Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound (Ancient Greek: Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης, Promētheús Desmṓtēs) is an Ancient Greek tragedy. In antiquity, it was attributed to Aeschylus, but now is considered by some scholars to be the work of another hand, and perhaps one as late as c. 430 BC.[1] Despite these doubts about its authorship, the play's designation as Aeschylean has remained conventional. The tragedy is based on the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who defies the gods and gives fire to mankind, acts for which he is subjected to perpetual punishment.

Prometheus Bound
Dirck van Baburen - Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan Rijksmuseum SK-A-1606.jpg
Written byAeschylus (disputed)

Prometheus Bound was the first work in a trilogy that also included the plays Prometheus Lyomenos (Prometheus Unbound) and Prometheus Pyrphoros (Prometheus the Fire-Bearer), neither of which has survived. Since the final two dramas of the trilogy have been lost, it is difficult to determine the author's original intention for the work as a whole. This problem is intensified since the date of the trilogy is unknown. A reference (lines 363-372) to the eruption of Mount Aetna in 479 suggests that Prometheus Bound may date from later than this event. Aside from that, however, scholars cannot agree whether the play was written early or late in Aeschylus’ career or even whether it is a genuine work of Aeschylus.


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 (violence), and the smith-god Hephaestus chain the Titan Prometheus to a mountain in the Caucasus, with Hephaestus alone expressing reluctance and pity, and then departing. 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.

A chorus of 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. Oceanus, the Titan father of the Oceanids, 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.[2]

Prometheus Bound: staging by MacMillan Films in 2015

Departures from HesiodEdit

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.[3]

Prometheus TrilogyEdit

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 authenticityEdit

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," or the argument that the playwright who demonstrated such piety toward Zeus in The Suppliants and Agamemnon could not have been the same playwright who, in Prometheus Bound, inveighs against Zeus for violent tyranny. Some who object to this argument put forward the theory of a Zeus who (like the Furies in the Oresteia) "evolves" throughout the trilogy; these people argue that it is possible Zeus is meant to be reminiscent of a tyrant only in Prometheus Bound, and that in the conclusion of the full trilogy, Aeschylus' Zeus could have become more comparable with the just and honorable Zeus found in the works of Hesiod.[4]

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 Eigenwoerter, the use of recitative anapests in the meter, etc.[5] Using such criteria in 1977, Mark Griffith made a case against the attribution.[6] C. J. Herington, however, repeatedly argued for it.[7] Since Griffith's landmark study, confidence in Aeschylean authorship has steadily eroded. Influential scholars such as M. L. West,[8] and Alan Sommerstein,[9] 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. 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."[10]

The argument of Herington[11] and others for authenticity has largely centered upon the fact that Prometheus Bound was one play in a trilogy, so that discussion of its attribution in isolation is inappropriate. Of all Aeschylus’ works (nearly ninety plays by some accounts), only seven survive, and only the Oresteia trilogy survives complete.

The play cannot date later than 430 BC, because Prometheus Unbound (part of the same trilogy as Prometheus Bound) was parodied in Cratinus' Ploutoi (429 BC). Prometheus Bound was then parodied in Cratinus' Seriphioi (c. 423) and Aristophanes' Acharnians (425 BC).[12]

Reception and influenceEdit

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 c. 370–360 BC.[13]

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 linesEdit

  • 39: τὸ συγγενές τοι δεινὸν ἥ θ' ὁμιλία (tò syngenés toi deinòn hḗ th' homilía ),
    "Kinship and companionship are terrible things."
  • 78: ὅμοια μορφῇ γλῶσσά σου γηρύεται (hómoia morphē̂i glō̂ssá sou gērýetai),
    "Your speech and your appearance – both alike."
  • 90: κυμάτων ἀνήριθμον γέλασμα (kymátōn anḗrithmon gélasma),
    "uncountable laughter of the waves"
  • 250: τυφλὰς ἐν αὐτοῖς ἐλπίδας κατῴκισα (typhlàs en autoîs elpídas katṓikisa),
    "I established in them blind hopes."
  • 387: σαφῶς μ'ἐς οἶκον σὸς λόγος στέλλει πάλιν (saphō̂s m'es oîkon sòs lógos stéllei pálin),
    "Your speech returns me clearly home."

Performance in the English languageEdit

In 1979 George Eugeniou directed and performed in the play at Theatro Technis London setting the drama in the Greece governed by the Junta, [14] George Eugeniou, Koraltan Ahmet and Angelique Rockas aka Angeliki Roka were praised for their performances " [15]

A translation of the play by Joel Agee, commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the CalArts Center for New Performance, and Trans Arts, was first performed from 29 August to 28 September 2013 at the Getty Villa's Outdoor Classical Theater.[16]  It was directed by Travis Preston, composed by Ellen Reid and Vinny Golia, and choreographed by Mira Kingsley.[17]  The production employed a huge, steel wheel in place of the barren cliff.[18]

In April 2015 MacMillan Films, in the United States, staged Prometheus Bound for camera using Peter Arnott's translation with James Thomas directing, Tanya Rodina as Io, and Casey McIntyre as the Chorus Leader. The production used a real skene building whose roof was the landing and dance platform for the Chorus of Oceanids.


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ See "The Authencity Debate" section of this entry.
  2. ^ "AESCHYLUS, PROMETHEUS BOUND - Theoi Classical Texts Library".
  3. ^ See, e.g., Lamberton 1988, 90-104.
  4. ^ For a summary of the "Zeus Problem" and the theory of an evolving Zeus, see Conacher 1980.
  5. ^ See, as examples, Griffith 1977, 157-72; Ireland 1977, 189-210; Hubbard 1991, 439-60.
  6. ^ Griffith 1977. Cambridge.
  7. ^ For example, Herington 1970.
  8. ^ West 1990.
  9. ^ Sommerstein 1996.
  10. ^ Griffith 1983, 34.
  11. ^ Herington, 1970.
  12. ^ West 1990, p.65
  13. ^ DeVries 1993, 517-23.
  14. ^ British Theatrelog,Volume 1, issue 8, Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound (Theatro Technis) , TQ Publications 1978 []
  15. ^ Jim Hiley, Time Out , Jan. 1979
  16. ^ Æschylus, Prometheus Bound (tr. Joel Agee; New York, N. Y.: New York Review Books, 2014), notation on the copyright page.
  17. ^ "Getty and CalArts Center for New Performance Join to Present Prometheus Bound in Annual Outdoor Theater Production at the Getty Villa,", (23 April 2013).
  18. ^ Deborah Behrens, "Preston’s Prometheus Bound Brings Poetic Revolution to Getty Villa," @THIS STAGE magazine (5 September 2013).


  • 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.

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