of the Argive expedition against Thebes in a cemetery near Eleusis. Aeschylus drew inspiration from this intervention and contributed to the spreading of what must have begun as a local tradition to the entire Athenian community. The Eleusinians was part of a trilogy about the Argive expedition; it dealt with the recovery of the fallen heroes and was presumably preceded by the Argive Women, in which the mothers receive the news of their sons’ tragic deaths. The third play may have been Nemea or Epigoni. We have no information on the date of the trilogy but it may be associated with an increased interest in Theseus after Cimon brought his bones to Athens in 475 BCE. At the height of his popularity as a playwright, Aeschylus seems to present the Athenian audience with a major tradition from his hometown, inviting them to incorporate it in the communal memory as an event for which they should feel immensely proud.  

The trailblazer

Eleusis was the center of the worship of Demeter and Kore. The Mysteries were sacred and it was forbidden for initiates to reveal the secret contents of the cult. Aeschylus seems to have done just that, not once but repeatedly…in his tragedies. The playwright was brought before the Areopagus (the court for trying deliberate homicide and religious matters) on charges of “alluding to details of the cult in several of his plays”. Aristotle argues that Aeschylus did not know he was revealing secrets, a defense that may or may not have helped him. We do not know the outcome of the trial, but the offending titles were listed as follows: Female Archers, Iphigenia, Oedipus, Priestesses, and Sisyphus the Stone-Roller.

What is certain is that Aeschylus altered the way the audience perceived the divine. In Eumenides he was the first to show the Furies with snakes in their hair, a sight so terrifying that children lost consciousness and women aborted their unborn babies. And yet the Furies become a popular subject for Athenian pottery following their fateful appearance on stage.

At an old age, Aeschylus left Athens for the court of Hieron in Syracuse, where he seems to have ended his days. The boy from Eleusis changed the world with his bravery and his words. Aristophanes was therefore perfectly justified when he enlisted a chorus of frogs to praise Aeschylus as the “first among the Greeks [who had] created towers of solemn words and beautified tragic nonsense.”

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