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Aeschylus was the earliest of the three great tragic poets of Greece-Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. He was born at Eleusis in 525 B.C.E., served in the Athenian army, and fought in the pivotal battles of the great Greek war with the Persians, including at Marathon. He showed himself as a great writer at a young age, but did not win a dramatic competition before his late 30s. After that, he won nearly every time he entered, until he reached the age of 50 and Sophocles arrived on the scene. The two of them struggled back and forth for years for top honors. After the performance of his Oresteia, 459 B.C.E., he left home for Sicily, perhaps in response to the growing power of the democracy (toward which he had nuanced views), and was killed, says one story, by an eagle dropping a tortoise on his bare skull. The Sicilians honored him with a splendid monument. A century later, the Athenians, on the motion of the orator Lycurgus, placed a brazen statue of him, as well as of Sophocles and Euripides, in the theater. His tragedies, like those of Sophocles and Euripides, were preserved in a special standard copy to guard them against arbitrary alterations.
In 458 B.C.E., he composed the Oresteia, a trilogy of which we will be reading the first and last parts. The story recounts the murder of Agamemnon on his return home from the Trojan War, Orestes' revenge by murdering his own mother and her lover, and finally Orestes' run-in with justice. Orestes judged by Athena, Apollo, FuriesProbably his final work performed at Athens, it gives us an idea of the whole artistic conception of the poet, and must be looked upon as one of the greatest works of art ever produced. The style is marked by sublimity and majesty and is characterized by strong, sonorous words, an accumulation of epithets, and a profusion of bold metaphors and similes. His view of the universe reveals a profoundly philosophic mind and a heartfelt piety, which conceives of the gods as powers working in the interest of morality. The plots of his plays are simple and economical, and small details in the language are often freighted with significance.
Aeschylus deserves to be seen as the true creator of tragedy. Before his plays, only a single actor was positioned onstage at any given time, and the chorus was the most important element on stage. The actor could wonder aloud or have conversations with the chorus, but there was no room for person-to-person dialogue. By adding a second actor to the first, he originated the genuine dramatic dialogue, which he made the chief part of the play by gradually cutting down the choral parts. He also made much greater use of the scenic apparatus than his predecessors. He introduced masks for the players, and by vibrant and richly embroidered trailing garments, high boots, head-dresses, and other means, gave them a grand imposing aspect above that of common men; and he fitted up the stage with decorative painting and machinery. All these features became the standard elements of ancient drama.
The number of Aeschylus's plays is stated as 90, of which 82 are still known by title, but only 7 are preserved: The Persians, The Seven against Thebes, The Suppliants, Prometheus Bound, and the three plays of the Oresteia
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