The Resolution of Conflict in Aeschylus' Oresteia
Aeschylus, was a master dramatist - he liked to portray conflict between persons, human or divine, or between principles.1 His trilogy of plays, the Oresteia, develops many conflicts that must be resolved during the action of the Eumenides, the concluding play of the trilogy. The central theme of the Oresteia is justice (dike) and in dealing with questions of justice, Aeschylus at every stage involves the gods.2 The Oresteia's climactic conflict in the Eumenides revolves around justice and the gods - opposing conceptions of justice and conflicting classes of gods. This essay will describe and discuss these conflicts and, more importantly, the manner in which they are resolved so that the play, and indeed the entire trilogy, might reach a satisfactory conclusion.
The conception of justice associated with the Erinyes is that of the ancient lex talionis - the law of retaliation akin to the biblical 'an eye for an eye'. They are primitive female deities, born of Earth. Their chief function is to hound anyone who murders a blood relative and to seek vengeance for that crime by visiting violent death upon its perpetrator. The Olympian deities are champions of the justice of Zeus, their master. The justice of Zeus is more progressive and discriminating than the lex talionis - it never sees the innocent punished.3 In the Eumenides, Apollo is representative of the newer and younger Olympian deities and he speaks on Orestes behalf at the trial. The trial of Orestes takes place when the fate of Orestes cannot be decided by the conflicting powers. Orestes is guilty of murdering his mother, Clytemnestra; hence the Erinyes are baying for his blood as a just and rightful penalty. Apollo is hateful of the Erinyes and what they stand for, he believes that Orestes' matricide was justified because it brought about the vengeance for Agamemnon's death that has been sanctioned by the justice of Zeus. If Orestes killed Clytemnestra not of his own free will but by the will of Zeus he is technically innocent and so cannot be punished according to the justice of Zeus. In seeking Orestes' acquittal, Apollo instructs: -
"This is his justice- omnipotent, I warn you.
Bend to the will of Zeus. No oath can match
the power of the Father."4
Thus, in the Eumenides, old and new laws, older chthonic deities and younger Olympian deities, female and male, all come into fierce conflict. A resolution to this conflict must be found so that order can be restored amid the chaos of violence and vengeance which has been crescendoing throughout the first two plays of the trilogy. At the beginning of the Eumenides the two positions cannot be rationally reconciled, but a solution becomes possible when Apollo (and Orestes) and the Erinyes agree to submit the dispute to be determined judicially, accepting Athena as judge.5 We then get the famous trial of Orestes, the outcome of which will ultimately decide the...