Aeschylus’ The Eumenides

Throughout the ages, there have been many different laws and punishments used to bring order to societies. In America today we use a system of justice, which we modeled after the Greek states of thousands of years ago. In Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, we see the birth of the civil justice system as we use it today. Before Athens became a great power the people relied on vengeance as justice, which the Greeks described as the supernatural beings of the Furies. In The Eumenides Aeschylus introduces a new type of order, civil justice, through the Gods Apollo and Athena.

The gods are no longer caught in the middle of human affairs with dire results. Before Athena introduced the jury system into Greek society, the people relied on the Gods to exact vengeance. “Show us the guiltyand up from the outraged dead we rise,/ witness bound to avenge their blood/ we rise in flames against him to the end! ” (Eumenides, lines 316-320) Many of them carried out vengeance themselves, and said the Gods had declared justice. A great example of how the early Greeks relied on the Gods for punishment was the house of Atreus, as described in Aeschylus’ The Oresteia.

A curse ran through the family for generations, and would have continued had Athena not intervened and created a jury system. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter for favorable winds and Clytaemnestra murdered him in part because of this. Orestes then avenged his father by killing Clytaemnestra, his mother. The Furies, who wanted to kill him for his matricide, then chased Orestes. Had they succeeded, his children and children’s children would probably have carried on the tradition of murder and destruction.

Like Clytaemnestra, Orestes believed he had a just motive for murder. When Clytaemnestra murdered her husband, she did not ask the Gods if she was carrying out justice. She sought and carried out her own justice, which was really revenge. Before Orestes murdered his mother, he was hesitant about the deed and went to Apollo’s oracle to seek his advice. Apollo told him to kill his mother to avenge his father, and he complied. After his mother had expired, the Furies chased him while he purged himself of his deed at Apollo’s shrine and supplicated himself at Athena’s shrine.

Because he had the God’s approval before he did the deed and had purged himself of his mother’s blood, he believed that the curse should end there. But what of Clytaemnestra’s vengeance against Orestes? Before this whole episode, the punishments for a crime would be carried out by the Gods, in this case the Furies. Since Apollo intervened, however, he could not let Orestes be punished for something he sanctioned. A new form of Justice had to be put in use. With Athena’s new system of ten citizens judging the criminal, the jury had to decide whether or not his crime was justified.

No longer was punishment an eye for an eye as The Furies practiced. “You’ll give me blood for blood, you musteach receives the pain his pains exact” (Eumenides, lines 263 & 269). When Apollo was talking to the Furies, he said, “Go where heads are severed, eyes gouged out,/ where Justice and bloody slaughter are the same” (Eumenides, lines 183-184). This is where the idea of actual justice comes through, not vengeance. No longer was the law black and white, but everything was taken into account. The Furies believed that Agamemnon should have been murdered because he killed his daughter, he murdered one of his own blood.

They did not care that Clytaemnestra killed her husband, because there was no blood relation between them. The furies were upset with Orestes because he killed his own mother, the one who brought him into the world. Apollo did not agree with their logic, so argued with them. “Marriage of man and wife is Fate itself,/ stronger than oaths, and Justice guards its life. / But if one destroys the other and you relent-/ no revenge, not a glance in anger – then/ I say your manhunt of Orestes is unjust” (Eumenides, lines 215-219). Apollo believed that….. lood relation should not be taken into account when deciding punishments. He believed that marriage is stronger than anything because it is sanctioned through the heavens. Athena argued that the male should be honored above all else. She was born from Zeus’s thigh without any corroboration from a woman.

Athena respects men above all else and so supports Orestes. “No mother gave me birth. / I honour the male, in all things but marriage. / Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child. / I cannot set more store by the woman’s death-/ she killed her husband, guardian of their house. Even if the vote is equal, Orestes wins” (Eumenides, lines 751-756). The continuing cycle of violence in the old system forced the gods to create a new form of justice, one in which the moral conflicts had to be resolved. The gods themselves could not judge cases, or else the world would be caught in the crossfire of the gods as it had during the Trojan War. The furies believed that they should be the judges. “Strike the balance all in all and god will give you power;/ the laws of god may veer from north to south-/ we Furies plead for Measure” (Eumenides, lines 539-541).

Zeus and the furies were all part of the ancient order of gods who believed in vengeance as justice. Apollo and Athena realized that nothing could be accomplished with that form of justice. The furies and Zeus supported Clytaemnestra while Apollo and Athena supported Orestes. A new form of justice had to be created not only to settle the earthly problems, but rift in the heavens as well. Athena herself believed that she could not decide Oreste’s fate. “Not even I should decide/ a case of murder – murder whets the passions. (Eumenides, lines 486-487) If she had judged the case, the Furies would have avenged themselves by destroying the city of Athens and the curse would have continued, but even more destructive than before. “Beware. Our united force can break your land. / Never wound our pride, I tell you, never” (Eumenides, lines 726-727).

When Athena refused to judge Oreste’s fate, she declared that it would be safer if the gods stayed out of the whole affair. “And now/ if you would hear my law, you men of Greece,/ you who will judge the first trial of bloodshed. Now and forever more, for Aegeus’ people/ this will be the court where judges reign” (Eumenides, lines 692-696). This decision starts the change from vengeance as justice to a moral justice system. To reconcile the Furies, and thus to end the curse, Athena invited the Furies into Zeus’s new order. Athena had won her case with the furies and Zeus through her logic and persuasion. Zeus now supported his children and the furies gave up their pursuit of vengeance for the more practical form of justice. Even though Clytaemnestra’s death was not avenged, justice still prevailed in the end.

In The Eumenides, Aeschylus shows us both the old way of justice and the new tribunal. When he wrote these plays, there was much social unrest within Athens. The Pelopenesian War was raging and the very foundation of government in Athens was challenged. As we can tell from his plays, Aeschylus believed in democracy and a democratic government. Not only did he change the ending of the old Atreus myth, but he also stated that the gods themselves introduced the democratic system! Aeschylus was clearly stating that the democratic system was the best, and who would question the gods?

In the old justice system, Zeus and the furies were in accord with each other but at odds with the other gods. When Oreste’s case came up, Athena persuaded both Zeus and the furies that the old vengeance system would not work as justice anymore. She came up with a new form, jury trials with mortals as the judges. No longer would the gods wage war with each other and the mortal world. It is ironic that the goddess of war would find a new justice system that would help bring peace between the heavens and earth. After the new justice system was put into use, the world of men and gods became peaceful.

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