LECTURE 4: GREEK TRAGEDY OF CRIME
The Five Things
Memorize “five things” for exams!
o The title of the whole trilogy is the Oresteia or Aeschylus’ Oresteia, but not Aeschylus’ the
o The individual plays are the Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides
Title of the tragedies come from the chorus:
• Agamemnon – chorus is made up of elders of the city of Argos, and the play is
named after the main character, Agamemnon
• The Libation Bearers – chorus is a group of libation bearers (libation = some
sort of liquid offering made to the dead or the gods)
• The Eumenides – chorus is the Eumenides
o Aeschylus is the usual spelling of the author’s name, but you may see other correct spellings
occasionally, including “Aiskhylos,” which is a more direct transliteration from the Greek
o Aeschylus first produced the trilogy in 458 BCE
o Aeschylus lived in Athens, and although he sometimes traveled to Sicily to present his plays,
he first presented the Oresteia in Athens (last one he presented there)
o Aeschylus wrote in ancient Greek, and specifically the dialect of Attic Greek, which was the
Greek of classical Athens
• The Oresteia is a story of the establishment of a justice system that halts the cycle of private
revenge; also a state intervention in domestic violence
• Tantalus, father of Pelops, cooked Pelops to test gods who later put Pelops back together
• Atreus and Thyestes, sons of Pelops, fought because Theyestes had seduced his brother’s wife and
dispute the throne of Argos
• Atreus in pretended reconciliation, invited Thyestes and his children to a feast where he slaughtered
the children (all but one) and served them in a concealing dish to Thyestes
• When Thyestes found out about this, he cursed the entire house and fled with his surviving son,
• Agamemnon and Menelaus, sons of Atreus, inherited the kingdom of Argos and married,
respectively, Clytaemestra and Helen
• Clytaemestra bore Agamemnon three children – Iphigeneia, Electra and Orestes
• When Paris of Troy seduced Helen and carried her away, the brothers organized a great expedition
to win her back
• The armament was held back by wind and weather (thought to be due to the anger of Artemis), so
with the pressure of public opinion, Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter, Iphegeneia, in
order to appease the goddess
• Agamemnon sailed to Troy with his forces, captured it and destroyed it and on his way back to
Argos, also brought back his mistress, Cassandra, captive princess and prophetess of Troy
• Meanwhile, in Argos, Aegisthus had returned and Clytaemestra had taken him as her lover and sent
Orestes out of the country • Once Agamemnon had returned, Clytaemestra welcomed him into the house, but when he was
unarmed in his bath, she pinioned him in a robe and stabbed him to death, and killed Cassandra as
• Orestes returned at last, and was welcomed by his sister Electra, who had remained rebellious
against her mother but without power to act
• Orestes, disguised as a traveler and pretending to bring news of his own death, won access to the
house and killed both Aegisthus and Clytaemestra
• When he had displayed the bodies and defended his act, the Furies (Eumenides) appeared to him
and drove him out of Argos
• Orestes took reguse with Apollo and was purified of his murder, but they refused to acknowledge any
absolution and pursued Orestes across the world until he took refuge on the rock of Athens before
the statue of Athene
• In the presence of Athene, Apollo and the Furies appealed to her for a decision, but she appointed a
court of Athenian jurors to hear the arguments and judge the case
• When the votes resulted in a tie, Athene casted the deciding ballot in favor of Orestes
• Orestes, deeply grateful to Athene and her city, returned to Argos
• Athene induces the liberation bearers to take the honorable position of the Eumenides – “the kindly
1. 146 – 159 (P. 39)
“Healer Apollo, I pray you
let her not with cross winds
bind the ships of the Danaans
to long-time anchorage
forcing a second sacrifice unholy, untasted,
working bitterness in the blood
and faith lost. For the terror returns like sickness to lurk in the
the secret anger remembers the child that shall be avenged.”
Such, with great good things beside, rang out the voice of Calchas,
these fatal signs from the birds by the way to the house of the
wherewith in sympathy
sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.
2. 368 0 383 (P. 46)
A man thought
the gods designed not to punish mortals
who trampled down the delicacy of things
inviolable. That man was wicked.
The curse on great daring
shines clear; it wrings atonement
from those high hearts that drive to evil,
from houses blossoming to pride
and peril. Let there be
wealth without tears; enough for
the wise man who will ask no further.
There is not any armor in gold against perdition
for him who spurns the high altar
of Justice down to the darkness.
3. 914 – 930 (P. 62-63)
Agamemnon to Clytaemestra:
Daughter of Leda, you who kept my house for me,
there is one way your welcome matched my absence well.
You strained it to great length. Yet properly to praise me thus belongs by right to other lips, not yours.
And all this—do not try in woman’s ways to make
me delicate, nor, as if I were some Asiatic
bow down to earth and with wide mouth cry out to me,
nor cross my path with jealousy by strewing the ground
with robes. Such state becomes the gods, and none beside.
I am a mortal, a man; I cannot trample upon
these tinted splendors without fear thrown in my path.
I tell you, as a man, not god, to reverence me.
Discordant is the murmur at such treading down
of lovely things; while God’s most lordly gift to man
is decency of mind. Call that man only blest
who has in sweet tranquility brought his life to close.
4. 1275 – 1285 (P. 76)
And now the seer has done with me, his prophetess,
and led me into such a place as this, to die.
Lost are my father’s altars, but the block is there
to reek with sacrificial blood, my own. We two
must die, yet die not vengeless by the gods. For there
shall come one to avenge us also, born to slay
his mother, and to wreak death for his father’s blood.
Outlaw and wanderer, driven far from his own land,
he will come back to cope these stones of inward hate.
For this is a strong oath and sworn by the high gods,
that he shall cast men headlong for his father felled.
5. 1372 – 1387 (P. 80)
Much have I said before to serve necessity,
but I will take no shame now to unsay it all.
How else could I, arming hate against hateful men
disguised in seeming tenderness, fence high the nets
of ruin beyond overleaping? Thus to me
the conflict born of ancient bitterness is not
a thing new thought upon, but pondered deep in time.
I stand now where I struck him down. The thing is done.
Thus have I wrought, and I will not deny it now.
That he might not escape nor beat aside his death,
as fishermen cast their huge circling nets, I spread
deadly abundance of rich robes, and caught him fast.
I struck him twice. In two great cries of agony
he buckled at the knees and fell. When he was down
I struck him the third blow, in thanks and reverence
to Zeus the lord of dead men underneath the ground.
6. 1401 – 1406 (P. 81)
You try me out as if I were a woman and vain;
but my heart is not fluttered as I speak before you.
You know it. You can praise or blame me as you wish;
it is all one to me. That man is Agamemnon,
my husband; he is dead; the work of this right hand
that struck in strength of righteousness. And that is that.
7. 1560 – 1566 (P. 86)
Here is anger for anger. Between them
who shall judge lightly?
The spoiler is robbed; he killed, he has paid.