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“Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end” (Oresteia, Agamemnon 121). Such is the chorus’ refrain in the opening lines of Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia. Written in the 5th century B.C.E., Aeschylus’ classic tragedy not only profoundly impacted the Athenians of his time, but even today continues to provoke weighty questions regarding the nature of justice, revenge, and resolution. What is justice, and how is it accomplished? How does seeking justice on one’s own terms deviate from seeking justice within a structure that most benefits society? Through the actions and consequences of mortal and divine characters in the Oresteia, Aeschylus reminds audiences that justice cannot be defined by personal revenge, but must be enacted through a jury, as was the case during Aeschylus’ life in Athens.
The first play of the Oresteia, the Agamemnon, begins by weaving a complex web of family relations entangled in conflicting demands for justice. Agamemnon and Menelaus, both sons of Atreus, had sought revenge against Troy in hopes of taking back Helen, Menelaus’ wife. In the words of the chorus, the Trojan War was a “war waged for a woman,” or, more literally, “the woman-revenging war” (Agamemnon 225). As their journey began, however, the goddess Artemis harassed the Greek fleet with antagonistic winds, and demanded the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s beloved daughter Iphigenia. Heartbreakingly torn between loyalty to family and loyalty to community, Agamemnon ultimately reasoned that he could not fail his ships, and enduringly sacrificed Iphigenia on the altar. Clytemnestra, as a woman living in a male-dominated culture, had no say in her husband’s decision, and harbored deep bitterness for the loss of her daughter. In Agamemnon’s ten-year absence, Clytemnestra entered into a long-term affair with Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus, who also happened to be seeking retaliation for Atreus’ crimes against Aegisthus’ father and his own brothers. As he triumphantly proclaims after Agamemnon’s murder, “It was I, in my right, who wrought this murder…/ justice brought me home again… / now I can die… / having seen him caught in the nets of his just punishment” (Agamemnon 1604-1611). Amidst the swirl of their emotions, both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are seeking justice in the form of revenge – specifically, both are seeking retribution against Agamemnon for what they perceive as unjustifiable offenses against their families. Even so, Agamemnon views his own actions as completely justified, in light of his kingly duty to exact justice on the Trojans and his brotherly duty to regain his sister-in-law, Helen. Furthermore, Atreus’ murder of Thyestes’ sons was not totally without motive either, as audiences intimately familiar with Greek mythology would have understood. In the end, as the chorus sings, “still fate grinds on yet more stones the blade / for more acts of terror” (Agamemnon 1535-1536). As the chorus fears, even more acts of terror and revenge seem inevitable – because the characters’ subjective views of what justice demands are slanted towards their own needs, desires, duties, and circumstances, no satisfactory conclusion will ever be reached. Instead, an infinite loop of recrimination and retaliation becomes unavoidable, even as Cassandra prophesies: “There / shall come one to avenge us also, born to slay /his mother, and to wreak death for his father’s blood” “For this is a strong oath and sworn by the high gods” (Agamemnon 1279-1281; 1284). Cassandra’s prophecy was not inaccurate, as the second play of the trilogy, the Libation Bearers, unfolds with the story of Orestes’ vengeance against his father’s murder.
Interestingly, Orestes’ incentives for murdering his mother and cousin stem not wholly from himself, but from a divine order as well. While meeting with his long-lost sister Electra, Orestes explains: “For [Apollo] charged me to win through this hazard / … / warning of chill disaster under my warm heart / were I to fail against my father’s murderers” (Libation Bearers 270-273). Although Apollo’s motives remain unstated throughout the drama, it should not be too presumptuous to infer a desire for bringing about justice among Orestes’ clan. Unlike Clytemnestra, Orestes is continually guided by a divine being who oversees the accomplishment of his quest for justice; however, like Clytemnestra, Orestes still seeks a traditional form of justice primarily defined by reprisal, as the chorus understands: “In the turning of Justice / … / … the spirit of Right / cries aloud and extracts atonement / due: blood stroke for the stroke of blood / shall be paid. Who acts, shall suffer” (Libation Bearers, 308-313). Because putting his mother to death is not fully his own choice but a direct command from Apollo, Orestes differs from Agamemnon and Menelaus in their revenge against Paris, and from Clytemnestra in her revenge against Agamemnon, in that Orestes seems to be under the assumption his mission of vengeance is fated to make circumstances right once and for all. Right before he kills her, Clytemnestra desperately pleads: “A mother has her curse, child. Are you not afraid?” Orestes unflinchingly responds, “No” and “This is death, your wages for my father’s fate” (Libation Bearers 912; 913; 927).
While Clytemnestra does not leave behind relatives (except, ironically, Orestes himself) who would be responsible to plot vengeance against Orestes, after she dies, her spirit goads the Furies into tormenting Orestes. These goddesses also primarily define justice through vengeance; in fact, their principal duty is to avenge blood guilt, as the chorus in Agamemnon incanted: “The black Furies, stalking the man / fortunate but without justice, / wrench back again the set of his life / and drop him to darkness” (Agamemnon 463-466). Driven by the Furies, Orestes flees from Argos, to Delphi, and finally to Athens, where he beseeches Athena from her temple. When Athena arrives, speeding on her “weariless feet,” the leader of the Furies immediately confronts her with the manifold reasons for Orestes’ condemnation (Eumenides 403). In her wisdom, however, Athena simply remarks, “Here are two sides, and only half the argument” (Eumenides 428). Although the Furies maintain that they “are straight and just,” Apollo also contends, regarding Orestes’ actions, that “this is justice” (Eumenides 312; 619). Finally, the root causes of the family’s cycle of bloodshed are laid out plainly – both sides are indeed seeking justice, but, their personal, limited viewpoints of justice are mutually antagonistic and retaliatory, leading to never-ending mutual revenge. For definitive justice to be acquired, a decision must be made, not by either side, but by an outside judge. Since “the matter is too big for any mortal man,” Athena decides to “establish a court into all time to come,” which, by vote of citizen-judges, will henceforth hold authority for judging trials in Athens (Eumenides 470; 484). After dramatic questioning, defense, and persuasion from both sides, the jury casts its voting pebbles into urns. The vote is split. Athena breaks the tie. Orestes is acquitted.
