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The Wikipedia article on the play The Suppliants by Aeschylus tells us:

It was long thought to be the earliest surviving play by Aeschylus due to the relatively anachronistic function of the chorus as the protagonist of the drama. However, evidence discovered in the mid-20th century shows it one of Aeschylus’ last plays, definitely after The Persians and possibly after Seven Against Thebes.[citation needed]

Wikipedia quotes F. A. Paley on the date of the play, and looking at the context of this quotation we find that the late date had already been theorized by August Boeckh and Karl Otfried Müller:

The precise date of the Supplices,† which has been generally regarded, on internal evidence, as the earliest tragedy extant, is unknown. Müller however (Dissertations on the Eumenides, p. 84, ed. 2, transl.), after Boeckh and others, thinks that from certain political allusions in the play (677, 740, 930) to the then contemplated alliance of Athens with Argos and the war with Egypt (Thucyd. i. 102, 104), Ol. 79, 3, B.C. 461, the date may be fixed at only a few years previous to the Orestea, which was brought out Ol. 80, 2, or B.C. 458. It may be doubted if these supposed allusions are sufficiently clear and definite to establish the argument. Those at least who judge by the style, which is so singularly epic, the simplicity of the plot, the paucity of the characters, and the great predominance of choric action, will be reluctant to believe that the Suppliants was composed more than ten years after the Prometheus, Persians, and Seven against Thebes.

Frederick Apthorp Paley, ed. (1861). The Tragedies of Aeschylus, 2nd edition, p. 1. London: Whittaker and Co.

† The Latin name of the play.

What was the evidence that was discovered in the mid-20th century that confirmed a late date for the play?

2 Answers 2

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According to a Bryn Mawr Classical Review book review

In 1952, the publication of P. Oxy. 2256 changed our understanding of Suppliants’ place in Aeschylus’s oeuvre. Whereas the other five of the six surviving definitely Aeschylean plays had confirmed dates for their productions (Persians in 472, Seven in 467, and the Oresteia in 458), Suppliants had no secure date for its production, allowing speculation to hold sway. ... P. Oxy. 2256 showed, however, that it was produced not in the early years of the fifth century but sometime between 470 and 459, with, for several reasons, 463 being more likely than any other date.

This book review does not present a detailed case for these assertions, but presumably the book under review (Alan H. Sommerstein, Aeschylus. Suppliants, Cambridge Greek and Latin classics, 2019) does, or at least indicates where such a case is published. This book review (and others like it easily findable with "2256" added to the obvious search terms) make it clear that Oxyrhicus 2256 is the "evidence discovered in the mid-20th century" that the Wikipedia article mentions. It is also clear that the interpretation of this evidence is highly technical, far beyond my ability to understand or explain.

Thus this answer is not a direct answer, therefore, to the originally posted question, but a meta-answer, telling how one can find out the answer.

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Papyrus fragment P. Oxy. 2256.3 was discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt and published in 1952.

A heavily damaged fragment of papyrus with widely spaced text in Greek capitals written freely in black ink.

Lines 1–4 were reconstructed as follows by Bruno Snell:

… und so gehört dieses Stück viellecht zu dem Fragment einer Hypothesis, das von all den hier veröffentlichten Papyri bisher das meiste Aufsehen erregt hat, dem Fr. 3:

ἐπὶ ἄρ[χοντος1 — — —
ἐνίκα [Αἰ]σχύλο[ς Ἰκέτισι? Αἰγυπτίοις?
Δαν[αι]σι Ἀμυ[μώνηι σατυρικῆι.
δεύτ[ερο]ς Σοφοκλῆ[ς, τρίτος — — —

1 Lobel erwägt auch Ἀρχεδημίδου (Archont von 464/63).


… and so this piece belongs perhaps to the fragment of a hypothesis,† which of all the papyri published here so far has attracted the most attention, fragment 3:

When [N. was] ar[chon1 — — —
the winner was Aeschylu[s with The Suppliants? The Egyptians?
The Danaids, Amy[mone, the saytr play.
Second was Sophocle[s, third — — —

1 Lobel also suggests Ἀρχεδημίδου (Archon in 464/63).

Bruno Snell (1953). Review of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Part 20 edited by E. Lobel, E. P. Wegener & C. H. Roberts. In Gnomon 25:7, p. 438.

† See point 1 below for the meaning of “hypothesis” in this context.

The justifications for this reconstruction are as follows:

  1. The fragment appears to be a διδασκαλία (didascalia), an entry in a catalogue of dramatic works, giving the writers, dates, titles, and their success in competition.

    Didascaliae were compiled by the scholars of Alexandria: they usually give the play's production date by archon and Olympiad, the winning author and his plays, and the other competitors and their plays. They are sometimes attached to the hypothesis, which contains a résumé of the play’s contents and its dramatis personae (also an Alexandrian creation).

