Justice in the Oresteia

Essay by mifdsamCollege, Undergraduate December 2008

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In ancient Greece, justice was very simple: there were a set of rules that everyone had to abide by, and if there was any question about the rules, one simply went to Delphi to ask the gods. Personal and global justice play a large role in the storyline of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Throughout Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides, several characters act based on their own perceptions of justice.

In Agamemnon, Agamemnon, king of Argos returns from ten years of war in Troy. When his queen, Clytemnestra sees him, she invites him to take a bath. Then, along with her lover, she stabs Agamemnon to death. She does this because she sees it as just. Years before, Agamemnon had angered the goddess Artemis, and she refused to allow any winds to blow. Now this was a problem, because without wind, the Greeks would not have been able to sail to war.

To appease Artemis, Agamemnon sacrificed his virginal daughter, Iphigenia. This greatly angered Clytemnestra, and caused her to betray Agamemnon, and not only take a lover while he was in Troy, but also to plot his murder in the event of his return “Mother has pawned us for a husband, Aegisthus, her partner in her murdering” (Page 183). However, her murder of Agamemnon only set herself up for death, through the justice of another.

The second play in the Oresteia, The Libation Bearers, tells the story of justice turning against Clytemnestra. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, who had been sent away from Argos by his mother, has returned, “I have come home to my own soil, an exile home at last.” (177) He has returned in order to claim the throne of his father. Apollo also has given him the task of avenging his father’s death: “Apollo will never fail...