The Context of the Greek Tragedians

What was happening in ancient Athens during the time of the great tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides?

Who was Aeschylus?

What little we know about Aeschylus is scattered and comes down to us from Pausanias and other ancient sources. Aeschylus lived from approximately 523 BC in Eleusis until approximately 456 BC. He is believed to have died at about age 67.

Eleusis was a small town northwest of Athens, and Aeschylus’s father was believed to be a descendant of the ancient nobility of Athens, prior to the democracy. This nobility was called the Eupatridae (meaning “well-born”)a group composed of the four ancient tribal families.  Members based on heredity composed the political group called the Aeropagus, which selected political leaders, such as the polemarch or the archon. Athens was a successful conquering city and became a large polis. However, it became so large with many people composing its lower classes, excluded from politics, and unrest was nearly constant. In the 7th century, the Aeropagus selected Draco to set down laws, from which we derive the word ‘draconian’. When this failed, Solon was then selected to create a new Athenian constitution in 594 BC. Solon’s reforms scaled back the power of the ancient Eupatridae and discontinued the enslavement of Athenian citizens, and also allowed citizens to vote by lot in the Ecclesia, or assembly, though they were not allowed to hold office. However, the peace was short-lived. A revolt led by Peisistratus, a cousin of Solon, took control. He was a popular ruler who brought great wealth and strengthened the Athenian navy, as well as preserving the rule of law laid down by Solon. He ensured that only his family held offices in Athens. Peisistratus died in 527 BC and his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchus took power, though Hipparchus was assassinated and Hippias, the sole tyrant of Athens, was overthrown in 510 BC, in the year Aeschylus was 15 years old. In his stead, Cleisthenes significantly altered the Athenian political landscape by dividing the traditional four tribes of Athens into ten new ones, each named after a legendary hero. Each tribe was divided into three trittys holding local power over one or more deme, the basis of local government. In total, the new tribes elected fifty men to serve in the Boule in Athens, or a council which governed important affairs. The Aeropagus continued to exist, but had very little power over important matters. In effect, the geographic location of a deme replaced the importance of hereditary political power.

As a young man, Aeschylus worked in a vineyard. There is a myth that Dionysus visited Aeschylus in a dream and convinced him to write tragedy. His first performed tragedy occurred in 499 BC, when he was approximately 26 years old.  In 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother fought in the Persian Wars, during the first invasion of Darius I at the Battle of Marathon under General Miltiades. Aeschylus’s brother died in battle preventing a Persian ship from retreating from Athenian shores. Again in 480 BC Aeschylus fought against the Persians under Xerxes I’s invading armies at the Battle of Salamis, and also possibly the Battle of Plataea. His oldest surviving play, The Persians, tells a story of the war from the perspective of the Persians en route to Salamis. In one later productions of The Persians, Pericles served as the choregos. Upon the conclusion of the Persian Wars, Athens rose to great power and fame as a center of culture.

Aeschylus was one of many Athenians inducted into the cult of the Eleusian Mysteries, a strange religious cult of Demeter, goddess of agriculture, that professed to hold secret knowledge, perhaps pertaining to the afterlife, though information about the cult is scant as men were sworn to secrecy upon penalty of death. Aristotle later accused Aeschylus of profaning the mysteries by presenting revealing clues in his plays. Some accounts claim he was stormed by an angry mob for his actions against the cult, but was released from a trial due to his notable military history and his family lineage.

He made several trips to Sicily in his lifetime and performed his plays. He made one final trip in 458 BC and died shortly thereafter in the city of Gela. According to legend, he was killed when an eagle swooped down and dropped a tortoise on his head, believing his large bald head to be a rock upon which to crack a tortoise shell. For reference, Socrates was a very young man when Aeschylus died. Aeschylus was a widely celebrated tragedian, winning the city Dionysia many times in his lifetime for plays that survive today.

Who was Sophocles?

Sophocles was born around 497 BC and died around 406 BC. He was born almost 30 years prior to the birth of Socrates. He descended from a wealthy family in rural deme, Hippeios Colonus.

