Towards the end of the sixth century before Christ, one of the most momentous advances in literature was made by Aeschylus.
To a large extent, due to this individual, European drama was created and a means of utterance was given to the rapidly growing democratic spirit of Greece.

Before Aeschylus wrote, public exhibitions had been given for example of the life and adventures of Dionysus, the god of wine. Choruses had sung odes to the deity and variety was obtained by a series of short dialogues between one of the Chorus and the remainder.

Aeschylus added a second actor to converse with the first; he thus started a movement which eventually ousted the Chorus from its place of importance, for the interest now began to concentrate on the two actors; it was their performance which gave drama its name.

In time more characters were added; the Chorus became less necessary and in the long run was felt to be a hindrance to the movement of the story.
Aeschylus was born at Eleusis in 525; and before the end of the century he was writing tragedies. In 490 he fought in the great battle of Marathon and took part in the victory of Salamis in 480. This experience of the struggle for freedom against Persian despotism added a vigour and a self-reliance to his writing which is characteristic of a growing national spirit. He left to the world seven plays in which the rapid development of drama is conspicuous.

One of the earliest of his plays is the “Suppliants”, and in it we see the three leading ideas in the system of Aeschylus—the doctrine of the inherited curse, of human pride and impiety, and the might of Destiny.

A later drama was “The Persians”which is unique as being the only surviving historical play in Greek literature.

We will examine it here.

The piece is a succession of very vivid sketches of the incidents in the great struggle which freed Europe from the threat of Eastern despotism. A Chorus of Persian elders is waiting for news of the advance of the great array which Xerxes led against Greece in 480. They tell how Persia extended her sway over Asia. Yet they are uneasy, for

"what mortal can avoid the crafty deception of Heaven? In seeming kindness it entices men into a trap whence they cannot escape."

The Queen-mother Atossa enters, resplendent with jewels; she too is anxious, for in a dream she had seen Xerxes yoke two women together who were at feud, one clad in Persian garb, the other in Greek. The former was obedient to the yoke, but the latter tore the car to pieces and broke the curb.

The Chorus advises her to propitiate the gods with sacrifice, and to pray to Darius her dead husband to send his son prosperity.

At that moment a herald enters with the news of the Greek victory at Salamis.

Xerxes, beguiled by some fiend or evil spirit, drew up his fleet at night to intercept the Greeks, supposed to be preparing for flight. But at early dawn they sailed out to attack.

Winning a glorious victory, they landed on the little island (Psyttaleia) where the choicest Persian troops had been placed to cut off the retreat of the Greek navy, and slew them all.

Later, they drove back the Persians by land; through Boeotia, Thessaly and Macedonia the broken host retreated, finally recrossing to Asia over the Hellespont.

On hearing the news Atossa disappears and the Persian Chorus sing a dirge.

The Queen returns without her finery, attired as a suppliant; she bids the Chorus call up Darius, while she offers libations to the dead.

The ghost of the great Empire-builder rises before the astonished spectators, enquiring what trouble has overtaken his land. His release from Death is not easy, "for the gods of the lower world are readier to take men's spirits than to let them go". On learning that his son has been totally defeated, he delivers his judgment. The oracles had long ago prophesied this disaster; it was hurried on by Xerxes' rashness, for when a man is himself hurrying on to ruin Heaven abets him. He had listened to evil counsellors, who bade him rival his father's glory by making wider conquests. The ruin of Persia is not yet complete, for when insolence is fully ripe it bears a crop of ruin and reaps a harvest of tears.

This evil came upon Xerxes through the sacrilegious demolition of altars and temples. Zeus punishes overweening pride, and his correcting hand is heavy.
Darius counsels Atossa to comfort their son and to prevent him from attacking Greece again; he further advises the Chorus to take life's pleasures while they can, for after death there is no profit in wealth.

A distinctly grotesque touch is added by the appearance of Xerxes himself, broken and defeated, filling the scene with lamentations for lost friends and departed glory, unable to answer the Chorus when they demand the whereabouts of some of the most famous Persian warriors.

The play is valuable as the result of a personal experience of the poet. As a piece of literature, it is important, for it is a poetic description of the first armed conflict between East and West.

It directly inspired Shelley when he wrote his Hellas at a time when Greece was rousing herself from many centuries of Eastern oppression. As a historical drama it is of great value, for it is substantially accurate in its main facts.

One or two characteristic features are worth note. The genius of Aeschylus was very bold; it was a daring thing to bring up a ghost from the dead, for the supernatural appeal does not succeed except when it is treated with proper insight. On the other hand, a notable advance in dramatic power has been made. The main actors are becoming human; their wills are beginning to operate.

Tragedy is based on a conflict of some sort; here the wilful spirit of youth is portrayed as defying the forces of justice and righteousness; it is insolence which brings Xerxes to ruin.

The substantial creed of Aeschylus is contained in Darius' speech; and he constantly finds his sources of tragic inspiration in the acts of the sinners who defy the will of the gods.

Before one begins to attempt an estimate of Aeschylus, it is well to face the reasons which make Greek drama seem a thing foreign to us. We are at times aware that it is great, but we cannot help asking, "Is it real?"

Modern it certainly is not. In the first place, the Chorus was all-important to the Greeks, but is non-existent with us.

To them drama was something more than action, it was music and dancing as well. Yet as time went on, the Greeks themselves found the Chorus more and more difficult to manage and it was discarded as a feature of the main plot. Only in a very few instances could a play be constructed in such a manner as to allow the Chorus any real influence on the story.

Aeschylus' skill in this branch of his art is really extraordinary; the Chorus does take a part, and a vital part too, in the play.

Again, the number of Greek actors was limited, whereas in a modern play their number is just as great as suits playwright's convenience or his capacity. The impression then of a Greek play is that it is a somewhat thin performance compared with the vivacity and complexity of the great Elizabethans.

The plot, where it exists, seems very narrow in Attic drama; it could hardly be otherwise in a society which was content with a repeated discussion of a rather close cycle of heroic legends.

Yet here, too, we might note how Aeschylus trod out of the narrow-circumscribed round, notably in the Prometheus and the Persoe.

All Greek tragedy is liable to these criticisms; it is not fair to judge a process just beginning by the standards of an art which thinks itself full-blown after many centuries of history.

His defects are clear enough; his teaching is a little archaic. Sometimes it is said that the doctrine of an inherited curse on which much of his work is written is false.

More serious is the objection that his work is not dramatic at all; the actors are not really human beings acting as such, for their wills and their deeds are under the control of Destiny. What then shall we say of this from Hamlet:

"There's a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them as we will?"

In this matter we are on the threshold of one of our insoluble problems—the freedom of the will.

Suffice it to say that, whether the will is free or not, we act as if it were, and that is enough to represent (as Aeschylus has done) human beings acting on a stage as we ourselves would do in similar circumstances, for the discussions about Destiny are very often to be found in the mouths not of the characters, but of the onlookers.

The positive excellences of Aeschylus are numerous enough to make us thankful that he has survived. His subjects are the Earth, the Heavens, the things under the Earth; more, he reveals a period of unsuspected antiquity, the present order of gods being young and somewhat inexperienced. He carries us back to Creation and shows us the primeval deities, Earth, Night, Necessity, Fate, powers simply beyond the knowledge of ordinary thoughtless men.
His characters are cast in a mighty mould; he taps the deepest tragic springs; he teaches that all is not well when we prosper.

Aeschylus' influence is rather of the unseen kind. His genius is of a lofty type which is not often imitated. Demanding righteousness, justice, piety, and humility, he belongs to the class of Hebrew prophets who saw God and did not die.