Four Ancient Greeks:
Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes

I actually had enough material for each of these amazing authors to give all of them their own index page. But they fit together so well as a group that a combined page seemed the best choice. I find it astounding that their works have survived all these centuries, although only a smattering of their large output is still available for us to enjoy across the ages. And I do enjoy them! I love ancient Greek!! I studied the language back in undergrad school, and as you can see, I had to brush up on it after all these decades.

These four great men lived mostly in the fifth century, BCE, Aeschylus born a little before that and Aristophanes dying a bit after. But they all wrote during the period when Greek drama was being born and developed and seriously attended by the Greek population. Of course, there were many, many authors, or rather poets, as they were called, that we know about and probably some we have yet to discover, but for the most part, it is the works by these four have been passed down to us. Here is a listing of known ancient Greek playwrights at Wikipedia. The two anthologies I have listed below are still available for purchase, and if you are interested in ancient Greek plays, they are excellent sources of information, along with a number of plays in their entirety by each of these playwrights. In addition, they provide interesting background information on ancient Greek theatre, especially the First Series, which includes a diagram of a typical theatre. The Wikipedia page, of course, includes links so you may find additional information on all of these people and others, too. Project Gutenberg also has all, or most of these works available for free eBook downloads.

I hope you find these works as fascinating and entertaining as I do. I can't imagine, in a time where there was no means of mass communication and digital record keeping as we have today, that any literature would have survived all the wars and strife and global upheavals that planet earth has experienced in over two millennia. It all boggles my mind.


Herm of Aeschylus, 30 BCE


Aeschylus was born in Eleusis in about 523 BCE, which is now part of West Attica, Greece. It was the site of the Eleusian Mysteries, in honor of Demeter and Persephone, which were actually borrowed from ancient Egyptian rites. I remember reading about that in The Mysteries of Egypt: Secret Rites and Traditions. Now, however, since 1975, the city celebrates the birth of their famous playwright in the Aeschylia Festival. Aeschylus died in about 456 BCE in Gela (Sicily). He was about 67 years old.

Aeschylus is known as the "father of tragedy," and expanded the number of players to two. Previously, there was only one player who interacted with the chorus that represented the people or audience. With two players, there could now be conflict among them. He may have also been more innovative in scenery and made the costumes more "elaborate and dramatic."

Aeschylus wrote 70-90 plays, or which only seven survive. His Oresteia Trilogy is the only surviving one of all the ancient Greek playwrights. Typically competitions were held for the two main festivals where plays were presented, and each tragedy contestant wrote a set of three related plays, plus a bawdy satyr play to conclude. This is the only trilogy where all three plays still survive. It is the story of the murder of Agamemnon by his wife and her lover when he returns from the Trojan War. His son, Orestes avenges his father's death, then suffers purging for his sin, but in the end is cleansed and freed.

Aeschylus grew up in vineyard country, where he worked as a youth. The story goes that he was visited in a dream by Dionysus and told to write tragedy. That her did, and his first play was performed in 499 BCE. He won his first competition in 484 BCE. Aeschylus and his brother were also soldiers who defended Athens when it was invaded by Persians. Athens was victorious, but Aeschylus' brother was killed. Aeschylus fought in several other battles.

Aeschylus was married and had two sons and a nephew, all of whom became playwrights. For more on this gifted writer, visit the link above.

Excavation of the Site of the Eleusian Mysteries

Plays by Aeschylus

The Seven Against Thebes


Bust of Sophocles


Sophocles lived a very long life! He was born in 497 or 496 BCE in Colonus, Attica, near Athens and died at the ripe old age of 90 or 92 in Athens. He is believed to have written over 120 plays, but only seven have survived. Hopefully we may discover more at some point. Of the three tragic playwrights, Sophocles is my favorite. At least for now. His works span from later Aeschylus through Euripides. Wikipedia says that he competed in 30 compeitions and won 24. Aeschylus won 13, and was sometimes defeated by Sophocles. Euripides won only four, but he was disliked for his innovations.

Sophocles was born into a wealthy family in the well-off deme or community of Colonus, which was also the setting of one of his plays, Oedipus at Colonus, a sort of sequel to Oedipus the King. Sophocles was well educated. His father was an armour manufacturer. I would imagine that was a hefty business!

I found it interesting that Sophocles set up an altar for Asclepius in his home. I know about Asclepius because I am the thirteenth zodiac sign, Ophiuchus, which represents Asclepius and is the only zodiac sign based on a real person. Asclepius was a healer and learned his art from a serpent. (Snakes are my favorite animal, and I am also a healer.) In addition, Asclepius brought us the "Rod of Asclepius," or serpent entwined staff, which has become a symbol of the medical profession, but is not the same as the caduceus, which came from Hermes. I find it fascinating—how many things we take for granted and recognize in our daily lives that came from such a distant past.

