Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aeschylus, Tragedy and the Oresteia

Ancient Athens was the place where the comic and tragic traditions in western drama began. Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE to c. 456) was the first of three great tragedians. The other two will be considered in the next two posts. The work of those three is often known as Attic tragedy, with reference to the region of Attica which contains Athens and was part of the lands of the Athenian city-state at that time. The idea of a city state with extensive land outside the city might sound oxymoronic, but city states which expanded into neighbouring territory and where power still rested in institutions of city self-government, are generally still referred to as city states.

The tragedies were performed in day long festivals, which included religious sacrifices, and heavy consumption of wine.  Festivals took place in an outdoor theatre, the amphitheatre, examples of which can still be seen in Athens and other places where remains of ancient Greek cities can be found. The festivals were dedicated to the god Dionysus, associated with intoxication, ecstasy, death, and rebirth. Actors wore masks with stereotypical expressions so that audiences were looking at a depersonalised performance, not a recognisable  individual actor giving a personal interpretation of a role.

The amphitheatre was large enough to contain the citizens of the city state (women and slaves excluded of course) and were a form of common city life in which a very large part those allowed to participate did participate, as they did in political assemblies and religious festivals. Plays were generally only performed once as part of a competition and the day was divided between groups of plays by one author.  Some tragedians emerged as particularly distinguished, so there plays were performed again and their texts survived. That is the authors discussed in these posts.

So we can see that ancient Greek theatre was very far from how we normally experience theatre,  and performances of Attic tragedies now are inevitably far removed from the ancient experience, even if some original aspects are sometimes emphasised. We cannot now have a completely ‘authentic’ experience of ancient performance, but we can at least keep in mind the ancient context.

It is one of many fascinating aspects of ancient Athens, and other ancient Greek city states, that some kind of aesthetic performance was a regular feature of common life. The idea of art as a very distinct part of life did not really exist in the way it does now, but the idea of a particular sphere of art, ‘poetics’, did grow in the philosophy of the time, as can be seen in Plato and Aristotle.

One reason I find it difficult to place Plato in a liberty canon, even if for a long time he was seen as an exponent of government free of lawless immoral tyranny, is that he had a very negative view of tragedy, though he appears to have respect for the tragedian Sophocles, at least, as a personality. My decision to take Aristotle as the starting point of this series was connected with his appreciation of tragedy, which is at the centre of his work on the arts, the Poetics. 

It is also one reason why despite Aristotle’s own undoubtedly strong aristocratic tendencies, I see some connection with democratic ideas in his thought. He emphasised the value of a literary form  that gathered together all free males, and where they indulged in the most mobbish low life behaviour of excessive drinking and festivity.

Of course there are many things to appreciate about Attic tragedy other than its political concerns, but it is form of literature and performance very tied up with the political debates of ancient Athens. It shows politics to be deep in the lives of human communities and to be part of choices we have to make about laws and justice, providing great dangers where the wrong choices are made and to allow human flourishing where better choices are made.  These choices are given enormous individual and communal resonance.

This post will concentrate on the Oresteia, a trilogy Aeschylus originally wrote for festival performance. When this long historical sequence of posts reaches a conclusion of some sort, it should be possible to come back to some of the other plays. The three plays within the Oresteia are Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides (Kindly Ones).

Like many other tragedies, these plays pick up on stories in the epics attributed to Homer, and which appeared a few centuries before the time of the Attic tragedies. They refer themselves to the Mycenaean-Bronze Age Greek world of the previous century, focused around a story of a league of Greek kings laying siege to a city in western Anatolia, and then the long journey home of the most cunning of those kings.

The Homeric story at the root of the Oresteia is the return home of King Agamemnon, in which he is murdered by his wife and her lover. Such an act was even  more horrifying for the original audience than it is for us, since it was a transgression of sacralised bonds of  obedience and fidelity applied to married women in relation to their husbands. Even the horror of that original audience at Clytemnestra’s act must have been in some way made ambiguous though, by the knowledge that Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, ten years earlier, so that a wind would come to take the Greek boats to Troy.

