THE LITERARY WORK
A trilogy of tragic dramas (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) written in Greek and first produced in Athens, Greece, in 458 bce.
The trilogy depicts the murder of Agamemnon, king of Argos, by his wife Clytaemestra and her lover Aegisthus as well as the revenge killing of the murderers by Orestes (her son by Agamemnon) and Orestes’ subsequent trial in Athens.
The Athenian tragic dramatist Aeschylus (c. 525 bce-C. 456 bce) is thought to have been born in Eleusis, a town northwest of Athens, and to have written 70 to 90 plays. Of this large total, only seven or possibly six plays survive (some scholars now doubt Aeschylus’ authorship of one play traditionally attributed to him, Prometheus Bound). Athenian tragedies were generally written and produced in trilogies in Aeschylus’ day, though the practice appears to have afterwards died out. The Oresteia is the only of these trilogies by any author that has survived intact. In antiquity, these trilogies competed against one another. Altogether Aeschylus is credited with 13 first-place victories, his first in 484 bce. After that, he dominated the field until his death. Of the six surviving plays securely attributed to Aeschylus, Persians was produced in 472 bce, Seven Against Thebes in 467 bce, Suppliants in 463 bce, and the three plays of the Oresteia, for which Aeschylus won his thirteenth and last first-place prize, in 458 bce. The Oresteia was Aeschylus’ final production in Athens; shortly after it was produced, he moved to Syracuse in Sicily, where he died a year or two later. Appearing at the climax of the Athenian Empire, which emerged during Aeschylus’ lifetime, the Oresteia ostensibly deals with events from Greece’s mythical past. More subtly, the work celebrates Athens’ new imperial status and democratic ideals; it also comments on related issues in contemporary Athenian politics.
Epic poetry and the rise of Greek tragedy
Most classical tragic drama draws its subject matter from the mythic world of epic poetry. The characters and events in the Oresteia are adapted from a series of short epic poems, which in antiquity were sometimes attributed to Homer, sometimes to lesser-known poets. Direct influences, these poems concern the history of the descendants of Atreus, a mythical king of the ancient Greek city of Mycenae. More indirectly, Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, which together comprise a foundation for all Greek literature, remain vital influences on Aeschylus’ literary sensibilities (both also in Classical Literature and Its Times) .
The origins of tragedy itself remain shrouded in mystery—it may have originated in Athens, as some of the ancient authorities maintained, or elsewhere in Greece, as others stated. By the late sixth century bce, roughly the time of Aeschylus’ birth, it had taken hold in Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica. There early tragic plays were performed each spring as part of the City Dionysia, an important religious festival dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. In all likelihood, tragedy originated in performances staged as part of the ritual worship of this divinity by rural dwellers. Probably these rural dwellers brought their performances to the city when they came to sell their goods in the marketplace.
If its origins likely lie in Dionysian rites, tragedy’s historical development in Athenian culture was definitively shaped by epic poetry. Later critics such as Plato and Aristotle, the fourth-century bce Greek philosophers, regarded Homer as the first true tragedian; as Aeschylus himself put it, “We are all eating crumbs from the great table of Homer” (Aeschylus in Boardman, p. 151). From Homer, for example, came the grand themes with which tragedy would always be concerned, especially the hubris or overreaching pride of the tragic hero, along with the fate the gods have reserved as a punishment for it. In tragedy, as in epic, that divine justice can often span generations.
In the Oresteia, for example, the fates of Agamemnon and his children have been predetermined by an original offense on the part of Atreus, Agamemnon’s father. Atreus had killed the children of his brother Thyestes and then served them to Thyestes at a banquet, driving Thyestes mad. Atreus’ blood guilt caused the gods to lay a curse on his descendants, collectively referred to as “the house of Atreus.” This curse, like other basic plot elements, would al-ready have been familiar to Aeschylus’ audience from Homeric epic. The crowd’s enjoyment came from seeing these familiar elements worked out in a fresh way over the course of the trilogy.
The evolution of Athenian democracy
Tragedy was a highly popular form of entertainment, and it seems hardly accidental that its development in Athens parallels the rise and expansion of democratic institutions there. A case in point is Aeschylus’ play Suppliants (463 bce), which shows concern for the democratic issue of accountability to the people. According to one historian, the way the play’s King Pelasgus replies to refugees who seek asylum in his city is indicative of the progressive empowerment of the common people in the 460s bce.
