Aeschylus was born in c. 525 BC in Eleusis, a small town about 27 kilometers northwest of Athens, which is nestled in the fertile valleys of western Attica, though the date is most likely based on counting back forty years from his first victory in the Great Dionysia. His family was wealthy and well established; his father, Euphorion, was a member of the Eupatridae, the ancient nobility of Attica, though this might be a fiction that the ancients invented to account for the grandeur of his plays.
As a youth, he worked at a vineyard until, according to the 2nd-century AD geographer Pausanias, the god Dionysus visited him in his sleep and commanded him to turn his attention to the nascent art of tragedy. As soon as he woke from the dream, the young Aeschylus began to write a tragedy, and his first performance took place in 499 BC, when he was only 26 years old. He won his first victory at the City Dionysia in 484 BC.
In 510 BC, when Aeschylus was 15 years old, Cleomenes I expelled the sons of Peisistratus from Athens, and Cleisthenes came to power. Cleisthenes' reforms included a system of registration that emphasized the importance of the deme over family tradition. In the last decade of the 6th century, Aeschylus and his family were living in the deme of Eleusis.
The Persian Wars played a large role in the playwright's life and career. In 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought to defend Athens against the invading army of Darius I of Persia at the Battle of Marathon. The Athenians emerged triumphant, a victory celebrated across the city-states of Greece. Cynegeirus, however, died in the battle, receiving a mortal wound while trying to prevent a Persian ship retreating from the shore, for which his countrymen extolled him as a hero.
In 480 BC, Aeschylus was called into military service again, this time against Xerxes I's invading forces at the Battle of Salamis together with his younger brother Ameinias, he also fought, later, at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. Ion of Chios was a witness for Aeschylus's war record and his contribution in Salamis. Salamis holds a prominent place in The Persians, his oldest surviving play, which was performed in 472 BC and won first prize at the Dionysia.
Aeschylus was one of many Greeks who were initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient cult of Demeter based in his home town of Eleusis. Initiates gained secret knowledge through these rites, likely concerning the afterlife. Firm details of specific rites are sparse, as members were sworn under the penalty of death not to reveal anything about the Mysteries to non-initiates. Nevertheless, according to Aristotle, Aeschylus was accused of revealing some of the cult's secrets on stage.
Other sources claim that an angry mob tried to kill Aeschylus on the spot, but he fled the scene. Heracleides of Pontus asserts that the audience tried to stone Aeschylus. He then took refuge at the altar in the orchestra of the Theater of Dionysus. At his trial, he pleaded ignorance. He was acquitted, with the jury sympathetic to the military service of Aeschylus and his brothers during the Persian Wars. According to the 2nd-century AD author Aelian, Aeschylus's younger brother Ameinias helped to acquit Aeschylus by showing the jury the stump of the hand that he lost at Salamis, where he was voted bravest warrior. The truth is that the award for bravery at Salamis went not to Aeschylus' brother but to Ameinias of Pallene.
Aeschylus travelled to Sicily once or twice in the 470s BC, having been invited by Hiero I of Syracuse, a major Greek city on the eastern side of the island; and during one of these trips he produced The Women of Aetna (in honor of the city founded by Hieron) and restaged his Persians. By 473 BC, after the death of Phrynichus, one of his chief rivals, Aeschylus was the yearly favorite in the Dionysia, winning first prize in nearly every competition. In 472 BC, Aeschylus staged the production that included the Persians, with Pericles serving as choregos.
The death of Aeschylus illustrated in the 15th century Florentine Picture Chronicle
by Maso Finiguerra
In 458 BC, he returned to Sicily for the last time, visiting the city of Gela where he died in 456 or 455 BC. Valerius Maximus wrote that he was killed outside the city by a tortoise dropped by an eagle (possibly a lammergeier or Cinereous vulture, which do feed on tortoises by dropping them on hard objects) which had mistaken his bald head for a rock suitable for shattering the shell of the reptile. Pliny, in his Naturalis Historiæ, adds that Aeschylus had been staying outdoors to avoid a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object. But this story may be legendary and due to a misunderstanding of the iconography on Aeschylus's tomb. Aeschylus's work was so respected by the Athenians that after his death, his were the only tragedies allowed to be restaged in subsequent competitions. His sons Euphorion and Euæon and his nephew Philocles also became playwrights.
The inscription on Aeschylus's gravestone makes no mention of his theatrical renown, commemorating only his military achievements:
Αἰσχύλον Εὐφορίωνος Ἀθηναῖον τόδε κεύθει
μνῆμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας·
ἀλκὴν δ' εὐδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον ἄλσος ἂν εἴποι
καὶ βαθυχαιτήεις Μῆδος ἐπιστάμενος
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.
According to Castoriadis, the inscription on his grave signifies the primary importance of "belonging to the City" (polis), of the solidarity that existed within the collective body of citizen-soldiers.