100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 34

Note 34


Aeschylus’ Oresteia 




The Oresteia is by common consent the finest achievement in Greek drama, perhaps in all drama. It was produced in 458 B.C., probably two years after Prometheus Bound, and two years before the author’s death. The theme is the fateful breeding of violence by violence, and the inescapable punishment, through generation after generation, of insolent pride and excess. We call it a legend but the Greeks, perhaps rightly, called it history. The story, as told by each of the greater dramatists of Greece, might be called The Children of Tantalus, for it was he, the Phrygian king so recklessly proud in his wealth, who began the long chain of crime, and called down the vengeance of the Furies, by stealing the nectar and ambrosia of the gods, and giving the divine food to Pelops, his son. In every age, some men acquire more wealth than befits a man, and use it to spoil their children. Pelops by foul means won the throne of Elis, slew his accomplice, and married the daughter of the king whom he had deceived and killed. By Hippodameia, he had three children: Thyestes, Aerope, and Atreus. Thyestes seduced Aerope; Atreus, to avenge his sister, served up his brother’s children to him at a banquet; whereupon Aegisthus, son of Thyestes by Thyestes’ daughter, vowed vengeance upon Atreus and his line. Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Agamemnon married Clytaemnestra, and had by her two daughters, Iphigenia and Electra, and one son, Orestes. At Aulis, where his ships were becalmed on the way to Troy, Agamemnon, to the horror of Clytaemnestra, sacrificed Iphigenia to induce the winds to blow. While Agamemnon besieged Troy, Aegisthus courted his brooding wife, won her, and plotted with her to kill the King. It is at this point that Aeschylus takes up the tale.

    In Agamemnon, the news has come to Argos that the war is over, and proud Agamemnon—“robed in steel, and armies trembled at his wrath”—has landed on Peloponnesian shores, and is approaching Mycenae. A Chorus of Elders appears before the royal palace, and in ominous chant recalls Agamemnon’s abandonment of Iphigenia:


In that which Must Be he armed him slowly,

And a strange wind within his bosom tossed,

A wind of dark thought, unclean, unholy;

And he rose up, daring to the uttermost.

For men are boldened by a Blindness, straying

Toward base desire, which brings grief hereafter,

Yea, and itself is grief.

So this man hardened to his own child’s slaying,

As help to avenge him for a woman’s laughter,

And bring his ships relief. . . .


With violence and a curb’s voiceless wrath

Her stole of saffron to the ground she threw,

And her eye with an arrow of pity found its path

To each man’s heart that slew:

A face in a picture, striving amazedly;

The little maid who danced at her father’s board,

The innocent voice man’s love came never nigh,

Who joined to his her little paean-cry

When the third cup was poured.


    Agamemnon’s herald enters to announce the coming of the King. Aeschylus realizes with fine imagination the joy of the simple soldier as he sets foot, after a long absence, upon his native soil; now, says the herald, “I am ready, if God will, to die.” He describes to the Chorus the terror and filth of the war, the rain that sent a moisture into the bones, the vermin that multiplied in the hair, the breathless heat of Ilion’s summer, and the winter so cold that all the birds fell dead. Clytaemnestra comes from the palace, somber, nervous, and yet proud, and orders rich hangings to be strewn for Agamemnon’s path. The King enters in the royal chariot, escorted by his troops, and erect in the pride of victory. Behind him is another chariot, bearing the darkly beautiful Cassandra, Trojan princess and prophetess, the resentful slave of Agamemnon’s lust, who bitterly predicts his punishment, and gloomily foresees her own death. With clever speech Clytaemnestra recounts to the King her years of longing for this return. “For you indeed the rushing fountains of my tears have run dry, and there is no drop left. But in my eyes, worn with late watching, you may see how I sorrowed for the signals of your victory that ever tarried; and in my disturbed sleep I started at the faint buzzing of the gnat’s wing, for I dreamt of you long tales of woe, crowded into a short moment of repose.” He suspects her sincerity, and reproves her dourly for the lavish outlay of broidered hangings under his horses’ feet; but he follows her into the palace, and Cassandra resignedly accompanies him. Through an intense pause in the action, the Chorus intones softly a song of evil premonition. Then from within comes the cry towards which every line of the drama has moved, the death cry of Agamemnon slain by Aegisthus andClytaemnestra. The portals open; Clytaemnestra is shown with ax in hand and blood on her brow, standing triumphant over the corpses of Cassandra and the King; and the Chorus chants the end:


Would God that suddenly,

With no great agony,

No long sick-watch to keep,

My hour would come to me,

My hour, and presently

Bring the eternal, the

Unwaking Sleep,

Now that my Shepherd, he

Whose love watched over me,

Lies in the deep.


    The second play in the trilogy, the Choephoroe, or Libation Bearers, takes its title from the chorus of women who bring offerings to the grave of the King. Clytaemnestra has sent her young son Orestes to be reared in distant Phocis, hoping that he may forget his father’s death. But old men there teach him the ancient law of vengeance: “The shed drop doth crave new blood”; the state, in those dark days, left the punishment of murder to the dead man’s kin; and men believed that the soul of the slain would know no peace till he had been avenged. Orestes, haunted and horrified with the thought of his mission—to kill his mother and Aegisthus—comes secretly to Argos with his comrade Pylades, seeks out his father’s tomb, and lays upon it a lock of his hair. Hearing the approach of the Libation Bearers, the young men withdraw, and listen in fascination as Electra, Orestes’ brooding sister, comes with the women, stands over the grave, and calls upon Agamemnon’s spirit to arouse Orestes to avenge him. Orestes reveals himself; and from her bitter heart she pours into his simple mind the thought that he must kill their mother. The youths, disguised as merchants, proceed to the royal palace; Clytaemnestra softens them with hospitality; but when Orestes tests her by saying that the boy she sent to Phocis is dead, he is shocked to see a secret joy hiding in her grief. She calls Aegisthus to share with him the news that the avenger whom they feared is no more. Orestes slays him, drives his mother into the palace, and comes out a moment later already half insane with the consciousness that he is a matricide.