You are not suppliants at my own hearth;
If the city in common incurs pollution,
In common let the people work a cure.
But I would make no promises
until I share with all the citizens.
(Aeschylus in Davies, pp. 71-72)
Just over 40 years earlier, in 508 bce, the democratic reformer Cleisthenes introduced a new system of government in Athens. The system was based on the boule, a council of 500 male citizens. Before Cleisthenes, the most important political institution had been the elite council of the Areopagus, the oldest body of magistrates, which represented the aristocratic upper class. It was this body that Cleisthenes partly replaced with the more democratically chosen council of the 500. Possibly modeled on systems in use else-where (though this remains unclear), Cleisthenes’ reform divided the populace of Attica into 139 districts, or demoi (demes), then further apportioned the population of the demes among 10 tribes, or phylai. The council was made up of 50 representatives chosen by lot from each tribe. In effect, the reform transferred loyalties from the family to the deme, establishing a society based on citizenship rather than kinship.
Cleisthenes also broadened the powers of the popular assembly, or ekklesia, which had existed since at least the early sixth century bce. Under Cleisthenes’ reforms, the council’s main function was to prepare business for the assembly, which now became the main governing body of Athens. The assembly met several times a month, and any citizen—that is, any Athenian male over the age of 20—had the right to speak and vote there. As with the other organs of government, women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded from participation. While the total number of free male citizens is estimated to have been about 30,000, only around 6,000 could attend the assembly at any one time, owing to the space available at the meeting site (called the Pnyx). The assembly made most major policy decisions and appointed legislators from among its members to write new laws. Athenian democracy thus differed from modern democracies in being direct rather than representative.
Citizens could challenge the laws in court and could also sue political and military leaders for misconduct. Such suits were decided in law courts called dikasteria, in which the juries were composed of citizens chosen by lot. A board of nine magistrates, called archons, summoned the councils, oversaw the law courts, and supervised the many regularly scheduled religious festivals (including the City Dionysia, at which the tragedies were performed).
Athenian democracy was supported by many of the same ideological principles familiar to democratic societies today. The highest ideal was freedom (eleutherid), which included the right to political participation and the right to live according to one’s own desires within the law. It also included parrhesia, or freedom of speech, which protected a citizen’s right to public speech in the assembly as well as his right to speak freely in private. Again, these rights were accorded not to all, but only to free adult males who were citizens of Athens.
An especially important component of freedom was legal equality, the idea that all citizens were equal before the law. More than anything else, Athenians viewed their democracy as embodying the rule of law. In Agamemnon, Clytaemestra’s crime overturns the established order. It is reestablished only at the climax of the final play, The Eumenides, when the goddess Athena herself, special protector to the city of Athens, delivers the deciding judgment, which acquits Orestes. Athena’s decision lifts the curse on the house of Atreus and represents the triumph of the rule of law over the forces of chaos. The trilogy begins with the “chaos” of intra-familial bloodshed rooted in two conflicting but morally defensible points of view. But from this beginning, it builds slowly to an explicit celebration of the newer ideal of the rule of law. In doing so, the trilogy points the way forward in time to the fully democratic Athens familiar to Aeschylus’ audience.
The reforms of Ephialtes
After Cleisthenes, the next major changes to the Athenian system came in 462 bce, just a few years before the Oresteia was produced. Initiated by the Athenian democratic leader Ephialtes, these reforms are essential to the trilogy’s immediate political context.
ATHENIAN TRAGI0Y IN PERFORMANCE
The staging of tragic plays probably began in Athens in the late sixth century bce, during Aeschylus’ young adulthood. In addition to the innovation of the stage itself, this period saw the development of other conventions that grew common as dramatic performances became popular in other cities. In Subsequent legend, the sixth-century inventor of tragedy was the Athenian Thespis, from whose name we get the English word “Thespian,” or actor. Many modern scholars, however, doubt that Thespis existed. The earliest form of performance may have involved just the chorus, a group of actors meant to represent a single character, Individual actors were then added: Aeschylus himself is credited with increasing the number of actors from one to two, and with reducing the role of the chorus. The actors used large masks, and performances were highly stylized.
While Cleisthenes’ reforms had limited its powers, the Areopagus continued to exist and to exercise broad and vaguely defined political powers. For example, the Areopagus could hear complaints brought by one citizen against another for harming the state, and could try to punish the defendant. Scholars also believe the Areopagus had the power to hold investigations (euthynai) into the official conduct of magistrates.
