Aeschylus & Euripides: Vengeance, Justice, Pity

What is the opposite of vengeance?

Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ Orestes seem to engage this question via the narrative of Orestes, with what seem to be quite different results. Oresteia and Orestes were produced 50 years apart, in 458 and 408 BC respectively, at very different periods in Athenian history. Athens in 458 was ascending, but by 408, war, plague, and leaders’ disastrous decision-making had brought the city to a breaking point.

In both playwrights’ versions, Apollo compels Orestes to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon, by killing his mother, Clytemnestra. Both portray Orestes tormented by the murder. Both portray resolution as a divine intervention. It is on the path from torment to resolution where the playwrights seem to diverge.

For Aeschylus, Orestes’ conflicting interests—to avenge his father and not to harm family members—are resolved by Athena instituting trial by jury. Legal procedure will save the day, the play implies, establishing norms and bringing order. Euripides’ portrayal of Tyndareus seems to drench Aeschylus’ confidence with cold water, suggesting that what mortals call “justice” differs from vengeance in its formal properties but not its essence. Both vengeance and justice seek redress through punishment. What differs is who exacts it and under what procedure. Oresteia can read as a kind of foundation myth for the Athenian legal system.

In Eurpides’ tragedy, resolution comes via an order from Apollo that everyone stop fighting and get married. The ending can seem bizarre because his command seems to lack a basis. Athena creates the jury system, which will enable resolution moving forward. What does Apollo create? I’m not sure, but I believe that Euripides’ play is very concerned with pity as an antidote to vengeance.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments 🧡

4 thoughts on “Aeschylus & Euripides: Vengeance, Justice, Pity

  1. This is really interesting (as all of your thoughts on Ancient Greek literature always are). One thing that struck me is that Athena is the goddess of logic and reason, while Apollo is usually associated with the arts. I don’t think that the two playwrights did this as a collab’, as we’d say today, but you could almost see it as a comment about logic vs emotion or logic vs art, or realism vs idealism (In an ideal world, after all, couldn’t we all just stop fighting and love each other?).

    1. Interesting, thank you, Alysa! I do think Achilles and Odysseus could be seen as representing two kinds of extremes—emotion with Achilles and rationality with Odysseus. The Greeks were concerned with balance, harmony, proportion, so would seek for the two to be in proper proportion to each other. You have me wondering to what extent they would believe an ‘ideal’ world is achievable…I’m thinking now of the word “utopia,” a compound of two Greek words: no place… 🙁

Leave a Reply