Skip to main content Accessibility help

Justice and the Oresteia

  • J. Peter Euben (a1)


The essay is concerned with justice in the Oresteia and the way the Oresteia contributes to the justice it celebrates. It begins by examining the place of tragedy in Athenian politics as a preface to an analysis of the trilogy's understanding of justice. That understanding is explored using two examples of fundamentally conflicting forces which are reconciled in the play to create a whole larger and more just than either force alone. The essay goes on to argue that the form of tragedy recapitulates and reinforces the substantive teachings on justice previously analyzed. Here four elements are considered: the balances between intelligence and passion, action and boundaries, political discourse and poetry, and the Euminides and Agamemnon.



Hide All

1 I have relied primarily on three translations of the trilogy, adding my own emendations when necessary. They are: Richmond Lattimore's (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), Hugh Lloyd-Jones's (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970, 3 vols.), and Henry Weir Smyth's (Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926). Where feasible I use the Lattimore version both because it is the most widely read and because it (along with the Robert Fagles translation [New York: Bantam, 1977]) is unsurpassed in capturing the trilogy's poetry.

2 Two preliminary caveats are in order. First, as will soon be obvious my discussion of justice will have nothing directly to say about the distribution of goods. Second, though I separate form and content for convenience sake, much of what I argue obviates the distinction.

3 I have suggested this at length in my “Creatures of a Day: Thought and Action in Thucydides” in Political Theory and Praxis: New Perspectives, ed. Terence Ball (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).

4 The Politics, 1276b.

5 The performance of tragedy was a contest among three choruses, three choregi, three poets, and later three actors. Prizes were awarded by five citizens carefully chosen to represent the community as a whole by a complicated procedure of drawing lots. “The day after the festival, in the theatre itself, an assembly of the people took place to judge the performance of the festival, the responsible archon, the choruses, the poets, and all the other questions connected with the festival.” Stoessl, Franz, “Aeschylus as a Political Thinker,” American Journal of Philology 73 (1952): 114.

6 Whitman, Cedric H., Homer and the Heroic Tradition (New York: Norton, 1958), p. 24.

7 Vernant, Jean-Pierre, “Tensions and Ambiguities in Greek Tragedy,” in Interpretations, ed. Singleton, Charles S. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), pp. 107–8. See also his “Greek Tragedy: Problems of Interpretation,” and “Le Moment historique de la tragedie en Grèce-essai d'interpretations” in Languages of Criticism and the Science of Man, ed. Macskey, Richard and Donato, Eugenio (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), pp. 273–95 and 345–49.

8 Finley, M.I., Democracy Ancient and Modern, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1973), p. 30f, and Jaeger, Werner, Paideia: The Ideals of Creek Culture, Vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. xiii, xxix, 185222, and 237–67.

9 The question of taking sides and voting become important themes in the Eumenides. Here as with other issues, highly particular events or issues take on much larger meaning in terms of the trilogy as a whole. Thus literal or narrow meanings become more inclusive without discarding the earlier and other significations. An important example of this is justice which ranges from constricted legalism (as in Agamemnon's retribution against Paris) to cosmological reconciliation at the end of the Eumenides. On this issue see Gegarin, Michael, Aeschylean Drama, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), Fraenkel, E., Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Vol. 1 (New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 1950), pp. 27–9, 270–2 and 294; and Havelock, Eric A., The Greek Concept of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 280–9.

10 See the discussion of this point by Dodds, E.R., “Morals and Politics in the Oresteia” in Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, n.s., 6 (1960), pp. 1931.

11 Dodds, E.R. (the Greeks and the Irrational, [Boston: Beacon Press, 1957], pp. 33–4) and Wilamowitz argue that citizenship was regarded as a wider circle of blood relations such that the same connection of generations would apply to the polis. “Es war die Zeit des Geschlechterstaates wo der Einzelne nicht auf sich stand, sondern immer ein Glied seiner Sippe blieb, oder seines Staates; denn die Bürgerschaft war immer ider betrachtete sich doch als einen weiteren Kreis von Blutsverwandten.” Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von, Griechische Tragoedien (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1909), p. 18.

12 Havelock, Eric A., The Greek Concept of Justice, p. 57. On how the balance between proximity and distance is replicated by the conditions of dramatic performance, see Amott, Peter D., An Introduction to the Greek Theatre (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), chs. 1–4.