In 462 Ephialtes brought a motion before the assembly to strip the Areopagus of these and other powers. The motion passed into law, leaving the Areopagus with only one real power: jurisdiction over murder trials. By curtailing the
ATHENS AND THE PERSIAN WARS
The Athenian Empire emerged directly from Athens’ role, earlier in the fifth century bce, in defeating two invasions of Greece by the mighty Persian Empire. Called the Persian Wars, these conflicts, in 490 and 480-79 bce, set the stage for Athens’ rise to power. Before them, Sparta had been the acknowledged leader of the Greek city-states. But be-cause Athens took the lead in repelling both Persian invasions, it emerged with enhanced prestige and authority after them, challenging Sparta’s traditional claims to leadership. As a soldier-citizen of democratic Athens, Aeschylus himself took part in both wars. He is re-ported to have fought with particular bravery at the battle of Marathon in 490 bce when Athenian soldiers, together with a contingent from nearby Plataea, boldly attacked and overwhelmed a much larger Persian force that had landed on the plain of Marathon near Athens, This crucial victory turned back the invading force, and Aeschylus’ conspicuous role in it may have been his proudest achievements. His funerary epitaph records not his dramatic achievements, though they were highly lauded, but simply that he fought with distinction at Marathon. Ten years later Aeschylus is also thought to have fought at Salamis, where Athens led the Greeks in repelling an even larger second Persian invasion. Their decisive naval battle forms the backdrop for his play Persans (472 bce), which—with startling sympathy for the Persians—portrays their defeated king Xerxes and his mother, Atossa, as tragic figures.
broad authority of the Areopagus, Ephialtes brought Athenian democracy to its fullest realization. Shortly after his reforms were passed, Ephialtes was assassinated. His supporters accused his political enemies, the embittered aristocratic “oligarchs,” of the crime. (The term stems from “oligarchy,” or “rule by few,” and refers to the more conservative political system based on the traditional power of the aristocracy.)
These events were still fresh when Aeschylus produced the Oresteia. In The Eumenides, the Areopagus is the setting for Orestes’ murder trial, which is depicted in such a way as to suggest that its jurisdiction over homicide cases constituted the Areopagus’ original and therefore rightful function. Aeschylus, critics have concluded, thus in-directly implies his support for Ephialtes’ reform.
Democracy and empire
Athens’ foreign policy and the management of its empire were closely linked with developments in the Athenian political system. While critics have seen Aeschylus’ endorsement of the democrats’ domestic agenda as subtle and indirect, they regard the foreign policy message of the Oresteia as more overt and un-equivocal. Aeschylus is seen as clearly supporting the aggressive anti-Spartan foreign policy associated with Ephialtes and other democratic leaders. Among these others was Pericles (c. 495-429 bce); Ephialtes’ protégé and successor, Pericles would become the best-known Athenian statesman of his age.
Athens’ empire, built up by its victories in the Persian Wars (490 and 480-79 bce), was based on the powerful Athenian navy and consisted of most of the islands and coastline of the Aegean Sea. By contrast, Sparta, a land-based power, dominated much of the mainland, especially the Peloponnesus, the broad, leaf-shaped peninsula comprising southern Greece, where Sparta itself was located. In the years after the Persian Wars, tensions gradually rose between Athens and Sparta. Their ideologies contrasted sharply; while Sparta’s political system was authoritarian and oligarchic, Athens’ was open and democratic. (By the 430s bce, as the Athenian historian Thucydides writes, the entire Greek world would be divided into two hostile camps. On one side stood Athens and its largely democratic subjects in the empire; on the other, stood Sparta with its mostly oligarchic allies in the Peloponnesus and elsewhere. This polarization was still in its beginning stages when the Oresteia was produced.)
Ephialtes, the democratic reformer, had a major opponent in Athenian politics named Cimon. A conservative leader, Cimon, who dominated Athenian politics during much of the 460s bce, pursued a policy of friendship towards Sparta. In c. 460 bce, when Spartan actions gravely offended the Athenian populace, Cimon was exiled. This provided the opportunity for Ephialtes to push through his reform of the Areopagus. Under the leadership of the anti-Spartan politician Ephialtes, the Athenian assembly also signed an alliance with Sparta’s enemy, Argos.
