Justice and Social Order in The Oresteia Essay

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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
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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.

Agamemnon, however, portrays an unconscious despot. None of the crimes committed by him were done alone, and all were committed against subordinates in his kingdom. The list of his crimes are numerous. The chorus claims Agamemnon's guilt in leading many Achean youths to their slaughter "for the sake of another's wife" at Troy (Ag., ln. 445-55). Though
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