The Eumenides Author/Context
Born around 524 or 525 B.C. in the city of Eleusis near Athens, the Greek dramatist Aeschylus is known as the first great tragedian. His childhood was spent experiencing many great transitions for the city of Athens, including the expulsion of the last Athenian tyrant in 510 B.C. and the establishment of the Athenian democratic state, ruled by many citizens. Aeschylus also fought in several military campaigns against the Persians at Salamis, Artemisium, and Palatea, as well as at the final defeat of the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C., where his brother died in battle. These events were very formative in forging the creative mind that would write such dramatic works as the trilogy of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Traditionally, Athens held dramatic competitions each year in honor of the Greek god Dionysus, at which three different theater troupes consisting of only two persons each would each act out a series of four plays together in competition for the first prize at the festival. Three of these plays were usually tragedies, plays that focused on a heroic character who falls due to his own folly. However, the fourth play was a more comical, light-hearted work, called a satire. These annual competitions provided an incentive for people to write, as well as creating an important forum for fifth-century dramatists such as Aeschylus to gain recognition for their work.
Aeschylus won first prize at the Athenian festival in 484 B.C., after which he continued to write and compete, while also traveling to further his experience and outlook towards life. In 476 B.C. he went to Etna in Sicily under the advisement of Hieron of Syracuse, where he produced The Women of Etna there. Later he returned to Athens and produced the Persians in 472 B.C., under the watchful eye of his patron, the Greek statesman Pericles, sponsor of the Parthenon on the great Acropolis rock in Athens. Aeschylus was at last defeated by the younger dramatist Sophocles in 468 B.C., although he made a comeback the following year with a new sequence of plays that included The Seven Against Thebes. The Oresteia was produced in 458 B.C., the last great work he would create. Aeschylus moved to Sicily soon afterwards, dying in 456 or 455 B.C. at Gela, Sicily. Although during the course of his lifetime he wrote more than seventy plays, today only seven plays survive: The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, The Persians, Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.
The Libation Bearers proposed many questions about the workings of Greek society, and it is in The Eumenides that we at last find our answers. Unlike the prior two plays which are based on established legends describing the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra and that of Clytaemnestra by Orestes, events in The Eumenides are the sole creation of Aeschylus. For this reason, the play is filled with many references of immediate importance to the people of fifth-century Athens. First and foremost, the question of social equality between men and women is answered quite plainly when Apollo explains how women are merely vessels that nourish the man's seed without contributing anything to the growing baby. Convinced, Athena decides that avenging a father's death is more important than avenging that of a mother, reinforcing the fact that women belong in an inferior role to that of men. The decision to end the Oresteia in Athens is hardly a mistake, for the aged Aeschylus left for Sicily soon after the play's production and died there two years later, making the play a final farewell to the city that was his home and the citizens who were his fellow countrymen.
The establishment of a court by Athena is very important as well, since Athens had traditionally been controlled by a group of aristocrats called the Areopagus Council, meeting on the "Hill of Ares" located northwest of the Acropolis. However, with the growing popularity of democracy in 462 B.C., the Areopagus Council was stripped of all lawmaking responsibilities and given the power only to be a homicide court to try accused murders. This historical event has great significance in understanding The Eumenides, for the Furies undergo a similar transformation. Like the Areopagus Council, the Furies are very ancient, and they tried to resist the changed world that surrounds them, clinging stubbornly to their old beliefs. The Furies reflect aristocratic tendencies in their disdain for the younger gods, just as the Areopagus Council surely viewed the young democratic ideas in Athens with this same contempt.
However, just as Athena convinces the Furies that they must accept their new role in the world as protectors of Athens, so too does Aeschylus send this same message to the Areopagus Council, that the world has changed and the Council's role must change as well. The new responsibility is just as important as the old one, however, since trying accused murderers will insure that the city's laws are upheld. Aeschylus instills The Eumenides with good wishes for Athens, hoping for its continued growth and prosperity even though his own time on earth is drawing to a close. Athens thus bridges the ancient, uncivilized world that the Furies and Areopagus Council were a product of, and becomes the modernized, rational society that inspired such talented men as Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and the first great tragedian, Aeschylus himself.
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Lattimore, Richmond, trans. "Introduction to the Oresteia." Aeschylus I: Oresteia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.
Vellacott, Phillip, trans. "Introduction." The Oresteian Trilogy. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
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