Long discusses the treatment of punishment and criminal justice in Aeschylus’s Eumenides.

One of the most subtle and complex explorations of political ideas in any surviving Greek tragedy is found in Aeschylus’s Eumenides, the concluding play in his Oresteia trilogy.1

As the play begins, Orestes is being pursued by the Furies, spirits of divine retribution, as vengeance for his having killed his mother Clytæmnestra, which he did as vengeance for her role in the slaying of his father Agamemnon – an act which in turn was motivated in part as vengeance on Clytæmnestra’s part for Agamemnon’s having ritually sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia.2 (Evenings around the dinner table must have been awkward.) Orestes arrives in Athens, as foreign suppliants generally do in Greek drama, and asks the goddess Athena, divine patron of Athens, for protection against the Furies. The Furies in turn state the case for the social necessity of institutions of punishment:

Here is overthrow of all
the young laws, if the claim
of this matricide shall stand
good, his crime be sustained.
Should this be, every man will find a way
to act at his own caprice;
over and over again in time
to come, parents shall await
the deathstroke at their children’s hands. …
There are times when fear is good.
It must keep its watchful place
at the heart’s controls. There is
in the wisdom won from pain.
Should the city, should the man
rear a heart that nowhere goes
in fear, how shall such a one
any more respect the right?3

The god Apollo, by contrast, who appears as Orestes’ advocate, regards with loathing the Furies’ obsessive vengefulness:

This house is no right place for such as you to cling
upon; but where, by judgment given, heads are lopped
and eyes gouged out, throats cut, and by the spoil of sex
the glory of young boys is defeated, where mutilation
lives, and stoning, and the long moan of tortured men
spiked underneath the spine and stuck on pales. Listen
to how the gods spit out the manner of that feast
your loves lean to.4

Athena, in good (and once again anachronistic) Athenian democratic fashion, puts the issue to a jury vote; when the votes turn out equally divided, however, it’s up to Athena to cast the deciding vote. But she refuses to side unequivocally with either the Furies or her brother Apollo. Against the Furies, Athena chooses to pardon Orestes, thus ending the cycle of revenge. But she rejects Apollo’s contemptuous attitude toward the Furies, insisting that vengeance deserves an ineradicable place in human social institutions. She tells Orestes:

The matter is too big for any mortal man
who thinks he can judge it. Even I have not the right
to analyse cases of murder where wrath’s edge
is sharp, and all the more since you have come, and clung
a clean and innocent supplicant, against my doors.
You bring no harm to my city. I respect your rights.
Yet these [= the Furies], too, have their work. We cannot brush them aside,
And if this action so runs that they fail to win,
The venom of their resolution will return
to infect the soil, and sicken all my land to death.
Here is dilemma. Whether I let them stay or drive
them off, it is a hard course and will hurt.5

But while the Furies will wreak havoc if they are repressed, allowing them free rein is no less harmful to social order. Hence Athena seeks – ultimately successfully – to “tame” the Furies by incorporating them into the Athenian community. Her plea to the Furies is as follows:

Do not be angry any longer with this land
nor bring the bulk of your hatred down on it .…
In complete honesty I promise you a place
of your own, deep hidden under ground that is yours by right
where you shall sit on shining chairs beside the hearth
to accept devotions offered by your citizens.
Do not
in too much anger make this place of mortal men
uninhabitable. …
Put to sleep the bitter strength in the black wave
and live with me and share my pride of worship. …
And you, in your place
of eminence beside Erechtheus in his house
shall win from female and from male processionals
more than all lands of men beside could ever give.
Only in this place that I haunt do not inflict
your bloody stimulus to twist the inward hearts
of young men, raging in a fury not of wine,
nor, as if plucking the heart from fighting cocks,
engraft among my citizens that spirit of war
that turns their battle fury inward on themselves. …
Such life I offer you, and it is yours to take.
Do good, receive good, and be honored .…6

In short, civic punishment both enshrines the spirit of vengeance and moderates it.

The idea of human passions as godlike forces that will destroy society if they are utterly repressed, and so must somehow be honored and made room for despite their destructive power, is also the theme of Euripides’ Bacchæ, whose hero Pentheus is torn to pieces as a result of his attempt to suppress the cult of Dionysus. In addition, one can see Aeschylus’s Eumenides as an anticipation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock, a Fury‐​like representative of an older religion of retribution (as Shakespeare’s audience would have seen Judaism), is required by the wise, Athena‐​like female arbiter Portia to abandon his quest for vengeance and convert to a younger religion of mercy.7

Athena’s compromise between unbridled vengeance and entirely suppressed vengeance is paired with the political compromise between excessive freedom and unmitigated despotism. Such a compromise is hailed both by the chorus of Furies –

Refuse the life of anarchy;
refuse the life devoted to
one master.
The in‐​between has the power
by God’s grant always, though
his ordinances vary.8

– and by Athena herself:

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.9

Presumably, the endless cycle of vengeance championed by the chthonic Furies represents anarchy, while the complete suppression of vengeance represents despotism. (One could read the pairing the other way, but the context seems to support the former interpretation.) Political life and the rule of law, then, constitute a golden mean between vengeance unrestrained and vengeance entirely squelched.10

