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Democracy and Discipline in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
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1. William Connolly, “Democracy and Territoriality,” Millenium: Journal of International Studies 20, 3 (1991): 477. [BACK]

2. I have used the Oxford Classical Text of the Oresteia, ed. Denys Page (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), and unless otherwise noted, I have used Richmond Lattimore’s translation, vol. 1 of The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953). Commentaries on Aeschylus that I have used include Agamemnon, ed. J. D. Denniston and D. L. Page (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957); Oresteia, ed. George Thomson (1938; rev. ed. Amsterdam and Prague, 1966); and Eumenides, ed. Anthony J. Podlecki (Warminster, Eng.: Aris & Phillips, 1989). [BACK]

3. “Tragedy is, properly speaking, a moment,” Vernant writes. “For tragedy to appear in Greece, there must first be a distance established between the heroic past, between the religious thought proper to an earlier epoch and the juridical and political thought which is that of the city performing the tragedy” (Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Greek Tragedy: The Problems of Interpretation,” in Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970], p. 138). [BACK]

4. The Suppliants might be an exception, because it too concerns the use of persuasion (peithē), a theme that is certainly democratic, although it does not reflect on the democratic order itself. [BACK]

5. In fact, a number of recent interpretations of the Oresteia take the structure of its mythic narrative as the most important element determining its meaning. I say more about this below. [BACK]

6. These events in the play allude to the Ephialtic reforms of 462/461 B.C., when the power of the Areopagus was curtailed, the franchise was extended, and a treaty between Argos and Athens was concluded. For an attempt to sort out contemporary allusions and specific references, see Anthony J. Podlecki, The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), ch. 5 and esp. pp. 80–100. In The Greek Discovery of Politics (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), ch. 5, Christian Meier also sifts the evidence to assess the influence of contemporary events on the composition of the trilogy, but is more concerned with the political and historical context in which Aeschylus wrote, so as to demonstrate how the Eumenides for the first time took up the problem of democracy and the political. [BACK]

7. A. Lesky, Greek Tragic Poetry, trans. M. Dillon (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 90. For a slightly different view, see Oresteia, ed. Thomson), rev. ed., 1: 57. The mythical archetype was thus concerned with the destinies of great families, whereas Aeschylus places the city, the threat of civil war, and possible ways of meeting this conflict at the center of interest. [BACK]

8. On the significance of the Panathenaia, see George Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens (New York: International Publishers, 1950), pp. 295–97. The fact that once Orestes leaves the stage, no heroic persons remain further underscores the democratic focus of the play. [BACK]

9. For a slightly different interpretation, see Martin Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law: Law, Society and Politics in Fifth-Century Athens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 28–42. While Ostwald does not deny that the reforms of 462/461 effectively “removed control over the magistrates from a once-powerful aristocratic body and handed it to agencies constituted by the people as a whole,” he does argue that much of this process had already begun with the reforms of Solon. Ephialtes, on this account, merely completed what Solon had initiated by abolishing the political power of the Areopagus entirely (p. 42). [BACK]

10. On the historical questions concerning the Oresteia and the emergence of Athenian democracy, see Leslie Ann Jones, “The Role of Ephialtes in the Rise of Athenian Democracy,” Classical Antiquity 6, 1 (Apr. 1987): 53–76; K. J. Dover, “The Political Aspect of Aeschylus’s Eumenides,Journal of Hellenic Studies 77, 1 (1957): 230–37; E. R. Dodds, “Morals and Politics in the Oresteia,Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 186, 6 (1960): 19–31; C. W. Macleod, “Politics and the Oresteia,Journal of Hellenic Studies 102 (1982): 124–44. [BACK]

