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Lecture 5B -- Agamemnon & Libation Bearers


The theme of the Oresteia is Δίκη (Dikę, justice)──cosmic principle of order "The scales of Justice weigh wisdom through suffering" (lines 260-261). No help for one who ignores justice (lines 381-384) (Podlecki 63).

῎Ατη (Atę) means "distraction, folly, delusion, judicial blindness sent by the gods, ruin." It is disproportionate. ["A life for a tooth, a life for an eye"]. No balance is sought. Balance important to Greeks. Each act of vengeance is out of balance & leads to further revenge. The punishment of the Trojans is too much for Paris' crime (Lattimore 73).

Cycle of ῎Ατη (Atę) in the Oresteia

  1. Tantalus tempts the gods to eat the flesh of his son Pelops.  This not only results in the curse of Tantalus but also begins the miasma that curses the family and city.  Pelops rules and becomes father to two sons: Thyestes and Atreus
  2. Thyestes has an affair with Atreus' wife.
  3. Atreus feeds Thyestes' sons to him.
  4. Paris takes Helen to Troy.
  5. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to propitiate Artemis.
  6. Clytemnestra has an affair with Aegisthus.
  7. The Greeks destroy Troy. Is too much punishment on that city. Is also ruinous to the Greeks. Agamemnon leaves with 1,000 ships & returns with one (Lattimore 73).
  8. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus assassinate Agamemnon.
  9. Orestes kills Clytemnestra.
  10. The Furies hound Orestes.
  11. Orestes is freed in the first jury trial.
  12. The Furies are pacified, ending the cycle of ῎Ατη by transforming their mode of action to the state & due process.

Each main character kicks down the altar of Δίκη.

Vendetta has blood-logic. Each death calls for another (Lattimore 74).

Problems of public good have been solved through private murder--not a real solution. They must channel these forces in positive ways so they won't be purely destructive (Lattimore 87).

Ultimately in the trilogy, justice only works in rule of law. Glorifies civil order.


For Clytemnestra, Δίκη=Vengeance. Aegisthus is the same way. Revenge for crime of Atreus against his father (lines 1605-1616). She thinks she has ended cycle of retribution, as will Orestes. Both are wrong. (Lattimore 71).

Civic virtue ultimately channels the force of Dikę. City (πόλις, polis) replaces household (οικος, oikos) (Lattimore 78).

The conflicts are conflicts of right vs right. Each character is operating from several motives (Lattimore 74).

Agamemnon's motives

  1. He is simple. Driven by pride. Each act leads to the next. From sacrifice of Iphigenia to persistence at Troy to affair with Cassandra. No single act where a proud king would do otherwise. Ruins the Greeks as well as the Trojans. Both he & wife unfaithful in the long absence (Lattimore 73-74).

Clytemnestra's motives (Lattimore 74-75)

  1. Mother-resentment over Iphigenia's death (Lattimore 74). A minor motive--she doesn't seem too upset over her death (Hammond 92). She sacrifices another child--Orestes (Libation Bearers).
  2. Jealous of Cassandra 
  3. Adultery with Aegisthus
  4. Desire for power herself. Her own pride--Clytemnestra unlike Cassandra & Briseis, who cling to their conquerors. She smashes codes she doesn't like, like the one where hero has a captive mistress. She protests the double standard (Libation Bearers 13, right column). Clytemnestra has a grand manner. She's an aristocrat. Overwhelms chorus (Lattimore 75).

Libation Bearers

 Zeus is with Might AND Justice here (lines 244-245)--not in Prometheus.

Orestes' motives (Lattimore 85)

  1. Outrage over loss of inheritance.
  2. Jealous because mom chose Aegisthus over Agamemnon and HIM. She disowned him & sent him away (lines 132-134).
  3. Vengeance for Agamemnon's death.

In Agamemnon, vice was alluring. In Libation Bearers, duty is repulsive (Lattimore 86).

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