Aeschylus gives a prominent place to this still new alliance in the Oresteia. In The Eumenides, the Athenian jurors are promised on three separate occasions that if they vote to acquit Orestes, Athens will win “all the Argive host [army] to stand her staunch companion for the rest of time” (Aeschylus, The Eumenides in Oresteia, lines 290-291). In his commentary on The Eumenides, Alan Sommerstein notes that not everyone in the audience would have shared Aeschylus’ partisan support for the anti-Spartan policy of the democrats: “It is taken for granted [in the play] that the alliance is a great and unmixed blessing for Athens; a proposition with which not all Athenians would necessarily have agreed” (Sommerstein, p. 30).
Shortly after the alliance, Pericles and the democratic leadership embroiled Athens in war against Sparta’s ally Corinth. Called the First Peloponnesian War, this conflict lasted from 460 to 446 bce and eventually brought Athens into direct but inconclusive conflict with Sparta. Again, critics have noted repeated expressions of support for the democrats’ aggressive policies in The Eumenides. They also observe that Aeschylus often seems to promote foreign aggression as a healing influence at home, a way to alleviate the sort of domestic tensions that had resulted in Ephialtes’ mysterious death, by assassination, his supporters believed. At one point in the Oresteia, the goddess urges the Athenian jurors not to “engraft among my citizens that spirit of war / that turns their battle fury in upon themselves. / No, let our wars range outward” (The Eumenides, lines 862-864). Elsewhere, too, the Chorus prays that “Civil War / fattening on men’s ruin shall / not thunder in our city. Let / not the dry dust that drinks / the black blood of citizens / through passion for revenge / and bloodshed for bloodshed / be given our state to prey upon” (The Eumenides, lines 975-983). As one scholar observes, such “clear allusions to matters of a highly topical nature” are “quite unparalleled in anything else we know of Greek tragedy” (Sommerstein, p. 30).
The trilogy follows the family of Agamemnon, king of Argos, after his return from the Trojan War. In Agamemnon, the king is murdered by his wife Clytaemestra and his cousin Aegisthus, whom Clytaemestra has taken as a lover in Agamemnon’s absence. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes—Agamemnon and Clytaemestra’s son—is aided by his sister Electra in avenging their father by killing Clytaemestra and Aegisthus. In The Eumenides, Orestes is pursued for his crime by the Erinyes, or Furies, terrible creatures who enforce cosmic justice in Greek mythology, before the case is finally resolved in the law court of Athens.
The first play is set in Argos, at the palace of Agamemnon, just after the fall of Troy at the hands of the Greeks. News comes of the Greek victory, and of Agamemnon’s imminent re-turn. The Chorus of Argive Elders enters and de-livers a long speech recounting events preceding the war. The Trojan prince Paris had seduced Helen, Clytaemestra’s sister and the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, king of Sparta, prompting the Greek expedition against Troy. The expedition was to be led by Agamemnon, senior king among the Greeks. But the Greeks had inadvertently angered Artemis, the goddess of the
KEY CHARACTERS IN THE ORESTEIA’S STORYLINE
A long with the characters who appear onstage in the Oresteia, there are a couple of offstage characters who do not appear but who have important roles in the background story.
Aegisthus: Lover of Clytaemestra; son of Thyestes, thus also Agamemnon’s cousin.
Agamemnon: King of Argos; leader of the Greek army.
Apollo: A god of reason and order who protects Orestes.
The Argive Elders: The old men of Argos, loyal to Agamemnon, who make up the Chorus of Agamemnon.
Athena: A goddess of war and wisdom; patron of Athens.
Cassandra: A princess of Troy and a prophetess, taken as a war prize by Agamemnon.
Clytaemestra: Queen of Argos; wife of Agamemnon.
Electra: Daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemestra; Orestes’ sister.
The Erinyes: The Furies—ancient, savage, and implacable creatures who doggedly pursue all those who transgress the laws of nature. They form the Chorus of The Eumenides.
The Libation Bearers: Foreign serving women who form the Chorus of The Libation Bearers.
Orestes: Son of Agamemnon and Clytaemestra; Electra’s brother.
Pylades: Orestes’ friend.
Atreus: Agamemnon’s father; Atreus murdered the children of his brother Thyestes (only Aegisthus survived).
Iphigenaia: Daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemestra, whom Apollo ordered Agamemnon to sacrifice so that the Greeks might sail against Troy.
