The Man Who Was Killed by a Falling Tortoise

Bust of tragic poet Aeschylus in Athens, Greece with black background

The Man Who Was Killed by a Falling Tortoise

While it might seem like a clickbait headline to say that a falling tortoise killed a man, this is exactly what happened to Aeschylus. Often regarded as the creator of the tragic play, Aeschylus is as known for how he lived as how he died. The good news is that the headline isn’t clickbait, and there is a true story about this playwriter dying from a falling tortoise.

Early Life

Aeschylus was born into a very prominent family.
©"Aeschylus, Roman copy of a Greek original, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen" by Prof. Mortel is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

Born in 525 BC in Eleusis, northwest of Athens, he came from a wealthy family. His father was even believed to be a member of the ancient nobility. In his youth, working at a vineyard, the god Dionysus is said to have visited Aeschylus and instructed him to focus on the art of tragedy.

Persian Wars

Aerial drone photo of old port of Salamina island place where historic battle of Salamina took place, Attica, Greece
An aerial photo showing where the Battle of Salamis took place.

When Aeschylus was 15, the Persian Wars played a significant role. His brother fought and died defending Athens against Darius I of Persia. Fighting in the Battle of Platea, Aeschylus was said to have greatly contributed to the Battle of Salamis, a city with a special place in Aeschylus’ oldest surviving play.

Cult Secrets

An ancient Greek plaque depicting the Eleusinian Mysteries.
©"Ancient Greek Votive Plaque depicting Eleusinian Mysteries, discovered in Sanctuary at Eleusis, Mid-4th Cent. BC" by Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China is licensed under CC0 1.0. - Original / License

Due to his prominence, Aeschylus was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries but was accused of revealing some of the group’s secrets on stage. After being acquitted, Aeschylus traveled to Sicily, and it was during this trip that he wrote The Women of Aetna, one of his most famous plays.

Personal Life

Aeschylus bust
Aeschylus had two sons who followed in their father’s footsteps.
©athenswalk / Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication - Original / License

Having married and had two sons, it is no coincidence both of Aeschylus’ sons also became tragic poets. One son, Euphorion, was considered an award-winning poet and Aeschylus’ nephew was also. So, it seems safe to say that tragic poetry ran in the bloodline.

Tortoise Death

Aeschylus death
This artist’s depiction shows the death of Aeschylus.
©Tobias Verhaecht / Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication - Original / License

Upon visiting Sicily one final time in 458 BC, it’s believed that Aeschylus died when a tortoise was dropped on his head. According to legend, Valerius Maximus wrote that an eagle mistook Aeschylus’ head for a rock suitable for cracking the tortoiseshell, and the impact from the drop killed Aeschylus.

Gravestone Inscription

Bust of tragic poet Aeschylus in Athens, Greece
On Aeschylus’ gravestone, he only focused on his military achievements.
©vangelis aragiannis/Shutterstock.com

Even though he was considered the founder of the Greek tragedy, Aeschylus’ gravestone does not mention his prominence in the genre. Instead, it speaks only to his military achievements, indicating that Aeschylus did not want to be remembered for his work as much as his military service.

The Playwright

Carvings of ancient greek masks. Masks formed an integral part of ancient greek theater, being worn by actors and chorus, and defined the character of the actor
Carvings of ancient Greek masks like the ones Aeschylus used in his plays.

Regardless of how he may have wanted to be remembered, Aeschylus is fondly known as the father of tragedy. He is believed to have written 60-70 plays during his life, but only seven are believed to have survived. Among his most famous works are The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, and the Oresteia Trilogy.

Greek Tragedy

The ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre
Greek Tragedy plays may have been held at the Herodes Atticus theatre.

Aeschylus is most famous because of what he introduced into Greek Tragedy. While the themes of his plays included fate, the gods, and justice, he also used a second actor, which added significantly more dialogue. On top of the increased word count, Aeschylus also included elaborate costume work, stage settings, and masks.

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