But there is a further complication to the trial of Orestes, one that introduces some rather odd gender politics. The opposition between the Furies (subterranean female deities) and Apollo (a male sun‐​god), as Aeschylus presents it, already lends itself well enough to the popular anthropological theory of conflict between the older earth‐​mother deities associated with agricultural peoples, and the newer sky‐​father deities associated with the nomadic peoples who conquered them. Moreover, in Aeschylus the Furies are avengers not of all killings but only of killings involving blood relations; hence their concern for Orestes’ having killed his mother but not for Clytæmnestra’s having killed her husband:11

— Sound forth your glorious privilege.
— This: to drive matricides out of their houses.
— Then
what if it be the woman and she kills her man?
— Such murder would not be the shedding of kindred blood.12

Apollo, by contrast, despite his professed repudiation of vengeance as a “feast … the gods spit out,” actually has no problem with Orestes’ vengeance against his mother, and in fact admits having urged him to it. He justifies this in part because of his conviction that “married love between / man and woman is bigger than oaths, guarded by right of nature13 (so that a wife’s betrayal of her husband is a more serious matter than the Furies acknowledge), and in part because, inasmuch as the father’s and mother’s roles in sexual generation are active and passive respectively, it is only the father who is truly the parent of the resulting infant, and so matricide is a less serious matter than parricide:

The mother is no parent of that which is called
her child, but only nurse of the new‐​planted seed
that grows. The parent is he who mounts. A stranger she
preserves a stranger’s seed, if no god interfere.14

Absurd as this theory of sexual generation may sound to us, it was widely accepted in ancient Greece.15 However, Apollo’s corollary of matricide’s being no big deal would not have been similarly accepted; at any rate, a passage in Aristophanes’ Clouds suggests that the average Athenian would have found violence against one’s mother even more shocking than violence against one’s father.16

The Furies raise other objections to Apollo’s argument, appealing to inconvenient facts about Greek mythology:

Zeus, by your story, gives first place to the father’s death.
Yet Zeus himself shackled elder Cronus, his own
father [in the underworld]. Is this not contradiction?17

Apparently feeling compelled to choose between the Furies’ specious arguments for downplaying the seriousness of killing one’s spouse, and Apollo’s specious arguments for downplaying the seriousness of killing one’s mother, Athena opts to side with Apollo (and thus with Orestes), on the grounds that since she was born full‐​grown from Zeus’s head, she must consequently be “always for the male” since “no mother anywhere … gave me birth.”18

Notably, this is a reason for favoring Orestes’ case that could apply only to Athena, and thus seems to offer Aeschylus’s audience, all presumably having been born in the normal way, no reason to share her judgment. Despite the play’s apparently happy ending – with Orestes freed, the Furies placated, and the cycle of violence brought to an end – the central issues are arguably left less than completely resolved. As we shall see, a number of later Greek writers looked more favorably on both women and anarchy, and less favorably on retributive punishment, than Aeschylus’s Athena does here.


  1. Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides.
  2. The fortunes of this family were a popular subject of Greek tragedy. In addition to Aeschylus’s trilogy and Sophocles’ Electra, five of Euripides’ surviving plays – Iphigeneia in Aulis, Electra, Iphigeneia in Tauris, Orestes, and marginally Andromache – deal with the legend. It has also been a popular subject for such later playwrights as Lucius Annæus Seneca, Jean Racine, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Eugene O’Neill, Jean Giraudoux, Jean‐​Paul Sartre, Mircea Eliade, Ezra Pound, and Marguerite Yourcenar.
  3. Aeschylus, Eumenides 490–525; Richmond Lattimore translation, in Lattimore, ed., Aeschylus I: Oresteia (University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 152–153.
  4. Eumenides 185–192; Lattimore translation, p. 141.
  5. Eumenides 470–481; pp. 151–152.
  6. Eumenides 800–868; pp. 163–185.
  7. Of course the other major Shakespearean updating of the Oresteia legend is Hamlet, whose lead character combines aspects of both Electra and Orestes.
  8. Eumenides 526–531; p. 153.
  9. Eumenides 696–698; p. 160.
  10. I’m simply describing Athena’s solution, not endorsing it. For my own critique of legal punishment, see Roderick T. Long, “The Irrelevance of Responsibility,” Social Philosophy and Policy 16.2 (Summer 1999), pp. 118–145. And for my own defense of anarchy, see Roderick T. Long, “Market Anarchism As Constitutionalism,” in Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan, eds., Anarchism/​Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 133–154.
  11. Iphigeneia’s death oddly seems to have been forgotten by this point.
  12. Eumenides 209–212; p. 142.
  13. Eumenides 217–219; p. 142.
  14. Eumenides 658–661; p. 158 .
  15. Such a theory is often attributed to Aristotle. But although Aristotle’s view comes uncomfortably close to the one Apollo defends in Eumenides, it is a bit more sophisticated. For discussion, see Daryl McGowan Tress, “The Metaphysical Science of Aristotle’s Generation of Animals and Its Feminist Critics,” in Julie K. Ward, ed., Feminism and Ancient Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 31–50; and Kathleen C. Cook, “Sexual Inequality in Aristotle’s Theories of Reproduction and Inheritance,” likewise in Ward, pp. 51–65.
  16. Aristophanes, Clouds 1441–1450.
  17. Eumenides 640–642; p. 158.
  18. Eumenides 736–737; p. 161. In some versions of the traditional myth, Athena did have a mother, Metis, whom Zeus swallowed while she was pregnant, out of fear that she would bear a child mightier than himself. Evidently Aeschylus is not following that version of the story here.