June 25, 2013, by Alan Sommerstein

The Oresteia explained

Steven Pinker, the linguist, cognitive scientist and author of half a dozen must-read books (including How the Mind Works, The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate and The Better Angels of our Nature), wrote in his 2007 article “A history of violence” :

“Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation.”

One can hardly encapsulate better the idea which is one of the key themes – and perhaps the most important one – in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy of 458 BC, the Oresteia. 

When the story of the Oresteia begins (a full generation before the start of the dramatic action itself), the policy of “avenge all insults and settle all scores” is already in place, as it had been, in all probability, since the human race began (if not earlier).  The cycle of bloody vendetta proceeds as follows – though actually, as we shall see, it consists of two or three distinct cycles which eventually merge into one.

1.  Thyestes of Argos has an adulterous affair with the wife of his brother Atreus.

2.  Atreus does not immediately take violent revenge on Thyestes, but banishes him; Thyestes’ (two?) sons, however, apparently remain, or are detained, in Argos.  Later Atreus “pardons” his brother, invites him to return home, and holds a feast of “reconciliation” at which he causes Thyestes to be served with the flesh of his sons.

3.  One son of Thyestes, however, survives, being only a baby at the time of the hateful feast.  His name is Aegisthus, and when he grows up he resolves to avenge his father and brothers at the expense of Atreus’ son Agamemnon (Atreus being now dead).  At this point, the cycle of vendetta that we have followed so far merges with another …

1a.  … which also started with an adulterous affair, when Paris (also called Alexandros) of Troy eloped with Helen, the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus.

2a.  Agamemnon, who is the most powerful ruler in Greece, decides to take revenge on Paris and the Trojans by going to war, his objective the destruction of Troy, and brings together an army and fleet mustered from the whole of Greece.   But (and here we have a third, if brief, “retaliate when struck” sequence) …

1b.  The supreme god Zeus favours Agamemnon’s enterprise, and sends an omen presaging its success.  Two eagles – the birds of Zeus, and of kingship – swoop down on a hare, kill it and eat it.  But …

2b.  … the hare was pregnant, and the goddess Artemis, protectress of young wild creatures, is offended.  Unable to retaliate directly against Zeus (who is too powerful for that to be possible), she retaliates instead against his protégé Agamemnon, sending a north wind to detain his fleet in port; Agamemnon is told it will never be able to sail unless he sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to Artemis.  He sends for Iphigeneia (under the pretence that she is to be married), performs the sacrifice, and sails for Troy …

3a/b.  … which, after nearly ten years, he and his army capture and destroy.  (The action of the Oresteia begins – in Argos – on the night of the capture.)

4.  Now the two cycles of vendetta come together – as do Aegisthus, determined to avenge his father and brothers,  and Agamemnon’s wife Clytaemestra, determined to avenge her daughter.  They plot to murder Agamemnon on his return from Troy; Clytaemestra carries out the murder (also killing Agamemnon’s concubine, the Trojan princess Cassandra), and she and Aegisthus set themselves up as the new rulers of Argos.

5.  Some time earlier, Agamemnon’s young son, Orestes, had been sent abroad by the plotters (in some accounts he is rescued from death at their hands by a loyal servant, but Aeschylus deliberately avoids this feature).  When he comes of age he returns, with instructions from the Delphic oracle of Apollo to kill his father’s murderers – one of whom is his mother – or face horrendous mental, physical and social suffering.  He kills first Aegisthus, then Clytaemestra; his last words to his mother are “You killed whom you ought not – now suffer what you ought not”.

6.  No human avenger (it is assumed) now remains to punish Orestes; but his matricide has activated divine spirits of vengeance (the Erinyes or Furies) who take on the role and pursue him relentlessly.  If they succeed in destroying him, the saga will end with the complete extermination of the families of Thyestes and Atreus, at least in the male line …

… and it is at this point that there enters (literally, on stage) the “state with a monopoly on violence” – the state of Athens (to which city Orestes has fled), embodied in its patron goddess Athena and in the court which she establishes to try, and punish if guilty, Orestes and all future homicides or alleged homicides.  There will be no more vendettas, only prosecutions; the killer will still suffer for his deed, but only at the hand of the state, and only after a hearing and a judgement.  Orestes himself is duly tried:  Apollo testifies in his support, and he is acquitted by the narrowest possible margin (indeed by no margin at all – the judges’ vote is a tie).  The Erinyes spew forth threats against Athens, but Athena placates them and promises them a place of honour in the Athenian community, in a new and largely beneficent role, under the new name of Awesome Goddesses.  When it all ends, Orestes has gone back to Argos, Apollo to Delphi, and there remain only the inhabitants of Athens – human and divine, male and female, in a harmonious community to which power and prosperity are promised if, and only if, they follow justice.  That “if” is vital:  if the law fails to punish wrongdoing, the aggrieved will attempt to do so themselves, and the cycle of vendetta will revive.  It was a danger in the Athens of 458 BC, following the assassination three years earlier of the popular politician Ephialtes (for which nobody, or at least no Athenian, was ever convicted).  It was often a reality in other Greek communities, as in the civil strife at Corcyra (Corfu) thirty years later (memorably described by the historian Thucydides).  It has happened in many places since, when people found they could not rely on the law to punish the aggressor and protect the potential victim.

Posted in AeschylusTragedy