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The Warring Writer: Aeschylus Tragedy

by on April 20, 2017

Portrait of AeschylusLet’s say you are considered the “father of tragedy”. Even in your own lifetime, everyone knows you have revolutionized drama and changed the theatre game. Do you think it would be mentioned on your tomb? Surely a throw away reference at least?

But no, not for Aeschylus. The man who wrote between 70 and 90 plays, won 28 competitions and completely altered the face of the stage, says nothing about it in his eulogy. His tomb engraving, which he wrote himself, only talks about his military accomplishments.

Now, why would a man who has gone down in history as a playwright, only describe himself as a soldier? Actually it makes a lot of sense when you consider his life.

Aeschylus was born of a well-to-do family in 525 B.C. He was reared in the town of Eleusis, about 27 kilometers northwest of Athens. But he didn’t start off as a writer at all.

The legend goes like this: the young fellow was working in a vineyard helping ‘guard’ the grapes when he fell asleep. The god Dionynus, patron saint of both wine and drama, visited him in a dream. The bacchus divinity told him to leave his grape picking days behind him: he should inscribe scripts instead. The very next day the lad took a try at the pen and realized immediately that he had a gift.

His first play, produced when he was 26 years old, did not win him much success. It was not long, however, before he was triumphing at all the competitions and beating the likes of Sophocles and Euripides.

But his life wasn’t all wining, winning and writing. There was also a lot of war. His days in ancient Greece saw the major turning point of the Persian war, and he had front row seats. In fact, in 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought in the famous Battle of Marathon. They were defending Athens against Darius I‘s invading Persian army. Though outnumbered, the Greeks won, gaining confidence and perhaps changing western history as we know it. Unfortunately for our fighting brothers, only one made it out alive.

Theatre of Dionysia

Theatre of Dionysia

Returning to his homeland, Aeschylus took inspiration from the theatre of war to the stage of tragedy. Even his tone is said to have barked like a bugle.  It is during this time at home, that he changed drama as we know it. Previously a play consisted of one actor and the chorus which mostly danced around the orator. Aeschylus was the first to write in an additional actor, therefore creating interaction between the characters. His revolutionary approach to the art finally brought him victory at the City Dionysia in 484BC, the first of many.

Portrait of Xerxes 1

Portrait of Xerxes 1

But Aeschylus did not stay the play writing civilian for long. In 480, he was called back into military service, but this time against Xerxes I‘s invading forces at the Battle of Salamis. He left the field with honor, losing part of a limb in the scuffle. This event was a highlight for him nonetheless, as he was renowned and took the actions as fodder for his play, The Persians, which was performed in 472 BC and won first prize at the Dionysia.

Then there was the religious side of Aeschylus. He was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secretive cult based in his hometown which worshipped Demeter, the goddess of hearth and grain. Like many creepy sects, members were sworn to secrecy, under penalty of death.

This, rather than the blood letting wars, was his downfall. Apparently the playwright, who also acted and directed, revealed a few choice mysteries in his play The Eumenides. He was almost stoned to death on stage, but managed to escape to safety to the alter of Dionysus.

He then stood trial for his impiety and pleaded ignorance. He was finally acquitted, due to his heroic military past. Apparently his youngest brother gave him a helping hand by showing the jury Aeschylus’ stump, the result of the battle of Salamis, where he was voted bravest warrior. (Though this last part was not, in fact, true).

However, his unpopularity continued none the less and in 458 BC, he practiced his right of self banishment. He returned to Sicily, where he still had friends and eventually died in 456 or 455 BC. The rumor is he met his end when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head, thinking his baldness was a stone. It is much more likely, however, that he expired due to being the ripe old age of 70.

But before Aeschylus gave up the ghost, he inscribed the following words, reminding everyone of all the things that had made him a hero and purposefully ignoring his then ‘unpopular’ accomplishments:

Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει
μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·
ἀλκὴν δ’ εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι
καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος[20]

Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian,
who perished in the wheat-bearing land of Gela;
of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,
and the long-haired Persian knows it well.

