Aeschylus’ Oresteia, composed and first performed in 458 BC, is the only complete dramatic trilogy we have from ancient Athens. Not all Athenian trilogies were fashioned from related stories, but the Oresteia was: it tells what happens to the family of Agamemnon when the great general returns home to Argos, victorious from the Trojan War, with his concubine, Cassandra, and spoils from the conquered city. In the first play, Agamemnon, the general arrives with blood on his hands: that of the victims in Troy and that of his daughter Iphigeneia, whom he sacrificed to the gods so that the winds would blow his fleet to war. Agamemnon, along with Cassandra, is killed in turn by his wife, Clytemnestra, with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. In the second play, Choephoroi, these murderers are killed by Orestes, Clytemnestra’s son, with the help of his sister Electra. The house of Agamemnon is again defiled.
The final play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, is named for its extraordinary Chorus. The “Eumenides” means the kindly ones, the euphemistic, apotropaic name for the Furies, who appear onstage in the play. They must have been an amazing sight, dressed in black, snakes in their hair. Divine agents of vengeance who stand opposed to the gods of the upper world, the Furies yearn for blood and defend the bonds of family over the newfound bonds of society and political allegiance. The Furies curse Apollo, protector of Orestes: they claim that the blood of Clytemnestra demands that Orestes must die. The cycle of killing seems ceaseless.
But then, in an extraordinary conflation of myth and history, the setting of the play shifts from Argos to Athens, to the court of the Areopagus, where murder trials were judged. The court was near the Theater of Dionysus on the Acropolis. The goddess Athena appears as representative of Zeus, to judge the trial of Orestes for matricide. Athena insists that the case be judged by a jury: democratic due process seems to have been introduced as the solution to the endless round of revenge. The jury is evenly split, and Athena, a goddess who has no mother, casts her own vote to acquit Orestes.
The Oresteia tells a story about political and cultural stasis and transition. What happens when the crimes and mistakes of one generation seem to repeat themselves in the next? After a long history of oppression, marginalization or victimization of one group by another, can equality be restored? Can justice be upheld without revenge? Can a bad inheritance be overcome? At the same time, Aeschylus’ trilogy moves from a system of private justice to one of public law; from the family to politics, tyranny to democracy, matriarchy to patriarchy; and from perplexing signs to revealed truth, as the shady, densely metaphorical and ambiguous language of the Agamemnon yields to the clarity of the Eumenides, and deep metaphysical and theological doubts are answered by the manifestations of gods onstage. In each case, the change is represented as progress. The Oresteia is a great work of art but also a dangerous piece of social propaganda that suggests that the only way to create a safe state society is to limit and suppress the power of women and the family.