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  • By Carey Jobe

The Prometheus Unbound of Aeschylus: Rebuilding a Lost Masterpiece



 

This is an extended preview from our winter 2024 issue of New Lyre Magazine.

 

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus is one of world literature’s best-known plays. We possess it today only because scholars at the Library of Alexandria chose it as one of seven representative Aeschylus plays (out of at least seventy-three) to be copied for libraries and schools—the equivalent of choosing about four of Shakespeare’s plays.  Consequently, it was re-copied in the Byzantine Empire throughout the Middle Ages, long enough for Renaissance humanists to obtain manuscripts that were eventually printed. Aeschylus’ other plays disappeared. We know them today only as titles or in short passages quoted by contemporary authors.   


This was the fate of Prometheus Unbound (Prometheus Lyomenos in Greek), the sequel play to Prometheus Bound (Prometheus Desmotes).  Although not chosen as part of the Aeschylean canon, the Unbound was widely read in antiquity and quoted in literary works that still survive.  As a result, we have enough quotations and other information about this play to form a general idea how its plot and themes progressed. 


Prometheus Unbound carries forward and completes the story of Prometheus begun in Prometheus Bound.  The two plays were intended as a unity; Prometheus Bound cannot be fully understood as Aeschylus intended without some knowledge of its sequel.  In this article, I translate the surviving Greek and Latin passages of the Unbound and assemble them into the framework of a proposed plot.  For the portions of the play where no confirmed passages exist, I used other evidence from classical sources when available and, where all else fails, my poet’s sense of where the play’s momentum is heading.   


What survives of Prometheus Unbound is fascinating.  Studying, translating, and attempting to reassemble its puzzle pieces gave me new respect for Aeschylus as a playwright and for the scope of his dramatic ideas.  In this article I wish to give readers some sense of what I think occurred in this lost play and how it fits into Aeschylus’ concept of the Prometheus myth.  I hope I can give readers new insights into what Aeschylus intended to tell us through the Prometheus story, a story that continues to have relevance for our modern age.    


Background


Before they were ever written down, the tales of Greek mythology were orally transmitted and, over many centuries and in different regions, developed multiple, often conflicting, story lines. These variant tellings gave Greek tragedians considerable freedom in molding these tales to suit their immediate theatrical needs.  They also freely invented their own backstories or new plot twists whenever necessary to convey a moral or just write good theater. This is what Aeschylus did in his handling of the Prometheus story.   


Aeschylus’ Athenian audience would already have been familiar with the Prometheus legend from Hesiod. His Works and Days and Theogony recount how Zeus overthrew his father Cronos for supremacy of the gods in an epic battle against the Titans (the “Titanomachy”).  Following his victory, Zeus banished Cronos and the Titans to Tartarus. He also planned to obliterate humanity to create a new race of people.  Prometheus (whose name means “Forethought”), son of the Titan Iapetus, thwarted this plan by stealing fire from Olympus in a fennel stalk to bestow on mankind. This gift allowed humanity to acquire the skills needed for survival. But Zeus’ punishment was severe. He ordered Hephaistos to chain Prometheus to a cliffside in the remote Caucasian Mountains. He then sent an eagle to consume Prometheus’ liver, which continually regenerated and was reconsumed in an unending cycle.  Ages later, the hero Heracles killed the eagle and freed Prometheus from bondage.  Zeus and Prometheus reconciled.    


Aeschylus made important changes to this fire-legend, all of which enhance the story’s dramatic impact. Prometheus is now the child of Gaia, the Earth Goddess, a primordial deity with knowledge of the hidden workings of fate. (Her divine DNA also readily explains Prometheus’ “forethought”). In Aeschylus’ version, Prometheus was Zeus’ ally in the Titanomachy, and his counsel was decisive in Zeus’ victory. Because Zeus owed his throne to Prometheus, the punishment he later inflicts becomes an especially harsh betrayal. In addition, Prometheus not only grants mankind fire, but also teaches them the arts and sciences, enabling them to develop culture and civilization.  Finally, Prometheus is now possessor of a momentous secret: he knows how Zeus will one day be overthrown, a secret he refuses to disclose even under torture.  (Spoiler: Thetis, with whom Zeus desires an affair, is fated to bear a child greater than his father.)  These reworkings of the legend create a dramatic tension in Bound that ultimately resolves in Unbound


Aeschylus’ dramatic concepts were too large for a single play, so he usually wrote plays in trilogies that carried a character or legend through three successive dramas, their tragic intensity subsequently relieved by a comic satyr play.  Prometheus Bound reads like a middle play: the action is already afoot, and the ending is inconclusive. A prelude seems to be called for—a play recounting the theft of fire and Zeus’ apprehension and trial of Prometheus. Yet we have no conclusive evidence from antiquity that a third play existed (or a concluding satyr play). A single line attributed to a play called Prometheus the Fire-Bringer (Pyrphoros) might refer to Prometheus the Fire-Kindler (Pyrkaeos), the satyr play appended to the Persians trilogy in 472 B.C.  These descriptive suffixes were attached to play titles by Alexandrian scholars centuries after Aeschylus lived and were not always uniformly applied.   


