Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.
Characters in Aeschylus' Eumenides
As with many fables and some fairy tales, most of the primary characters in this final installment of Aeschylus' famous tragic trilogy Oresteia aren't quite human. So, before we jump into summarizing the play, let's meet the cast of immortal and semi-divine beings who play a major role in Eumenides.
Orestes, whose name was used to title the entire trilogy, is the only fully human character who has a major speaking role. He's the son of Agamemnon, king of Argos, and his wife, Clytemnestra, both of whom are dead by this point. In the trilogy's first play Agamemnon, the king's enraged wife murders him soon after his return from the Trojan War, and in The Libation Bearers, Orestes comes back to Argos to avenge his father by killing his mother. But, of course, the story doesn't end there.
As in most ancient drama, the Chorus is one of the most active players in Eumenides. In this play, the Chorus is comprised of the Furies, archaic Greek goddesses who are said to inhabit the Underworld and to punish familial murder. After Orestes killed Clytemnestra, these fierce deities began hunting him as punishment for murdering his mother. However, Orestes has some divine help on his side, as well.
Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, music, and prophecy, comes to Orestes' aid in his defense against the Furies. The god feels particularly responsible for the prince's actions, since it was he, through his semi-divine priestess and oracle, the Pythia, who instructed Orestes to avenge his father's death.
Orestes flees to Athens, where he hopes to find shelter as a suppliant to the city's patron goddess of wisdom, Athena. Rather than helping Orestes outright, though, Athena decides to put the citizens of her city to the test in deciding the outcome of what was surely the most high-profile court case in Athenian history.
Synopsis of Eumenides
As the play opens, the Pythia is preparing to enter the inner sanctum of Apollo's temple, where she receives her prophecies. However, almost immediately, she recoils in horror from a terrible vision telling of the Furies' hunt for Orestes. Once the Pythia has reported her findings and retired, Orestes appears at the temple, where Apollo promises that he'll not forsake him and instructs him to flee to Athens. As they part ways, the ghost of Clytemnestra briefly appears to spur the now-sleeping Chorus of Furies back to action in hunting her killer.
Once the Furies are awake, they begin to chant and wail at the injustice done to them by not being able to capture Orestes. Apollo appears again and orders the ghastly beings from his temple, but not before they all have a little debate on the bonds of marriage and who should really be punished in the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Their squabble is then punctuated by another debatable topic: the authority of the old gods (i.e. the Furies) vs. the new (i.e. Apollo).
The play now finds Orestes in Athens, where he clings to the statue of Athena and prays for her aid. The Furies quickly arrive in Athens, however, and begin once more to hound Orestes for his crime, one which Orestes argues he's been cleansed of through special rituals. The goddesses aren't satisfied with his rites and claim no younger deity's power will save Orestes from their will and divine right.
Soon, though, Athena arrives on the scene. She questions both parties on their claims in the issue, but ultimately decides that it's not even appropriate for her to actually decide the matter. Instead, she chooses ten Athenian male citizens to adjudicate the proceedings and orders Orestes and the Chorus to assemble their witnesses and evidence for a trial. However, the Furies fear this trial really foretells the end of their and the other old gods' authority in the world.
As proceedings begin, Athena summons the jurors to assemble. After Apollo arrives and explains his involvement in the case, Athena instructs the prosecution to go first. The Furies question Orestes about murdering his mother, which he never denies; however, he raises his own question of any real blood relation to her. Apollo then defends the prophecy given to Orestes, attesting that no oracle has been given without being ordained by Zeus.
With the testimonies given, Athena orders the citizens to deliberate and cast their votes, while Apollo and the Chorus continue to bicker in some form of 'closing statements.' Athena casts her own vote in favor of Orestes, citing that she herself was not born from a mother (but from the head of Zeus); therefore, he held no blood obligation to Clytemnestra. This vote breaks the jurors' tie and exonerates Orestes, who pledges alliances between Argos and Athens in thanks. The Furies, on the other hand, are not so pleased initially.
To calm their fury, Athena promises the Chorus that the citizens of Athens will thenceforth hold special rites in their honor. She barters reconciliation between old and new by offering the Furies a new role as the 'Eumenides' (Greek 'Kind-minded Ones'), without whose protection no family in Athens would prosper. Ironically for a tragic trilogy, Eumenides ends on a high note as the goddesses accept their new, tamer role.
Analyzing Aeschylus' Eumenides
Just like many Supreme Court cases in the U.S., the legendary landmark case in Eumenides sets a couple legal and social precedents.
Although Aeschylus utilizes myths to explain the reasoning, the decision on behalf of Orestes due to having no blood obligation to Clytemnestra was a major legal concern in ancient Greece. Most Greeks viewed children as the sole property and issue of their fathers, which meant women had no legal rights to claim them should there be a marital dispute. The legal precedent for such rulings is cited over and again throughout Greek literature: from Aeschylus' plays to the famously tragic story of Medea.
The key social precedent that Orestes' trial by Athenian jurors sets is that Orestes did in fact have a trial by jury. When Athena summons them to deliberate on the matter, she notes that they will be the first citizens to decide on a murder trial. In America, the right to trial by jury is often taken for granted, but in antiquity, kings and other absolute rulers often made all legal decisions in their realm. For Athens - the birthplace of Western democracy - developing a court system staffed by common citizens was a true advancement in the ancient world.
As an Athenian himself, Aeschylus was undoubtedly very proud of his city's accomplishments, which we can see in the way he displays Orestes' Athenian trial. The constant rivalry between the old and new Greek deities, as well as the eventual conversion of the Furies into goddesses of harmonious protection in Aeschylus' Eumenides, demonstrates his deep pride in the power of Athenian ingenuity to renovate the cultural landscape.
Aeschylus' Eumenides is the final installment of his tragic trilogy Oresteia, named for its central character, Orestes. After murdering his mother, Clytemnestra, at the order of Apollo, Orestes is pursued by the Furies and flees to Athens. Here, he supplicates Athena, who summons Athenian citizens to rule on the matter between Orestes and his pursuers. Ultimately, the decision is made in favor of Orestes because he's technically not Clytemnestra's son; however, the Furies are appeased when Athena promises them new rites, and they become the 'Eumenides'.
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