    A. J. Bowen, ed. (2013). Aeschylus: Suppliant Women, p. 8. Liverpool University Press

    So in the first line all that remains is ἐπὶἄρ (“when ar—”), but if this fragment follows the stereotyped formula of the διδασκαλία, it probably said either “when N was archon in Olympiad X, year Y” or possibly “when Archedemides was archon in Olympiad 79, year 1” (= 464–463 BCE), Archedemides being the only archon with a name starting “Ar—” in the likely range of dates. (Ariston was archon in Olympiad 81, year 3 = 454–453 BCE, but Aeschylus was almost certainly dead by then.)

    I’m not convinced that there is enough papyrus remaining to be confident that the fifth letter on the first line is a rho, but Lobel et al. examined the fragment itself, and I have only looked at the photo, so I have to defer to them. However, nothing depends on this, since the only other archon in the relevant period starting with “A—” was Apsephion, who was archon in Olympiad 77, year 4 (= 469–468 BCE), and in that year Sophocles won the competition with a quartet of plays including Triptolemos, as discussed below.

  2. At the City Dionysia, each tragic playwright entered three tragedies and a satyr play into the competition. These plays did not need to be connected, but Aeschylus was notable for writing trilogies consisting of three episodes from a single myth: thus Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides told the story of the downfall of the house of Atreus after the Trojan War, while Laius, Oedipus, Seven Against Thebes, and the satyr play The Sphinx told the story of three generations of rulers of Thebes.

    Accordingly, it is thought that The Suppliants was part of a quartet of plays about the descendants of the twins Danaus and Aegyptus, the other plays (now lost) being The Egyptians, The Danaids and the satyr play Amymone. Evidence for this includes a passage in Strabo, where he is discussing the origins of the inhabitants of Epirus:

    Likewise Æschylus in his Suppliants, or Danaids, makes their race to be of Argos near Mycenæ.

    Strabo (1st century). Geography, book 5, chapter 2. Translated by H. C. Hamilton (1854). The Geography of Strabo, volume I, p. 329. London: Henry G. Bohn.

    Strabo’s uncertainty about which play contains the passage suggests that the two plays formed parts of a single story and were performed together.

So if we accept Snell’s reconstruction of P. Oxy. 2256.3, then The Suppliants was first performed in the same year that Sophocles came second, which gives us a terminus a quo:

Sophocles was born c. 496, and that makes the later 470s the earliest date at which he could reasonably have competed. Plutarch’s claim (Cim. 8) that Sophocles won at his first try, which therefore was 468, would force the Danaid trilogy after that, but Scullion (87 n. 24) shows that Plutarch was fabricating: Sophocles lost before he won, as Aeschylus did. The trilogy could thus predate Seven Against Thebes (467) and even Persae (472). (Collard PeOP, xxxvi, notes scholarly opinion in footnote 30). We are almost back where we were before P. Oxy. 2256 was published.†

Bowen, p. 10.

† Bowen is a bit pessimistic here, because even if we can’t trust Plutarch, then maybe we can trust Eusebius, who places Sophocles’ first entry in the contest in Olympiad 77, year 2 (= 470 BCE).

This is the passage from Plutarch:

But they also cherished in kindly remembrance of him [Cimon] that decision of his in the tragic contests which became so famous. When Sophocles, still a young man, entered the lists with his first plays, Apsephion the Archon,† seeing that the spirit of rivalry and partisanship ran high among the spectators, did not appoint the judges of the contest as usual by lot, but when Cimon and his fellow-generals advanced into the theater and made the customary libation to the god, he would not suffer them to depart, but forced them to take the oath and sit as judges, being ten in all, one from each tribe. So, then, the contest, even because of the unusual dignity of the judges, was more animated than ever before. But Sophocles came off victorious and it is said that Aeschylus, in great distress and indignation thereat, lingered only a little while at Athens, and then went off in anger to Sicily. There he died also, and is buried near Gela.

Plutarch (2nd century). Cimon, chapter 8. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin (1914). London: William Heinemann.

† Archon in Olympiad 77, year 4 = 469–468 BCE.

But Scullion says that this is contradicted by Eusebius and so is probably one of Plutarch’s many “biographical fictions”:

The Parian Marble (epoch 56) dates Sophocles’ first victory to 468; scholars have trusted other evidence that this was also Sophocles’ first production, and therefore dated Suppliant Women after 468. The chronicle of Eusebius places the poet’s first production in the second year of the 77th Olympiad, 470, and not only his but also Euripides’ ‘recognitions’ in the fourth year, 468; in other words, for what it may be worth, the chronicle explicitly distinguishes between Sophocles’ first production and his first victory, and so does not support but contradicts the testimony of the source everyone nowadays relies on, Plutarch’s Life of Kimon.

Scott Scullion (2002). ‘Tragic dates’. In The Classical Quarterly 52:1, pp. 87–88.

Putting all this together, it seems that the Wikipedia article has overstated the claim. It is true that P. Oxy. 2256.3 supports a late date for The Suppliants, but shows is too strong as there are multiple points of uncertainty:

  1. Is it right to reconstruct the fragment as a didascalia recording Aeschylus’ win over Sophocles?

  2. Did Aeschylus’ winning plays form a quartet that included The Suppliants?

  3. Can we rely on Plutarch’s account of the tragic contest in 468 BCE?

  4. If (as seems likely) we can’t rely on Plutarch, can we rely on Eusebius?

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