The House of Atreus
Of the life of Aeschylus, the first of the three great masters of Greek tragedy, only a very
meager outline has come down to us. He was born at Eleusis, near Athens, B. C. 525, the
son of Euphorion. Before he was twenty-five he began to compete for the tragic prize, but
did not win a victory for twelve years. He spent two periods of years in Sicily, where he
died in 456, killed, it is said, by a tortoise which an eagle dropped on his head. Though a
professional writer, he did his share of fighting for his country, and is reported to have
taken part in the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea.
Of the seventy or eighty plays which he is said to have written, only seven survive: "The
Persians," dealing with the defeat of Xerxes at Salamis; "The Seven against Thebes," part
of a tetralogy on the legend of Thebes; "The Suppliants," on the daughters of Danaues;
"Prometheus Bound," part of a trilogy, of which the first part was probably "Prometheus,
the Fire-bringer," and the last, "Prometheus Unbound"; and the "Oresteia," the only
example of a complete Greek tragic trilogy which has come down to us, consisting of
"Agamemnon," "Choephorae" (The Libation-Bearers), and the "Eumenides" (Furies).
The importance of Aeschylus in the development of the drama is immense. Before him
tragedy had consisted of the chorus and one actor; and by introducing a second actor,
expanding the dramatic dialogue thus made possible, and reducing the lyrical parts, he
practically created Greek tragedy as we understand it. Like other writers of his time, he
acted in his own plays, and trained the chorus in their dances and songs; and he did much
to give impressiveness to the performances by his development of the accessories of
scene and costume on the stage. Of the four plays here reproduced, "Prometheus Bound"
holds an exceptional place in the literature of the world. (As conceived by Aeschylus,
Prometheus is the champion of man against the oppression of Zeus; and the argument of
the drama has a certain correspondence to the problem of the Book of Job.) The Oresteian
trilogy on "The House of Atreus" is one of the supreme productions of all literature. It
deals with the two great themes of the retribution of crime and the inheritance of evil; and
here again a parallel may be found between the assertions of the justice of God by
Aeschylus and by the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. Both contend against the popular idea that
the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge; both maintain
that the soul that sinneth, it shall die. The nobility of thought and the majesty of style
with which these ideas are set forth give this triple drama its place at the head of the
literary masterpieces of the antique world.