16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World

Khalid Elhassan - October 3, 2018

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
Death of Aeschylus. Made Man

15. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Dramatist Tries to Escape His Fate… But Fails

Ancient Athens’ Aeschylus (525 – 455 BC) was a farm laborer, until he had a vision in which the god Dionysius ordered him to write plays. He did, and ended up becoming Ancient Greece’s greatest playwright, penning over 90 plays during a long and productive career. Most of Aeschylus’ plays won prizes in Athens’ great drama festivals, and many of them are still performed around the world to this day. He is credited with founding serious drama, and is frequently referred to as the “The Father of Tragedy”.

Aeschylus practically invented acting. Until he came along, theater consisted of a narrator telling a story, interrupted at intervals with a chorus performing a song and dance. Not satisfied to simply let a narrator recount his plays, Aeschylus used actors to play out the story with distinct roles and an exchange of dialogue. He also raised production values with extravagant costumes and striking imagery, and came up with innovations such as a wheeled platform to change stage scenery. Aeschylus also used a crane to lift actors in scenes involving flight or descent from the heavens.

His main themes were conflicts between men and the gods, between the individual and the state, and the inevitability of divine retribution for misdeeds. In Ancient Athens, playwrights submitted three tragedies for competitions at drama festivals, and Aeschylus became the first to link his three plays into a single trilogy. His trilogies usually followed a family over several generations, such as the Oresteia, about king Agamemnon during the Trojan War, and his descendents in its aftermath.

Aeschylus was also a citizen-soldier, and he fought in the Battle of Marathon, in which his brother was killed, as well as in the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis. His wartime experiences found expression in his play, The Persians. For all his accomplishments, Aeschylus’ self penned epitaph did not mention his success as a playwright. Instead, it contained what he most wanted to be remembered for and what he had been proudest of in life: that he had fought in the Battle of Marathon.

His dramatic life came to a dramatic end in 455 BC, while visiting Gela, in Sicily. Aeschylus received a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object, so he left the city and stayed outdoors to avoid that fate. A common theme in Greek drama is the futility of trying to avoid one’s fate, and Aeschylus’ attempt to avoid his prophesized destiny proved futile as he sat in a field outside Gela. An eagle, flying with a tortoise in its talons and looking for something with which to break the shell, mistook his baldheaded dome for a rock, and dropped the tortoise on his shiny head, killing him instantly.

16 Dramatic and Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece and the Hellenistic World
‘The Sacrifice of Iphigenia’, by Carle van Loo. Greek Legends and Myths

16. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Seer Laughs Too Soon at a Rival’s Failure

Calchas, in ancient Greek mythology, was a seer who had been blessed with the gift of foretelling the future from the flights of birds. He could else soothsay by interpreting the entrails of enemies during battle. He accompanied the Greeks when they invaded Troy, and Homer extolled his skills in the Iliad, stating that: “as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp“.

Before the Greeks could get to Troy, their assembled army was stuck on a beach, prevented from sailing by contrary winds. Calchas prophesied that the winds had been sent by the god Artemis, who had been offended by Agamemnon, the Greek high king and army leader. The only way to appease Artemis, Calchas advised, was for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. It was done, the winds shifted, and the Greeks were finally able to sail.

When the Greek armies were struck with a devastating plague during the Trojan War, they sought Calchas’ advise. He divined that it had been sent by the god Apollo, who had been angered by Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo, and his refusal to allow her father to ransom her. Agamemnon was forced to send Chryseis back to her father, but then compensated himself by seizing from Achilles a princess whom the Greek hero had captured as a war prize. That triggered a feud between king and hero that drove much of the Iliad.

The soothsayer also lent his support to Odysseus’ Trojan Horse stratagem, predicting that it would succeed in infiltrating the besieged city. Centuries later, the Romans incorporated Calchas in their national origin story, and ascribed to him a prophecy that the Trojan prince Aeneas would survive the city’s fall, and go on to lay the foundations of Rome.

Calchas reportedly ended his days by laughing himself to death at what he believed to be a rival soothsayer’s incorrect prediction. Calchas had planted some grape vines, but the rival prophesied that Calchas would never drink wine produced from those grapes. The grapes ripened, however, and were made into wine. Calchas then invited his rival to the first tasting, and lifting a cup of wine made from the grapes in question, he started laughing at the failed prophecy. He ended up laughing so hard that he choked to death.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Philip II of Macedon

Ancient Origins – The Brutal Draconian Laws of Ancient Greece

Ancient Origins – Thucydides: General, Historian, and the Father of Scientific History

Bleacher Report, April 11th, 2011 – MMA History: How Pankration Champ Arrichion Won Olympic Crown After His Death

Chrystal, Paul – In Bed With the Ancient Greeks (2016)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Milo of Croton

Encyclopedia Britannica – Pyrrhus, King of Epirus

Greek Mythology – Calchas

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Empedocles

Listverse – 10 Incredibly Bizarre Ways People Died in Ancient Greece

Livius – Miltiades

Brown University – Zeuxis and Parrhasisus

Perseus Encyclopedia – Thucydides

Quirkality – The Curious Death of Chrysippus of Soli

Ranker – The Most Bizarre Deaths in the Ancient World

Wikipedia – Aeschylus

Wikipedia – Heraclitus

Wikipedia – Philitas of Cos

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