His success as a tragedian came in 468 BC when he claimed first prize at the Dionysia over the reigning master, Aeschylus. According to Plutarch, the victory was unusual. Instead of choosing the victor by democratic lot, the Archon asked the military generals, or strategoi, to choose the victor. Shortly after his loss, Aeschylus left for Sicily and died thereafter. In 461 BC, Pericles came to power after ostracizing his rival, Cimon, who was perhaps a patron of Sophocles. Pericles was the celebrated golden-age ruler of Athens until his death in 429 BC. Many proxy wars took place throughout this time, including the controversial Delian League conflicts led by Athens, but the greatest and most devastating for Athens was the Peloponnesian War, which officially lasted from about 431 BC until 404 BC.

Sophocles was elected to serve in various high-ranking political roles in Athens, including as a military general. He fought in the war against Samos – the Samian War – in which Samos went to war with Miletus, an all of Athens, over control of the coast. Athens came to the defense of Miletus, Pericles with nine other generals, and Athens defeated Samos and occupies the island, which then experienced an uprising against the Athenians which they quelled, despite grumblings among the Athenian soldiers. Thucydides’s famously captures the words of Pericles upon their return to Athens in the expedition in the ‘funeral oration’ speech. Pericles, of course, later died of the plague shortly after the outbreak of the war between Athens and Sparta.

At any rate, during his lifetime, Sophocles witnessed the exuberance in the Greek vitories over the Persians, and he also witnessed the catastrophic destruction in the Peloponnesian War. He is believed to have died in his nineties. As with Aeschylus there are a number of apocryphal stories regarding his death: he choked on a grape, he attempted to recite a speech from Antigone without taking a breath, or that he died of victorious joy upon winning the city Dionysia. He was a widely celebrated tragedian, with victories at the Dionysia as well as the Lenaia, a festival which began showcasing the comedies of Aristophanes, and only later in the 5th century introduce the tragic competitions. He innovated further upon Aeschylus’s triumphs by adding a third character, and further reducing the role of the chorus in the production. Unlike Aeschylus and Euripides, who accepted the invitation of foreign courts, Sophocles never left Athens to meet other rulers. Aristotle praised Sophocles Oedipus Rex in the Poetics as the pinnacle of the tragic composition.

Who was Euripides?

Euripides lived from 480 BC until 406 BC. He is rumored to have been born on the day of  the Battle of Salamis.

While he was certainly the least popular of the three great Athenian tragedians in his day, after his death Euripides became widely celebrated, particularly in Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic age. He lived during roughly the same epoch as Sophocles, though he was slightly younger.

While little is known about the life of Euripides, traditionally he was born on Salamis. He was raised with a privileged education, studying under the tutelage of the greats, like Prodicus and Anaxagoras. He was married twice, and both wives were unfaithful to Euripides. He lived the rest of his life as a recluse in a cave on Salamis. He had a large library and lived in communion with the land. In later life, he exiled himself to the rustic court of Macedonia where he died.

Throughout his life, he was mocked mercilessly by the comic poets, much like Socrates. Both figures seemed to represent a decadent intellectualism unbecoming of the nobility of ancient Athens. His life coincided with the war between Sparta and Athens, and his lyrics played an important role in the war. For example, according to Plutarch in his life of Lysander, the lyrics of Euripides in his play Electra prevented the Spartans from demolishing Athens, as it would be wrong to destroy a city that produced such men. Aeschylus was celebrated as a warrior, Sophocles was praised as a public servant, but Euripides was never mentioned in connection to either. Instead, he may well have been a brooding, bookish intellectual. Euripides only won five prizes in total, and one was awarded posthumously. Aristotle viewed the three great tragedians according to a kind of biology: growth (Aeschylus), maturation (Sophocles), and decline (Euripides). He called Euripides the ‘most tragic of the poets’ in the Poetics. Nevertheless, Euripides was popular among the Hellenes and later in the rebirth of his works from Seneca, the Roman. Hence, we are the beneficiaries of far more intact works from Euripides than either Sophocles or Aeschylus. Euripides is believed to have written more than 90 plays, while only approximately 18 or 19 have survived.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the forbears of classical antiquity for the works of Greek tragedy – the spread of Greek drama throughout the known world during Alexander the Great’s reign, the obsessive chronicling of the Egyptians and the Byzantines, the recreation of classical civilization under the vast Roman Empire, the libraries of the Catholic Church, the second rebirth of classical antiquity during the European Renaissance, the German fascination with the Greeks, and the American nostalgia for Greco-Roman civilization. Others like Agathon (recall his presence in Plato’s Symposium) or Menander, both of whom were popular in Athens but whose works have survived only in fragmentary forms.

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