Oedipus at Colonus: The Tale of Two Ancient Deaths

by on April 11, 2017

And so it comes to be, that all men must die. Yes, even the old ones. The great poet and dramatist, Sophocles, was approaching his own end when he imagined the glorious finale of the tragic figure, Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus.

This play is thought to be Sophocles’ final one because it was first produced in 401 B.C., four years after his death. And just to add to the confusion, the events that occur in the story are actually second chronologically in the Oedipal myth series. Wedged between the action packed stories of Oedipus Rex and Antigone, this tragedy is more philosophical than the others, paying attention to shifting characters and morality.  It addresses fate full on and creates a triangle of power between the good, the bad and the blind beggar.

In a nutshell, it is the tale of two ancient cities, three kings and the slow, painful process of redemption.

Oedipus Rex, the first episode, finished with its eponymous character banished and blinded. The previously glorious king, who unknowingly committed incest and patricide, boldly bewailed his fate, accepted responsibility and sadly left his kingdom. This contrasts sharply with the enfeebled and humbled Oedipus in the second section of the tragic tale.

But let’s review quickly.

Death of OedipusHe, the one and only Oedipus, arrives in the village of Colonus, which is just outside Athens and also – very interestingly- Sophocles’ birthplace. He is unrecognizable from the monarch he used to be. The ultimate tragic hero is no longer bold, nor decisive, nor very regal. His previous ownership of his actions and destiny has vanished into thin air. He rejects the guilt of his deeds. Acts committed unknowingly make the man innocent, surely?  He is clearly weakened by his many, lonely years wandering.

The first scene of Oedipus at Colonus begins with Antigone, his daughter, helping him walk into a grove, but not just any vegetable patch. This garden happens to be scared, which quickly draws the Chorus to admonish the old man. They are unrelenting until the tragic figure’s identity is revealed. When Oedipus finally figures out where he is, he discloses to Antigone that the oracle predicted this location as the spot of his death. Furthermore, there would be a blessing to the city that buries him.

Upon Oedipus’ request, the king of Athens, Theseus, is summoned to decide whether this unseeing hobo should be expelled once more. Before the monarch arrives, however, Oedipus’ daughter, Ismene, enters and recounts the unfortunate happenings in Thebes. The two brothers, Oedipus’ sons, are fighting for rulership in the wake of their father’s infamous downfall.

Apparently, the youngest scoundrel is in cahoots with Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle and the eldest is exiled. The first son’s pride is bruised and therefore he amasses an army to take back Thebes.

Theseus enters. Knowing Oedipus’ story, he is empathetic to the unfortunate man. The king grants him protection, even when he understands it will mean war and an uncomfortable confrontation with Thebes. He offers the gift of a proper burial and all praise the glory of Athens.

Creon enters. Full of treachery, deceit and the usual villainy, he attempts to bring Oedipus back to Thebes. He also knows the oracle and wants the prophesied protection his favorite corpse-to-be will bring. He kidnaps Antigone and Ismene and threatens to force Oedipus back. The bully almost has his way until the benevolent Theseus acts and returns the daughters to their father.

But the family feud does not end there. The banished brother appeals to his father for help, but his requests fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. The son was not there for Oedipus when he was exiled, and the father cannot forgive his progeny’s grave disrespect. Oedipus sends him away with a curse that the two boys will kill each other.

Finally, sweet, peaceful death comes. Thunder resounds, signaling that it is time for Oedipus’ final rest. Preparing the rituals, he meets his end in a sacred and secret spot. So special that Theseus only knows it, so the noble king can enjoy the God’s blessings.

And so we have Oedipus’ redemption. After being reviled, shamed and stained, Oedipus is finally sought after. His unimaginable deeds have been forgiven after his years of punishment, and sanctified with a divine gift. Once exiled, now Oedipus has kings beseeching him to come to their city. The blind man who was pleading for protection, eventually, and ironically, leads the king of Athens.

