Chapter 12. Aeschylus: Little Ugly One

As we turn to the major Athenian dramatists, we find that three of the four fit into our pattern somewhat; Aeschylus suffers an adverse trial against his poetry and bitterly leaves Athens; Euripides is attacked by the Athenians and leaves Athens, only to be torn to pieces by comic poets or women; Aristophanes attacks Cleon, and is subjected to trial and punished as a result. Only Sophocles lives a peaceful life and receives a peaceful death, an example of the Pindaric line of development in poetic vitae, the positive life. [1]
Aeschylus offers a rich clustering of motifs. His name means “Little Ugly One,” which is a curious coincidence, given the strong tradition for poetic ugliness. [2] He was renowned as a soldier: according to his Vita, which describes him as noble (gennaion), he served in all three of the major battles of the Persian War. [3] His epitaph, perhaps composed by the poet himself, is well known; it does not even mention poetry:
Αισχύλον Εύφορίωνος Άθηναιον τόδε κεύθει μνήμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας· άλκήν δ’ εύδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον άλσος αν εϊποι και βαθυχαιτήεις Μήδος έπιστάμενος.
This tomb in grain-bearing Gela covers an Athenian, Aeschylus son of Euphorion, who died here. The famous grove of Marathon could tell of his courage and the longhaired Mede knew it well. [4]
This martial background found some expression in Aeschylus’ art, especially in the Seven Against Thebes, which Aristophanes described as “brimming with Ares,” [5] and impelling the Athenians to battle.
Plutarch, commenting on Aristophanes’ observation, wrote that the Seven was brimming with Dionysus more than Ares, as were all Aeschylus’ plays. [6] The dramatist Aeschylus was clearly moving in a Dionysian sphere of influence; interesting in this regard is the statement, widely reported, that Aeschylus wrote his plays while drunk. [7] This phrase, “obviously figurative,” as Gilbert Murray remarks, points to the poet possessed by the divine, the inspired, slightly mad poet. He was widely acknowledged to be the best writer of satyr plays, whose Dionysiae, archaic character is clear. [8]
Aeschylus was so closely associated with Dionysus that this god presides over a typical consecration scene in the poet’s biographical tradition: “Aeschylus said that once when he was a youth he went to sleep while watching grapes in a field, and that Dionysus appeared and commanded him to write tragedy. And when it was day, since he wished to be obedient, he made an attempt and hereafter found composing tragedy quite easy. He himself would tell this story.” [9]
As in the cases of Hesiod and Archilochus, the poetic theophany takes place in nature, in the fields, in a setting of pasturage and cultivation (tending either animals or plants). Here, appropriately, the plant is the grape. As in the case of Archilochus, the poet is given his visitation while a youth. Judging the antiquity of this story is difficult; the scholia referring to the poet writing drunk would easily encourage such an anecdotal elaboration, in the tradition of Hesiod. On the other hand, Pausanias mentions twice that Aeschylus is the source of the tale; the imperfect, elegen, perhaps emphasizes that he would tell the story frequently. This kind of emphasis is impressive, though putting an apocryphal tale in the mouth of a hero is standard strategy in pseudepigraphy.
Though Aeschylus is chosen by a god and inspired by him—or perhaps because he is chosen—he ends his life in defeat and ambiguously voluntary exile (after a humiliating public defeat), which places him securely in the tradition we have been analyzing. He leaves Athens out of shame or anger after losing a poetic competition—either with the young Sophocles, in a tragic competition, or with Simonides, after Aeschylus and the lyric poet have each composed an elegy for the dead at Marathon. [10]
Plutarch tells us that an unusual jury of the most prestigious men of Athens, Cimon and his fellow generals, was pressed into duty to decide the contest with Sophocles. The contest caused unusual rivalry because of the high reputation of the judges. When the victory was at last awarded to Sophocles, they say that Aeschylus, becoming overwrought and taking it hard, did not stay long in Athens, and went in anger to Sicily, where he died, and was buried near the city of Gela.” [11]
This theme has parallels in myth; Ajax feels he has been unjustly denied t ne prize in the contest for the arms of Achilles, and he descends to madness, attempted murder, and death. Heracles, after winning a marriage contest, is unjustly denied his bride, and also descends to madness that results in his death. Fontenrose finds this same reflex in his hero-athlete tales, as the hero- athlete (Cleomedes, Euthycles) goes mad after an athletic council denies him what he feels is his due prize. [12]
The Vita adds that he “was criticized [kataspoudastheis; perhaps ‘oppressed’] by the Athenians.” [13] So we have the familiar themes of poetic contest (as with Homer and Hesiod, here we have two prominent poets) and rejection by a jury, combined with popular criticism and voluntary exile (ambiguous, in that the jury and people have already rejected him).
