Oresteia - The Issue of Justice in Aeschylus' Eumenides
The concept of justice is manifested through the three plays of Aeschylus' Oresteia. The old tradition of justice, the private blood feud, caused an ungoverned succession of violent acts that spiralled uncontrollably. Aegisthus, Clytemnestra's lover, is introduced in Agamemnon; he desires vengeance for the plot contrived by Agamemnon's father (Ag: 1605-1611).1 Neither Agamemnon nor Aegisthus took part in this "plot" and yet as the chorus explains (Ag: 755-6)
'But ancient Violence longs to breed,
new violence comes
when its fatal hour comes,'
The justice system of this period demanded that one avenge the death of a family member, this can be seen in The Libation Bearers (Lib:45-60)
'The proud dead stir under the earth,
they rage against the ones who took their lives.'
So Aegisthus must take the life of Agamemnon (because Agamemnon's father is not available) in order to let his father's spirit rest. Thus, one need not have an active part in a wrongdoing to be slain for it in the name of justice; one simply had to be members of the same family as the wrongdoer. This ability to substitute family members for vengeance purposes led to a back and forth phenomenon between two families, as soon as one family avenged its member by 'kill(ing) the killers in return' (Lib: 149) the other would pay them back in kind. As the chorus proclaims (Lib: 394-8)
'It is the law: when the blood of slaughter
wets the ground it wants more blood.
Slaughter cries for the Fury
of those long dead to bring destruction
on destruction churning in its wake!'
Similarly, Clytemnestra wants retribution for the fact that Agamemnon brought misery (Ag: 1420-1) upon her 'proud house' by sacrificing his own child. The killing of a blood relative was one of the most terrible things an ancient Greek could do so too then did Agamemnon's act require vengeance; which leads to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to murder Agamemnon, thereby avenging Aegisthus' wronged father and the innocent daughter Iphigenia.
However, the violent acts of reprisal do not end with Agamemnon. With this act comes a twist within the traditional system of justice. In The Libation Bearers, Orestes must choose to avenge his father's murder. The twist comes in that by avenging his father, Orestes will be committing matricide, a crime revolting to the gods and especially to the Furies. Orestes is placed in a no win situation; he must avenge his father or else be plagued by (Lib: 285-6)
'.................leprous boils that ride the flesh,
their wild teeth gnawing the mother tissue,'
Unfortunately, the same fate awaits him if he commits matricide, thereby avenging his father. Orestes chooses the latter and is besieged by 'the hounds of mother's hate.' (Lib: 1055-6). Through this sequence of murderous events, Aeschylus demonstrates the complexity and futility of the blood feud as a system of...