Abstract

The earliest ancient Greek text to narrate the resolution of a large-scale conflict by judicial means is Aeschylus’s tragedy Eumenides, first performed in Athens in 458 BC. After explaining the historical context in which the play was performed—a context of acute civic discord and the imminent danger of an escalation of reciprocal revenge killings by the lower-class faction in Athens—this article offers a new reading of the play and asks if it can help us think about the challenges inherent in conflict resolution today. The prosecutors are the Erinyes (Furies), the archaic supernatural agents of murder victims; their responsibility, in predemocratic Greece, before the invention of law courts, was to punish murderers. The defendant is Orestes, who has killed his mother but argues that, since she had killed his father, he was acting justly. The judges consist of eleven Athenian citizen jurors plus the presiding god, Athena, whose twelfth vote carries slightly more weight than any of the others. The article concludes that some aspects of the procedure are exemplary, especially Athena’s insistence on respecting each side’s right to be heard, her sensitivity toward the grievances felt by the defeated Erinyes, and the compensation they are offered. On the other hand, the tragedy clearly shows how difficult it is for a fair legal judgment to be made without a view to larger issues of national expedience, security, and inherent power structures, especially that of patriarchy.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4578
Print ISSN
0961-754X
Pages
pp. 253-263
Launched on MUSE
2015-05-03
Open Access
No
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