Thyestes: Atreus’ brother; Aegisthus’ father, Thyestes seduced Atreus’ wife, beginning the chain of revenge that curses the family.
hunt, who had sent strong winds that kept the Greek fleet penned in the harbor at Aulis. Speaking through the priest Calchas, Apollo had ordered Agamemnon to placate Artemis by sacrificing Iphigenaia—Agamemnon and Clytaemestra’s daughter—in order that the fleet might sail.
At first Agamemnon had been torn between his obligation as senior king (to lead the fleet) and his obligation as a father (to protect his daughter). Hardening himself as the other Greek leaders pressed him to do whatever was necessary, he had chosen to obey his obligation as senior king:
But when necessity’s yoke was put upon him
he changed, and from the heart the breath came bitter
and sacrilegious, utterly infidel.…
.… He endured then
to sacrifice his daughter
to stay the strength of war waged for a woman,
first offering for the ships’ sake.
Her supplications and her cries of father
were nothing, nor the child’s lamentation
to kings impassioned for battle.
(Agamemnon in Oresteia, lines 217-220, 223-230)
Clytaemestra has entered as the Chorus speaks, and she now confirms the news that the Greeks have captured Troy. In further descriptive speeches, Clytaemestra and the Chorus ex-press unease about the future. A herald announces Agamemnon’s return, describing the hardship of war and the violence perpetrated by the Greek forces in capturing Troy. Angered by the violence, the gods sent a storm that wrecked much of the returning fleet.
Agamemnon arrives in a chariot with the Trojan princess Cassandra, whom he has taken as a war prize and who possesses powers of prophecy. Clytaemestra greets Agamemnon stiffly, offering an unconvincing excuse for the absence of their son, Orestes. She orders her servants to spread a luxurious purple carpet between the chariot and the palace door for Agamemnon to walk on; Agamemnon objects briefly to the unseemly extravagance of the gesture. They argue, Agamemnon noting that Clytaemestra’s “lust for conflict is not woman-like” (Agamemnon, line 940). The two enter the palace. Bothered by a vague but persistent fear, the Chorus remains with Cassandra. Clytaemestra returns and with open hostility to the younger woman orders Cassandra to enter the palace.
After Clytaemestra exits, Cassandra (whose fate is to foretell the future accurately but never to be understood) steps down from the chariot. She now foretells a “new and huge stroke / of atrocity” that Clytaemestra “plans within the house,” but the Chorus responds that it “can make nothing of these prophesies” (Agamemnon, lines 1101-1102, 1105). In a long conversation with the Chorus, Cassandra becomes more and more agitated, eventually saying plainly that she and Agamemnon are both to be killed. The Chorus still does not seem to understand. Cassandra enters the palace hopelessly.
As the Chorus wonders aloud how long the curse on the house of Atreus will continue, Agamemnon is heard to cry out twice from in-side the palace that he has been mortally wounded. The Chorus falls into disarray, each member speaking paired lines, a reflection of the confusion. The palace doors open to reveal the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytaemestra emerges and announces that she has avenged the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenaia. The Chorus laments, but Clytaemestra rejects the Chorus’s accusations:
Can you claim I have done this?
Speak of me never
more as the wife of Agamemnon.
In the shadow of this corpse’s queen
the old stark avenger
of Atreus for his revel of hate
struck down this man,
last blood for the slaughtered children.
(Agamemnon, lines 1497-1504)
Aegisthus enters with an armed bodyguard and reveals his complicity in the murders, which he calls “just punishment” (Agamemnon, line 1611). Clytaemestra calls for reconciliation, but Aegisthus and the Chorus of Argive Elders pro-fess undying hatred of each other. As the play ends, the Chorus looks forward to the day when “God’s guiding hand brings Orestes home again” (Agamemnon, line 1666).
The Libation Bearers
The second play is also set in Argos, but several years later. Aegisthus and Clytaemestra are now ruling as king and queen. The play opens at the tomb of Agamemnon, as Orestes and his friend Pylades enter dressed as travelers. Having just returned to Argos, Orestes comes to mourn at his father’s grave. He puts a lock of hair on the tomb and stands aside with Pylades. Electra, his sister, enters with a chorus of foreign serving women. At Clytaemestra’s request, Electra has brought them to help her pour out a libation (ritual offering of ceremonial liquid) at Agamemnon’s tomb. Clytaemestra has been tormented by nightmares and hopes the libation will placate Agamemnon’s hostile spirit, which she holds responsible for her dreams. As Electra makes the libation, she notices the lock of hair and recognizes it as Orestes’. They reunite joyfully. Professing hatred for their mother, Electra hopes that Orestes’ “strength of hand” will “win your father’s house again” (The Libation Bearers in Oresteia, line 237).
