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  • When the King Suffers What the Tyrant Fears:The Disruption of Political Order in Euripides's Electra and Orestes
  • Marco Duranti (bio)

In his 1977 seminal study on tyranny on the Attic stage, Diego Lanza claimed that the lively portraits of tyrannical characters in Attic drama stood as the necessary premise of the definition of tyranny in Plato's Republic.1 Comparing them with Herodotus's treatment of the same subject in his Histories, where the Persian prince Otanes identifies arrogance and envy as the causes of the inevitable degeneration of the king into a tyrant (3.80),2 Lanza underlined the unparalleled complexity of the Platonic portrait, concluding that "between these two explicative models of the tyrant [the Herodotean and the Platonic] there is all the richness of theatrical representations, where, in order to live, concepts need feelings, words gestures, speeches songs."3

Surprising as it might seem that Herodotus may not have been interested in the psychological characterization of the tyrant, it is true that Attic tragedy did develop this aspect in an unprecedented way, providing a springboard for later philosophical reflections on this figure. I shall follow Lanza's suggestion and will compare the tragic tyrants with their philosophical treatment as offered not only by Plato (with special regard to book 9 of Republic) but also by Xenophon in his Hiero. Conceived as an imaginary dialogue between Hiero I, tyrant of Syracuse from 478 to 467 BCE, and the wise poet Simonides, Xenophon's text consists in a debate on "πῇ διαφέρει ὁ τυραννικός τε καὶ ὁ ἰδιωτικὸς βίος εἰς εὐφροσύνας τε καὶ λύπας ἀνθρώποις" (1.2; how the tyrannical and the private life differ [End Page 564] in human joys and pains).4 Interestingly, its description of the tyrannical condition equates the Platonic one in both richness of expression and political complexity.

First, focusing on the character of Aegisthus in Euripides's Electra, I will investigate the extent to which he aligns with the idea of the tyrant offered by Plato and Xenophon, at the same time pointing out his differences from the other tragic tyrants who more fully correspond to those philosophical definitions. Both Plato and Xenophon, although with different outcomes which are not of primary concern here,5 unveil the tyrant's worried cognizance of the precariousness of his power. According to both, fear is a constant and pervasive aspect of the tyrant's psychology due to his awareness that both his power and his life are at risk, exposed as they are to the dangers of a palace coup or a riot. Unlike Plato's and Xenophon's tyrants, but also unlike other tragic tyrants, Euripides's Aegisthus does not experience this kind of fear. Indeed, the only threat he dreads comes from the legitimate heir to the throne, Orestes. It is him, not the usurper, strangely enough, who experiences a troubled relationship with his subjects, who give him neither help nor solidarity. Precisely this odd "reversal" of roles, whereby the fear typically experienced by the tyrant is instead felt by the legitimate king, constitutes my second focus. This inversion is worth investigating as it entails a subtle critique of the mythical paradigm on which the dramatic action is based, as well as a critique of the idea of communal agency. To this end, I will examine how in Electra and Orestes Euripides handles this paradoxical blurring of the distinction between Aegisthus, the usurper, and Orestes, the lawful heir. Orestes's right to the crown cannot be restored because of the matricide, which is his distinctive trait in the mythical tradition. Although required to commit the murder by Apollo, he is the one who suffers its consequences, being left unprotected by the god. On the other hand, the political community too is to blame, as it condemns Orestes for what he has done, even though, ultimately, he is not responsible for it. Killing one's mother is not like killing just anyone, and once over, the assassination will bring fear of the persecution of the Erinyes, a fate Orestes will have to undergo in tragic solitude.

A comparison between Aeschylus's and Euripides's Aegisthus will highlight Euripides's dialectic with the older dramatist in the handling of Orestes's revenge. The Aeschylean pattern contrasting the brave and...


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pp. 564-587
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