Despite the fifth century b.c.e. Athenian political and religious issues that are diffused more often in Aeschylus’s tragedies than in those of Sophocles and Euripides and that demand some historical explanation for the modern reader, the plays of Aeschylus (c. 525/524 – c. 456/455 BC) still possess that timeless quality of thought and form that is the hallmark of classical Greek literature and that has made the themes of Aeschylean drama forever contemporary. Although Aeschylus’s intense Athenian patriotism and probable support for Periclean democratic reforms is fairly well documented in his biographical sources and is reinforced by the dramatic evidence, it is his attention to theological and ethical issues and especially to the connection between Zeus and justice and to the rules governing relationships among humans and between humanity and divinity that provide a central focus for his tragedies.
It cannot be a coincidence that all seven extant tragedies, while less than onetwelfth of his total corpus, reflect a constant Aeschylean concern with the theme of human suffering and its causes. Again and again, the plays of Aeschylus suggest that human suffering is divine punishment caused by human transgressions and that people bring on themselves their own sorrows by overstepping their human bounds through hybris, hubris or excessive pride. At the same time, the role of the gods, and especially of Zeus, in this sequence of human action and human suffering is of particular interest to Aeschylus, whose plays seek in Zeus a source of justice and of fair retribution despite the vagaries of an apparently unjust world.
The Persians, Aeschylus’s earliest surviving tragedy, analyzes this system of divine retribution in the context of the unsuccessful invasion of Greece by the Persian king Xerxes in 480-479 b.c.e. Instead of the jubilant Greek victory ode that this drama could have become in the hands of a less perceptive artist, The Persians, presenting events from the viewpoint of the defeated Persians rather than that of the victorious Greeks, transforms the specific, historical events into a general, universal dramatization of defeat and its causes, of hubristic actions and their punishment.
The tragedy, set in the palace of Xerxes at Sousa, far from the events with which it is concerned, sacrifices the immediacy of the battlefield for a broadened perspective. The Persian defeat at Salamis is dramatically foreshadowed in the parodos, or choral entrance song, in which description of the magnificent departure of the Persian forces contrasts with the chorus’s fear of impending disaster. A central cause of this apprehension is the yoking of the Hellespont, which the Persian king had ordered to facilitate departure, and, with overweening pride, to punish the sea for inhibiting Darius’s earlier expedition against Greece. The chorus of elders does not speak here specifically of hubris, but of ate, an untranslatable Greek word implying “blindness,” “delusion,” “reckless sin,” and “ruin.” At the climax of the parodos, the ropes that bind the Hellespont become a metaphor for the nets of ate from which no mortal “who enters is able to escape.”
Foreshadowing is continued in the first episode, in which the queen mother Atossa describes to the chorus a vision of Xerxes’ defeat, which has troubled her at night. The chorus’s response to this dream is the suggestion that the queen sacrifice to the chthonic powers and especially to the dead Darius, but before Atossa can act on this advice, a messenger arrives with news of the disaster at Salamis. This scene is an example of the structural and dramatic variety open to the Greek dramatist with Aeschylus’s introduction of the second actor. The messenger’s opening lines are in the traditional anapestic meter reserved for entrances and are followed by an epirrhematic passage in which the messenger speaks in iambic trimeter while the chorus responds in sung lyrics. No details of the battle are provided by the messenger until the queen requests them, and there follow several messenger reports, one listing Persian losses, another describing the sea battle at Salamis, a third the nearby land battle, and, finally, one announcing the losses in the fleet on the return journey. These reports are interrupted by brief interchanges between the messenger and the queen, in which both speakers respond in two or more lines of trimeter.
Rarely in this early play can be found the rapid stichomythia, or conversation in alternate lines of trimeter, that is later used so effectively by two or more speakers in Greek tragedy. The messenger scene substantiates the earlier fears of the queen and the chorus with the reality of defeat, and the dramatic effect of the series of speeches is like a sequence of disastrous waves on the Persian nation. The choral ode that follows the messenger scene is a lyric lament over the disaster and contrasts vividly in its pathos with the majesty of the parodos, in which the expedition’s departure was described.
The messenger scene dramatizes the actuality of the Persian defeat, but the causes of this defeat are not explained until the second episode, in which Atossa and the chorus call forth the ghost of Darius as they had planned to do before the arrival of the messenger. It is Darius who, as a ghost, has the atemporal perspective to link cause and effect and to explain the defeat of his son Xerxes. When the disaster of Salamis is announced to him, Darius’s initial response is that “some great divine force has made Xerxes unable to think clearly,” and he then elaborates by linking both Zeus and Xerxes himself as agents in the disaster. Darius says that Xerxes’ senses were diseased when he yoked the Hellespont: “Although a mortal, he thought to have power over all the gods, but not with good counsel.”