11. Meier, Greek Discovery of Politics, p. 91. [BACK]

12. I do not want to construe an exact correspondence between the reforms of Ephialtes and the solution achieved in the Eumenides. The references to the Argive alliance and the curtailment of the powers of the Areopagus to matters of homicide can be construed as Aeschylus’s support of the radical democracy; likewise, the fact that Athena echoes the Furies’ counsel to incorporate fear (to deinon) in the new order, to avoid both anarchy and despotism, and to seek the mean can be understood as a protest against the democratic reforms. I find it more useful to interpret the trilogy as a reflection on both the gains and losses that attend the establishment of democracy. This dissolves the question about the politics of Aeschylus, first by focusing on the trilogy, second, by understanding it in a broader context: the reforms of Ephialtes might provide an occasion for reflection, but they do not necessarily determine the course or outcome of that reflection. [BACK]

13. I am aware, of course, that the conflict in the trilogy is not reducible to sexual difference. However, I agree with Froma Zeitlin, “The Dynamics of Misogyny: Myth and Mythmaking in the Oresteia,Arethusa 11, 1–2 (Spring/Fall 1978): 149–81, that the conflict between the older and younger gods, between Greek and barbarian, is presented in terms of an opposition between male and female. On misogyny in Greek myth and society, see P. E. Slater, The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), and Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schocken Books, 1975). [BACK]

14. Although Aeschylus’s Persae does not explicitly challenge the masculine norms of public achievement and glory as does the Oresteia, it does describe the hardships suffered by women at home that attend the masculine pursuit of war. On this point, see Michael Gagarin, Aeschylean Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 91. [BACK]

15. Christian Meier, in his otherwise rather astute interpretation of the trilogy, misses the importance of gender altogether when, commenting upon the significance of the role “accorded to the fundamental division between man and woman, which is so starkly emphasized in certain passages in the first part of the Eumenides,” he states that “in view of the fact that the problem of man versus woman was not one that much exercised the Greeks, it is hardly likely to have constituted a central theme of the play.” The real theme of the Oresteia is, rather, “the conflict of the Eumenides and its resolution as an expression of political thought” (Greek Discovery of Politics, p. 98). [BACK]

16. Oresteia, trans. Lattimore, pp. 8–9. [BACK]

17. Simon Goldhill, Aeschylus: The Oresteia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 50. [BACK]

18. Homer tells the story of Orestes piecemeal and by way of positive example for Odysseus and Telemachus. The relevant passages are Odyssey 1.29–43; 1.298–300; 3.254–312; 4.514–37; 11.405–34. [BACK]

19. Homer Odyssey 3.304–10. [BACK]

20. For example, Stesichorus, Simonides, and Pindar. See Macleod, “Politics and the Oresteia. [BACK]

21. This debate is largely animated by feminist scholars who challenge the traditional interpretations of the trilogy. Their work centers on the themes of narrative and sexuality. See Zeitlin, “Dynamics of Misogyny”; Aya Betensky, “Aeschylus’ Oresteia: The Power of Clytemnestra,” Ramus 7, 1 (1978): 11–25; Nancy Rabinowitz, “From Force to Persuasion: Aeschylus’ Oresteia as Cosmogonic Myth,” Ramus 10, 2 (1981):159–91; and Simon Goldhill, Language, Sexuality, Narrative: The Oresteia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). [BACK]

22. See, e.g., Brian Vickers, “Nature versus perversion: The Oresteia,” in id., Towards Greek Tragedy: Drama, Myth, Society (1973; New York: Longman, 1979). [BACK]

23. John H. Finley, Jr., Pindar and Aeschylus (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966). In Aeschylus and Athens, Thomson argues similarly, as do H. D. F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Greek Drama (London: Methuen, 1956), Dodds, “Morals and Politics in the Oresteia,” pp. 19–21, and Podlecki, Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy, pp. 75–78, 80–82. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus (1971; 2d ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), is an exception. [BACK]

24. Finley, Pindar and Aeschylus, p. 277. [BACK]

25. Zeitlin, “Dynamics of Misogyny,” p. 149. For other feminist accounts, see, e.g., Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), and L. Bamberger, “The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society,” in Women, Culture and Society, ed. Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, 263–80 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974). [BACK]

