The Oresteia: An Affirmation of the Noble Lie

In Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, we are first introduced to Orestes, the son of the late and betrayed Agamemnon. He appears, hidden, before the grave of his father as his sister Electra is making libations in her father’s honor. This second part of the trilogy takes place an unknown number of years after the murder of Agamemnon. Orestes has been exiled for most of his life in central Greece, in Phocis.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1862

Like Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca, Orestes disguises himself as a wanderer, or a beggar with news of the death of Orestes. In doing so, he is welcomed into the home of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Why does he put them through this elaborate ruse if he is only going to kill them? In disguise, one is capable of acquiring greater knowledge -as in the case of Gyges the lydian (recall in Book I of Herodotus’s History), or Odysseus in The Odyssey, or even Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Orestes is looking for knowledge. He wants to hear from the words of Aegisthus, the usurper, and his own mother Clytemnestra about the state of the house and the death of his father. As was customary in Greek theatre, the acts of violence occur offstage -first Aegisthus is killed when Orestes reveals himself and then Clytemnestra rushes to the scene to discover that he is, indeed, her son. The Libation Bearers concludes with Orestes being haunted by the furies, or the “Eumenides”, as he is forced to flee his own family’s palace.

In the closing part of the trilogy, The Eumenides, a chorus of furies confronts Orestes as he stands before the temple of Athena in Athens (though the play curiously opens with a confrontation between Apollo and Clytemnestra). The Chorus argues that Orestes should be found guilty or else everyone who commits the crime of matricide in the future will be found innocent, Apollo comes to testify on behalf of Orestes, and Orestes leaves his fate up to Athena. In making her proclamation at the end of the trial, Athena states:

“No anarchy, no rule of a single master. Thus
I advise my citizens to govern and to grace,
and not to cast fear utterly from your city. What
man who fears nothing at all is ever righteous?”

“These words I have unreeled for my citizens,
advice into the future. All must stand upright
now, take each man his ballot in his hand, think on
his oath, and make his judgment. For my word is said”
(The Eumenides 690-710).

In addition, upon reading the verdict that Orestes is found innocent, the Chorus of Furies responds by letting loose the tight hand of vengeance, though not gently:

“Gods of the younger generation, you have ridden down
the laws of the elder time, torn them out of my hands.
I disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger
shall let loose on the land
the vindictive poison
dripping deadly out of my heart upon the ground…”

Orestes was found innocent, by an evenly cast ballot which is deemed fair by Athena.

In Aeschylus, the chief characteristic of the tragedy is the action and the backdrop. The tragic component is a function of the war in Ilium, and the curse that has been brought upon the house of Atreus for it. The Oresteia is a play about the end of the cycle of vengeance -revenge and requital are replaced by a Republican form of judicial accounting -wherein a formal trial decides the fate of someone. However, Aeschylus reaffirms Greek mythos by installing the arbiter of justice as the god Athena, not a mortal man. Justice is still divine and super human, but it is also attainable to man on earth. In presenting it in this way, Aeschylus gives a hopeful, redemptive work of art that reinforces the Athenian way of justice and life.

In the place of self-destructive furies, Athena praises the future of the city of Athens, capable of self-governance, bound by reason rather than vindictiveness. In doing so, Aeschylus reaffirms a noble lie about the birth of the democratic sensibilities of Athens. Unlike Sophoclean, or even Euripidean tragedy, Aeschlyus’s tragedies engage the background and the plot as primary -in other words, the fate of Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Electra or any other one individual is not the ultimate subject of the play, instead it gives way before the story of the transformation of a people from vengeful to upright and judicial. It concludes with a cautionary hope for the future of democratic man.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

The Battle of Marathon: Book VI

In Book VI of Herodotus’s Histories, Herodotus claims that both the Hellenes and the Persians committed great acts of evil against one another -an unbiased claim in his inquiry. If the work was to be considered a work of propaganda to spur the Athenians to rise up (written during the Peloponnesian Wars) one might expect a defense, or apologia, of the Athenians. However, Herodotus seeks greatness in its many forms, barbarian or Greek, and often greatness and evil are closely intertwined.

As part of his inquiry, Herodotus weighs differing accounts, as well. He presents the many differing ways in which a story might be told, perhaps to lead the reader to doubt the rumors that emerge from multiple perspectives. Some accounts Herodotus finds agreeable, true, or correct, and others he presents in full form but dismisses as inaccurate to demonstrate the ease with which a reader might become swept up in a story without a healthy attitude of skepticism to guard them.

By modern standards, the battle of Marathon took place in 490 BC. It was the culmination of the Persian attempt to expand its empire across the world, continuing from the subduing of Egypt to the Hellenes, beginning with the Ionians. The Athenians, without the support of the Spartans, helped usher in a revolt in Ionia against the Persians, even setting fire to the city of Sardis. This was shortly after they had expelled the tyranny of Hippias, son of Peisistratos (the populist tyrnat), a tyrant of Athens who fled to Persia bent on gaining revenge against Athens. Once Darius had heard of this, he vowed not to forget the name of the Athenians, with whom he was entirely unfamiliar. He shot an arrow into the sky and spoke to Apollo, vowing to bring justice to Attica. He also commanded his most trusted servant to say the name of the “Athenians” to him three times per day to not forget. As the Persian army advanced through Ionia, they finally overcame the Eritreans, despite Athenian support, and turned their gaze to Attica. His two famous Lydian generals to carry out the task of wreaking vengeance on the Athenians for spurring the revolt of the Ionians were Datis and Artaphernes.

