Aeschylus’s Oresteia

Robin Mitchell-Boyask

in Classics

ISBN: 9780195389661
Published online January 2018 | | DOI:
Aeschylus’s Oresteia

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The Oresteia, the pinnacle, and likely the final production, of Aeschylus’s long career in Athens, was produced at the City Dionysia of 458 bce, where it won the first prize. The Oresteian tetralogy consisted of four plays—Agamemnon, Libation Bearers (Choephori), Eumenides, and the satyr-play, Proteus, which was lost—with the first three plays forming the only trilogy to survive antiquity. Since Aeschylus died in Sicily two years later and there is no evidence of any Athenian productions in the intervening period, Aeschylus likely ended his career victoriously at the City Dionysia with the Oresteia. The theme of the Oresteia, justice, was a particularly urgent concern for a democracy that was still only a half-century old. To address this theme Aeschylus transformed from the Odyssey the myth of the final phases of the House of Atreus: the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and cousin Aegisthus after the sack of Troy, and the consequent matricide committed by their son Orestes. Aeschylus, to maximize the dramatic potential of his theme, re-imagined the myth so that the system of justice as vendetta reaches an absolute crisis in the form of an intra-familial gender war that takes on a cosmic scale that results in the origins of the legal system wherein humans are held accountable for their actions and tried by other humans who are not party to those actions. In addressing justice through the origin of the Areopagus tribunal, Aeschylus, uncharacteristically for Greek tragedy, engaged one of the most explosive political issues of this time, since, a few years earlier, Ephialtes, attempting to check the power of aristocratic institutions like the Areopagus, stripped it of its broader powers, but was assassinated shortly after the changes were instituted. The Oresteia also participated in major changes to Athenian dramaturgy, as Aeschylus used—possibly for the first time—the skēnē building, the wheeled cart (ekkyklêma), and a third actor.

Article.  8232 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Classical Art and Architecture ; Classical History ; Classical Literature ; Classical Philosophy

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