While I am still not mad I here declare

To all who love me, and confess, that I

Have slain my mother.


    In the third play Orestes is pursued, in the poet’s externalization of the boy’s wild fancy, by the Erinnyes, or Furies, whose task it is to punish crime; and from their euphemistic, deprecatory title, the Eumenides, or Well-Wishers, the play derives its name. Orestes is an outcast, shunned by all men; wherever he goes the Furies hang over him as black ghosts crying out for his blood. He flings himself upon the altar of Apollo at Delphi, and Apollo comforts him; but the shade of Clytaemnestra rises from the earth to urge the Furies not to desist from torturing her son. Orestes goes to Athens, kneels before Athena’s shrine, and cries out to her for deliverance. Athena hears him, and calls him “perfect by suffering.” When the Erinnyes protest she summons them to try Orestes’ case before the Council of the Areopagus; the concluding scene shows this strange trial, symbolical of the replacement of blood revenge with law. Athena, goddess of the city, presides; the Furies state the case for vengeance against Orestes, and Apollo defends him. The court divides evenly; Athena casts the deciding ballot in favor of Orestes, and declares him free. She solemnly establishes the Council of the Areopagus as henceforth the supreme court of Attica, whose swift condemnation of the murderer shall free the land from feuds, and whose wisdom will guide the state through the dangers that beset every people. The goddess by her fair speech appeases the disappointed Furies, and so wins them that their leader says,“ This day a new Order is born.”

    After the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Oresteia is the highest achievement in Greek literature. Here is a breadth of conception, a unity of thought and execution, a power of dramatic development, an understanding of character, and a splendor of style which in their sum we shall not find again before Shakespeare. The trilogy is as closely knit as the three acts of a well-designed drama; each part foreshadows and requires the next with logical inevitability. As play succeeds play the terror of the theme grows until we begin dimly to realize how deeply this story must have moved the Greeks. It is true that there is too much talk, even for four murders; that the lyrics are often obscure, their metaphors exaggerated, their language sometimes heavy, rough, and strained. Nevertheless these chorals are supreme in their kind, full of grandeur and tenderness, eloquent with their plea for a new religion of forgiveness, and for the virtues of a political order that was passing away.

    For the Oresteia is as conservative as the Prometheus is radical, though only two years seem to have separated them in time. In 462 B.C., Ephialtes deprived the Areopagus of its powers; in 461 B.C. he was assassinated; in 458 B.C. Aeschylus offered in the Oresteia a defense of the Council of the Areopagus as the wisest body in the Athenian government. The poet was now full of years, and could understand the old more easily than the young; like Aristophanes, he longed for the virtues of the men of Marathon. Athenaeus would have us believe that Aeschylus was a great drinker; but in the Oresteia he is a Puritan preaching a sermon in buskins on sin and its punishment, and the wisdom born of suffering. The law of hubris and nemesis is another doctrine of karma, or of original sin; every evil deed will be found out, and be avenged in one life or another. In this way Greek thought made its trial at reconciling evil with God: all suffering is due to sin, even if it is the sin of a generation that is dead. The author of Prometheus was no naive pietist; his plays, even in the Oresteia, are studded with heresies; he was attacked for revealing ritual secrets, and was saved only by the intercession of his brother Ameinias, who bared before the Assembly the wounds he had received at Salamis. But Aeschylus was convinced that morality, to hold its own against unsocial impulse, required supernatural sanctions; he hoped that


One there is who heareth on high—

Some Pan or Zeus, some seer Apollo—

And sendeth down, for the law transgressed,

The Wrath of the Feet that follow.


—i.e. the Furies of conscience and retribution. Therefore he speaks with a solemn reverence for religion, and makes an effort to reach beyond polytheism to the conception of one God.


Zeus, Zeus, whate’er He be,

If this name He love to hear,

This He shall be called of me.

Searching earth and sea and air

Refuge nowhere can I find

Save Him only, if my mind

Will cast off, before it die,

The burden of this vanity.


He identifies Zeus with the personified Nature of Things, the Law or Reason of the World; “The Law that is Fate and the Father and All-comprehending are here met together as one.”

    Perhaps these concluding lines of his masterpiece were his last words as a poet. Two years after the Oresteia we find him again in Sicily. Some believe that the audience, being more radical than the judges, did not like the trilogy; but this hardly accords with the fact that the Athenians, a few years later, and directly contrary to custom, decreed that his plays might be repeated in the Theater of Dionysus, and that a chorus should be granted to anyone who offered to produce them. Many did, and Aeschylus continued to win prizes after his death. Meanwhile in Sicily, says an old story, an eagle had killed him by dropping a tortoise upon his bald head, mistaking it for a stone. There he was buried over his own epitaph, so strangely silent about his plays, so humanly proud of his scars:


Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus;

Of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak,

Or the long-haired Persian, who knows it well.