Democracy and Aeschylus’ Oresteia

 

Aeschylus’ Oresteia should be taught in every school at the secondary level. There is a great deal of ignorance about how a democracy works, and this Greek play written almost 2600 years ago explains democracy better than anything else I’ve read.

It is a play in three parts about Agamemnon, the leader of Greek army that sailed to the city of Troy, and his family. Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter in bargain for favorable winds from the Greek gods. Ten years later, when he came back as the conqueror of Troy, his wife, still mourning for her daughter, murdered him. In the second part of the play, their son Orestes avenges his father by killing his mother. For me, the most compelling part of the play is the third and final part in which Aeschylus alters these traditional Greek plays on revenge by placing Orestes in front of a contemporary Athenian court. Through this ploy, Aeschylus doesn’t only examine and question the matricide committed by Orestes but the whole ancient system of justice, of eye for an eye. And suddenly, we see a whole society transforming in front of our eyes. Now, it is not only the gods who play the part of judge and executors but eleven ordinary Athenians are joined with the gods as jurors. Now, we hear arguments on both sides, we see a kind of empathy developing, we hear litigation, diplomacy, and in the end, a compromise -the essence of democracy. Orestes is to be set free, and the Furies, the gods who demanded his execution, are to be given a temple in Athens. Each time I read this play, I feel more in awe of how Aeschylus achieves this great transformation.

I love these Greek plays for not only their literary quality, their exquisite retellings of ancient myths, but the whole interplay between the authors of these plays and their audience. My second favorite Greek tragedy has to be The Trojan Women by Euripides. It is a play about the women of Troy lamenting the massacre of their families and their city. The play was performed in the year 415 BC, that same year an Athenian fleet had slaughtered all men in the island of Melos and enslaved all its women and children. And later that year, Athenians were about to embark in an expedition toward Sicily which ended disastrously for Athens. Euripides, through this play, shows the futility of such wars, of greed for foreign land and strategic resources. He shows us how such wars don’t only result in useless massacres of mostly innocent civilians but also in the moral depredation of its perpetrators: though the Greeks won that ancient war against Troy, none of the leaders of the Greek army returned to a salutary life.

I’m always amazed at how these Greek authors, again and again, relentlessly, criticize in their plays not only their own city of Athens, a city which they otherwise praised to the heavens for its democratic tradition, but also their own Athenian leaders who were almost always among the audience, seated at the very front, and who usually also paid for the production. How in Oresteia, and The Trojan Women, and The Persians, and Antigone, these authors are actually teaching their audience to empathize with the enemy.

The Greek democracy soon died, and with it, at least for a very long time, its tradition of public self-criticism; but yet, these were the very few plays that were kept for posterity and were treasured generation after generation. I feel, it is our duty to maintain this very first of all literary traditions, of self-criticism, of courage against the often very loud calls for wars, of questioning the norms in our society, and of empathizing with the loser and the conquered, in our own literary works.

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