The son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra,  Orestes takes revenge and kills both murderous wife and lover, as he was bound to do according to the expectations of the time.  There are various versions of the story, but the distinct aspect of the version of Aeschylus is that horror of a cycle of acts of violence in which each act can seek justification in revenge, and the demands of divine justice. Even the patriarchal Athenians must have thought of Clytemnestra’s act or murder as having some measure of justification in Agamemnon’s violence against their daughter, though perhaps seeing her more as an instrument for the anger of divine forces than as an individual justified in her choices.

The focus will now be on Aeschylus’ trilogy rather than the general story behind it appearing in many different texts. In Aeschylus, the divine forces communing a justice of violent retribution outside any legal process, are the furies, monstrous female creatures independent even of the gods, enforcing justice that exists outside any laws created by human institutions. In this case, the furies are more tied to the rights of the mother than to the revenge rights on her of the son.  They wish to destroy Orestes, and he can only avoid this by fleeing from Argos (in the Peloponnesus) northwards towards Athens, where he can seek more measured justice.

In Athens, the court that judges Orestes is balanced between citizens of Athens and the furies. The casting vote belongs to Pallas Athena, the celibate goddess associated with Athens, with wisdom and with war, though she is not the chief deity of war. The citizens take the side of Orestes while the furies continued their demands for his blood. Athena’s casting vote rescues Orestes, whose reasons for killing his mother are deemed adequate, by Athena though she admits to  a bias because she was born from Zeus without a mother. This follows on from the earlier comments of Orestes’ protector, the god Apollo, that a mother is a nurse of a child rather than a parent equal with the father .

However, the trial is not just a defeat for the furies and the rights of women, since Athena turns them into the ‘kindly ones’, protectors and enforcers of the laws of Athens. They present themselves during the trial as protectors of old laws against new, but accept the idea of a new role upholding law and piety in Athens. Orestes swears to never harm Athens, the city of Athena, so in some sense accepts a female authority, even if one who places herself on the side of the father against the mother.

The role given to Athens and Athena is a an expression of the view of Pericles, discussed in the last post, as reported by Thucydides, that Athens was the teacher of Greece, and the relation between Athens and its allies in which they subsidised the building of the Parthenon temple in honour of Athena, and accepted Athens as the final judge of legal disputes.

Aeschylus provides a mythical foundation for the main law court in Athens, the Areopagus, since during the trial, Athena proclaims that the court assembled will continue indefinitely as an institution of the city. The court was regarded as aristocratic because judges came from the educated upper class and had previously served in some high public office. One of the reasons Plato, Aristotle and others criticised Athenian democracy was that it was suspicious of Areopagus, transferring some of its functions to the city assembly and large citizen juries .

The most obvious thrust of the Oresteia with regard to ideas of liberty is the deep ‘divine’ significance of legal institutions within the community, in preference to individual execution of archaic codes of revenge. Though the case excuses Orestes for killing his mother, the case along with the founding of a sacralised court, also undermines the basis of his individual act of revenge and Agamemnon’s belief that he could decide to ignore the sanctity of life and his bond to his daughter, because of a wish to assuage divine forces.

Though the trilogy presents a world view which is patriarchal in an extreme way, it does allow female voices with distinct views to speak  and though we should be very careful indeed about importing modern feminist and egalitarian views into the play, it is hard to believe that Aeschylus and his audiences were not at least a little troubled by male violence, and interested in the idea of a an elevated role for women in developing a law governed community, beyond the role of priestesses, which was the obvious first association. Not that they were interested in doing so outside the play, but that the trilogy enabled them to explore, a little bit, ideas at odds with their deeply held customs.

The Oresteia does definitely offer the idea that legal and institution innovation can be necessary at times to satisfy the deepest requirements of justice, while also emphasising respect and reverence for the laws of Athens in Aeschylus’ own time. There is a something of a duality of attitude to law, that is law divided between what is above debate and change and what is a product of debate and change  That is the necessary frame of any liberty oriented debate about law and legal institutions.


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