The Avengers in Aeschylus’ Oresteia

By D.R. Gayton

800px-Homer_Musei_Capitolini_MC557Of the Trojan War, tradition says it was all for the sake of a woman.  Who said it first or when it was first said will more than likely never be known.  Yet Homer, who has been the authority on the matter, seems to assert this idea throughout both the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the former poem, seeing the Grecians’ spirit lag with plans of return to their homeland, Homer has Hera say unto Athena, “they would leave to Priam and to the Trojans Helen of Argos, / to glory over, for whose sake many Achaians / lost their lives in Troy…” (II 160-63).  More telling, however, in the Odyssey, as Telemachus’ identity as the son of Odysseus is revealed by Helen, Homer has Helen herself admit again her own role in the Trojan War when by finishing a speech she adds, “when for my shameless sake you all sailed off — / Achaeans set to wage a savage war” (IV 146-7).

TragicDrama-AeschylusAlthough hints of other motives for the war lurk behind Homer’s narratives, this idea of women being the cause of a war is a powerful one that has persisted to this day. That Aeschylus decided to take up the idea and make it central to the development of his Oresteia comes therefore as no surprise. Already centuries removed from the composition of the Homeric epics, however, and under what must have been a very different cultural environment, it may be safe to say that the necessities that prompted Aeschylus to write about the Trojan War were vastly different from the necessities that had previously prompted Homer. Consequently, not deviating vastly, but significantly from Homer, Aeschylus’ treatment of the Trojan War serves to establish new ideas about the meaning of war and justice in society. To do so, he utilizes the characters of Helen and Clytemnestra as agents or catalysts of punishment that allow for his ideas of justice to develop throughout the Oresteia.  Although fundamental to the development of ideas on justice presented in the Oresteia, the importance of mythic sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra, remains fully entrenched within the first play of the trilogy. In this essay, I will therefore concentrate on the significance of Helen and Clytemnestra as agents of punishment in Agamemnon.

One of the very first instances within the Agamemnon where Aeschylus allows the audience to conceive of Helen as the very incarnation of punishment wrought on man by divine forces is the instance when the Chorus, chanting from strophe to anti-strophe of the misfortune of Paris, says,

…the sin

smolders not, but burns to evil beauty.

As worthless bronze rubbed

at the touchstone relapses

to blackness and grime,

so this man tested shows vain

as a child that strives to catch the bird flying

and wins shame that shall bring down his city. (388-95)

1024px-Benjamin_West_-_Helen_Brought_to_Paris_-_Google_Art_ProjectContinuing further on to reiterate the gods’ condemnation of Alexander’s actions in extracting Helen from her connubial land, Helen is posited in this passage as a sort of test that was given to Alexander. Although it is never stated either in this passage or throughout the play what sort of test this is, this test seems to be a test of moral character. For as line 393 points out, having been tested in a similar fashion to that with which today we test precious metals, Paris proves not to be a man of honor but “vain as child.”  The acting agent of this test was of course Helen’s beauty. If it is called “evil” within this context it is simply because Aeschylus is allowing the audience to understand that Helen’s physical beauty carried within it the “sin” of adultery that Alexander’s lust, vanity and pride actuated when he consensually led Helen from her husband’s side. For in doing so, Alexander brings not only shame upon himself, but upon his royal house, and consequently his nation.

This aspect of pride, or hubris, that Paris displays and for which the entire population of Troy ends up paying with their freedom and their lives is better understood, however, when a few lines earlier in the play the Chorus, while still speaking of Alexander, chants,

            That man was wicked.

            The curse on great daring

            shines clear; it wrings atonement

            from those high hearts that drive to evil,

            from houses blossoming to pride

             and peril.  (373-78)

The implication behind these lines rests on the fact that Aeschylus is not only representing Alexander’s prideful and imprudent removal of Helen (and her wealth) from her husband as a personal act of youthful insolence, but rather, Aeschylus is representing the imprudent removal of Helen as an act that must be regarded as being symptomatic of the prideful insolence, the hubris, that betakes a “house,” a family, a nation when after ascending in both wealth and might, it begins to think of itself as inviolable, as exempt from punishment. The “great daring” then is the act of presumptuous overreaching expressed through the “appropriation” of Helen. This overreaching then is the outward expression of the hubris of the wealthy and mighty “houses” that suppose they may not only have anything they wish, but in fact take anything they wish without payment or consequences.  The curse, incurred by the unchecked pride and presumptuousness of Paris on the one hand, and the pride of house of Troy on the other, is under these circumstances both a condemnation and an exaction for payment; it is a promise and demand for retribution.

