Justice in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

Aeshylus’ Oresteia, the great trilogy divided into three parts: the Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers, and the Eumenides. The originality of the stories is quite exemplary because Greek poets do not simply versify a given story; all rethink it with their own changes and additions, and in this sense they are themselves changing the “problematic” concepts in Athenian society.

The Oresteia starts up with the return of Agamemnon from Troy and his slaughter by his queen and her paramour, tells us in the Libation-Bearers of the vengeance taken by Agamemnon's son Orestes, now grown to manhood, and ends with Orestes' persecution by the Furies of his mother, and his final release from the hounding of these monsters, who, changed to Eumenides become a pillar of the Athenian justice. In Aeschylus trilogy, the test case of Orestes, embodying the doctrine of `blood for blood', provides a solution in the principle of legal trial of a killer by a jury of his fellow-men.

Such was the will and purpose of Zeus, working in his mysterious way through Apollo his prophet and Athena his daughter (McKay, 1995). What is original in this trilogy by Aeschylus is the concept of justice, where Orestes undergoes a trial and acquittal of the crime of matricide by an Athenian court. Aeschylus’ story of about justice founded in the Athenian court to try cases of homicide suggests the direction in which his version of the myth is headed.

He will use the structure of the trilogy to offer a sustained dramatic and poetic argument on a theme of universal interest: the evolution of justice in human society from blood vengeance to the rule of law. As one might expect, however, the terms in which the argument unfolds are highly specific to their historical context, and his different cultural perspective makes it important to establish the idea of justice firmly in its Greek setting. In Eumenides (397), Orestes and the Erinyes stand before Athena on the Areopagus, a low hill northwest of the Acropolis. The goddess asks who they are and what the matter is between them.

"We are the everlasting children of Night" (416); we drive murderers from houses" (421); "he deigned to be his mother's slayer" (425). "Did he fear the wrath of some other necessity? " Athena inquires (426). The Erinyes deem no motive sufficient for matricide and reproach Orestes for refusing to swear an oath to his innocence. Since he admits the deed (46264), Orestes cannot take such an oath, and the Erinyes consider that conclusive of their claim on him. Athena responds, “Do you wish to be just in reputation or do you want to act justly? ” Erinyes: How is that? Instruct us.

You are not deficient in wisdom. Athena: I say do not let the unjust prevail by oaths. Erinyes: Well, question him, and give a straight judgment. Athena: Would you entrust the outcome of the accusation to me? Erinyes: Certainly. We respect you and receive respect in return (43035). While the dramatic situation— “he deigned to be his mother's slayer” (425) — leaves no doubt that the Erinyes believe they will defeat Orestes, the respect they grant Athena has no dramatic justification and constitutes an authorial intrusion. With one question, "Did he fear the wrath of some other necessity?

" (426), Athena does introduce a new and enlightened concept of justice, namely, that of extenuating circumstances, a concept treasured by patriarchal criticism, but one which she ultimately ignores. With another question, "Would you entrust the outcome of the accusation to me? " (434), Aeschylus takes an essential step in solving the problem of deciding fairly. However, the most glaring instance in the trilogy of what many have taken to be sexist is that Apollo’s argument before the Athenian court that Orestes should be acquitted because a mother is no true parent, merely “a sort of nursing soil for the new sown seed” (770–71).

What are we to make of this argument? It will inevitably strike a modern audience as absurd, but many scholars have assumed that it must have sounded compelling to Athenians of the period (Burian & Shapiro 2003, p. 25). It is worth noting that the way Apollo introduces the idea has a certain quality of desperation about it; he pulls it out of the hat when the Erinyes have effectively cornered him. They answer his contention that Zeus was more concerned about a father's than a mother's death by challenging Zeus’ laws, pointing out that he locked up his own father in chains.

But chains are a different thing from death, says Apollo, for once the earth has drunk up a dead man's blood, nothing can bring him back. Just so, reply the Erinyes, so how can Orestes, who has shed his mother's blood, go back to Argos with that blood on his hands? Ah, replies Apollo, she wasn't the real parent. Such a sexist argument, making the father the sole parent serves Apollo's purpose by underlining the primacy of the male line in defining the properly patriarchal family. The role of Athena in Eumenides brings questions about the relations of male and female together with questions about the relations of gods and mortals.

As a warrior goddess, Athena shares her feminist sentiment with Clytemnestra, but as a permanent virgin, she exists apart from the conflict of the sexes. Indeed, the most important thing about Athena in Eumenides is her role as mediator between gods and mortals. It is fundamental to the trilogy that mortals cannot establish lasting justice by themselves, and gods cannot impose it. In the end, Aeschylus made Athena to cast the decisive vote on seemingly arbitrary grounds. The votes of the court are equally divided, and Athena gave the casting-vote in Orestes' favor.

What is important in this scene is that not the grounds of the crime itself, nor perhaps even the decision, but the process Athena has set in motion and the institution of justice she has created that matter most. The process may not be perfect, but it brings balance by to decide justly on the case of Orestes.


Aeschylus. Oresteia. Burian, P. and Shapiro, A. (2003). The Oresteia. Boston: Oxford University Press. McKay, A. G. (1995). The Oresteia: Overview. In Henderson, L. Reference Guide to World Literature (2nd ed. ). , Chicago: St. James Press.