Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE—c. 456 BCE)
Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, a small town near Athens, in 524 or 525 BCE. He is called the "father of tragedy," as he invented the dramatic form that defined Athens's glorious heyday. Tradition holds that Aeschylus worked in his father's vineyard until he directed in a dream to write tragedies by the Dionysus, the god responsible for theatre.
Aeschylus was the first of the great Greek tragedians, preceding both Sophocles and Euripides, and is credited by many as having invented tragic drama. Prior to Aeschylus, plays were more rudimentary, consisting of a single actor and a chorus offering commentary. In his works, Aeschylus added a "second actor" (often more than one), creating a new range of dramatic possibilities. Along with Sophocles and Euripides, Aeschylus stands as one of the most important literary figures in the western tradition. He transformed a traditional religious festival, that of the lament over the sufferings of Dionysus, into a literary form with social and political consequences that pervaded Greek culture. Throughout history, he has been a major influence on literature. Writers from Ovid to Shakespeare to Shelly and Goethe have drawn directly from his ideas and models.
Like all other male Athenian citizens, Aeschylus was a soldier in addition to being a producer of plays. His military experience included fighting in the battle of Marathon against the Persians in 490 BCE and again against the Persians at Salamis and Platea in 480 BCE. Athens, at that time, was part of a federation of small Greek states allied against the enormous forces of the Persian army, which was led by king Xerxes. We learn from reading Herodotus's Histories that all the odds were stacked against the Greeks, as they were far outnumbered and outfinanced. However, they had something the Persians did not, namely, democracy and a commitment to individual freedoms. This allowed them to fight far more fiercely than their opponents, who were all slaves of Xerxes and who had no personal reasons for fighting the Greeks.
As the translator and editor of the Oresteia Robert Fagles maintains, the Greek victory over the Persians in 479 BCE was celebrated as "the triumph of right over might, courage over fear, freedom over servitude, moderation over arrogance." The cultural flowering that followed celebrated these values and established them as the principles upon which Athens stood. There was an era of optimism, in which Athenians felt that a new religious, political, and personal harmony could arise out of the primitive savagery of past wars.
It is in this context that Aeschylus, at the age of sixty-seven and after producing at least 70 plays, wrote his masterpiece, the trilogy of The Oresteia, which is composed of the tragedies Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Having spearheaded the defense of Greece against the Persians, Athens took a strong leadership position amongst its neighbors and quickly began redefining itself as an empire. In celebration of its new status, Athens set about redefining itself and its history. In this context, we can view the Oresteia as representing the new charter myth of Athens. From a very broad perspective, it chronicles the transition of the rule of law from the old tradition of personal vengeance, which was bound to a cycle of bloody violence, to the new system of law courts, wherein the state assumed responsibility for dealing out just punishments.
Aeschylus died while visiting Sicily around 456 BCE in the city of Gela. The inscription on his gravestone mentions his participation in the Battle of Marathon, but does not directly mention his playwriting, which is an indication of the importance of the Persian wars to the Greeks. Unfortunately, only seven of Aeschylus's survived, although fragments of other plays have been discovered and continue to be discovered.
Background on Agamemnon
Agamemnon depicts the assassination of the title character by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. The Libation Bearers continues the story with the return of Agamemnon's son, Orestes, who kills his mother and avenges his father. In The Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by the Furies in punishment for his matricide, and finally finds refuge in Athens, where the god Athena relieves him of his persecution.
The events of Agamemnon take place against a backdrop that would have been familiar to an Athenian audience. Agamemnon is returning from his victory at Troy, which has been besieged for ten years by Greek armies attempting to recover Helen, Agamemnon's brother's wife, who was stolen by the treacherous Trojan Prince, Paris. (The events of the Trojan War are recounted in Homer's Iliad.) The tragedies of the play occur as a result of the crimes committed by Agamemnon's family. His father, Atreus, boiled the children of his own brother, Thyestes, and served them to him. Clytemnestra's lover, Aegisthus (Thyestes's only surviving son), seeks revenge for that crime. Moreover, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to gain a favorable wind to Troy, and Clytemnestra murders him to avenge her death. The weight of history and heritage becomes a major theme of the play, and indeed the entire trilogy, for the family it depicts cannot escape the cursed cycle of bloodshed propagated by its past.