Aeschylus: The Formulation of Justice

By Gabriel Blanchard

Civilization is rooted in reasoned and impartial justice.

Aeschylus’ place on the CLT author bank may not be obvious at first glance. People read, perform, and adapt the works of William Shakespeare or Jane Austen down to the present day; their continued relevance is clear. But when is the last time we saw The Suppliants enacted for a packed theater, or watched a modernized film version of The Seven Against Thebes? Is this ancient tragedian now important only to specialists in the field of Classicsrefined, but also confined?

Aeschylus has been called the father of drama, and justly. Drama of a kind did exist before him, but it was more ritual than artistic, consisting of only one character interacting with a chorus; the fact that this is so alien to us is an index of his colossal influence on the art form. Aeschylus introduced multiple characters, relating to each other as well as the chorus, thus paving the way for all subsequent drama and initiating a shift from ritualism toward realism.

It is therefore natural that his surviving plays reflect then-current social concerns. He lived in the late sixth and early fifth centuries BC, a time of upheaval, in which classical Athens was forged. He participated personally in the war to preserve Greek independence against Persia, and commemorated the famous Battle of Salamis in his play The Persians; the formation of Athenian democracy is hinted at in the plot of The Suppliants; and religious themes come to the fore in several of his plays, such as Prometheus Bound, paralleling both the skepticism of Socratic philosophy and the secret wisdom claimed by the mystery cults of Demeter, Orpheus, and Bacchus.

"Seek neither license, where no laws compel,
Nor slavery beneath a tyrant's rod;
Where liberty and rule are balanced well
Success will follow as the gift of God,
Though how He will direct it none can tell."

Aeschylus (trans. Philip Vellacott)

Yet, though his historical weight alone would justify his inclusion on the author bank, Aeschylus has something more to offer us. One of his many trilogies survives complete: the Oresteia, an extended analysis of the relationship between revenge and justice. In the first play, Agamemnon returns from victory over Troy, only to be murdered by his wife in vengeance for their daughter, whom he sacrificed to the gods; in the second, their son Orestes avenges his father by murdering his mother, and is driven insane by the Furies; in the third, Orestes appeals to Apollo and Athena to purify him, and the blood-feud is ended, replaced by a new process of trial by jury instituted by the gods. The Furies themselves are persuaded by Athena to become executors of the new justice instead of the old revenge cycle. The poetry is masterful even in translation, and the magnificent presence of the characters can still be felt today.

This is more than a literary accomplishment. Aeschylus’ Oresteia examines the conflicting claims of private retribution and public order, a moral issue with which every generation must contend. No, not many of us need to expiate an inherited curse upon our families; but we do have to consider the claims that victims of injustice make upon society as a whole, how far redress ought to be left to the individual, and how far the common good may override private needs and desires. Aeschylus models one solution to these problems. Indeed, he expresses part of the philosophical basis for civilization as opposed to savagery, and depicts the taming and redirection of savage energies to serve civilization through the reconciliation of the Furies. We take law for granted as the pattern of justice: why we do so is perennially relevant, and Aeschylus draws our attention to the fact.

His place on the author bank is accordingly twofold. He is the architect of all subsequent drama, yes; he is also one of the first great poets of the nature of justicethat is, of all human relationships, which can exist only in justice or its opposite. Twenty-five centuries later, the light he cast still illuminates us.

Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and an editor for Classic Learning Initiatives.

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