This retribution is the punishment meted out by Zeus himself upon the entire city of Troy, or so the audience is informed by the Chorus who when chanting, or singing, of the matter telling vaunt,

[Zeus] you slung above the bastions of Troy

            the binding net, that none, neither great

            nor young, might outleap

            the gigantic toils

            of enslavement and final disaster.

            I gaze in awe on Zeus of the guests

            who wrung from Alexander such payment. (357-64).

Describing in this passage the destruction of Troy in terms of a chase or of a hunt, the imagery Aeschylus sets forth for Alexander’s punishment is that of entrapment. Following from this passage the thread of associations that are carefully crafted within the chants of the Chorus one arrives at the idea that Alexander was ultimately tested through Helen’s “evil beauty.”  The “binding net” Zeus casts over troy as punishment may then be read as a symbolic recasting of Helen herself.  That is, from this stylistically rich and laden passage of the play, which Aeschylus interposes and interweaves with others that refer back to Helen and the punishment meted out to Paris and his kin, the character of Helen (along with her wealth and her “abduction,”) must be reinterpreted as being both proof and punishment of unchecked pride.  In other words, more than a cause of shame and punishment, Helen, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, must be thought of, above all else, as an agent of punishment.

Clytemnestra1Similarly, in Agamemnon Clytemnestra must be thought of not so much as an unfaithful, bloodthirsty mariticidal housewife, but rather as an exacting agent of punishment over Agamemnon. It is therefore very telling that in a play that bears the name of Agamemnon, Agamemnon himself appears on stage but once and this is only to be led into a chamber were he will be murdered.  In fact, in this play where the Chorus seems to play the principal part, the idea constructed throughout Agamemnon is that Clytemnestra is the embodiment of both the divine curse and punishment brought on Agamemnon and his “house” for the blood spilled by his father, and himself on account of a war, which as the Chorus constantly chants, was fought for “one woman’s promiscuous sake” (Aeschylus 62).

It may be very tempting for readers and audiences of today to attempt to pin on Clytemnestra a main or principal reason for the killing of her legal husband, however, that would mean infringing upon the character of Clytemnestra a personal will or agency that her personage fundamentally lacks.  If in one instance it is suggested that Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon in revenge for Atreus’ killing of Thyestes’ children, then in another instance in revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, and yet in another as a punishment for having led thousands of soldiers into a protracted and bloodied warfare, it simply because as in an ancient court case, all these reasons are accusation that are hurled at Agamemnon to damn him, to condemn him.  Therefore, in Agamemnon all these reasons must be understood as holding equal weight in death.

If despite all the reasons given, Clytemnestra is ultimately damned for the murder of her husband it is simply because in administering what can only be considered a blood revenge she herself falls outside of the law that Aeschylus is attempting to uphold throughout the Oresteia; a law which is made evident only in The Eumenides. That is to say, if Clytemnestra is condemned for having taken the law into her own hands it is simply because in doing so she has fallen prey to the same type of crime for which she kills Agamemnon. This however, is an idea that is developed solely throughout The Libation Bearers and comes into full fruition within The Eumenides. Within Agamemnon then Clytemnestra, like her sister Helen is presented as the net that catches Agamemnon and brings forth his demise.

Of the many accusations against Agamemnon the most striking is the killing, or sacrificing, of his daughter for the sake of being allowed to sail forth unto the battles at Troy.  In setting up this accusation, the Chorus is again instrumental. And nowhere are the accusations more damning that when they chant,

            But when he put on necessity’s yoke

            he changed, and from the heart the breath came bitter

            and sacrilegious, utterly infidel,

            to warp a will now to be stopped at nothing.

            The sickening in men’s minds, mad,

            reckless in first cruelty brings daring. He endured then

            to sacrifice his daughter

            in support of war waged for a woman,

            first offering for the ships’ sake. (218-26)

MANNapoli_9112_Sacrifice_Iphigenia_paintingIn this passage Iphigenia’s sacrifice is presented not as a holy sacrifice to the benevolent gods, but rather as its inverse, as a sacrilege, a heinous and unholy crime committed before the gods under the exigency of necessity.  Agamemnon had a choice.  He could have chosen to spare his daughter, although sparing her life would have meant he would have lost face and incurred the anger of his men who were eager for the (questionable) glories of war. That he chose to satiate his men’s desires for the glory of war and in turn uphold his social position, his rank, his “face,” his pride, is the condemnation that is being levied against him in the Chorus’ juxtaposition between a ship on one hand and his daughter on the other.