In short, Oedipus began as a noble and strong ruler and became a debased and decrepit vagrant. Finally, as fate would have it, he was restored as a messenger of the gods with divine gift to give.

Oedipus’ full cycle of highs and lows is clearly contrasted with the other two kings, Theseus and Creon, who are positioned as polar opposites, extreme regal examples. The Athenian monarch, Theseus, represents the good, the empathetic and the noble. He, like the city he reigns, is praised by the Chorus and by Oedipus as being fair and just.

In contrast, Creon is a vile, lying, threatening royal who the audience and Oedipus hate and fear. His city Thebes, the long-standing rival of Athens, was considered a place where proper boundaries and identities were not maintained. A place where incest and murder could happen.

However, this depiction of good ole Athena town was no longer true. As Sophocles’ life was drawing to an end, so was the golden age of Athens. The Peloponnesian War, which brought the fair state to its knees, reached its end only a year after the playwright’s death. The surrender in 404 B.C. stripped Athens of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions.

Oedipus at Colonus, therefore, was like a swansong. A final ode or maybe glorious nostalgia by a very old man of what once was. Praise for a city coming to its demise. But then again, everyone likes a happy ending. Athens had it, if only fictionally, so why shouldn’t Oedipus? His death is the perfect conclusion. After being seen as so repulsive, he is finally accepted.

But this play was more than that. It was also the philosophical statement and justification that actions unintended are not our fault – the antithesis of Sophocles’ earlier editions and a very clear change of heart.

And so, perhaps, character and writer became one. Oedipus and Sophocles sing praises of the good, come to terms with one’s deeds in life and then, finally, prepare for death.

Oedipus at Colonus was written by Sophocles around 406 b.c. Produced in Athens, Greece. You can read the full story here

Make sure to read the next installment of the Oedipal myth for next week’s essay. This time it’s a play written by Aeschylus called The Seven Against Thebes. You can view the whole text here for free:

Oedipus Rex Moral or Murder?

by on March 22, 2017

Oedipus BlindedHe is one of the most tragic heroes ever found in literature; a man so unfortunate in the eyes of the gods, that he eventually blinded himself. He forces the question of fate, of self determination, of questioning society and divinity itself. Some may say this was his fatal flaw, his resistance to the life laid out for him. Others hold this as his most redeemable feature. In today’s world, we praise those who break free of their social ranks, their confined destinies. We look on social structures like the caste system and class determination as an affront to free will. Oedipus had his life prescribed to him from youth, and tried at every opportunity to leave it. Even when all the signs of its truth began to show, he still rebelled against his lot and ignored and resisted it until he could no longer. But is Oedipus Rex moral or a murderer?

Most are familiar with the basics of the story. Oedipus Rex, or King Oedipus, infamously slept with his mother and killed his father. It’s a myth that existed long before Sophocles wrote the play, and has fascinated authors, philosophers, painters, musicians and intellectuals throughout history. Freud, a more contemporary example, is famous for his assessment of the myth with regards to the modern mind. Unfortunately he missed the point, as Oedipus never wanted to have relations with his mother. He did so unknowingly… and when he found out, was horrified to learn of the nature of his deed.

Sophocles’ version, however, is arguably the most famous as well as the most powerful telling of the tale. He knew the story well and wrote repeatedly on the myth, including two other plays, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, which rounded out the tragic legend.

Oedipus Rex is the first, chronologically, of these three plays. A good deal of the action, however, happens before the play even begins. Sophocles’ audience would have known the whole Oedipus myth, from start to finish. As a result, Sophocles does not write about the very beginning of the story; he just references key points as reminders.