If this story is true, it is a remarkable example of how reality may follow myth; it is also possible that it is myth itself, modeled on the vitae of Homer, Hesiod, and Aesop. When Aeschylus was invited to Hieron’s court, lured away from Athens by promise of great reward, later generations—perhaps, as in the case of Plato, his immediate students and friends—molded the life to the already existent myth(s). It was a way of honoring the greatness of a poet, giving him the literary equivalent of hero cult; or perhaps, a way of filling up an otherwise incomplete or relatively uneventful biography. [14]
This story of great poet losing a poetic contest is remarkably similar to the story of Homer (both poets leave a city after prominent citizens vote against them). Aeschylus’ death is equally similar: a riddling oracle leads to an odd death that fulfills the oracle in a distant land. The oracle has told him that something thrown from the sky will kill him; in Sicily, as an eagle tries to break a tortoise by dropping it on rocks, it hits Aeschylus’ bald head instead and brings about his death. [15] This is a classic example of the extraordinary or miraculous death discussed earlier; it perhaps has a note of sacralization about it. [16]
After Aeschylus’ death he was given hero cult: “The people of Gela buried him lavishly in the city’s cemetery and honoured [etimēsan] him magnificently [by the epitaph quoted above]. All who made their living by performing tragedies went to his tomb, offered sacrifices [enēgizon] and performed his plays there.” [17] Enagizō is a standard word used to denote sacrifices to the dead in cult, as opposed to divine sacrifices; the importance of elaborate ritual connected with the gravestone, documented here in Aeschylus’ funeral rites, is also an important aspect of hero cult. [18] However, it is striking that his tomb, though the focus of hero cult awarded to a poet, has an inscription that heroized him by remembering his bravery in battle. One remembers the Archilocheion celebrating Archilochus’ bravery in war.
Predictably, the Athenians who earlier had “criticized” Aeschylus now liked him so much that they voted after his death to award a golden crown to whoever was willing to put on one of his dramas ... He won quite a few victories after his death.” [19] The heroizing vote after death complements the rejecting vote in life. [20]


[ back ] 1. Sophocles had a peculiarly pious reputation. He was visited by Heracles in a dream and was enabled to recover a stolen crown of gold, Vita 12 (in Pearson 1957:xviii-xxi; translation in Lefkowitz 1981:75-87); after his death Dionysus appeared to a Spartan commander to make the dramatist’s proper burial possible (Vita 15; Pausanias 1.21.1); his epitaph called him “a most sacred person” (Vita 16: skhêma to semnotaton). He was a priest of Halon, a hero associated with Asclepius (Vita 11); he received the title Dexion because he received Asclepius in his house (Plutarch Numa 3; Etymologicum Magnum s.v. Dexion), see Connolly 1998. He led a thiasos devoted to the Muses (Vita 6). Like Aeschylus, and most Athenians, he was a soldier; he was elected general twice. (Vita 9; Plutarch Pericles 8; Plutarch Nicias 15.) ¶ There are a number of deaths to choose from, but none of them fits the exiled poet pattern. Like Anacreon he died choking on a grape pip; or he died straining his voice in a rehearsal of Antigone; or, perhaps most fittingly, he died of joy when awarded first prize for the Antigone (all Vita 14.) For the Cleobis and Biton theme—ecstatic death—cf. Fairweather 19/4.269-270. For literary” death, cf. Theophrastus, who dies of exhaustion after writing too many books, Suda s.v. Theophrastus. All of these qualify as extraordinary deaths, but are not otherwise remarkable. ¶ Sophocles received hero cult after death (Vita 17): “Istros says that the Athenians voted to sacrifice [thuein] to him every year because of his aretēn [bravery or excellence]” (Ίστρος φησιν Αθηναίους διά την του άνδρός άρετήν και ψήφισμα πεποιηκέναι κατ’ ετος αύτώ θύσειν)· Cf. Vita 15-16; Pausanias 1.21.1; Clay 2004.78-79, 151-152.
[ back ] 2. Cf. Aesop’s “deformed” name.
[ back ] 3. Vita 4. This document can be found in Radt 1985 test. 1, whose paragraph notation, following Wilamowitz, I use. It is also in Page 1972:331-333 and in Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1914. Translation in Lefkowitz 1981:157-160 (from which translations in this section are quoted, with modifications, unless noted otherwise), cf. 68-70.
[ back ] 4. Vita 11 (test. 162R), Pausanias 1.14.5; Athenaeus 14.627d; Plutarch On Exile 13-15 (604-606) (test. 88R). Pausanias and Athenaeus have Aeschylus write this epitaph; the Vita has the people of Gela write it, and later quotes another epitaph (17) related to his death. Cf. Dioscorides in Palatine Anthology 7.411; Antipater of Thessalonica in Palatine Anthology 7.39; Diodorus in Palatine Anthology 7.40 (test. 162-165R). For bibliography on scholars who have accepted or rejected this epitaph as Aeschylean, see Radt 1985:106-107.
[ back ] 5. Frogs 1021: Areôs meston. Cf. above, chapter 3 (Archilochus).
