The Oresteia

The Oresteia, by Aeschylus

I used George Thomson's 1932 translation, which is collected in the Viking Portable Library's Greek Reader edited by W. H. Auden. It's mostly done in blank verse--unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter--though the rhythm changes sometimes during songs. I liked the translation just fine, for the most part.

As background, we must know that ten years ago, when Agamemnon and his men started off to attack Troy, they were becalmed and could not launch the ships because they had somehow angered Artemis. The only way to appease the goddess was to sacrifice Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia. Torn between his duty to his men and his love for his daughter, Agamemnon chose war and killed Iphigenia. Clytemnestra, of course, could not forgive this sin. She took Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus as a lover and together they plotted revenge; Aegisthus' grievance is against Agamemnon's father Atreus, who killed his brother's children and fed them to him during a fight over the throne of Argos. Old sins have long shadows and this story is all about how sin leads to revenge and more sin--how can it be stopped?

Agamemnon starts with the news of victory at Troy arriving in Argos. A chorus of old men speaks with Clytemnestra, and she keeps up the appearance of loyalty and joy as King Agamemnon returns from the war. Agamemnon retains his wishy-washy character to the end and allows himself to be talked into a prideful display. He leaves his new captive and mistress, the prophetess Cassandra, outside and her song of lament for the past and the future is the climax of the play. As she goes in, she and Agamemnon are killed off-stage (the Greeks considered it inappropriate to show a death onstage). Clytemnestra justifies herself to the chorus, which blames her but has no solution about what she should have done about her daughter's sacrifice. Aegisthus shows up at the end, having been happy to let Clytemnestra do the dirty work, and they plan to rule Argos together.

In a society that considers blood revenge to be the only suitable response to a killing, how do you stop people from killing each other until no one is left? What do you do when one duty conflicts with another, and there is no way to avoid doing wrong? Aeschylus asks these questions over and over, and he doesn't really have an answer. There's a nice bit of foreshadowing at the beginning:

It is only deeds unholy
That increase, fruitful in offspring
Of the same breed as its fathers.
Where justice rules in the house,
Blest of God is the issue.

But ancient pride loves to put forth a fresh bloom of sin out of human evil...

Envy is another theme that runs through the whole play; the chorus brings up several times and warns against getting so famous or so prideful that one attracts the envy of others. That's just asking for trouble, either from your people or from the gods:

Mine be the life unenvied,
Neither to plunder cities
Nor myself a prisoner bow
Down to the will of others.

Which reminds me of that idea of the Greeks that you should never call anyone happy until they're safely dead. After all you never know--anything could happen, so it's not a good idea to call yourself happy.

On to The Libation Bearers (or Choephroe as my book has it)--Orestes has returned from his state of exile in order to avenge his father. Apollo himself has ordered him to kill his mother, so he feels completely justified. He finds his sister lamenting over Agamemnon's grave and longing for her brother, and they joyfully reunite and plan their revenge. Although they mention their lost sister, neither of them refer to the fact that she was killed by their father; I don't know if they consider that to have been wiped out by his death, or just not as important as his murder. The chorus this time is made up of slave-women, who alternately encourage the siblings and remember how terrible it is to be captured and made a slave. At length, Orestes and his friend (disguised as strangers) enter the palace and are welcomed as guests and messengers. Orestes tells Clytemnestra that her son is dead, and she doesn't seem too sorry, though his nurse grieves. Aegisthus arrives and is killed, and then Clytemnestra sees her son and pleads for her life. Her last act is to curse her son and call down the Furies upon him.

The action of The Eumenides moves to Delphi and Athens. The Furies have been chasing and tormenting Orestes and he has run to Delphi for help from Apollo. But the Furies are older than Apollo or any of the younger gods; they are Justice itself and Apollo has little power over them. All he can do is make them sleep for a while as he sends Orestes off to Athena, who can act as a judge in the case. Legend says that the scene where the Furies awaken and sniff around for Orestes' guilty, blood-ridden scent to follow was so frightening when it was first performed that people fainted or even died. Their justification for tormenting Orestes is that he is guilty of matricide, which is a worse sin than killing a spouse because it involves violating a blood tie. Thus Orestes is more guilty than his mother was.

It takes a whole year for Orestes to get to Athens and call upon Athena, and he is tormented the whole time. Athena calls some judges and hears the case, with Apollo defending Orestes. Orestes maintains that he is perfectly clean and has no guilt, and Apollo argues that the marriage tie is at least as sacred as blood, and anyway a mother only carries a child; she has no part in producing it. This is proven by the fact that Athena herself has no mother. The judges are tied in their verdict, and Athena breaks the tie and pronounces Orestes innocent. To soothe the enraged Furies, she convinces them to live in Athens and encourage the citizens to live in happy justice, doing good deeds to each other instead of killing:

Ne'er, I pray, ne'er may that Root of evil, civil strife, Rage within her boundaries; Ne'er may the earth's dust drink of the blood of her children, And wroth thereat thirst greedily after revenge, Blood in requital of blood; Rather in friendly communion Gladness be rendered for gladness, All at one in love and hate. Therein lies a cure for human ills.

So I suppose the only solution for the problem of blood feuds is not to start them in the first place.

The Greek Reader I'm using has a nice introduction by W. H. Auden that was fun to read too. He describes a little bit of what it was like to grow up back when British boys (the ones whose families could afford it) went to boarding school and mainly learned Latin and Greek, and not much else. Science was lower-class and offensively modern. Auden then talks a bit about the high-flown, roundabout language the ancient Greeks used in plays or poetry, which is fun.

I quite enjoyed reading the plays and will certainly plan to read more Aeschylus in future. I hope you're all enjoying your reading too!


  1. We have this sitting on our bookshelf. Now I feel guilty for having never picked it up. Maybe it should be my first book for the Greek Challenge.

  2. No guilt necessary! Give them a try, they're not as intimidating as they look. :)

  3. I'm not sure where to link my review for the Challenge, so I'm leaving it here :) Since I also read Aeschylus, it seems fitting.

  4. I'll be putting up a monthly "put your links here" post next week. Meanwhile, thanks for the link!


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