The Academy: session abstract and readings

Classics: Lecture 1, Conflict Resolution and its Discontents in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

Lecturer: Professor Edith Hall


The earliest ancient Greek text to narrate the resolution of a large-scale conflict by judicial means is Aeschylus’ tragedy Eumenides, first performed in Athens in 458 BC as the final tragedy in the group of three, the trilogy, known as the Oresteia. This lecture begins with outlining the failures of conflict resolution in the non-democratic constitutions portrayed in the first two plays, Agamemnon and Libation-Bearers. But its main textual focus is on the final play, in which a new method of conflict resolution—trial by jury—is established in a fledgling democratic state, a Bronze-Age, mythical version of classical, democratic Athens of the 5th-century BC.

After explaining the historical context in which the trilogy was performed—a context of acute civic discord and the imminent danger of an escalation of reciprocal revenge killings by the lower-class faction in Athens—this lecture offers a new reading of Eumenides and the legal trial it enacts. The intention is to ask if it can help us think about the challenges inherent in conflict resolution in the world today.

The prosecutors are the Erinyes (Furies), the archaic supernatural agents of murder victims; their responsibility, in pre-democratic Greece, before the invention of law courts, was to punish murderers. The defendant is Orestes, who has killed his mother, but argues that since she had killed his father, he was acting justly. The judges consist of eleven Athenian citizen jurors plus the presiding god, Athena, whose twelfth vote carries slightly more weight than any of the others. The article concludes that some aspects of the procedure are exemplary, especially Athena’s insistence on respecting both sides’ right to be heard, her sensitivity towards the grievances felt by the defeated Erinyes, and the compensation they are offered. On the other hand, the tragedy clearly shows how difficult it is for a fair legal judgement to be made without a view to larger issues of national expedience, security, and inherent power structures, especially patriarchy.

Readings

See the Academy 2015 readings page for attendees.

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