On the Athenian side, were ten generals, including the famous Miltiades -whose father was a four-time chariot race winner at the Olympia and who had escaped death twice to become a general in Athens. Together these ten generals, led by Miltiades, mobilized for the plain of Marathon where the Persians were sure to land after conquering the Eritreans. Their first course of action was to have Phidippides, the fastest messenger, to send word and call for aid to the Spartans. Phidippides ran for two days across 150 miles of land to Sparta and he succeeded in his mission by explaining to the Spartans that all of Hellas has become weaker by the loss of the Eritreans to enslavement. However, due to a law, the Spartans could not leave before the full moon. Therefore, Athens was alone without aid to fight the coming Persian forces.

Meanwhile, Hippias, the former tyrant of Athens, had a dream of sleeping with his mother, which he interpreted to mean he would regain his city of Athens and die there an old man. However, upon arrival at Marathon be was overcome by a coughing and sneezing fit that caused him to lose a tooth in the sand and he was unable to find it. He took this to mean the land would not belong to the Persians, “This land is not ours, and we shall not make it subject to us, either, for my tooth now holds all that was to be my share” (6.107).

Meanwhile, the Athenian generals are divided in how to proceed and whether or not to fight with so few numbers. Miltiades successfully persuades the polemarch, Kallimachos to fight the Medes (Persians) rather than face slavery. Therefore, the vote was 5-4 in favor of fighting -the democratic process was substantiated by the persuasive voice of one man, Miltiades. In a manner mimicking the cunning strategy of Odysseus who was credited with winning the war rather than Achilles, Miltiades makes a gamble by positioning fewer hoplite soldiers in the center of the ranks, leaving it more susceptible to Persian advances.

These Hellenes were the first to see the Persians and also the first to break into a run against the Persians -the Persians thought were “mad”. The Athenian (and Platean) wings were successful in the plan to encircle the Persians and they retreated while the Athenians chased them back to the waters edge and hijacked seven of the Persians ships. The Persian fleet picked up their Eritrean slaves and then made way for the city of Athens, while the Athenians made heavy speed to Athens and beat the Persian fleet there.

In all about 6,400 barbarians died and only 192 Athenians died.

The Spartans arrived late but went to the battlefield at Marathon to inspect the Persians before returning home. After the battle, Miltiades was given command of seventy ships to do with as he pleased, however he suffered setbacks in trying to conquer Paros and was tried by the Athenians. During the failed attempt he badly injured his leg and died of gangrene.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Two Myths in Hesiod’s Works and Days

In his poem, Works and Days, Hesiod writes a letter addressed to his brother, Perses, encouraging him to embrace the practical attitude and let Discord spur him to plow his fields and yield abundant crops. His purpose is to encourage strong values in Perses, ones that combat the impetus for laziness. However, he tells Perses that “the gods keep secret from humankind the means of survival” (42), thereby challenging Perses to discover the means of survival; to uncover the secrets. Similarly, Sir Francis Bacon will make a claim about the processes of nature being hidden by God for humans to discover in his anti-Aristotelian “New Organon” thousands of years later.

Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau in 1891

Why do the gods hide these secrets from humans? Hesiod responds, appropriately, with a myth. Zeus was angry that Prometheus so carelessly gave away the gift of fire to humans by deceiving the mind of Zeus. Laughing, in repayment to mankind, Zeus employs the lame Hephaestus to fashion a woman, with the help of the other Olympians, and he calls this “bane to industrious mankind” Pandora. Before Epimetheus accepts the gift of Pandora and forgets Prometheus’s command to deny any gifts from Zeus, mankind lives peacefully and with little strife. However, Pandora opens her great jar releasing miseries upon humankind, only Hope stays behind to hide in Pandora’s jar.

Hesiod then gives an “alternate story” if it is preferable, recalled later by Plato in the Republic. First, the immortals fashioned a race of articulate men, Golden, living when Cronus ruled (Zeus’s father). They lived well and peacefully, with many banquets and easy crop yields, until they were buried. Second, the Olympians fashioned a Silver race, which was inferior. They lived like children and committed violence on one another, never worshipping Zeus and making him angry. Third, Zeus fashioned a Bronze race, the offspring of ash trees. Their tools and armor were bronze, and they killed each other with them, sending them down to the cold underworld. Fourth, Zeus created a “new” generation who superior and lovers of “justice” (152). they were Demigods, the last prior to our own generation.

Hesiod laments this “iron” generation and all their suffering, though “there will always be good mixed in with the evil” (177). Zeus will destroy this race when children rise up against their fathers, and when the gods are not followed. Hesiod beckons Perses to pay attention to Justice, for whole cities can be lost with the actions of one evil man, and Hesiod also commands Princes to practice just deeds. In the first account the existence of strife and discord is justified, but hope is given space, as well, for Perses. In the second account, Justice is deemed a worthwhile pursuit, for the fate of mankind.

Following the myths at the outset, the remaining poem is composed of a series of instructions and advice to Perses who is to become a farmer. We are led to believe that he is somewhat feeble minded, contrasted with Hesiod’s great victories as a poet.

For this reading I used the Daryl Hine translation.