Unlike Aeschylus’ other six remaining plays, we have no information for the date of the first production of the Prometheus plays, or if they were ever produced during his lifetime. My impression is that both Bound and Unbound were left on Aeschylus’ desk, more or less complete, when he died in Gela, Sicily, in 456 BC, and that he simply did not live long enough to write a third play. His son Euphorion, also a playwright, could have edited these two plays for a posthumous production in Athens, completing the trilogy with a third play of his own composition. Maybe this play was the shadowy Fire-Bringer.  But we will likely never know the answer, and so must consider Bound and Unbound as a “duology” rather than a trilogy. 

          

Reconstructing the Play


Prometheus Unbound was written in a structural framework typical of Greek tragedy.  The action was presented in a series of episodes for actors. These episodes were separated by choral hymns sung by an onstage chorus with choreographed dancing and musical accompaniment. The speeches and dialogue of the actors were usually declaimed but sometimes sung to musical accompaniment. In addition to singing hymns functioning as interludes, the chorus also sometimes engaged in dialogues with the characters, but only rarely participated in the action.     


The greatest obstacle in reconstructing Prometheus Unbound is deciding what happened during the parts of the play for which no quotations survive. Almost nothing remains of the choral songs. The middle and concluding episodes are completely blank. For these episodes, even knowing which characters appeared is challenging. In making these difficult surmises, an ancient copyist’s mistake is enormously helpful. The oldest manuscript tradition of Prometheus Bound (the 11th century Medicean manuscript) contains a dramatis personae that includes Gaia and Heracles, although neither appears in that play. We know from contemporary writers that Heracles appeared in Unbound, so it is thought that the Medicean text tradition inadvertently copies the character list for both plays. Medieval manuscripts are riddled with all sorts of copyist mistakes that hound academicians like Furies in trying to decide what ancient authors actually wrote. This particular error is indispensable in reconstructing Unbound.        

            

When the play begins, ages have passed since the end of Prometheus Bound.  Thirteen generations, per Prometheus’ statement in Bound (line 774).  Prometheus remains chained to the Caucasian rocks.  At some point after the first play ended, Zeus sent the divine eagle to consume Prometheus’ liver.  In Aeschylus’ version, this feasting occurs every three days.  The stage would depict the eagle in the background, perched on high rocks, waiting to descend again.  


We do not know if Prometheus Unbound had a prologue. The first lines that we possess are from the chorus that now enters the stage. They are the Titans, the same Titans who battled against Zeus in the Titanomachy and were hurled into Tartarus following their defeat. In an astonishing act of clemency, Zeus has freed the Titans from their imprisonment. The newly-liberated Titans now make the pilgrimage to Caucasia to visit their kinsman Prometheus. 


Judging from the locations mentioned in this fragment, Aeschylus placed the Titans’ exit from Tartarus somewhere south of Egypt in lands the Greeks broadly called “Ethiopia.” These lines from the entrance of the Chorus of Titans describe their route from Tartarus to Caucasia.  


… beyond the Red Sea’s depths  that glitter like bronze,   Ethiopia’s sacred river, nourishing all,  and the circling streams of Ocean   where all-seeing Helios daily  bathes his immortal body,  refreshing his weary horse-teams  in gentle upwellings of water…    ... by Phasis, rugged border  of Europe and boundless Asia… we come…  to witness your sufferings, Prometheus,  the piteousness of your bonds.  


Prometheus then addresses the Titans. His remarkable speech was translated into Latin by the Roman statesman Cicero for the philosophical treatise Tusculan Disputations. The original Greek text is lost. After ages of torture, Prometheus remains defiant, but it is now a defiance mixed with resignation and a longing for an end to suffering:    


