Prometheus Bound  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Prometheus Bound is an Ancient Greek tragedy. In Antiquity, this drama was attributed to Aeschylus, but is now considered by some scholars to be the work of another hand, perhaps one as late as ca. 415 BC. Despite these doubts of authorship, the play's designation as Aeschylean has remained conventional. The tragedy is based on the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who was punished by the god Zeus for giving fire to mankind.



The play is composed almost entirely of speeches and contains little action since its protagonist is chained and immobile throughout. At the beginning, Kratos (strength), Bia (force), and the smith-god Hephaestus chain the Titan Prometheus to a mountain in the Caucasus and then depart. According to the author, Prometheus is being punished not only for stealing fire, but also for thwarting Zeus's plan to obliterate the human race. This punishment is especially galling since Prometheus was instrumental in Zeus's victory in the Titanomachy.

The Oceanids appear and attempt to comfort Prometheus by conversing with him. Prometheus cryptically tells them that he knows of a potential marriage that would lead to Zeus's downfall. A Titan named Oceanus commiserates with Prometheus and urges him to make peace with Zeus. Prometheus tells the chorus that the gift of fire to mankind was not his only benefaction; in the so-called Catalogue of the Arts (447-506), he reveals that he taught men all the civilizing arts, such as writing, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy, architecture, and agriculture.

Prometheus is then visited by Io, a human maiden pursued by a lustful Zeus; the Olympian transformed Io into a cow, and a gadfly sent by Zeus's wife Hera has chased Io all the way from Argos. Prometheus forecasts Io's future travels, telling her that Zeus will eventually end her torment in Egypt, where she will bear a son named Epaphus. He says one of her descendants (an unnamed Heracles), thirteen generations hence, will release him from his own torment.

Finally, Hermes the messenger-god is sent down by the angered Zeus to demand that Prometheus tell him who threatens to overthrow him. Prometheus refuses, and Zeus strikes him with a thunderbolt that plunges Prometheus into the abyss.

Departures from Hesiod

The treatment of the myth of Prometheus in Prometheus Bound is a radical departure from the earlier accounts found in Hesiod's Theogony (511-616) and Works and Days (42-105). Hesiod essentially portrays the Titan as a lowly trickster and semi-comic foil to Zeus's authority. Zeus's anger toward Prometheus is in turn responsible for mortal man's having to provide for himself; before, all of man's needs had been provided by the gods. Prometheus' theft of fire also prompts the arrival of the first woman, Pandora, and her jar of evils. Pandora is entirely absent from Prometheus Bound, and Prometheus becomes a human benefactor and divine king-maker, rather than an object of blame for human suffering.

Prometheus Trilogy

There is evidence that Prometheus Bound was the first play in a trilogy conventionally called the Prometheia, but the other two plays, Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, survive only in fragments. In Prometheus Unbound, Heracles frees Prometheus from his chains and kills the eagle that had been sent daily to eat the Titan's perpetually regenerating liver. Perhaps foreshadowing his eventual reconciliation with Prometheus, we learn that Zeus has released the other Titans whom he imprisoned at the conclusion of the Titanomachy. In Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, the Titan finally warns Zeus not to lie with the sea nymph Thetis, for she is fated to give birth to a son greater than the father. Not wishing to be overthrown, Zeus would later marry Thetis off to the mortal Peleus; the product of that union will be Achilles, Greek hero of the Trojan War. Grateful for the warning, Zeus finally reconciles with Prometheus.

Debate over authenticity

Scholars at the Great Library of Alexandria unanimously deemed Aeschylus to be the author of Prometheus Bound. Since the 19th century, however, several scholars have doubted Aeschylus' authorship of the drama. These doubts initially took the form of the so-called "Zeus Problem." That is, how could the playwright who demonstrated such piety toward Zeus in (for example) The Suppliants and Agamemnon be the same playwright who, in Prometheus Bound, inveighs against Zeus for being a violent tyrant? This objection prompted the theory of a Zeus who (like the Furies in the Oresteia) "evolves" in the course of the trilogy. Thus, by the conclusion of Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, Aeschylus' Zeus would be more like the just Zeus found in the works of Hesiod.

