He is considered the Father of Tragedy, only seven of whose estimated 70 to 90 plays have survived. The Persians is a rare, extant example of a Classical Greek tragedy that addresses contemporary history. Aeschylus, a native Eleusinian and a recognized war hero, wrote from his own experience as a veteran of the great Greek-Persian clashes at both Marathon and Salamis. Before he died, in Sicily (Magna Graecia), he requested that his epitaph commemorate his service at Marathon, rather than his success as a playwright.
A true Athenian, and the writer who created Oedipus and Antigone – two of the greatest characters in the history of theater – Sophocles accumulated a steady and distinguished record of service to his city. Born into a wealthy local family, he was highly educated and known for his grace and charm. He was well connected, a personal friend of Pericles and Kimon, and, as an Athenian patriot, was fortunate in many ways to have died before Athens’ final surrender to Sparta in 404 BC. Only seven of his plays survive.
Athens’ great statesman and leader in the mid-5th century BC, Pericles rose to power in the 460s and was among the first to die from plague in 429 BC. His vision for Athens as first among equals led him to launch a building program that would give a new face to the Acropolis and promote the military, social and political achievements of his city. After transferring the Delian League’s treasury to Athens in 454 BC, he drew on allies’ funds to erect the Parthenon and other Acropolis buildings, whose sculptural decoration glorified Classical Athens during its Golden Age.
The third, and probably most popular, of the great triumvirate of ancient Greek tragedians, whose works were staged at the Acropolis’ Theater of Dionysus, Euripides is said to have written 95 plays, although only 18 survive. He created timeless dramatic characters, including Medea (who killed her children to avenge her husband’s infidelity), and today is celebrated for having challenged social norms and gender stereotypes. Reputedly a misanthrope, he often escaped the city to write his tragedies in a cave on the island of Salamis.
One of the founders of Western philosophy, little else is known about this enigmatic figure other than what was written by his students Plato and Xenophon (the historian) and in the plays of Aristophanes. The best illustration of his character is contained in Plato’s famous dialogues: Apology (a masterpiece), Crito,Phaedo and Symposium. He died poor (having refused to take money for his teachings), executed by the democracy he had championed, after being accused of irreverence to the gods and of corrupting youth.
The greatest comic playwright of ancient Athens, he wrote 30 plays, 11 of which survive virtually complete. Also known as the Father of Comedy, Aristophanes recreated life in ancient Athens as it really was, using his pen to defy the status quo. The power of his satire was feared (and still is) by the establishment. Aristophanes caricatured Socrates (in Clouds) and was particularly critical of populist leaders, especially Cleon, who profited from war. His plays continue to be widely performed, often adapted to satirize current affairs.
A student of Socrates, a philosopher and mathematician, Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle (who later became Alexander the Great’s tutor), Plato laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science. He came from a politically active Athenian family and his most famous work, The Republic, addresses justice and its relationship to happiness.
At age 18, Aristotle joined Plato’s Academy and remained there 19 years. His writings – on subjects including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy and reasoning. Considered the original genuine scientist, he was the first to classify human knowledge. Of perhaps 200 treatises, 31 survive, mainly due to a library established in Aristotle’s own philosophical school, the Lyceum.