26. Cf. Kitto, Form and Meaning, who claims that the problem of dikē is solved. [BACK]

27. Zeitlin, “Dynamics of Misogyny,” does not, however, put it in precisely these terms. [BACK]

28. Ibid., p. 150. [BACK]

29. Charles Segal, “Greek Tragedy and Society: A Structuralist Perspective,” in id., Interpreting Greek Tragedy: Myth, Poetry, Text (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986). [BACK]

30. Ibid., p. 24. [BACK]

31. Ibid. [BACK]

32. Vickers, Towards Greek Tragedy, p. 379, notes that the use of the optative in these lines comes to have the reverse effect intended. [BACK]

33. Since the word the watchman uses, audō, means “to speak” or “to say” in connection with the utterance of an oracle, Aeschylus here places us immediately in the midst of the enigmatic and oracular, something in need of interpretation. [BACK]

34. Betensky, “Aeschylus’ Oresteia,” pp. 13–14. [BACK]

35. Simon Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 9. [BACK]

36. Ibid., p. 14. [BACK]

37. See ibid., p. 10. [BACK]

38. One way to etymologize Clytemnestra is as hē kluta mēdomenē, an etymology that points to her skill or cunning in plots and deception. See Etymologicum Magnum, ed. Thomas Gaisford (1848: Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1967), 521, 17–20. [BACK]

39. A slight modification in the pronunciation of this phrase yields gunaik’ apistein (a faithless wife), a pun that any actor, and no doubt the audience, would appreciate. [BACK]

40. I do not want to push this too far: she then continues to employ the watchdog metaphor in direct relation to Agamemnon, so that when she professes kindness to the king and fierceness to his enemies, we know she means the contrary. [BACK]

41. Betensky, “Aeschylus’ Oresteia,” pp. 15–17, elaborates this interpretation concerning the core of Clytemnestra’s past experience, which she now truthfully puts into speech, although to a devious end. [BACK]

42. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, p. 11. [BACK]

43. On the spider image and use of nets, see Rabinowitz, “From Force to Persuasion.” [BACK]

44. The word Agamemnon uses—diaphtherounta—can variously be translated as “corrupt,” “seduce,” “destroy,” or “bribe”; see H. G. Liddell, Robert Scott, H. S. Jones, and Roderick McKenzie, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 418. Because of the sexual overtones of the exchange, I find “seduce” preferable, especially to Lattimore’s rather tepid “make soft.” [BACK]

45. As do the Furies themselves at Eumenides 778–79. [BACK]

46. R. P. Winnington-Ingram, Studies in Aeschylus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 105. [BACK]

47. Gagarin, Aeschylean Drama, p. 93. [BACK]

48. Two interesting points come to mind here: first, seeing the world from another’s point of view, as Clytemnestra does, is tragedy’s singular, although not unique, achievement. Second, Hannah Arendt defines political thinking as the ability to see the world from the point of view of somebody else; this she calls representative thinking (see Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil [New York: Viking Press, 1964; repr., Penguin Books, 1977], p. 49). But like Agamemnon, Clytemnestra loses that capacity and sees only one side of a complex issue. [BACK]

49. The list comes from J. Peter Euben, The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 74. [BACK]

50. Winnington-Ingram, Studies in Aeschylus, p. 93. [BACK]

51. Rabinowitz, “From Force to Persuasion,” pp. 165–67. [BACK]

52. See Vickers on the details of ritual parody, Towards Greek Tragedy, pp. 398–99. [BACK]

53. Winnington-Ingram, Studies in Aeschylus, p. 111. [BACK]

54. Ann Lebeck, The Oresteia: A Study in Language and Structure (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), is the most complete, but see also Rabinowitz, “From Force to Persuasion” cited above. [BACK]