Zeus did not stop Xerxes in his folly because “god joins in when a man hastens [his own destruction],” a doom that Xerxes “in his youthful boldness unwittedly accomplished.” Thus, it is Xerxes’ senseless pride, his haughty attempt to become more than human, which is his downfall, and the gods, especially Zeus, not only acquiesce but also assist in this downfall. Darius makes this most explicit in his prophecy of the Persian defeat at Plataea (479 b.c.e.), in which he speaks specifically of “hybris blossoming forth and having the fruit of ate” and of Zeus who is “a harsh accountant and punisher of excessively arrogant thoughts.” This dramatically central episode ends with Darius advising the absent Xerxes to be more moderate. The arrival of the defeated Xerxes in the exodos, or last scene, is, in a sense, an undramatic but necessary anticlimax to the psychopomp of Darius in the second episode. The scene with Xerxes is a purely lyric lament in which no further dramatic or thematic development is achieved. There is, in fact, no reference in the exodos to the appearance of Darius or to his explanation of events.
The drama ends with Xerxes, still unconscious of his own fatal role in the disaster, giving himself over to uninhibited lamentation. This ignorance is a significant feature of Greek tragedy, and of Aeschylean tragedy in particular, a fact that has been obfuscated by Aristotelian criticism. In his Poetics, Aristotle placed great emphasis on a tragic fall (peripeteia) linked with recognition (anagnorisis) and tragic flaw (hamartia). Most Greek tragedies cannot be successfully interpreted through Aristotelian terminology; certainly not The Persians, in which there is no recognition (anagnorisis) of his tragic flaw (hamartia) by Xerxes. The disastrous effects of Xerxes’ pride are well developed in The Persians, but they are developed for Atossa, the chorus, and the audience, not for Xerxes.
The theological and ethical system suggested in The Persians can also be seen in Agamemnon, a play in which the theme of pride and its punishment is complicated by the issues of blood guilt and family curse. The plot is not historical in the modern sense of the word, but rather mythical, which, for the Greeks, was also historical, and it is concerned with the homecoming of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, and with his subsequent brutal murder by his wife, Clytemnestra, and his cousin Aegisthus.
The story is at least as old as Homer, who uses it in the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), but it is impossible to determine whether the stark thematic contrasts between the Aeschylean and Homeric versions are a result of an intermediary source or Aeschylean innovation. In Homer, the tale is used as an exemplum of filial duty and feminine deception: Telemachus should show as much fidelity to his missing father as Orestes did to his late father, Agamemnon, and on his visit to Hades, Odysseus is warned by the ghost of Agamemnon to beware of the guile of women. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, the death of the king is not simply a result of the deception of Clytemnestra; rather, the play is a dramatized quest for the deeper causes of events, causes that are seen as a combination of past and present deeds, individual and collective guilt, and human and divine motivation.
The parodos of Agamemnon deals with the past. In this unusually long entrance song, the chorus of elders reflects forebodingly on the crucial event surrounding Agamemnon’s departure for Troy—the sacrifice by Agamemnon of his own daughter Iphigenia. This sacrifice presented a dilemma for Agamemnon. On the one hand, it was clear that Zeus was sending him against Troy because Troy broke the Greek custom of xenia, or guest-friendship, in the theft of Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, by the Trojan prince Paris. On the other hand, the departing Greeks had offended the goddess Artemis, who would not permit departure until Iphigenia was sacrificed. Agamemnon was thus placed in the impossible situation of either offending Zeus or killing his own daughter. He reluctantly chose the latter course.
Significantly, the chorus’s narration of these events is broken by the famous “Hymn to Zeus.” In this prayer, occurring at the narrative point at which Agamemnon must make his decision, the chorus turns to Zeus as a source of wisdom, as a god who “has led men to think, who has set down the rule that wisdom comes through suffering.” These lines, often considered the heart of Agamemnon, if not of the entire Oresteia, underscore Zeus’s central role in dramatic events. Agamemnon dies not only because he killed Iphigenia, but also because of Zeus’s didactic system of learning through suffering (pathei mathos).
The lessons of Zeus’s instruction are explained in the first choral ode, a song of victory for the fall of Troy in which the chorus argues that the city fell by the lightning stroke of Zeus because of Paris’s insolence in stealing Helen. It is in reference to Paris that the chorus says that “someone has denied that the gods deign to care about mortals who trample upon the beauty of holy things.” Yet, by the end of the ode, Zeus’s anger is not only directed toward Paris but also toward someone else who has caused so many war dead, who has become “prosperous beyond justice.” Although his name is not mentioned, it is clear that this man is Agamemnon.