They invoke the dead king’s spirit to help them gain revenge, which they then plan out. Posing as a traveler, Orestes will go to the palace and seek entry as a suppliant, since custom dictates that Aegisthus and Clytaemestra must offer sanctuary to anyone seeking it. Having lulled them with false news of his own death, Orestes will then kill them both. The scene shifts to out-side the palace doors, as Orestes and Pylades arrive to carry out the plan. Clytaemestra welcomes them, not recognizing Orestes, and graciously offers them every possible hospitality. They go inside. Orestes’ childhood nurse enters briefly, saddened by the news of Orestes’ death, but the Chorus hints to her that Orestes may not be gone after all. The Chorus then prays to Zeus “that those who struggle hard to see / temperate things done in the house win their aim / in full” (The Libation Bearers, lines 785-787).
Aegisthus enters briefly and states his intention to interrogate the visitor regarding Orestes’ death. He goes inside the palace, and shortly afterward a cry is heard. One of Aegisthus’ followers then emerges with the news of his murder. With Pylades, Orestes then reveals himself to Clytaemestra before the palace doors. They argue, and Clytaemestra realizes his intention:
Clytaemestra: I think, child, that you mean to kill your mother.
It will be you who kill yourself. It will not be I.
Clytaemestra: Take care. Your mother’s curse, like dogs,
will drag you down.
Orestes: How shall I escape my father’s curse, if I fail here?
(The Libation Bearers, lines 922-945)
Orestes and Pylades take Clytaemestra inside the palace. The Chorus hopes out loud that the chain of bloodshed has reached an end as the doors open to reveal Orestes. He stands over the bodies of Clytaemestra and Aegisthus. Justifying his act, Orestes says that the priest of Apollo has declared him guiltless in exacting his rightful revenge. Yet he cries out as the Furies, visible only to him, arrive to plague him relentlessly for the murder of his mother. Overcome by madness, he flees in panic. Where will it end, the Chorus wonders, as the play closes.
The third play opens outside the shrine of Apollo at Delphi. A priestess enters and invokes all the gods, old and new, who have dwelled on the site since the beginning of time. She goes into the temple but immediately comes out again, terrified by the sight inside—a blood-stained Orestes crouches there, surrounded by the exhausted and now sleeping Furies. Next to Orestes stand Apollo and Hermes (the messenger god). Since it was he who made Orestes kill Clytaemestra, says Apollo, he will never give Orestes up to the Furies. Apollo sends Orestes to Athens, with Hermes as an escort. The Furies sleep on, until awoken by the ghost of Clytaemestra, who vanishes as they stir. Enraged to find their prey gone, they are driven away by Apollo, who informs them that he has sent Orestes to seek sanctuary with Athena in Athens. He tells them to go too, and to plead their case before her.
The scene changes to Athens, before the temple of Athena on the steep central hill known as the Acropolis. Orestes enters and bows down in supplication at the feet of Athena’s statue. A chorus enters, made up of the Furies. They see Orestes and chant a magical spell in the form of a long ode or song, meant to “bind” him in their power (The Eumenides in Oresteia, line 306). Informing the audience about the powers of the Furies, the ode also reveals them to be an ancient authority; their powers go back to a time before the birth of Athena, Apollo, and the other Olympian gods. Speaking of the Furies as a collective unit, the song concludes:
Is there a man who does not fear
this, does not shrink to hear
how my place has been ordained,
granted and given by destiny
and god, absolute? Privilege
primeval yet is mine, nor am I without place
though it be underneath the ground
and in no sunlight and in gloom that I must stand.
(The Eumenides, lines 389-396)
Athena enters in full armor, and the Furies and Orestes both agree to submit to her judgment. She goes to summon her best citizens to act as a jury. In another ode, the Chorus affirms its role of protecting the world from anarchy, since all order would dissolve if crimes such as murder were allowed to go unpunished. “There are times when fear is good,” the Furies maintain. “There is / advantage / in the wisdom won from pain” (The Eumenides, lines 517, 519-521). Athena reenters with 12 Athenian citizens and a herald, who assembles the jurors. They are sworn in as the founding members of the council of the Areopagus, the oldest body of magistrates, representatives of the upper class.
