Greek of the Week

According to my own arbitrary and capricious judgment, I will select a long-dead ancient Greek for the honor of Greek of the Week. And the winner for the week of April 27 is………….

Aeschylus the Tragedian.

I’ve had Aeschylus on the brain for most of this semester, so in his honor, I’ve decided to make him the first Greek to be Greek of the Week.

c. 525-24 BC – c. 456-55 BC. Known as the “Father of Tragedy,” he is estimated to have written 70-90 plays, of which only seven survive: The Oresteia, Prometheus Bound, Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, and The Suppliants are the plays that survive. This is some debate about whether he actually wrote Prometheus Bound, but that’s a debate for another time.

Aeschylus was born a few miles north of Athens, in a town called Eleusis (location of the Eleusinian Mysteries, into which Aeschylus was initiated). He was born into a wealthy family that claimed lineage from the most ancient, noble Attic family. Apparently, (according to a geographer named Pausanias from the 2nd century AD) when he was very young he was visited by Dionysus in a dream, who told him to write a tragedy. Shortly thereafter, he began to write tragedies and win Athenian contests.

A few years later, he experienced the politic tumult of the reign of Cleisthenes in Athens, and also went on to fight in the Persian Wars. He and his brother both fought at Marathon, where the Greeks emerged victorious. His involvement in that war would affect his later work.

He died in Sicily, allegedly killed by a falling object. His epitaph, curiously, makes no mention of his career and fame as a tragedian but reveals that he prized his military achievements far more.

His plays, according to Aristotle and others, were quite innovative. He introduced more conflict onto the stage, where actors contended with each other rather than just the chorus. His

I honed my Greek skills on his Eumenides this semester, which is the third play in the trilogy of the Oresteia. It was quite an undertaking, and very daunting at first. The language is very archaic at times, and supposedly hearkens to the Homeric vocabulary, though I personally believe that it does not imitate a Homeric style. It was very difficult to read, but also very rewarding. Half of the difficulty came from the fact that much of the text is corrupt. Many lines are missing and many of the words are simply educated guesses from long-dead scholars. Hence, much of my time was spent deciding on my best guess.

Although it is called a tragedy, the Oresteia has a happy ending.
In the course of the play, Orestes (the son of Agamemnon, who had been fighting the Trojan War for the last ten years), first appears with the Furies surrounding him. The Furies are trying to punish him for the murder of his mother, whom Orestes murdered in recompense for the murder of his father. The Furies insist that he is guilty and must be punished. The god Apollo insists that Orestes is not responsible, and the goddess Athena intervenes and calls a tribunal to decide the case. A vote is taken and Orestes is declared innocent. The Furies are not happy with this outcome, but Athena eventually persuades them to accept cult honors in the fledgling city of Athens, which they accept.

There are many ways of reading the play, though perhaps the most basic reading is that Aeschylus is depicting the historical, political progression of justice. It passes from the original system of retributive justice to the ordered court of law, which develops an impersonal method of judging murder cases, while still retaining proper reverence towards the gods. I wrote an essay on this reading, though it incorporated more intimate details from the text into its conclusion, which is a bit more sophisticated than I have laid it out here, but I still agree with the basic reading.

On the whole, Aeschylus is a very rewarding author. I read the rest of the Oresteia and Prometheus Bound this semester as well and enjoyed them very much.

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