55. One other way in which Aeschylus achieves this transformation is to revise the myth of the Delphic oracle’s foundation in a way that anticipates the peaceful settlement that ends the trilogy. [BACK]

56. In Form and Meaning, pp. 65–6, Kitto makes an interesting and persuasive, although not conclusive, case for eleven jurors: he notices that between lines 711 and 733, Aeschylus has composed ten couplets and one triplet for a total of eleven verses. This would indicate eleven and not twelve jurors, a vote cast for each couplet, otherwise the playwright would have to send two voters to the urn at once, which makes no stage sense. The final triplet allows enough time for the eleventh juror to go to the urn and back to his seat, and then for Athena herself to approach the urn before beginning her speech. This makes onstage sense for Kitto, but it does not clarify the ambiguity in the language of the text, where, at 741, Athena says, in the optative, “victory is Orestes’ even if the votes divide equally” (Lattimore’s translation interpolates “other votes” to convey the sense that there are twelve jurors, but this is not what the text says), and again, at 752, where she says “equal is the number of ballots.” Both phrases could include Athena’s vote, so I am inclined to read the human vote as against Orestes. [BACK]

57. Deborah Roberts, Apollo and His Oracle in the Oresteia (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1984), p. 70. [BACK]

58. Ibid., p. 72. [BACK]

59. Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens, p. 278. [BACK]

60. Winnington-Ingram, Studies in Aeschylus, p. 121. [BACK]

61. Towards Greek Tragedy, p. 425. [BACK]

62. Nussbaum, Fragility of Goodness, p. 51. [BACK]

63. The following discussion of Athena follows that of Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, pp. 30–31. [BACK]

64. Aeschylus downplays the fact that if Orestes did not avenge the murder of his father, the Furies would pursue him for his negligence. [BACK]

65. This inclusionary thesis is the argument of H. D. F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study (1961; 5th ed., London: Methuen, 1978): 94–5, Podlecki, Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy, pp. 78–79, and Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens, p. 289. [BACK]

66. Though this is the conclusion of Lloyd-Jones, in Justice of Zeus, 2d ed., pp. 94–95. [BACK]

67. Brian Vickers, Towards Greek Tragedy, p. 423. [BACK]

68. On the importance of Clytemnestra for an understanding of Athena, see Winnington-Ingram, Studies in Aeschylus, 101–31. [BACK]

69. Kitto, Greek Tragedy (1961), p. 95. [BACK]

70. On theatricality, see Charles Segal, “Time, Theater, and Knowledge in the Tragedy of Oedipus,” in Edipo: Il teatro greco e la cultura europea, ed. Bruno Gentili and Roberto Pretagostini (Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1986), p. 463ff., and Froma I. Zeitlin, “Playing the Other: Theater, Theatricality and the Feminine in Greek Drama,” in Nothing to Do with Dionysus? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, ed. John A. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin, 63–95 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990). [BACK]

71. See Zeitlin, “Playing the Other,” pp. 81–83 on plots, deceit, and intrigue in Greek tragedy. [BACK]

72. Here I paraphrase Segal in “Time, Theater, and Knowledge,” p. 463. Although Segal is describing the theater of Sophocles, I think his description applies equally well to the Oresteia. [BACK]

73. This is part quotation and part paraphrase of Goldhill, Language, Sexuality, Narrative, p. 281. [BACK]

74. Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens, p. 288, goes so far as to say that “Aeschylus regarded the subordination of women (quite correctly) as an indispensable condition of democracy.” [BACK]

75. On the place of gender in Habermas’s work, see Nancy Fraser, “What’s Critical about Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas and Gender,” in Feminism as Critique, ed. Drucilla Cornell and Seyla Benhabib (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 31–56. [BACK]

76. Connolly, “Democracy and Territoriality,” p. 473. [BACK]

77. Zeitlin, “Playing the Other,” p. 66. [BACK]

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Democracy and Discipline in Aeschylus’s Oresteia
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