Sophocles’ play describes Oedipus’ discovery of his origins. Unfortunately for him, the revelation of his not-so-humble beginnings brings to light a history of atrocities that Oedipus had unknowingly committed…acts that uncompromisingly expose some of the most imbedded taboos in western society.
Oedipus mask

But let’s start in the beginning. It all originates with a foreboding oracle. Two regal parents of Thebes receive a note from the gods prophesying that their son will murder one and sleep with the other. Distraught at the news, they hand him over to a servant to bind his feet and leave him to die on a mountain. However, the sight was distasteful to a shepherd who rescued the boy and passed him to a foreigner to be raised in another land. Here the young Oedipus finally had a turn of good luck, as he was given to the childless King and Queen of Corinth and reared as a prince.

Then fate steps in once more. Chided for being adopted, Oedipus consults the oracles to find out if it is true. There he is told of his horrid destiny, that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Determined to not let it happen, he leaves town at once. On the way, he fights with a traveller at a crossroad, kills him and thinks of it no more. He enters the town of Thebes and, by luck or intelligence, answers a Sphinx’s riddle and saves the city. The inhabitants are overjoyed and reward this stranger with the late king’s throne and bed. Years later a plague hits the town.

Sophocles begins his tragedy here…

Now Oedipus begins to the learn the truth as it quickly unravels. He appears brash, frantic, and constantly in motion, as if he is trying to keep up with his fate. The audience falls in and out of empathy with him. At one moment he is a great and compassionate king, the next a bully to an old blind man. In turns he switches from tragic to irrational, a sad man fearing what will happen to an overly suspicious monarch enacting unwarranted, unilateral ‘justice’. Once again he flips from a caring and concerned husband to an interrogator, threatening torture and death to an elderly shepherd. It is a rollercoaster of emotion and suspense.

Then the whole sordid story is revealed, that the traveller in the crossroads was his father, that his sore feet are from his childhood bounds, and that the mother of his children is his own flesh and blood. As a result, his wife/mother hangs herself and the wretched Oedipus pierces his eyes before fleeing into exile.

What, then, are we to think of this man? Hero or monster? Menace or martyr? Is Oedipus Rex moral or a murderer?

In each situation, Oedipus is presented with a choice, to let sleeping dogs lie…or find out the real truth. At every juncture, the condemned, but determined man is warned that the truth will be difficult, unpleasant and even harmful. And in each case, Oedipus chooses truth, no matter what may come of it. He chooses the red pill of reality over delusion and the unknown. He remains, until the end, faithful to himself. And when the truth…the full, horrible truth…is revealed, he does not shy away. Oedipus takes full responsibility for his actions even though, at the time, he did not know what he was doing.

No doubt each reader will come to their own conclusion and decide whether they find favor with this extreme individual. In any case, we may well be pressed to find such a noble and honest person nowadays.

Oedipus the King was written by Sophocles around 430 b.c. Produced in Athens, Greece. You can read the full story here:

Oedipus Rex Moral or Murderer? was written by Anya Leonard for the inaugural publication of the Classical Wisdom Weekly newsletter. 

Make sure to read the next installment of Sophocle’s trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus , for next week’s essay. You can view the whole text here for free:

The Most Moral of them All

by on February 21, 2017

Who is the Moral maker? Who writes the tales of what is good or bad? Which wise words, written before Christ, still resonate with our modern times? Surely they were from a Philosopher or a great King? How about a worldly scholar or a famed adventurer? No, the most prevalent of Ancient Greek ethics originated from a slave.

You know the stories. A boy calling wolf. A lion with a thorn. A fast and cocky hare competing with a crawling, but dedicated tortoise. “Slow and steady wins the race” is the distilled lesson taught to impressionable school children. However, most young students do not learn the amazing history of the one behind those clever tales, if anyone was behind them at all.

These anecdotes, filled with animated animals and shrewd lessons, are attributed to Aesop – or Isope – or Esop(e), depending on which spelling you prefer. This man, if he did exist, not only inspired over 600 parables, but also had an inspiring life himself. So much so, that the Ancients romanticised his biography, making the man into a myth. A dwarfish slave who, with his clever tongue, became a free man and then an emissary for the king, all while telling amazing myths himself.

