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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on the gold plated names etched in the base of the dome. These are the names of eight Greek and Roman philosophers and poets that lived in the ancient world, whose works are still read today. This week the focus is on Aeschylus. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Engraving of scene from Agamemnon tragedy

Plate of Agamemnon Scene 4 showing Clytemnestra with Agamemnon's body from Compositions from the tragedies of Æschylus / designed by John Flaxman; engraved by Thomas Piroli (1795) [Ref. ND497.F41 FLA]

Aeschylus was born in c. 525 BC in Eleusis, a small town about 27 km northwest of Athens, in the fertile valleys of western Attica. Some scholars argue that his date of birth may be based on counting back forty years from his first victory in the Great Dionysia. Aeschylus fought against the Persians at Marathon and probably at Salamis. His family was wealthy and well established. His father, Euphorion, was a member of the Eupatridae, the ancient nobility of Attica. But this might be a fiction invented by the ancients to account for the grandeur of Aeschylus' plays. The Athenians were immensely proud of him and called him “The Father of Greek Tragedy.” Of the eighty or ninety plays he wrote only six or seven may have survived.  

His work

He wrote serious plays which were about the power of the gods over the people and the mysterious fates in their lives. We think he wrote just over ninety plays, including satire plays as well as tragedies; but only seven are known to us today. The best of his known works is a trilogy of plays which tell the story of the family of Agamemnon, the king of the Mycenae.

He wrote The Persae, produced in 472 B.C., the Septem Contra Thebes (in Greek Heptaepi Thebas, “Seven against Thebes”) in 467 B.C., and the Agamemnon, the Choaephori (the Libation Bearers) and the Eumenides which together constitute the trilogy of the Oresteia in 458 B.C. Here are some of the Aeschylus volumes we hold among our rare book collections:

Compositions from the tragedies of Æschylus / designed by John Flaxman; engraved by Thomas Piroli.

Aischylou Tragōdiai 7 : Prometheus desmotes, Hepta epi Thebais, Persai, Agamemnon, Choephoroi, Eumenides, Iketides. Scholia eis tas autas tragodias. = Aeschyli Tragoediae VII. Quæ cùm omnes multo quàm antea castigatiores eduntur, tum verò vna, quæ mutila & decurtata prius erat, integra nunc profertur. Scholia in easdem ... / Petri Victorii cura et diligentia

Persae – The Persians

This is the second and only surviving part of a now otherwise lost trilogy that won the first prize at the dramatic competitions in Athens' City Dionysia festival in 472 BC. During this time each poet in the competition was required to produce three tragedies and a satyr play. For Aeschylus this practice of writing, to link his three tragedies closely in subject, created this form of the trilogy which may have been his own invention. It enabled him to transcend the temporal limits imposed on each of his single plays by the chorus, to achieve a grand architecture and to explore the problems of man’s destiny. The Persians takes place in Susa, which at the time was one of the capitals of the Persian Empire and opens with a chorus of old men of Susa, who are soon joined by the Queen Mother, Atossa, as they await news of her son King Xerxes' expedition against the Greeks. Aeschylus writes with poetic freedom, and patriotism takes second place to the historical subjects for his plays.


The Oresteia (Ancient Greek: Ὀρέστεια) is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BC, concerning the murder of Agamemnon. The Agamemnon is the longest and most complex play in the trilogy. The plot of the play has many twists and turns, and with that the facts and implications gradually revealed through the speeches of the watchman, and through the songs of the chorus of elders. Meanwhile Clytemnestra, waits for her husband’s return... 

Staging and influences

Staging these plays was no easy task. Visual attention was one of Aeschylus main concerns. Thinking about costume and grouping, the chorus and the orchestra, led Aeschylus to devise new dance movements. There were often numerous extras waiting backstage to be deployed in and behind the dance floor. It was under the influence of Aristotle, Father of Theatre and Thespis the first actor that the theatre was beginning to evolve and taking shape, and Aeschylus began writing his tragedies. Aeschylus added an extra actor for more interaction and dramatic scenes to be played out, giving the chorus a lesser importance on stage. For his stage productions Aeschylus designed the many elaborate costumes for each of his plays by giving them a more dramatic look. According to a later account of Aeschylus' life, the chorus of Furies in the first performance of the Eumenides were so frightening when they appeared that children fainted, patriarchs urinated, and pregnant women went into labour. 

His death

There is a very strange story about Aeschylus’ death. In 458 B.C. he returned to Sicily for the last time and visited the city of Gela.  Valerius Maximus (a first century Latin writer and author of a collection of historical anecdotes) wrote that he was killed outside the city by a tortoise dropped by an eagle which had mistaken his bald head for a rock suitable for shattering the shell. This brought true a prophecy which had said that Aeschylus would die by a blow from heaven. We do not know whether this story is true or not, but it was referenced by Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historiæ, who said that Aeschylus was trying to avoid falling objects and so spent more time outdoors, but this story may be legendary and due to a misunderstanding of the iconography on Aeschylus's tomb. Aeschylus' work was so respected by the Athenians that after his death his tragedies were the only ones allowed to be restaged in subsequent competitions. His sons Euphorion and Euæon and his nephew Philocles also became playwrights.

Every Friday our Special Collections' librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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