A couple other notes about Sophocles: it was he who added yet a third player to interact with the others, plus the chorus. He was invited to foreign courts after winning competitions, but he did not accept and it seems that he mostly stayed home in and around Athens. Sophocles was also gay, and supposedly (according to Wikipedia), Ion of Chios wrote in his book Encounters that "Sophocles loved boys as much as Euripides loved women." So I have another name to add to my LGBTQ Index Page.

Here are the plays I have reviewed by Sophocles, plus the ones in the Anthologies listed below. Project Gutenberg has the rest as eBooks.

Oedipus at Colonus

Plays by Sophocles



Bust of Euripides


Euripides was not as popular as these other tragedians, at least not in his lifetime, yet over twice as many of his plays have survived. He wrote between 92 and 95 and 18-19 have survived "more or less complete" says Wikipedia. Plus there are fragments of most of his other plays, which is quite amazing. Wikipedia also states that his popularity grew as the others' declined, and that "he became, in the Hellenistic Age, a cornerstone of ancient literary education, along with Homer, Demosthenes, and Menander." Though some of his theatrical innovations seemed shocking at the time, Euripides paved the way for modern theater, influencing playwrights of our time, such as George Bernard Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, and even back a bit to Sheakespeare. Though he was a writer of tragedies, and very tragic at that, he also influenced later writers of comedy. Wikipedia also points out that he represented traditional, mythical heroes as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Euripides was born on Salamis Island, the largest Greek island in the Saronic Gulf, in 480 BCE. He died in Macedonia in 406 BCE at age 74. After an oracle, his father thought Euripides was to be an athlete, but it turns out, the stage was where he would win the oracle's "crowns of victory." He also studied painting and philosophy.

Euripides was married twice, and both wives were unfaithful. He was a recluse, and this gave rise to stories about him that became legends, but were probably not true. Wikipedia gives mention to them. He was also mocked by the comic poets/playwrights, and is a character in three of Aristophanes' plays. He was also associated with Socrates "as a leader of a decadent intellectualism." And while Socrates was executed for his "corrupting influence," Euripides headed of to Macedonia.

The Wikipedia article above supplies a quite a bit of material on this master, particularly the changes he made in Greek drama at the time, which were not always appreciated then, or even now. It quotes Bernard Knox, who became an American citizen and was the first director of the Center for Hellenic Studies:

He was a problem to his contemporaries and he is one still; over the course of centuries since his plays were first produced he has been hailed or indicted under a bewildering variety of labels. He has been described as 'the poet of the Greek enlightenment' and also as 'Euripides the irrationalist'; as a religious sceptic if not an atheist, but on the other hand, as a believer in divine providence and the ultimate justice of divine dispensation. He has been seen as a profound explorer of human psychology and also a rhetorical poet who subordinated consistency of character to verbal effect; as a misogynist and a feminist; as a realist who brought tragic action down to the level of everyday life and as a romantic poet who chose unusual myths and exotic settings. He wrote plays which have been widely understood as patriotic pieces supporting Athens' war against Sparta and others which many have taken as the work of the anti-war dramatist par excellence, even as attacks on Athenian imperialism. He has been recognized as the precursor of New Comedy and also what Aristotle called him: 'the most tragic of poets'. And not one of these descriptions is entirely false.


Plays by Euripides

The Electra of Euripides


Bust of Aristophanes


Aristophanes was the funny guy of the bunch, and after all that tragedy, one needs a good laugh! And you will get them with his plays, especially if the translator has captured the humor and interpreted it well for English-speaking readers and audiences.

He was born in Athens around 446 BCE and died at Delphi in 386 BCE, thus carrying on into the fourth century BCE. He wrote only forty plays, but eleven survive, to our delight. His works supply the only examples of what was known as "Old Comedy." In the Wikipedia link to Ancient Greek Comedy, Aristophanes' works are described "with their pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and scatalogical [poop] innuendo, effectively define the genre today. Aristophanes lampooned the most important personalities and institutions of his day, as can be seen, for example, in his buffoonish portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and his racy anti-war farce, Lysistrata."

But sometimes his humor got him in trouble, especially when he poked fun at the wrong person, and at least once may have ended up in court. Some think that his slander against Socrates may have contributed to his execution. Wikipedia states that we do not know much about this great man except through his plays, and they also say that he recreated the life of ancient Athens "more convincingly than any other author." In addition, they state that "his powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries."

The costumes and masks, along with the dirty jokes, must have been a hoot to ancient Greeks as they are with us today. Lysistrata required large dildos which poked out from under the costumes as the men are in obvious discomfort from their women denying them sex in protest of the war. The Peloponnesian War, incidentally was only in its fourth year when Aristophanes produced his first play. But when his last play was produced, the war was over, Athens lost, "its empire had been dismantled and it had undergone a tranformation from being the political to the intellectual centre of Greece." And Aristophanes survived it all. One can only hope that someday more of his plays will be re-discovered.

A Modern Production of The Birds

Plays by Aristophanes

The Birds


Collections of Plays

An Anthology of Greek Drama, First Series

An Anthology of Greek Drama, Second Series

The Eleven Comedies, Volume 1, of Aristophanes

The Murder of Agamemnon

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