13 Two particularly good analyses of this are those by Kitto, H.D.F., Form and Meaning in Drama (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), chs. 13 and Reinhardt, Karl, Aischylos als Regisseur und Theologe (Bern: A. Francke, 1949), pp. 151–2.

14 My analysis here owes much to Finley, John H. Jr., particularly his Pindar and Aeschylus (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955).

15 The common fate of victors and vanquished is shown throughout the Oresteia, perhaps most powerfully by the common fate of the captive slave Cassandra and the captor King Agamemnon.

16 There is a voluminous debate over whether Agamemnon had any choice, i.e., whether when he put on the yoke of necessity he did so “freely.” I only want to add a few remarks. First, it is characteristic of action that we are sure we act freely until, upon reflection, it seems we could not have acted otherwise than we did (like a revolution which is impossible until it succeeds and then is thought inevitable). Thus Agamemnon chooses necessity, but equally Zeus' necessity chooses him. Being the kind of man he is, he chooses as he does, for men act from the necessity of their nature and as the god compels them. (See Arrowsmith, William, “The Criticism of Greek Tragedy,” The Tulone Drama Review 3 (1959): 3157.) Second, it may be significant that Agamemnon never questions Calchas' interpretation of the omen. (For Fraenkel [Aeschylus: Agamemnon] this shows Agamemnon's moderation and nobility.) Finally and most importantly, what matters is what happens to him after he “chooses.” Agamemnon is a changed man whose insight has become warped and whose emory has become self-servingly faulty.

17 See Lloyd-Jones, Hugh, “The Guilt of Agamemnon,” Classical Quarterly, n.s. Vol. 12, (1962): 193.

18 See the discussion in Lebeck, Ann, The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure, Part 1, published by the Center for Hellenic Studies and distributed by Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass.: 1971), and Kitto, , Form and Meaning, p. 17.

19 Here and elsewhere I interpret Clytaemnestra's words as indicating feelings that were once genuine but have been transformed into their opposites. Vickers, Brian (Towards Greek Tragedy [New York: Longman, 1973]) argues that Clytaemnestra no longer knows what she is or how she feels, and thus her words are double ironies which say what is true even when she does not intend them to.

20 Here I follow the argument of Winnington-Ingram, R.P. in “Clytaemnestra and the Vote of Athena,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 68 (1948): 130147. A comment by Christopher Lasch is apropos: “As social life becomes more and more warlike and barbaric, personal relations which ostensively provide relief from these conditions take on the character of combat. …” The Culture of Narcissism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), p. 30.

21 When (330–47) Clytaemnestra voices hope that the victorious Greeks do not take their revenge too far, her evocation of the passions and details of war suggest ? woman with an intuitive grasp of what it means to be warrior.

22 The point is made by Burkert, Walter, “Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual,” in Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 7 (1966): 87120.

23 I am not arguing that Aeschylus was a “feminist” (though it is possible to conclude from the Oresteia that the only way to insure reciprocity between herosim and location is by men and women sharing both). But I do want to suggest that he is intent on reestablishing the “feminine” as an essential aspect of collecive life and that the reciprocity he counsels is not a mask for domination. Crucial here is what one makes of Apollo. It seems to me he “stands for” the male and that evidence in the play and outside it suggests that Apollo was “unjust,” as much a threat to civilization as the Furies, and a traitor in his advice prior to the Persian invasion.

24 Jones, John, On Aristotle and Creek Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962) p. 98.

25 Fagles, p. 13.

26 See her essay “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), p. 241 ff.

27 See the discussion of this point in Kitto, , Form and Meaning, pp. 40–1; Havelock, , Greek Concept of Justice, p. 289; and Podlecki, Anthony J., The Politicai Background of Aeschylean Tragedy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), ch. 5.

28 Orestes stands over his dead mother as she stood over her slain husband. But this similarity merely heightens the disparity of attitude. Orestes begins politically: “Beyond the two tyrants of our land” only afterwards turning to their private wrongs, whereas Clytaemnestra does the reverse. Moreover, Orestes offers no lurid account of the actual murder. Furthermore, while Clytaemnestra was indifferent to public judgment (cf. Agamemnon 1403) Orestes invites it. (This concern with judgment was introduced by Electra's distinction between dikastes and dikephoros, mentioned above.) In addition, Orestes does not glory in his deed as his mother did. His victory is “polluted and has no pride” (1017). Finally, the son lacks the mother's self-righteousness. He knows, as she did not, that no one can murder and then peacefully enjoy the fruits of the crime. He never claims that his act will heal the festering wounds or break the cycle of revenge. On the contrary, he sees “not how this thing will end.”