Portrait of Aesop

Aesop as envisioned by Velázquez

According to Aristotle, one of the earliest Greek authors to write about Aesop, the Fable teller hailed from Thrace around 620 BC, in modern day Bulgaria. However, even this is a point of conjecture. Three other writers from Ancient Greece and Rome say he originated from modern day Turkey, in either Phrygia, Sardis, or Lydia. Some historians even believe that he was from Africa. With a name like Aesop, surely he was ‘Aethiopian’ or Ethiopian! Other experts rebut that, saying it is etymologically incorrect. The inclusion of African animals, such as camels, elephants, and apes, suggest he was from Egypt or Libya… or that these stories were added later on. And then there is the point that Bill Cosby played Aesop in the 1971 TV production Aesop’s Fables.

Whether Aesop was from Ethiopia or Sardis, he apparently was born a slave and a really, really ugly one at that. He was described as having multiple deformities, including a debilitating speech defect. According to Aristotle and Herodotus, he worked in Samos and his first master was a man named Xanthus. His next master, Ladmon, eventually freed him when he argued on behalf of a wealthy Samian.

It has been said that Aesop had a penchant for trouble, including irreverence and tomfoolery, but used his gift of discourse and turn of phrase to escape punishment. He also supported those in power or confronted them, pointing out their hypocrisy and using fables to make his point. But there are also many legends on Aesop, such as dining with the Seven sages of Greece, sitting aside the famous Athenian statesman Solon, which have been discredited, due to a misalignment of historical dates.

And then there was the extremely popular The Aesop Romance, an anonymously authored book written in the 1st or 2nd century AD. It began with a vivid description of Aesop’s appearance, saying he was “of loathsome aspect… potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity.”

In this fantastic version he was born mute in Samos, and then divinely gifted not only with the ability to speak, but to weave wonderful wisdoms. He was able to confound his Philosopher master in front of his students as well as sleep with his wife. However, this version was highly fictional and illustrates how the ancients were fascinated by the legends of Aesop’s life, hundreds of years after his supposed existence.

Plutarch then told the story of his sad and untimely end. The freed and respected ex-slave was sent to Delphi, Greece on a diplomatic mission from King Croesus of Lydia. According to the narrative, Aesop insulted the Delphians, maybe with an unpopular fable. He was then sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of temple theft, and then either thrown or forced to jump from a cliff. After which the Delphians suffered pestilence and famine as retribution, or at least as they saw it.

But maybe none of this actually happened. The fact of the matter is that there are no surviving texts written by Aesop. Ancient greek writers like Herodotus and Aristophanes mention ‘reading’ Aesop, suggesting that there was a book existing at some point, but can we be sure? Maybe Aesop just became the symbol for what is unauthored. The collection of morality that can not be assigned to one man. The Fable of the fable creator.

You can read Aesop’s Fables Here.

The King Midas Tempting Touch

by on February 15, 2017

King Midas

“Be careful what you ask for”, goes the old saying. Apparently though, King Midas never heard it. Truth be told, there are a few King Midas’ in ancient history, depending on which reference you like. However, most stories relate that he was the son of Gordias and hailed from the ancient kingdom of Phrygia, somewhere around modern day central Turkey, close to Ankara.

But that’s not why Midas is a household name. No, we aren’t talking about an oil change either. We are instead referring to the Midas Touch. Most people will think about gold when hearing those two words collocated. But does everyone know the supposed story behind it? If not, read on.