Increasingly, arguments for and against the attribution to Aeschylus have been based on metrical-stylistic grounds: the play's diction, the use of so-called Eigenworter, the use of recitative anapests in the meter, etc. Using such criteria in 1977, Mark Griffith made a case against the attribution. C. J. Herington, however, repeatedly argued for it. Since Griffith's landmark study, confidence in Aeschylean authorship has steadily eroded. Influential scholars such as M.L West, Alan Sommerstein, and Anthony Podlecki have made arguments against authenticity. West has argued that the Prometheus Bound and its trilogy are at least partially and probably wholly the work of Aeschylus' son, Euphorion, who was also a playwright. Based upon allusions to Prometheus Bound found in the works of comic playwright Aristophanes, Podlecki has recently suggested that the tragedy might date from ca. 415 BC. Those who trust in the verdict of antiquity and still favor Aeschylean authorship have dated the play anywhere from the 480s to 456 BC. The matter may never be settled to the satisfaction of all. As Griffith himself, who argues against authenticity, puts it: "We cannot hope for certainty one way or the other."

Reception and influence

Prometheus Bound enjoyed a measure of popularity in antiquity. Aeschylus was very popular in Athens decades after his death, as Aristophanes' The Frogs (405 BC) makes clear. Allusions to the play are evident in his The Birds of 414 BC, and in the tragedian Euripides' fragmentary Andromeda, dated to 412 BC. If Aeschylean authorship is assumed, then these allusions several decades after the play's first performance speak to the enduring popularity of Prometheus Bound. Moreover, a performance of the play itself (rather than a depiction of the generic myth) appears on fragments of a Greek vase dated ca. 370-360 BC.

In the early 19th century, the Romantic writers came to identify with the defiant Prometheus. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem on the theme, as did Lord Byron. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a play, Prometheus Unbound, which used some of the materials of the play as a vehicle for Shelley's own vision.

Memorable lines

  • 39: Template:Lang (to sungenes toi deinon he th'omilia), "Kinship and companionship are terrible things."
  • 78: Template:Lang (homoia morphei glossa sou geruetai), "Your speech and your appearance – both alike."
  • 250: Template:Lang (tuphlas in autois elpidas katoikisa), "I established in them blind hopes."
  • 387: Template:Lang (saphos m'es oikon sos logos stellei palin), "Your speech returns me clearly home."

See also


  • Conacher, D.J. Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound: a Literary Commentary. Toronto, 1980.
  • DeVries, K. "The Prometheis in Vase Painting and on Stage." Nomodeiktes: Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald. Eds R.M. Rosen and J. Farrell. Ann Arbor, 1993. 517-23.
  • Griffith, Mark. The Authenticity of the Prometheus Bound. Cambridge, 1977.
  • -- . Aeschylus Prometheus Bound: Text and Commentary. Cambridge, 1983.
  • Herington, C.J. The Author of the Prometheus Bound. Austin, 1970.
  • Hubbard, T.K. "Recitative Anapests and the Authenticity of Prometheus Bound." American Journal of Philology 112.4 (1991): 439-460.
  • Ireland, S. "Sentence Structure in Aeschylus and the Position of the Prometheus in the Corpus Aeschyleum." Philologus 121 (1977): 189-210.
  • Lamberton, Robert. Hesiod. Binghamton, 1988.
  • Podlecki, A.J. "Echoes of the Prometheia in Euripides' Andromeda?" 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Philological Association. Montreal.
  • Sommerstein, Alan. Aeschylean Tragedy. Bari, 1996.
  • West, M.L. Studies in Aeschylus. Stuttgart, 1990.


  • Thomas Medwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1832 full text 1837 (Pagan Press reprint 2011)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1833 - verse
  • Edward Hayes Plumptre, 1868 - verse: full text
  • J. Case, 1905 - verse
  • John Stuart Blackie, 1906 - verse: full text
  • Robert Whitelaw, 1907 - verse
  • E. D. A. Morshead, 1908 - verse: full text
  • Walter Headlam and C. E. S. Headlam, 1909 - prose
  • G.M.Cookson, 1924 - verse: full text
  • Herbert Weir Smyth, 1926 - prose: full text
  • Clarence W. Mendell, 1926 - verse
  • Robert C. Trevelyan, 1939 - verse
  • David Grene, 1942 - prose and verse
  • E. A. Havelock, 1950 -prose and verse
  • Philip Vellacott, 1961 - verse
  • Paul Roche, 1964 - verse
  • Robert Lowell, 1967 - prose
  • C. John Herrington and James Scully, 1975 - verse
  • G. Theodoridis, prose, full text: [1]

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