29 But Athena, like Clytaemnestra, is a sexually ambiguous figure. “Everything that Clytaemnestra's nature demanded and her sex forbade Athena is free to do by virtue of her godhead.” She is a god/goddess to Clytaemnestra's man/woman and her masculinity wins praise and worship while Clytaemnestra'a leads to disaster. See Winnington-Ingram, , “Clytaemnestra and the Vote of Athena,” pp. 44–5.

30 The trial scene itself has been characterized as a farce and burlesque intended to suggest the limitations of Athenian legal practices. (See Lebeck, The Oresteia, ch. 14.) I think these views rest on (1) a too-narrow reading of the “trial”; (2) an inaccurate assumption that blood-guilt is here being replaced by legal debate, rational decisions and principles of equity; (3) an overemphasis on the trial scene as the turning point in the trilogy; and (4) a misreading of the significance of the tie vote and Athena's intervention. (What would a onesided vote in favor of a matricide mean, given the conception of justice which dominates the Eumenides?)

31 See Arendt's, HannahThe Human Condition (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1959).

32 Thus women's, Chicano, or black history is partly an attempt to rescue those consigned to oblivion by bringing them “before the public.”

33 Frag. 29 in Freeman, Kathleen, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1948), p. 26.

34 See Fagles p. 14 and Lesky, Albin, “Decison and Responsibility in the Tragedy of Aeschylus,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 86 (1966): 7885, who writes “It was Aeschylus who discovered the problem of the uncertainty of human action.”

35 The point is made by the chorus in the Libation Bearers (313) when they say: “Who acts, shall endure. So speaks the voice of age-old wisdom.” (Drasanti pathein trigeron mythos tade phonei.) In the particular context, endure (pathein) means to suffer in pain and as victim. But in terms of the trilogy as a whole (though it is not in the literal meaning of the Greek) endure suggests “live on in memory” such that only by acting do men create stories in which they survive their physical demise. All three meanings are present when Orestes turns to Pylades and asks “ti draso”: “What shall I do?” (Draso, like drasanti, comes from the Doric dran which means to act and from which “drama” derives.) In English his question is really three questions—“How shall or should I act?” “How can I bear the suffering that awaits me?” and “How will I be remembered for the deed I am about to commit?”

36 That even the best of lives is mixed with unhappiness is said by Achilles in the reconciliation scene with Priam. (Homer Iliad 24 I. 525–30)

37 See Arendt, , The Human Condition, p. 169, her essay “What Is Freedom” in Between Past and Future, pp. 143–72, and Redfield, James, Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 64.

The success or failure of an action is known only by its results, and since every result leads to a further result, the final result is never before us. … The actor commits himself to the future and thus never knows his own act; since the future is without limit, there is no moment when the results are in.

38 Fagles, p. 44.

39 Lebeck, The Oresteia, gives a masterful analysis of this process.

40 Dodds, “Morals and Politics in the Oresteia”, argues persuasively for Argos being a corrupt polis rather than a prepolitical state organization left behind by a progessive evolution to the classical city-state.

41 Redfield, , Nature and Culture in the Iliad, p. 87. Locating Aeschylus in relation to the Archaic and Classical era, Dodds, E.R. (in The Creeks and the Irrational, p. 40) argues that Aeschylus' purpose was

not to lead his fellow-countrymen back into [the Archaic world], but, on the contrary, to lead them through it and out of it. This he sought to do, not like Euripides by casting doubt on its reality through intellectual and moral argument, but by showing it to be capable of a higher interpretation, and, in the Eumenides, by showing it transformed into the new world of rational justice.

I agree providing “rational” is carefully circumscribed and the Oresteia is not reduced to the final scene of the Eumenides.

42 What men learn is that they can only learn through the consequences of their acts when the hitherto hidden significance of their “doings” is revealed.

43 Cassandra is the pivotal character here. Speaking of her, Wilamowitz says her knowledge is “her special sorrow” (Griechische Tragoedien, p. 41).

44 Burkert, , “Greek Tragedy and Sacrificial Ritual,” p. 106.

45 This sentence concludes Vicker's, Brian analysis of the Oresteia in Towards Creek Tragedy, p. 425.

Justice and the Oresteia

  • J. Peter Euben (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed