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The Three Elektras

by January 7, 2022

by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
The myth of Elektra, daughter of Agamemnon, seems to have held a particular power on the minds of tragedians – all three of the great Greek playwrights wrote a version which survives to this day. While they are all working with the same core myth, the versions each have some significant differences from one another, which are revealing of the different worldviews of the playwrights, as well as changes in Greek society. By taking a deeper look at these plays we can come to a greater understanding of the respective playwrights, and also the multi-faceted figure of Elektra herself…
Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers
The earliest extant Greek tragedy on this subject matter is the version by Aeschylus. Entitled Libation Bearers (or Choephori in ancient Greek), it is the middle play of the Oresteia trilogy, which was first performed in 458 BC. This play takes place many years after the trilogy’s opener Agamemnon, in which the title character is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra upon his homecoming (or nostos) from the Siege of Troy. Now, his son Orestes and daughter Elektra have grown. Orestes was raised separate from the royal household, but his sister Elektra was brought up by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, cousin of Agamemnon.
Unlike the other versions of the play we will look at, the character of Elektra in Libation Bearers is more of a supporting role; the protagonist is undoubtedly Orestes. Nevertheless, she is central to the play’s action, particularly the graveside scene. At the beginning of the play, Orestes is returning to his birthplace. He is bound by his moral code to avenge the death of his father, yet he is also forbidden by that same moral code to kill his mother. Trapped by the contradiction, the play follows his journey to a deadly confrontation with his mother. Yet, an important stop on that journey is the graveside of his murdered father.
Elektra at the Tomb of Agamemnon by Frederic Leighton
Here Orestes unexpectedly encounters his sister. Reunited, the two then take part in ritual to call upon the ghost of their slain father. Agamemnon’s ghost doesn’t actually appear in the action of the play. Nevertheless, the ritual is impactful on both siblings: they commit to a plan to murder their mother. Although they conspire together, Orestes faces and kills both his mother and Aegisthus alone. The subject of his guilt and legal culpability is then the cornerstone for the trilogy’s third entry, the Eumenides.
Even though Elektra doesn’t appear again the Eumenides, it was far from the last time the character would appear on stage…
Sophocles’ Elektra
We can’t be certain when Sophocles’ version of Elektra was first performed. It almost certainly followed the Aeschylus version, but we cannot be sure whether the Sophocles or Euripides version came next. The play deals with the same subject matter as Libation Bearers, but while the broad stokes of the story are the same, there are some crucial differences.
Orestes and Elektra
Orestes and Elektra
Perhaps the most notable departure from Aeschylus is the presence of a third sibling, a sister, Chryosthemis. Whereas Sophocles’ Elektra lives away from the palace, due to her disdain for her mother’s actions, Chrysothemis is much more complacent. She is content to live in the palace, and is much less preturbed by her family’s violent history than their sister. Their dynamic is highly reminiscent of the relationship between Antigone and Ismene in Sophocles’ Antigone play, wherein one sister is driven to action, whereas the other is more passive. The addition of Chrysothemis, and the emphasis on the relationship between the two sisters, places greater focus on the role of Elektra in the violence that follows. Indeed, the play as a whole focuses much more on Elektra’s inner feelings and emotions. She mourns the devastation her family has been put through, but she is also a figure of strong resolve.
Euripides’ Elektra
The Euripides version of the play, also simply titled Elektra, likewise naturally places much more focus on Elektra herself than Libation Bearers. Here, however, her characterization is notably different, and significantly darker than other versions.
There is a suggestion that Elektra may be something of an ‘unreliable narrator’. We don’t actually see any of the cruelty this Elektra insists she experiences at the hands of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Wheneever they do appear on stage, it is surprising how unlike Elektra’s descriptions they are. Clytemnestra is concerned for her daughter’s well being, and the similarly considerate Aegisthus is far removed from the figure Elektra describes dancing on the grave of her father.
There is a suggestion that this Elektra is somewhat unbalanced. Furthermore, this version is a something of a zealot for the violence and brutalty of the Homeric code.
Like in Libation Bearers, Orestes arrives to avenge his father. This time, however, Elektra directly takes part in the violence herself, alongside her brother. Whereas previous versions showed a great deal of ambiguity over the potential justification of the murders, Euripides, however, places much greater emphasis on how horrific the violence of the act is. Much like Euripides’ Herakles or Medea, the play functions as a criticism of the Homeric code, by placing the brutality of its violence within a family.
Across the three versions we can see a trajectory, from the somewhat sidelined figure of Libation Bearers, to the more central figure of Sophocles, to the more frenzied interpretation of Euripides. So many Elektras, so little time. The only way to really understand the character is to read them all!

The Differences Between Roman and Greek Tragedy

by September 29, 2021

by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
There is no doubt that the Romans drew a lot from the Greeks. This included their love of theatre.
Roman theatre took a while to take hold, but once it did, it was popularised across the Empire and evolved over the centuries. The Romans adopted many of the Greek gods, so the mythological plays of Attica were a natural choice for the Roman Theatre. However, the Romans had a bloodthirst that was unrivaled by the Greeks, and overall they preferred a violent comedy to the slower and more philosophical tragedies.
That was not to say that Roman theatre was void of popular tragedies. The earliest surviving tragedies by Ennius (239 – 169 BC) and Pacuvius (220 – 130BC) were widely circulated and therefore, preserved for later audiences.
It was the Greco-Roman poet and former slave Lucius Accius (284 – 205 BC) that popularised theatrical Tragedy and introduced Greek Tragedy for Roman audiences. The Romans liked the adaptations so much that they used Lucius’ translations of Homer’s Odyssey as an educational book for over 200 years.
The physical structure of the theatres is the first tell-tale sign of how the Greek plays were adapted for a Roman audience.
Greek theatres were traditionally carved out of hillsides, whereas Roman theatres were built brick by brick from the ground up.
Standard Floor Plan of a Roman Theatre
Standard Floor Plan of a Roman Theatre
This was not because the Greeks were incapable of building magnificent theatres; history has left us with some astounding examples of ancient Greek architecture. The Greeks preferred hillsides because they did not use backdrops or props. Hillsides overlooked the city, and most of the Greek plays were set in Athens.
Of course, the Romans were not in Athens and therefore incorporated the use of backdrops and stage props to propel audiences back to ancient Greece. This also allowed to make the play more of a spectacle (in fact, the word spectacle derives, from the Latin Spectaclum meaning Public Show).
Roman Plays
The Romans copied much of the Greek when it came to storytelling and performance. There were some differences but the basic concepts remained the same, and many of the Greek plays were translated for Roman audiences.
When the Roman translation of Homer’s Odyssey first hit the Roman Theatre scene, it was quickly followed by Achilles, Ajax, the Trojan Horse, and later popular comedies such as Virgo and Gladiolus.
The Romans were not without original imagination when it came to playwriting, but most of the early plays were modelled after 5th-century Greek tragedies. Later comedies favor the newer style of comedy popularised under Alexander the Great that focused not on the epic tales of the gods but on the deeds of everyday citizens.
The Seneca Plays
Seneca was a known Stoic, and a great admirer and scholar of Greek philosophy. So how much Greek culture did Seneca consciously or unconsciously absorb into his plays?
Only eight of Seneca’s plays have survived to this day, Furens, Hercules, Medea, Phaedra, Troades, Oedipus, Thyestes, and Agamemnon. Hercules Oetaeus and Octavia are regularly accredited to Seneca, but are likely not his original work.
Bust of Seneca
Bust of Seneca
While it is probable that Seneca’s plays were performed within his lifetime, historians are not certain of this. What is certain is that the plays had a profound impact on theatrical history. Seneca exclusively wrote tragedies based on Greek myths.
The Romans got from Seneca’s plays what they could not get anywhere else, the opportunity to be both entertained and to learn from the philosophical master.
Seneca’s plays struck a chord with the masses and are still enacted to this day. They remained popular across medieval Europe and throughout the Classical renaissance.
His plays differ from the original Attica (Greek Athenian) plays in that they follow a five-act form instead of the traditional three, and they incorporated rhetoric structures that argued for a particular point of view or philosophical stance.
Seneca entrenched his plays in turmoil and personal conflict, and he focused on social and political issues that were relevant at the time and remain relevant to modern audiences. Known as fabulae crepidatae (Latin Tragedy with Greek subjects) Seneca’s characters were the mythological Greek characters of old, but each story was presented as a reflection of the audience’s mental state and condition of the soul.
Unlike the Attica plays, Seneca’s stage rarely gave way to the gods. Instead, inspired by the plays of Euripides and Sophocles, Seneca’s plays were bound with witches and spirits, and all manner of mystical and esoteric symbolism that resonated with this audience.
Seneca wrote his works primarily to be spoken, not enacted. However, later Roman taste preferred colorful plays to long-drawn-out auditory pieces, so actors were introduced along with costumes, props, and choruses.
As time passed and the Roman theatres grew larger and more grand, the spoken word became increasingly more difficult to hear, so the plays eventually incorporated the choir and orchestra to guide the audience’s feelings and emotions, rather than solely relying on Seneca’s rhetoric alone.
Seneca’s plays were written to affect the human psyche, and explore the moral and philosophical territory.
Like Shakespeare, Seneca did not write for a specific place or time, but through dialogues and soliloquies, his plays could be re-enacted at any point throughout history, which is a testament to their popularity and longevity.

The Healing of Athens

by May 7, 2021

Written by George Theodoridis, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Once a year Athens went to the theater to heal herself. 
Once the two Persian attacks were done, once the last barbarian soldier left Plataea and Mycale, once the last Persian ship was driven out of the waters of Salamis, a burgeoning epidemic of arrogance overtook Athens.
The Athenians had established the Delian League, an alliance which incorporated some 300-odd cities, all paying tributes of either money or men or ships as a means of boosting Greece’s military and build an adequate protection against a possible further revenge attack from Persia. 
That League became, in fifth century terms, quite considerable in size. With Athens its unquestionable ruler, the once-small Attican city became the engine of a powerful empire—initially benign, but soon an oppressive, colonial power much like the one they had just repelled. 
Initially too, the treasury was placed on the uninhabited island of Delos, Apollo’s sanctuary island, but it took little time before it was moved to the temple of the goddess Athena, the Parthenon, in Athens’ Acropolis.
Athens’ Parthenon
In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, there is a wonderfully hilarious exchange between the Athenian woman Lysistrata and a prominent politician, The Magistrate. Their dialogue shows just how wise Lysistrata was to guard the treasury. 
The Magistrate, at this point furious with Lysistrata, asks her to explain how she and the women would stop the war. Lysistrata responds cooly: 
You simply wash the city just like you wash wool.
First, you put the wool into the tub and get rid of all the daggy bits, all the crap around its bum. Then you put it on a bed, take a rod and scrutch and bonk all the burrs and spikes out of it. All those burrs and spikes that have gathered themselves into tight knots and balls and are tearing and tangling the wool of State, well, you just tease them all out of there.  Rip their heads off! Then, off for the combing. You put all the wool together into one basket.  All of it!  Friends, foreign or local, allies -anyone who’s good for the State.  Drop them all in there.  As well as our citizens from the colonies.  Consider them, too, as part of the same ball of wool, only separated from each other.  So, what with all those colonies joining the ball, you’ll be able to weave a cloak big enough for the whole city.    (Lysistrata, 575ff, author’s translation)
By the play’s end, a treaty has been signed and Athenians and Spartans are getting drunk and are dancing together in the bliss of Peace.
Off the stage, Athens began to raid the treasury not long after it had been relocated there, spending money on glittering herself and on other self-serving interests. The allied parties of the Delian League, who were dutifully paying their taxes, saw this blatant plunder of their wealth and it made them angry and unruly. 
In response, Athens became increasingly more brutal, arrogant and corrupt, increasingly more afflicted by its burgeoning hubris. Plato had already warned the Greeks about the dangers of hubris. Thus, Athens became quite sick, and she had to be urgently cleansed of that sickness—purged of those symptoms that brought her to that state. This is where theater comes in. 
The first play we have in which this epidemic is identified is in Aeschylus’ The Persians, a tragedy which he wrote in 471 BCE. In this play, the author shows the horrendous consequences of this disease. He staged it as a warning to the Greeks, who had by then showed the same temperament and proclivity for war-mongering and conquest as the Persians did when they had launched their invasion to Greece.
Athens became strong militarily but feeble and infirm mentally, morally and spiritually. Her moral compass, as Thucydides remarked later in his History of The Peloponnesian War, was abandoned and replaced by the rules of savagery.
Image credit:
Sparta began to see the new belligerent Athens as a military threat, sweeping away her own allies and, in 431 BCE mounted a challenge: a proxy war on the island of Corcyra. This war broadened to encompass almost every Greek city and became known as the Peloponnesian War. It lasted, on and off, almost thirty years, ending in 404 BCE with the destruction of Athens and the establishment of a new anti-democratic government, ruled by the Thirty Tyrants, puppets of Sparta.