[ back ] 6. Table Talk 7.10.2 (715E) (test. 188R).
[ back ] 7. Cf. Aesop’s “deformed” name.
[ back ] 8. See Seaford 1984; Pausanias 2.13.6 (test. 125bR); Diogenes Laertius 2.133 (test. 125aR).
[ back ] 9. Pausanias 1.21.2 (test. 111R), translation by Jones, modified, εφη δέ Αισχύλος μειράκιον ών καθε^ έν άγρώ φυλάσσων σταφυλάς, καί οί Διόνυσον έπιστάντα κελεΰσαι τραγωδίαν ποιεϊν ήν ήμέρα—πείθεσθαι γάρ έθέλειν—ραστα ήδη πειρώμενος ποιεϊν. ούτος μέν ταυτα έλεγεν· the dream theophany of Dionysus, cf. Dionysus’ appearance to Spartans after the Sophocles, instructing them to honor his tomb, Pausanias 1.21.1; Sophocles Vita 15-16.
[ back ] 10. Vita 8: ήσσηθε'ις νέω δντι τώ Σοφοκλεϊ... ήσσηθεΐς Σιμωνίδη.
[ back ] 11. Plutarch Cimon 8 (test. 57R), translation Clough, modified, ό μέν ούν άγων και διά τό τών κΡι αξίωμα την φιλοτιμίαν υπερέβαλε, νικήσαντος δέ του Σοποκλέους λέγεται τόν περιπαθή γενόμενον καί βαρέως ένεγκόντα χρόνον ού πολύν Αθήνησι διαγαγεΐν, ειτ οιχ δι’ όργήν εις Σικελίαν, οπου καί τελευτησας περί Γέλαν τέθαπται.
[ back ] 12. See Fontenrose 1968:86, 73-77. The trial theme is also found in the stories of Aeschylus revealing the mysteries in his plays (Scholia on Aristotle Nicomachaean Ethics 3.2.1111a8 (test. 93bR), cf. further references in test. 93-94), and in the story that he terrified the audience by the appearance of the Eumenides in the play of the same name, Apsines The Art of Rhetoric 2 p. n 229.14 Spengel-Hammer (test. 95R).
[ back ] 13. Vita 8: υπό Αθηναίων κατασπουδασθείς.
[ back ] 14. Cf. Lefkowitz 1981:72, who characteristically opts for the prosaic idea that Aeschylus was invited to Sicily, and was paid well to go there. There is another variant of the aetiology of Aeschylus’ departure: the Suda (test. 2R) tells us that “he went into exile [phugôn] in Sicily because the stage fell down when he was putting on a performance” (φυγών δ’ εις Σικελίαν διά ΐό πεσεΐν τα ικρία έπιδεικνυμένου αύτου).
[ back ] 15. Vita 10; cf. Wilamowitz 1958 #32 p. 11, citing Valerius Maximus 9.12. extract 2 (test. 96R); Sotades, in Stobaeus Anthology 98.9 Mein.; Pliny History of Animals 10.7 (test. 97R); Aelian On the Characteristics of Animals 7.16 (test. 98R).
[ back ] 16. See above, chapter 7; Piccolomini 1888.
[ back ] 17. Vita 11, my translation, ἀποθανόντα δὲ Γελῶιοι πολυτελῶς ἐν τοῖς δημοσίοις μνήμασι θάψαντες ἐτίμησαν μεγαλοπρεπῶς...εἰς τὸ μνῆμα δὲ φοιτῶντες ῟οσοις ἐν τραγωιδίαις ἦν ὁ βίος ἐνήγιζόν τε καὶ τὰ δράματα ῾θπεκρίνοντο. For Aeschylus’hero cult, see Clay 2004:127.
[ back ] 18. See Burkert 1985:194, 200. For enagizein , 194n46. However, the enagizein/thuein, hero/god dichotomy can be overschematized, see Kearns 1989:4; Ekroth 2002:74-128; Clay 20044 94-95.
[ back ] 19. Vita 13, translation by Lefkowitz, Ἀθηναῖοι δὲ τοσοῦτον ἠγάπησαν Αἰσχυλον ὡς ψηφίσασθαι μετὰ <τὸν> θάνατον αὐτοῦ τὸν βολόυμενον διδάσκειν τὰ Αἰσχύλου χρυσὸν λαμβάνειν...οὐκ ὀλίγας δὲ μετὰ τελευτὴν νίκας ἀπηνέγκατο.
[ back ] 20. Thus we find the following themes in the Aeschylean tradition: 1a1, criminal impiety (revealing the mysteries in his plays); 3, oracle; 4d, ugly (at least, in his name); 5a, sacred; 7, adverse judgment by public meeting; 8, ambiguously voluntary (exile); 10a, exile; 13, hero cult; 19, madness; 23a, consecration theophany; 25a, poetry contest; 26, poet as soldier; 26a military paraenesis as poetic theme.