Race of Titans, kinsmen of my blood,  Heaven’s progeny, behold me shackled, bound  to harsh rocks, like a ship moored fast by sailors timid and fearful of night’s thundering sea.   Zeus, Cronos’ vengeful son, transfixed me thus;  Hephaistos’ craft then hardened the god’s rage.  With cruel hands he split my limbs with bolts that, by his handiwork, I miserably inhabit this bleak stronghold of the Furies. Every third dismal day, with dreadful swoop,  Zeus’ minister, an eagle, with hooked talons slashes my liver for its gruesome feast until, glutted and stuffed on my fat vitals, it utters a horrendous scream and soars aloft, its feathered tail fanning my blood. Then when my liver swells, regenerating, it swoops back hungry for fresh butchery. This guardian of my sorrows, whom I nourish, consumes me living with unending pain, for, as you see, imprisoned in Zeus’ chains I cannot hurl this monster from my breast. Deprived of any aid, I must endure  pernicious tortures, yearning for the death  that ends my woes, yet by the wrath of Zeus,    despite my wish, I keep this bed of anguish.   These ancient, grievous torments, magnified  through horrid ages, fasten on my body  from which drops, melted by the torrid sun,  run ceaselessly down the rocks of Caucasus. 


The metaphor comparing the chained Prometheus to a ship moored in a stormy sea is one of the most compelling images in ancient literature.  For me, this speech refutes the claim some make based on “stylometric analysis” that Aeschylus could not have authored the Prometheus plays.  The spirit matters: the grandeur and pathos of Prometheus’ words could only have been written by Aeschylus.  


During a subsequent dialogue with the Titans, Prometheus recounts some of the benefits he bestowed on mankind: 


…Horses, asses I gave them, the race of bulls  to bear their burdens and relieve their labors.  


A lost choral song by the Titans followed, after which comes a section which, I feel, was the central episode of the play. Gaia, the Earth Goddess and mother of Prometheus, rises from the earth to console and advise her son. A true matriarch, Gaia was ancestor, one way or another, of every divinity in the play—mother of the Titans, grandmother of Zeus, and so on. Her advice would be worth having: she was one of the primal gods, the original deity presiding over the Oracle at Delphi, a prophetess intimately familiar with the workings of fate.   


What did she tell Prometheus? No certain quotations survive, but Prometheus relates in Bound that Gaia often told him the course of future events. We can imagine she did so here, too. But she also worked to shape events. Prometheus also says in Bound that during the war between Cronos and Zeus, Gaia foresaw that victory would be won by strategy (dolos), not by brute force. After the Titans rejected this advice, Gaia and Prometheus shifted their allegiance to Zeus, a switch that was crucial in Zeus’ triumph. This partnership was broken when Prometheus made the decision to steal fire—a personal decision, not fated, as he makes clear. Given Gaia’s active role in creating the Zeus-Prometheus alliance, I expect she would offer Prometheus practical advice how to mend the rift and thereby end his captivity.  


In fact, Prometheus had already foreseen his pardon. He declared in Bound that his release by Zeus was preordained by the Fates, acting on behalf of Necessity (Anake).  The reference to Anake, the Greek goddess Necessity, is significant, for her name was a fearful one.  Necessity was the oldest, most mysterious, most powerful of the primordial Greek gods. Self-created from Chaos, she, along with her consort Time (Chronos—not to be confused with Cronos, father of Zeus), created the cosmos. She carried in her hand a spindle on which she spun the course of future events. Even Zeus was powerless to change what Necessity decreed. Despite being arguably the most powerful deity, Greeks seldom dared to mention her name or even pray to her.  As her verdicts were unalterable, there was no point in making sacrifices to her.  Prometheus had the ability to sense the outline of her plans, but Gaia, the daughter of Necessity, would know those plans in granular detail, and what actions they required. 


We can imagine Gaia explaining the reasons for Zeus’ new-found clemency. An ordered cosmos is guided by principles of justice—brute power alone is unsustainable. Zeus obtained supremacy by force and violence, but he can keep power only by ruling justly. His overthrow is not unalterable fate, however, but depends on actions. Between plays, Zeus must have realized this. During the ages Prometheus was chained to the rock, Zeus softened his harshness and became merciful, as shown by the freeing of the Titans. He has aligned his rule with the cosmic order. Because he now rules justly and wisely, Gaia says, Prometheus’ defiance serves no purpose.  In all creation, now only Prometheus refuses to acknowledge Zeus’ rule. His stubbornness alone keeps him chained. The time for reconciliation has come. The newly-freed Titans, listening in the background, would have surely voiced their approval. If Zeus indeed grants him freedom, Prometheus agrees to reveal his secret. Gaia then departs for Olympus to plead with Zeus for his pardon.   


Hearing this motherly advice would not be easy for the pain-racked Prometheus. But he had foreseen in the earlier play that Zeus might grow milder and wish a reconciliation, and that Prometheus would then welcome him as a friend. Yet we have to wonder—how did Zeus acquire this insight? Divine introspection is possible but unlikely—we know from mythology this was not a god’s usual path to maturity.  Maybe it was through prophecy: perhaps Gaia, not averse to putting her thumb on fate’s scales, appeared to Zeus and prophesied his downfall unless he moderated his harshness and reached an accord with Prometheus. The Gaia-Prometheus dialogue would have been fascinating to read, but evidently the complexity of its ideas did not lend itself to short quotations. 


