The Oresteia of Aeschylus (Illustrated) by Aeschylus
The Oresteia is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus which concerns the end of the curse on the House of Atreus. When originally performed it was accompanied by Proteus, a satyr play that would have been performed following the trilogy; it has not survived. The term "Oresteia" originally probably referred to all four plays, but today is generally used to designate only the surviving trilogy. "The individual plays probably did not originally have titles of their own". The only surviving example of a trilogy of ancient Greek plays, the Oresteia was originally performed at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BC, where it won first prize. A principal theme of the trilogy is the shift from the practice of personal vendetta to a system of litigation. The name derives from the character Orestes, who sets out to avenge his father after his mother's affair with Aegisthus.
The play Agamemnon (Ἀγαμέμνων, Agamemnōn) details the homecoming of Agamemnon, King of Argos, from the Trojan War. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his murder, partly as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and partly because in the ten years of Agamemnon's absence Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin and the sole survivor of a dispossessed branch of the family, who is determined to regain the throne he believes should rightfully belong to him.
The Libation Bearers (Χοηφόροι, Choēphoroi) is the second play of the Oresteia. It deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge. Orestes kills Clytemnestra to avenge the death of Agamemnon, Orestes' father.
The Eumenides (Εὐμενίδες, Eumenides; also known as The Furies) is the final play of the Oresteia, in which Orestes, Apollo, and the Erinyes go before Athena and eleven other judges chosen by her from the Athenian citizenry at the Areopagus (Rock of Ares, a flat rocky hill by the Athenian agora where the homicide court of Athens later held its sessions), to decide whether Orestes' killing of his mother, Clytemnestra, makes him guilty of the crime of murder.
That the play ends on a happy note may surprise modern readers, to whom the word tragedy denotes a drama ending in misfortune. The word did not carry this meaning in ancient Athens, and many of the extant Greek tragedies end happily.
The ancient law of the Erinyes mandates that blood must be paid for with blood in an unending cycle of doom. The chorus states this fact several times throughout the play, most clearly in the first section of the kommos. Vengeance is just, they say, and it has been the law of the house for generations. Nothing else can wash away a bloodstain but more blood, which in turn requires more blood in order to be cleansed. The chorus offers no solution to this dire situation of violence breeding more violence. They merely state it as the natural law and do what is in their power to help Orestes fulfill his role in the divine plan. However, over the course of The Libation Bearers, one has the sense that this time, things will be different. Apollo has promised Orestes that he will not suffer for his crime, and we know that a god is unlikely to go back on his word. Man cannot hope to build a progressive civilization if he is steeped in a perpetual bloodbath.
Since Apollo has thrown his weight behind the path of vengeance, Orestes chooses to comply with his commands. In fulfilling his duty towards Apollo and his father, Orestes condemns himself to suffering. He chooses to make this sacrifice, however, in order to preserve the laws of society. In the end of Eumenides, Orestes is tried in court by the Furies, with the goddess Athena and the Athenian elders acting as the jury. In this case, Orestes is not killed in turn for his crimes as would have been the retributive law at the time, but he is given the opportunity to defend himself, and is ultimately declared not guilty. The Erinyes are angered by this decision as they belong to the old gods, and for decades uncounted blood had to be repaid in blood. Yet Athena calms them with great effort, making it clear to them that a society cannot possibly work and grow under such circumstances, and grants them seats of great power in Athens. Justice is decided by a jury, representing the citizen body and its values and the gods themselves, who sanction this transition by taking part in the judgment, arguing and voting on an equal footing with the mortals. This theme of the polis self-governed by consent through lawful institutions, as opposed to tribalism and superstition, recurs in Greek art and thought.