It is through this rhetorical technique that the immense immorality behind Agamemnon’s choice is made evident to the audience.  For having to choose between his daughter, a living member of his own family, and an insensate object, a boat, (or material wealth, as it should be understood), that he chose the latter is highly revelatory of the values that Agamemnon is herein embodying.  Moreover, the condemnation against him is further highlighted when the rightfulness of the Trojan War is put in question as the Chorus harkens back to the idea that the war was fought not for freedom, justice or some other cause which might be considered glorious, but for the sake a woman! Looked from a different angle, the chorus postulates that the war was fought for the sake of upholding Menelaus’ pride, and Helen’s dowry.

This idea of the unrighteousness, or lack of an honorable justification behind the Trojan War is central to Agamemnon.  Time and again the indictment levied against the war and those who led it, is that hordes of men had to die for the sake of a conflict that had nothing to do with them.  In this sense, the war is seen as an internecine conflict that claimed the lives of multitudes of men, destroyed hundreds of households on both sides of the warring parties for the sake of satisfying the ambitions and petty pride of the handful of individuals involved. Unlike in the Homeric epics, in Aeschylus’ plays there is no glory to be found from such a slaughter.  When personal squabbles explode into mass armed conflict the only thing to be won is death and shame.  Hence praise for those who valiantly fought in the Trojan War, in Aeschylus’ play carry with them the hollow ring of self-mockery.  In Aeschylus’ play, the bitter and angry views of the anonymous foot soldier are loudly and strikingly heard through the Chorus’ chants. In perhaps one of the bitterest passages that refer back to the war, the Chorus sings,

            They praise them through their tears, how this man

            knew well the craft of battle, how another

            went down splendid in the slaughter:

            and all for someone else’s woman. (445-48)

1024px-Achilles_Agamemnon_Pompei_mosaic_NAMNaples_10006A powerful indictment against the Trojan War, herein the Chorus places the legendary glory of men such Achilles and Hector not just up for questioning, but for those with a starker streak, ridicule.  In doing so, the implication raised by Aeschylus is that if the honorific death of such legendary men can be so easily abrogated, what of the honor and death of the common man who had little to nothing to gain from such an inglorious conflict?  This question can be said to be answered by the Chorus when it sings, “The citizens speak: their voice is deep with hatred. / The curse of the people must be paid for” (457-8).  That is, if there is was no honor to be won and the war was unjust, as the play postulates time and again, those who led these men into the carnage of war must consequently pay for the bloodshed they allowed.  Here then the accusation points to Agamemnon.  For having not only led these men to die in an unjust battle, when he had the choice to hold back and prevent the bloodshed of warfare, he set the bloodshed rolling by spilling the blood of his own daughter.

Therefore, when upon Agamemnon’s arrival back in Argos Clytemnestra orders her servant girls to spread the red tapestries before his feet while saying, “Let there spring up, into the house he never hoped / to see, where Justice leads him in, a crimson path” (910-11) it is to be understood that herein Clytemnestra is embodying the role of the agent that will deliver Agamemnon’s punishment.  For the “crimson path” upon which Agamemnon must tread is (beyond proof of his penchant to easily give in to pride) a mirrored imaged of the blood soaked land he left behind in Troy, the visual and symbolic testament of both his folly and of his of crimes.  In purely visual terms, by unrolling the red carpet upon the stage the audience is allowed clearly see, to visualize how the blood-soaked path Agamemnon himself created, or allowed for, is here, at the height of the play, leading him unto his own demise.

In this context then, Clytemnestra, not unlike her sister Helen, is presented in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon not so much as a bloodthirsty mariticidal housewife, but as an agent or catalyst of punishment. In fact the similarity between the two sisters is further alluded to in the play when after hacking Agamemnon and vaunting over it, Clytemnestra proclaims,

That he might not escape nor beat aside his death,

as fishermen cast their huge circling nets, I spread

deadly abundance of rich robes, and caught him fast.  (1381-83)

That is, just as earlier in the play when the Chorus describes Zeus’ punishment over Troy as a net, in these final lines Aeschylus is not only drawing a parallel between the punishment meted out on Agamemnon and Paris but between the daughters of Leda who act as nets where men’s follies and pride is not only caught, but punished.


Aeschylus. Aeschylus II: The Oresteia (The Complete Greek Tragedies). Trans. David Grene,       Richmond Lattimore, and Glenn W. Most. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2013. Print..

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Trans. Richmond Alexander Lattimore. Ed. Richard P. Martin.            Chicago: U of Chicago, 2011. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey of Homer. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum.  New York, NY: Random House        Publishing Group. 2003; Kindle Edition.