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Eumenides | Themes

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Law and Democracy

Athena, with the Areopagus court she establishes on the Hill of Ares, effects a seismic cultural shift in the way ancient Greece made laws and punished crime. Athens moves from vengeance-based acts carried out by individual citizens to formal procedures based on wisdom, debate, and reasoned thought. The Hellenic Age, known as the dawn of Western democracy, began around 507 BCE, several years before Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia. Court reforms in 461 BCE changed the Athenian government. Athena's court gives the audience a front-row seat to the founding of a new age.

A court of the common people—"the finest men in Athens ... bound by a sworn oath to act with justice"—solved the tension between the wealthy, privileged decision makers of the original Areopagus and the humans (and old gods) who followed the same customs for centuries. As Athena negotiates with the Furies after the trial, she persuades them to adopt the new methods of justice by assuring them she'll follow a moral code herself: "I don't say anything I don't fulfill."

Achieving dike, the Greek word for the concept of cosmic order and justice, is the goal of each character in the Oresteia. Democratic courts are one way to bring about dike, both in the city and for the individual. With Orestes's murder trial, the play explores concepts of universal right and wrong, as well as specific applications of the law. Aeschylus reflects on the changes democracy might bring, for better or worse.

Tribal Vengeance

Before the courts were established in Athens, revenge was the law of the land. Justice was instinctual, governed by personal vendettas and a desire to shed blood for blood. Rather than going to the courts, humans administered vigilante justice themselves.

The members of the House of Atreus have perpetuated this cycle throughout the Oresteia. Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra, Clytaemnestra's lover Aegisthus, and Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia are all murdered by someone within the family. Whether their actions are commanded by the gods, dictated by fate, or the result of passion and emotion, the murders have long-lasting consequences.

The slashes on Clytaemnestra's heart signify a deeper kind of hurt than any other murder—she's been betrayed, "suffered cruelty from those/most dear to me." The Furies emphasize the insidious nature of Orestes's crime of killing his mother, and the need to keep the process of revenge within the family. When Orestes appeals to Athena, he's breaking from the tradition of the tribal cycle. He hopes he'll be the last one to suffer from the family curse.

Family and Civic Ties

The emotionally charged nature of revenge crimes and family crimes is a force even Athena respects; she thinks "murder done in passion/merits passionate swift punishment." Family obligation recurs as a theme throughout the Oresteia. Each character in the House of Atreus wants to protect the honor of a family member, even if they kill another family member to achieve it.

Ancient Greeks, like many cultures, valued the family unit—called the oikos, or household and lineage. But with the development of city-states they also felt a commitment to the polis, or city. Orestes wants to protect the city of Argos, and Athena wants civility and unity in the city of Athens. The courtroom scene represents a shift from tribal identity to civic identity for the characters. The court decides what's best for the city and country, not for the family.

Characters are torn between loyalty to the family and to the state. Orestes's vengeance for his father costs him a safe return to his homeland; Athena knows her verdict may endanger her city when the Furies take revenge. Ultimately the characters in the Oresteia can't choose between the oikos and the polis but have to manage commitments to both.

Old versus Young Gods

The gods decide how humans should govern. Opposing divine forces, with roots in the traditions of Greek mythology, drive the tension.

Apollo and Athena represent the younger Olympian deities. They value rational thinking, wisdom, peace, prosperity, and civic innovation. They are associated with light, heaven, and masculine energies.

The Chorus of Furies or Erinyes represents the older gods of the underworld. They are driven by more primeval forces such as emotions, oaths, tribal loyalty, and animal instinct. They are associated with darkness, night, Earth, and feminine energies.

The gender dynamics during Orestes's trial are an example—the Furies stick up for the mother Clytaemnestra, while Apollo defends the father Agamemnon and the son Orestes. Athena attempts to strike a balance between the two perspectives with her verdict. Her intervention persuades the old gods to convert to new methods. Aeschylus also implies history is turning in the direction of the young gods and their model of democracy.

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