The trial begins, with the Furies acting as prosecutors and Apollo acting for the defense. Orestes is the first witness. He admits killing Clytaemestra, but claims he was compelled to do so by Apollo, and that Clytaemestra herself was guilty of murdering Agamemnon, a far worse crime. Apollo himself then testifies that he was acting strictly according to the wishes of Zeus, ruler of the Olympian gods. Next Apollo offers several more dubious arguments on Orestes’ behalf. He claims, for example, that a mother is not really of the same blood as a child, whose blood comes from the father. At one point he also urges the jurors to disregard their oath. The jurors vote in equal numbers for each side, but Athena has already announced that in event of a tie she will vote to acquit. Referring to her own origins (she was said to have sprung fully armored from Zeus’ head), she claims that since she has no mother herself, she is always on the side of the male.
Orestes rejoices and, free to go, he leaves with Apollo. The Furies remain, embittered, and Athena attempts to soothe them by offering them an honored place upon the Acropolis, where they will be worshipped forever by the grateful Athenians. At length the Furies are won over, and pronounce their blessings on the city.
Clytaemestra may constitute the greatest threat to the male social order of any woman in Greek tragedy. Unlike the dangerous title character of Euripides’ Medea (also in Classfcal Literature and Its Times) Clytaemestra is Greek Yet she in no way feefs hindered by the mate-centered values of the Greeks, intimating as much when she addresses the (male) Chorus:
You try me out as if I were a woman and vain;
but my heart is not fluttered as I speak before you,
You know it You can praise or blame me as you wish;
it is ail one to me. That man is Agamemnon, my husband;
he is dead; the work of this right hand
that struck in strength of righteousness. And that is that.
(Agamemnon, lines 1401-1406)
Clytaemestra not only refuses to accept the customary treatment shown to women; she also lays claim to the right of revenge, which traditionally belongs to men. Further stilt she pro-claims that killing her husband and his Trojan concubine gives her sexual pleasure: “He lies there; and she who swan like cried / aloud her lyric mortal lamentation out / is laid against his fond heart; and to me has given / a delicate excitement to my bed’s delight. (Agamemnon, lines 1444-1447). Clytaemestra even partially usurps Agamemnon’s place as ford of Argos, insofar as she declares Aegisthus and herself to be co-rulers of the city. On the other hand, she is an adulterous wife who aids: in the dispossession and murder of her husband, and her role as such underscores the threat that a woman could conceivably pose to the man of the house should she grow dissatisfied with him.
Old and new in conflict
In The Libation Bearers, as Orestes and Electra plan their revenge, Orestes declares: “Warstrength will collide with warstrength; right with right” (The Libation Bearers, line 461). Orestes thus tacitly recognizes the justice of Clytaemestra’s vengeance on Agamemnon but presses his conflicting right to exact vengeance of his own. Throughout the trilogy, indeed, Aeschylus carefully balances the claims of both sides, making it clear that Clytaemestra has legitimate motives for her murder of Agamemnon. Far from a story of right against wrong, the Oresteia explores the clash of conflicting justices, of “right with right.” This balance, which is highly characteristic of Athenian tragedy as a whole, comprises the main theme of the Oresteia.
The clash of “right with right” in the Oresteia has immediate relevance to the contemporary Athenian political scene after the assassination of Ephialtes in 462 bce. This political scene entailed a conflict between old and new. Old laws, embodied by the Areopagus, stood in conflict with the new laws promoted by the reformers who oversaw the broadening of Athenian democracy during Aeschylus’ lifetime. It is this clash between old and new laws that makes the trilogy relevant to its contemporary political context. Inherent in the play as well is an even older clash between the Areopagus and the earlier system of kin-based revenge, symbolized by the Furies, the spirits of punishment who pitilessly avenged crimes done to kinsmen, especially the crime of murder within a family. Aeschylus was first to introduce the Furies on-stage, giving them a ghoulish appearance as bloodied, decomposing corpses, meant to terrify the audience as well as Orestes. They personified both the irrational, impulsive desire for revenge and the guilt associated with shedding a kinsman’s blood. The Furies—whom Greek mythology considers more ancient than even the Olympians—represent the uncompromising power of blood relationsip that demands a death for a death and must in the world of law accommodate itself to a new order.
Sources and literary context
Although characters and events treated in the Oresteia also figure in Homer’s epics, there are differences: in Homer’s tales, Agamemnon is king not of Argos but of Mycenae, and it is not Clytaemestra who murders Agamemnon but her lover, Aegisthus, in whose territory Agamemnon lands after being shipwrecked during the voyage home. The Homeric poems emerged from a larger body of oral poems that modern scholars call the epic cycle. In antiquity these poems were sometimes attributed to Homer, sometimes to other poets.