The hubris of Agamemnon, implied in the first ode, becomes more explicit in the second episode, when a messenger arrives to confirm the fall of Troy and to report that even the temples of the gods at Troy have been destroyed. The burden for this unwarranted and insolent offense against the gods must fall squarely on the shoulders of Agamemnon, as commander, and is an act of hubris similar to Xerxes’ yoking of the Hellespont. Agamemnon’s hubris is dramatically confirmed in the famous third episode, often called the “Carpet Scene” because of the purple carpet that Clytemnestra craftily laid in the path of her returning husband, supposedly as a gesture of respect but actually for Agamemnon’s spiritual destruction. Agamemnon himself refers to this carpet as an honor befitting the gods alone and asks that he should be respected as a mortal, not a god. Nevertheless, Clytemnestra is able to coax her husband across the fatal tapestry by the mention of Priam, Agamemnon’s defeated Trojan rival, who, in his Eastern opulence, would certainly have accepted the honor. So, the Greek king walks on the carpet into his palace and his death, not without an apotropaic prayer that “no god strike him from afar” as he does so.
Although hubris is not mentioned in this scene, there is no need to do so. Agamemnon’s act is in itself visual proof of the king’s overweening pride, of his excessive selfesteem. Agamemnon dies, then, for his own sins. There are, however, further considerations: There is Cassandra, a Trojan princess whom Agamemnon has brought home as his slave and mistress. Cassandra is another proof of Agamemnon’s pride; he has what a god could not have. Cassandra, a prophetess of Apollo, had dedicated her virginity to the god. When she refused the god’s sexual advances, Apollo punished her by making her prophecies never believed but always true.
Aeschylus uses this prophetic skill of Cassandra to great effect in the climactic fourth episode, in which the prophetess repeatedly predicts the king’s and her own imminent deaths, but no one believes her. At the same time, Cassandra adds another perspective to the death of Agamemnon by mentioning “small children crying for their own death.” This is a reference to the crime of Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, who had killed his nephews, Aegisthus’s brothers, and served them for dinner to their father, Thyestes. Cassandra’s prophetic abilities thus serve to clarify the causes of Agamemnon’s death, just as the ghost of Darius did Xerxes’ downfall. In this way, Aeschylus manipulates Greek belief in prophecy and in ghosts to great dramatic effect.
By the time that Agamemnon’s death cries ring from the palace, the king’s death has been shown to be not only the result of his own sins of pride but also the result of blood guilt, of the sins of his father. The net in which Clytemnestra and Aegisthus capture Agamemnon is no simple affair, but an entangled web of his own and his father’s making, of human and divine cause and effect. This web engulfs Agamemnon in the first play of the Oresteia and engulfs his son in the remaining two plays. Xerxes in The Persians had been caught in a similar net of pride, and such links of theme and imagery between these two plays, which together represent Aeschylus’s earliest and latest extant plays, suggest a continuity of thought in the Aeschylean corpus centered around hubris and its consequences. Variations on this theme can be found in the other surviving plays, such as The Suppliants, in which a just but mysterious Zeus is seen as the protector of the good and the punisher of evil, and Seven Against Thebes, in which human and divine will together with blood guilt again coalesce into disaster.
Despite its diversity, the Aeschylean corpus presents a peculiar cohesion of thought. Although the lessons derived from dramatic events may be lost on Aeschylus’s main characters, such as Xerxes and Agamemnon, for whom there is no “learning through suffering,” the lesson of Aeschylus’s plays is directed especially to the audience, not only a fifth century b.c.e. Athenian audience but also a more universal one for whom the Aeschylean play is a timeless attempt to explain the causes of human suffering through a complicated chain of cause and effect, of human action and divine punishment. Through a masterful combination of great poetry and ingenious stagecraft, Aeschylus presents in his plays the outstanding moral issues of his day and of all time.
Prometheus Bound, the seventh play in Aeschylus’s manuscript tradition, cannot be firmly dated and contains so many problems and idiosyncrasies of meter, languages, staging, and structure that a large number of modern scholars have come to question Aeschylean authorship. The arguments on both sides of the authorship debate have been thoroughly discussed by C. J. Herington in The Author of the “Prometheus Bound” (1970) and by M. Griffith in The Authenticity of “Prometheus Bound” (1977), and the debate has remained a stalemate. If this play was written by Aeschylus, it must have been written toward the end of Aeschylus’s lifetime, probably after 460, and may have been part of a connected trilogy including the lost Prometheus Lyomenos (unbound) and Prometheus Pyrphoros (fire-bearer).
Of the more than 80 known plays of Aeschylus, only 7 tragedies survive in more or less complete form: Persai, 472 b.c.e. (The Persians, 1777); Hepta epi ThTbas, 467 b.c.e. (Seven Against Thebes, 1777); Hiketides, 463 b.c.e.? (The Suppliants, 1777); Oresteia, 458 b.c.e. (English translation, 1777; includes Agamemnfn [Agamemnon], ChoTphoroi [Libation Bearers], and Eumenides); Prometheus desmftTs, date unknown (Prometheus Bound, 1777)
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