In 458 B.C., Aeschylus produced the Oresteia, the greatest tragic drama in human history. It is a window into the evolution of Athenian justice, the principles underlying its law, and the threats to justice inherent in human passions. The play is a transcendental plea. For democratic justice. The third part of the trilogy its final act portrays a courtroom trial in which the mental state of the defendant is central with all the elements of what today we call legal insanity.
The Oresteia, immortalized and carried the message of justice through millennia. This powerful drama kept alive the idea of humanistic justice, through the eclipse of the Roman Empire and submersion in the Dark Ages, through the Renaissance when the classics resurfaced, to the British Isles, and to our courtrooms. The Oresteia became the vital voice of Solon’s justice that enabled it to survive. Isaac Ray Corner, A history of justice: origins of law and psychiatry, Walter A. Bordenn
The story begins with the mythical explanation of the Trojan War. Eris, the Greek goddess of strife (the Roman Discordia), uninvited to the Marriage celebrations of Thetis and Peleus, crashed it regardless and cunningly dropped a golden apple with the inscription “to the fairest” into a feast, inciting three goddesses—Hera, Athena and Aphrodite—to bicker over who deserved it. Zeus knew better than to judge the contest and passed it onto Paris, a son of Priam of Troy, herding sheep in Greece, is bribed by 3 contending goddesses, granting the apple to Athene, who promised the most beautiful woman in the world would fall in love with him, thus launching the ten-year Trojan War, when Helen, wife of Menalaus does just this.
As all the Greek kings had a compact to ensure Helen’s return if abducted, Menalaus requested his bother Agamemnon to marshal a force. Homer’s epic, The Iliad opens as Agamemnon, has gathered a flotilla at Aulis, leading to Helen’s epitaph – a face that launched a thousand ships. The gods (Diana) however demanded a sacrifice of a virgin before the winds would allow the fleet to sail.
To demonstrate the legitimacy of his supremacy, Agamemnon calls for his youngest daughter, Iphigenia on the pretext of her marrying Achilles. Unsuspectingly Clytemnestra complies.
When Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia as an offering for good sailing conditions to Troy, Clytemnestra is enraged and spends the next ten years brooding her revenge. “Blood will have blood”.
After other disputes over concubines, Agamemnon returns home after ten years with his booty, Cassandra, from the Trojans. Clytemnestra welcomes him home with libations and offers him a soothing bath where she brutally and bloodily stabs him.
Orestes is tormented by the Erinyes, or Furies, deities that avenge patricide and matricide. He, at the instigation of his sister Electra and the god Apollo, has killed their mother Clytemnestra, who had killed their father, King Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter and Orestes’s sister, Iphigenia. Orestes finds a refuge and a solace at the new temple of Apollo in Delphi, and the god, unable to deliver him from the Erinyes’ unappeasable wrath, sends him along to Athens under the protection of Hermes, while he casts a drowsy spell upon the pursuing Erinyes in order to delay them.
In Athens, Athene, the goddess of Wisdom attempts to cauterise the relentless cycle of revenge. She does so by summoning an impartial jury of twelve Athenian citizens to hear the reasons of the case for and against Orestes. When the jury ends in a tie, Athens casts the deciding vote for compassion and mercy and healing rather than continued violence.
To Aeschylus, divine justice uses human motives to carry out its decrees. Chief among these motives is the desire for vengeance, which was basic to the ancient Greek scheme of values. In the one complete extant trilogy, the Oresteia, this notion of vengeance or retaliation is dominant. Retaliation is a motive of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and Orestes. But significantly, the chain of retaliatory murder that pursues Agamemnon and his family ends not by a perfect balance of blood guilt, not by a further perpetuation of violence, but rather through reconciliation and the rule of law as established by Athena and the Athenian courts of justice.
Revenge is readily characterised as a failure of reason. But that’s not quite true. It is, in fact, a failure to hear reason. Today’s political debate consists of lobbing hand-grenades at each other’s entrenched positions.
With rising geopolitical instability, the value of reason couldn’t be higher. Yet we find ourselves in a vacuum of rhetoric where, according to Scott Morrison, a “miracle” is our best hope and being a “quiet Australian” the noblest virtue. Rendering Australians as mute devotees is a dangerous abandonment of the engaged lineage of political dialogue that figures such as Freudenberg worked so hard to enshrine.
Trump’s language and personal attacks also militate against reasoned debate.
The Erinyes become transformed into the Eumenides - the kindly ones and Justice purges crimes to absolution.
This breaks the endless cycle of violence ushering a new age of calm dispassionate Justice.