The famous Roman poet, Ovid, narrates the whole story in the poem Metamorphoses. Like many tales gone awry, it begins with a god and in this case a divinity known for getting into trouble. However, this time it wasn’t only the god Dionysus, but his foster father and school master, the satyr Silenus. The old fellow had been enjoying more than enough jugs of his favorite grape drink when he wandered away drunk. Then, depending on the version you read, he either passed out in the King’s garden or was taken there by the peasants of Phrygia. Either way he ended up at King Midas’ feet. Fortunately for everyone involved, the intelligent royal recognized the inebriated satyr and recalled his divine connection. As a result he put on his best spread and entertained Dionysus’ father-like friend for 10 days and nights. Finally on the eleventh day, King Midas brought Silenus back to Dionysus in Lydia, also in central Turkey. The God was delighted to see his mate well and offered to give king Midas whatever he wished.

The avaricious monarch requested that whatever he touches turns to gold. At once Dionysus granted his wish and Midas, not surprisingly pleased, worked at once to stockpile his yellow metal reserves. Still enthusiastic, he ordered his peasants to prepare a great feast for him at the table. “So Midas, king of Lydia, swelled at first with pride when he found he could transform everything he touched to gold; but when he beheld his food grow rigid and his drink harden into golden ice then he understood that this gift was a bane and in his loathing for gold, cursed his prayer” (Claudian, In Rufinem).

Now the tables had turned and he abhorred his new talents. He begged Dionysus to restore him to his old self and deliver him from the clutches of starvation. The Wine God took pity and instructed King Midas to go to the river Pactolus. There the abundant stream would wash away any gold turning powers and revert items back to their previous state. King Midas happily obeyed, submerged into the waters and saw his divine gift float into the river and turn the sand bank into gold. This explained both why the river, located near the Aegean coast in Turkey, has such yellow coloring and why the dynasty, claiming Midas as their forefather, was so rich.

There is actually another story concerning Midas and some Asses’ ears – but that is for another day.

Interestingly enough, King Midas probably did exist and his (or his father’s) supposed funeral mound was discovered in the late 50’s. It was a huge burial, with the best Iron age drinking vessels ever recovered. In addition, the body of his majesty measured only 1.59 meters, or 5’2”, and no gold was found at the site.

The Dramatic Greek: One man’s non-tragic life

by on February 5, 2017

Sophocles bust

The good looking fellow himself

Some people have drama follow them wherever they go, while others just write about it. Sophocles, the prolific ancient greek playwright, was definitely the latter.  He enjoyed an ideal existence, all while changing the face of Tragedy and penning some fairly morbid ideas for future psycho-analysts, like Sigmund Freud.


Hailing from just outside Athens, Sophocles’ life was a far cry from the tragic situations that characterized his plays. He was born into a wealthy family, provided with an excellent education and received high positions and enviable accolades throughout his life.  As fortune would have it, he was around to witness the magnificent Greek triumph in the Persian War and was afterwards promoted to a high executive official, commanding the armed forces.  And, if all that wasn’t enough, he was also considered beautiful and graceful!


Nor did he die an untimely death. In fact, Sophocles did not ‘give up the ghost’ until the ripe age of 91, in the year 405 B.C. Apparently everyone knew what a lucky bloke he was, as is evident by this eulogy, found in The Muses:  “Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune.”

So what does this man know about Drama and Tragedy? How could such a fellow pen 123 plays, win 24 major competitions, and conceive of such anguished characters like Oedipus and Antigone without the help of a manic-depressive mother or an alcoholic father?

That we can not answer. All we do know is that he started off imitating the celebrated Aeschylus. Eventually, however, the student overtook the master, dominating the religious festivals and eclipsing Aeschylus’ in fame and fortune. We also can be certain that Sophocles’ works, at least those that have remained (a measly 7 of the original 100+) have, throughout history, influenced a plethora of great minds. Aristotle himself used Sophocles’ Oedipus the King in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) as an example of the highest achievement in tragedy. Not quite praise from Ceasar, but close!

But let us allow the man’s work to speak for itself. We begin by reading one of the most famous, poignant and powerful greek tragedies of all time. Classical Wisdom Weekly Readers are invited to discover “Oedipus Rex” for Free HERE: ‎