The Oresteia is the only trilogy from Greek literature to survive complete. Moreover, it’s an important text that gives much insights into ancient Greek culture. Aeschylus’ last play of the trilogy is Eumenides. In this final play, we learn of Orestes’ salvation (acquital to use a legal term) when in a divided jury (court), the presiding goddess Athena (goddess of wisdom) sides with Orestes and casts her vote in his favor. In the end, Athena persuades the angry “Furies” to give up their enraged persecution of Orestes and accept the verdict. In this play the Chorus has a greater role than in any other surviving Greek tragedies; the Chorus is made up of the Furies themselves who relentlessly persecute Orestes for his crime of matricide. It is Athena who in the end persuades them to become benevolent and, more importantly, take on the civic task of watching over the city polis; thus, their name-change to “Eumenides” (meaning the kindly ones). Orestes is saved and protected by a new civic order in Athens which Athena is responsible for instituting.
The trial in Eumenides, with a jury, witnesses, and a judge (In the person of Athena, goddess of wisdom) is very familiar to us as modern readers, proof of Ancient Greece’s legacies on today’s societies. This moment in Aeschylus’ play marks the first ever trial by jury and of course the Athenian audiences would have immediately recognized the importance of the scene they were witnessing in light of their own society. While the outcome appeared fair to the Athenian audience, how fair do you see the outcome of the trial by today’s modern standards?
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