FROM FURIES TO KINDLY ONES
The term Eumenides, “Kindly Ones,” was likely put in place as the title of the Oresteia’s third play by later commentators. Scholars suspect that in Aeschylus, time the Individual plays may have gone untitled, and that the name Eumenides, which was later commonly applied to the Furies, came into use only after Aeschylus wrote the oresteia. The word Ettmenides does not appear in the text of the trilogy itself; Aeschylus instead uses the older name Erinyes. “Furies,” Stilt, the name Eumenides accurately reflects the transformation of the Furies that Athena brings about at the end of the trilogy, from harsh, implacable deities to the benevolent goddesses who offer blessings on Athens in the trilogy’s closing tines.
They dealt with much of the same subject matter, such as the Trojan War and the subsequent fate of the heroes who fought it. None of these poems survives except in brief fragments put into written form by later poets than Homer, but from the cycle comes many of the basic details in the well-known story of the house of Atreus: the original crime of Atreus, the seduction of Helen, the marshaling of the Greek army by Agamemnon, and the anger of Artemis and the resulting sacrifice of Iphigenaia. Two of the later poets were Stesichorus (c. 630-565 bce) and Pindar (c. 520-post 446 bce, perhaps 438 bce). Pindar composed a poem (Pythian 11) in which the murders of both Cassandra and Agamemenon are attributed to Clytaemestra (contrary to the Homeric version, in which Agamemnon’s death is credited to Aegisthus). Stesichorus’ Oresteia, an epic poem in two books, is thought to have been the specific inspiration for Aeschylus’ trilogy. Stesichorus is also regarded as the first to show the Furies pursuing Orestes for his crime and the first to bring in Apollo as the son’s defender.
If the Oresteia is unusual in the degree to which it alludes to contemporary political events in Athens, it is by no means alone in doing so. In general, tragedy provided a means for such comment, leaving the audience to make the connections between situations in the play and the circumstances of the day. Aeschylus is the earliest tragic dramatist whose work survives, and so it is difficult to tell how much he followed his predecessors in making such allusions, and how much he acted as an innovator. All of Aeschylus’ surviving plays contain a high degree of political thematic content, but none more explicit than that in the Oresteia, and especially in The Eumenides .
Reception and impact
While no specific contemporary reactions to the Oresteia have survived, clearly the work was extraordinarily successful from the start. First, as noted above, the Oresteia won Aeschylus his thirteenth and final award for best tragic trilogy at the City Dionysia in 458 bce. It has been suggested that that the Oresteia established the later commonly attested identification of the Furies with the Semnai, Athens’ “grave goddesses.” If correct, this suggests that the Oresteia found a wide, appreciative, and long-term audience, one willing to take as authoritative Aeschylus’ modifications to the traditions upon which he drew. Among that audience would have been the young Euripides (c. 485-c. 406 bce), the third of the three great Athenian tragic dramatists, whose later play Orestes (408 bce) was heavily influenced by the Oresteia .
In his influential book of literary criticism The Poetics, the fourth-century bce critic Aristotle took Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (one of The Theban Plays, also in Classical Literature and Its Times) as the greatest of all tragic dramas. However, more than one modern critic has disagreed, reserving that place for Agamemnon (which, at nearly 1700 lines, is the longest of the trilogy’s plays by about one-third). These observers point to Agamemnon’s combination of simple action and extraordinarily rich imagery, which in their eyes give this play a power unrivalled by anything else ever brought to the stage.
Aeschylus. Oresteia. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.
Boardman, John, et al. The Oxford History of the Classical World: The Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Davies, J. K. Democracy and Classical Greece. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978.
Denniston, John Dewar, and Denys Page, eds. Agamemnon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957.
Dover, K. J. “The Political Aspect of Aeschylus’ Eumenides.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 77 (1957): 230-37.
Easterling, P. E. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Garvie, A. F., ed. Choephoroi [The Libation Bearers]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Goldhill, Simon. Aeschylus: The Oresteia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. The Justice of Zeus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Macleod, C. W. “Politics and the Oresteia.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 102 (1982): 124-44.
Meier, Christian. The Political Art of Greek Tragedy. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Sommerstein, Alan H., ed. Eumenides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.