Justice and Social Order in The Oresteia
Democracy, emerging in the city-state of Athens, allowed unprecedented power to her citizens. Among these new powers was the ability to legislate. Yet, legislation was not without its problems. First the citizens must agree upon what is just and unjust, and then enforce the law by bringing the unjust to reconcile their guilt with the public through trial, and finally dispense the appropriate penalty. This evolution was not without concern. The Greeks were attempting to establish a governmental system which would span the middle ground between anarchy and despotism. By the crimes played out in Aeschylus' tragic trilogy The Oresteia, Aeschylus demonstrates the contrast between anarchy and despotism, and judges them both guilty. Indeed he shows, by the end of the play, that the only way man can be absolved of guilt is by joining leagues with the gods in a united effort to promote justice. His premise is supported by sequentially following the criminal legacy of the house of Atreus, and showing that the curse of continued injustice can only be ended by the cooperative effort of man and god.
Aeschylus draws his contrast between anarchy and despotism through the main characters in the play. First Atreus, the father of Agamemnon, though never appearing himself in the trilogy is a central figure and the vehicle by which the curse is introduced. His crime is that of anarchy. Second, Agamemnon returns from Troy with the blood guilt of despotism. Next, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's queen, represents a mixture of the two evils in that she portrays a self-serving ruler. Finally Orestes, son of Agamemnon, is introduced as a pious man who allows his fate to be determined by the gods in conjunction with the citizens.
The story of Atreus and his brother Thyestes is told and alluded to many times throughout the trilogy. Thyestes seduced Atreus' wife, and in retribution Atreus took the matter into his own hands and determined a punishment outside of the societal law (Libation Bearers, ln.989-90). The most complete account of this anarchist travesty is related by Aegisthus (Agamemnon, ln.1578-611). Aegisthus states that his father Thyestes returned to Atreus' home, after his transgression, as a suppliant, and found Atreus a gracious host. Atreus welcomed his brother and prepared a great feast. After a "day of meat-eating with good cheer", Atreus revealed to his brother that the meat he had ingested and enjoyed was none other than Thyesetes' twelve children. It was at this point that Thyestes placed a curse upon the House of Atreus. In this case, Atreus distributed a punishment unbefitting the crime and acted on his own accord without consultation of the gods. Because there is no mention of Atreus' rule or kingdom in these accounts by Aeschylus, this may be interpreted as a personal vendetta between the brothers. Further, since it is clear that Atreus acted alone the crime may be projected as that of anarchy.