Athena and the jury’s rendering of justice certainly does not sit well with the upset Furies, who had lamented that “the House of Justice has collapsed,” because Orestes has escaped the punishment for his blood-guilt (Eumenides 515). Only through bribery does Athena tactfully coax the Furies into accepting the results of the trial, along with new roles as guardians of Athens. The moral implications of the establishment of an Athenian jury, however, lie deeper. No longer is the enforcement of justice solely in the hands of the avenged and the avenger. Nor is the enforcement of justice relegated to a single judge, who might, intentionally or not, be influenced by personal experiences and inclinations, however impartial he may try to be. Rather, justice is now placed in the hands of a jury, who is given a chance to, as objectively as possible, examine both sides of a conflict and “render what they believe a true verdict” (Eumenides 675). Here, though, another nuanced question arises: can a jury provide true justice? The drama between Apollo and the Furies illustrates the extent to which a jury is influenced and swayed by factors unrelated to reasonable arguments presented by both sides. For example, as the jurors are casting their votes, Apollo and the Furies take turns appealing to the jurors, even pronouncing threats like “We can be a weight to crush your hand,” “If I do not win the case… / … this land…will feel my weight,” and “I command you to fear, and not / make void the yield of oracles from Zeus and me” (Eumenides, 712; 719-20; 713-714). Moreover, in Orestes’ trial, “a fair ballot…ended up even,” and the final decision is made by Athena’s tie-breaking vote (Eumenides, 796). Previously, the Furies had grounded their accusations in the fact that, whereas Clytemnestra did not share a blood bond with her husband, Orestes “share[d] with [his] mother a blood bond,” making him guilty of murdering a blood relation (Eumenides 606). However, Apollo had countered that “the mother is no parent… / … but only nurse of the new-planted seed / … the parent is he who mounts” (Eumenides 658-660). As proof of the ancient Greek belief that male sperm played the primary function in procreation, Apollo pointed to Athena as “the living witness… / … who was never fostered in the dark of the womb,” but was brought forth from Zeus’ head (Eumenides 664-665). Because mother and child do not possess a blood relationship, Apollo argued, the Furies had no ground for indicting Orestes. Apollo then continued to cajole Athena by promising “to make great your city and its populace,” and by guaranteeing “a strong bond” between Apollo’s descendants and the Athenians (Eumenides 668; 672). Swayed by Apollo’s speech, Athena ends up voting in favor of Orestes purely on the grounds of male superiority. Her reasoning – “I am always for the male / with all my heart, and strongly on my father’s side” – seems almost arbitrary, perhaps even irrational (Eumenides, 732-733).
The evident risks of entrusting justice to a jury become even more concerning in light of Socrates’ trial, which was memorialized in Plato’s Apology. Swayed by the words and sentiments of Miletus, as well as by their own exasperations towards Socrates, the jury narrowly condemned him to an undeserved death. Socrates’ trial was a historical realization of the flaws Aeschylus rightly depicted through Orestes’ fictional trial – namely, that a jury can never be guaranteed to be an impartial, rational, and faultless executor of justice. Nevertheless, Aeschylus in choosing the jury as the final decider of justice in the Oresteia still recognizes a vital point – even if either side finds the decision unsatisfactory, a conclusion must be made and adhered to in order to prevent an infinite loop of revenge-driven justice. The jury’s decision may not be infallible, but some form of final judgment must be enforced in order to prevent chaos. As Helene P. Foley reflects in her introduction to Peter Meineck’s translation of the Oresteia, “Justice, then, requires the subordination of family and kinship to the interests of the state as a whole and a separation of public and private interests” (Foley xx). Especially among rulers and the nobility, revenge-driven justice simply cannot be allowed at the expense of the people. One’s personal desire for retribution must be subordinated to the jury’s decision and the greater good of the community’s interests. Only when Orestes, Apollo, and the Furies submit to the jury’s settlement of justice is order, peace, and, under this new definition, justice, finally achieved.
Apollo, the Furies, and Athena, each strive to enact justice among mortals, but only Athena ultimately succeeds. Because she understands that justice defined by revenge will only result in a vicious cycle of continual retaliation, Athena institutes an Athenian jury that possesses the authority to determine where justice should lie. Moreover, throughout the Oresteia, a fascinating pattern of seeking justice emerges, beginning with mortals, then involving deities, and finally ending with mortals again. In Agamemnon, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus seek justice through revenge for wrongs committed earlier. In Libation Bearers, Apollo involves himself in seeking justice for Orestes against Clytemnestra, but Apollo in obtaining retribution fails to conclusively end the cycle of revenge amongst Orestes’ household. Likewise, the Furies aspire to enact their traditional understanding of justice for bloodguilt, but, in the Eumenides, are prevented from further harm by Athena. Through her establishment of a jury, Athena once again places responsibility for justice back into mortal hands. Now, however, mortals are able to seek justice among themselves without needing to constantly relapse into vindictive cycles of retaliation; rather, they understand how to mete out justice among themselves in a more or less fair manner. The opening chorus in Agamemnon had foretold: “Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end” (Oresteia, Agamemnon 121). Much sorrow befell Orestes and his family – sorrow exacerbated through revenge – but, in the end, good still won out through establishment of the Athenian jury that would continue to allocate justice for years to come.
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