Bust of Aeschylus, Zappeion, Athens. (Tilemachos Efthimiadis/CC BY SA 2.0) Illustration of the death of Aeschylus.

Eagle Mistakes Bald Head for a Rock: The Bizarre Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Aeschylus

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Aeschylus, widely regarded as the “Father of Tragedy,” was one of the first of classical Athens’ great dramatists. He raised the emerging art of tragedy to new heights of poetry and theatrical power. The legendary playwright wrote more than 90 plays and won with half of them at Athenian festivals of Greek drama. For all his skills in theater, however, he’s trending within the circles of modern pop culture thanks to his very bizarre death. His murderers were two animals!

The Life and Legacy of Aeschylus

Aeschylus was born into a noble family at Eleusis in 525 BC. His first “job” was in a vineyard, and it was his passion and love for the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and wine that helped him to discover his true calling, in order to contribute to the newly developed (at the time) spectacles in honor of Dionysus. In the words of Pausanias, Aeschylus described the moment he decided to become a playwright,

“While still a stripling he was set to watch grapes in the country, and there fell asleep. In his slumbers Dionysus appeared to him and bade him turn his attention to the tragic art. When he awoke he made the attempt, and thus discovered his facility for dramatic composition.”

Dionysus Louvre Ma87 n2.

Dionysus Louvre Ma87 n2. ( CC BY 2.5 )

A Greek tragedy was typically performed at important religious festivals such as the Dionysia, where three playwrights each wrote three tragic plays and a satyr play to compete for a prize. Aeschylus composed his earliest tragedy when he was twenty-six years old but didn’t manage to win the prize. For that matter, he wouldn’t win a prize at the Dionysia until he was in his early 40’s.

While awaiting triumph in theater, Aeschylus fought bravely in the battle of Marathon – where he excelled for his fighting skills and courage – and later would also take part in the battles of Artemisium, Salamis, and Platea. As it clearly appears in his epitaph, written by himself and inscribed on his monument by the citizens of Gela, Sicily, where his tragic death occurred, Aeschylus took more pride in his military achievements than his dramatic ones. The inscription states,

“This tomb the dust of Aeschylus doth hide,
Euphorion's son and fruitful Gela's pride;
How tried his valor Marathon may tell,
And long-haired Medes, who knew it all too well.”

Bust of Aeschylus.

Bust of Aeschylus. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Innovations Introduced by Aeschylus

Although Aeschylus is said to have written over 90 plays, only seven have survived. Nonetheless, we have learned very important things from his saved works - such as the fact that Aeschylus was an innovator in the evolution of tragedy. Until his work rose in popularity, tragedy plays were restricted by certain conventions: the theme was almost exclusively mythological - with elements of religion and family affairs - the number of actors holding speaking roles was extremely limited, a chorus consisted of 12 or 15 singers maximum, and all actors were males wearing masks. 

Sculptures of theater masks dating from the Hellenistic period. Currently on display in Room 30 of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Sculptures of theater masks dating from the Hellenistic period. Currently on display in Room 30 of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

According to Aristotle, Aeschylus was the first to add a second actor for minor parts. His inclusion of more dialogue into his plays meant he inserted more drama from age-old stories that were already familiar to his audience too. Aeschylus was also the first to use the ekkyklema, a wheeled platform rolled out through a scene. This structure at the back of a theater’s stage helped to bring interior scenes out into the sight of the audience. Furthermore, Aeschylus was glorified for his extravagant costume designs and use of striking imagery - making his plays some of the most fascinating and impressive of his time.

Mosaic of Orestes, main character in Aeschylus's only surviving trilogy, ‘The Oresteia’.

Mosaic of Orestes, main character in Aeschylus's only surviving trilogy, ‘The Oresteia’. ( Public Domain )

Aeschylus’ Self-Banishment and Tragic Death

Aeschylus decided to spend the last years of his life in Sicily, Italy. After the creation of his Orestean trilogy, probably the best of his works, he became very unpopular with people. This was due to the fact that in the Eumenides, the last of the three plays, he openly expressed his aristocratic tendencies and roots, something that the majority of the Athenians didn’t appreciate.  Disappointed from the hostile reaction of his compatriots, he decided to leave for Sicily; where he met one of the most ironic and bizarre deaths in history. Aeschylus’ death is the only documented case of human death directly attributed to a tortoise.

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