Whatever they discussed, the play’s events now move quickly.  Following  Gaia’s departure and a further choral song by the Titans, Heracles marches onto the stage, draped in a lionskin, a bow and quiver full of arrows slung over his shoulder. He tells the Titans he is passing through Caucasia on his trek northward to steal the apples of the Hesperides, the eleventh of his Twelve Labors. He wishes to ask Prometheus for advice on the route he must take and the dangers he will face. In return, Heracles promises to grant him any favor he requests.    


Prometheus answers Heracles in a lengthy “journey narrative,” a passage corresponding to his prophecy of Io’s wanderings in Bound. The account of Heracles’ travels contained colorful descriptions of foreign peoples and picturesque geographical details. As a result, several classical authors quoted passages from it. 

As Heracles journeys northward, Prometheus warns, he must face the North Winds:  


Take this straight road, where you will first encounter  the gales of Boreas—there stay vigilant  against the howling blizzards that can swiftly   snatch men away like leaves in freezing whirlwinds…    


On the northern plains, Heracles will also meet 


…free-roaming Scythians fed on mare’s milk cheese…  


After the theft of the apples, further passages describe Heracles’ homeward journey.  His route takes him from the West through what is today southern France, then into the Italian peninsula.   


Prometheus describes the Ligures, a historically-documented people who inhabited the area in what is now northwestern Italy and southwestern France. They were known to be warlike, but Heracles, a favorite child of Zeus, travels with divine protection: 


…You then confront fearless Ligurian warriors, | where, I foresee, your courage will desert you,  your arrows prove too few, and where you cannot    even throw stones, for the whole plain is smooth.  Yet, pitying you, the Father will spread clouds  above the land that drop a blanket of stones.  Hurl these, and you will rout the Ligurian hordes.   


Heracles then meets “the Gabians,” perhaps a reference to the Gabii, a tribe that in Roman times lived in central Italy. Their life resembles a remnant of the Golden Age:

 

…Thereafter you will meet a folk more righteous  and more hospitable than any other,  the Gabians, a people who require  no plow or spade, no tool that breaks the earth,   to raise crops, whose fields, self-sown without toil,  ripen in bountiful harvests for mankind.   


In gratitude for this advice, Heracles grants Prometheus’ request to slay the eagle perched on the crags above them, the dramatic high point in what is primarily a speech-play. Putting an arrow on his bow and aiming carefully at the eagle, Heracles prays for divine aid: 


Archer Apollo, guide my arrow straight! 


Heracles’ arrow finds its target. The eagle drops. Heracles then unshackles Prometheus. After ages of bondage, Prometheus rises, freed. He thanks Heracles—and does not fail to note the irony that a son of Zeus has freed him: 


My fiercest foe has sired this dearest friend! 


Heracles departs, leaving the liberated Prometheus and the Titan Chorus to contemplate the implications of what has occurred. 


The play is nearing its conclusion. How did it end? Again no quotations exist, but other evidence helps us. The third century grammarian Athenaeus, in his encyclopedic banquet-tale Deipnosophistae, states that when Prometheus was freed from bondage, he agreed to wear a flower garland around his neck as atonement for the theft of fire. Athenaeus relates this garland to a then-existing Athenian custom: “Aeschylus clearly states in the Unbound that in honor of Prometheus we place a garland on the shoulders as recompense of his bondage."  


Continue reading this article on New Lyre Magazine


Translations © Carey Jobe 


Carey Jobe is a retired attorney and judge.  Prior to beginning his legal career, he was a student of Classical Literature and Latin Language.  His Latin translations have appeared in The Classical Outlook, the journal of The American Classical Society.  He is also a widely published poet whose work regularly appears in numerous literary journals.  He lives and writes near Tallahassee, Florida.   

3 Comments


hsdiwdc
Feb 19

I really enjoyed reading this wonderful story, because you not only tried to re-create the lost play, but you also tried to re-create the thinking that went on in Aeschylus' mind when he wrote it. Bravo.

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martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
Feb 19
Replying to

I agree. Carey did a really fine job indeed.

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martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
Feb 12

This is a fine essay regarding one of the world's most timeless plays and the good fortune by which it was preserved and developed throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and now comes to us almost intact (apart from the ending and some missing passages) as a major work from antiquity. I particularly like the segment where the author tell us how he translated the surviving Greek and Latin passages, then meticulously assembled them in order to reconstruct something as close as possible to the play's original plot. This is a fine essay - detailed, informative and very well written. Nice job, Carey!

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