In the interim, on the Dionysian stage, Athens’ illness was examined as meticulously as a surgeon examines bodies in the operating theatre, exposing the affected parts in painfully glaring lights. This work of diagnosis was done by the tragedians of whom we, alas, have only some of the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
This “diagnostic theatre” was built at the feet of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, a place that had come to symbolize Athens’ wrongs. Some 15,000 Greeks observed the work of her doctors. The question about whether women were also observing is all but concluded and the answer is in the affirmative. 
Roman mosaic in Pompeii, image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen
This clinic operated during Spring, as part of the festival of the Great Dionysia in honor of Dionysus Eleutherius, the god of, among many other things, fertility and freedom. His epithet means just that, “freedom.”
The stage exhibited the sickly Athens as well as the cured Athens. Spectators would see the Athens of the Erinyes, the avenging furies, as well as the Athens of the Eumenides, the benevolent protectors of the city. They would see the Athens of the brutal men as well as that of the strong women who stood up to them: Iphigeneia, Antigone, Medea, Klytaemestra, Helen, Hecabe, Lysistrata, Praxagora.
So, when Pericles enacted a law declaring that henceforth only children whose parents are both citizens of Athens may be granted Athenian citizenship, Euripides showed how poisonous that law was for the people and for the country. He did so by making a slight change to an old myth. In his eponymous tragedy, he has Medea, effectively a refugee, kill her children instead of leaving them behind when she left for Athens, as the original myth had it. Her husband Jason is no more than an extra, a secondary character. Medea’s words—the words Euripides had put into her mouth—showed which of the two sexes was the stronger, which the more courageous, the more worthy of kleos (eternal fame) and which was the weaker, the coward. 
To the Corinthian women Medea says,
“Then people also say that while we live quietly and without any danger at home, the men go off to war.  Wrong!  One birth alone is worse than three times in the battlefield behind a shield.” l.  249ff
In Euripides’ mind, the female wins the war on bravery and endurance of pain. In fact, the absence of women in Athens’ daily life is one of the reason that the city’s spiritual health is so feeble. This point is made very blatantly by all the playwrights of 5th century BCE Athens.
Thus, it is no accident that women appear so often in both the tragedies and the comedies. This is why so many Greek plays feature such strong women uttering such powerful speeches. Iphigeneia’s speech (in Iphigeneia in Aulis) must have had the whole of Athens shedding tears for days. 
In 416 BCE, the Athenians slaughtered all the men of Melos and enslaved all the women because the Melians (allies of Sparta) would not pay their taxes. Athens gave them no option at all: “pay or you die.” Thucydides has the full account of the dialogue between the two sides, a dialogue that leaves the political pragmatics of war on full display. War pollutes the soul. Corrupts it. Empties it of virtue. 
Detail of The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet by Claude Lorrain, Metropolitan Museum of Art
A year later, Euripides, enraged, produces his Trojan Women, where the victorious Greek men behave in exactly the same savage way.  Yes, that stage enacted myths, but these myths were parables of real life, the modern microscopes that peered into the man’s body and soul.
After three days of Tragedies, where Athens’ afflictions were glaringly displayed and diagnosed, Athens was visited by the comedy writers, of whom, again unfortunately, we have the works of only one: a satirist, and perhaps the indubitable master in this field. Aristophanes knew the Athenians very well, as he also knew the stage. He knew the Athenian of the agora, the market place, as well as the member of the council and of the Ekklesia, the Parliament. 
Aristophanes, then, was the one to prescribe the remedy for sickly Athens:
“Have a sex strike,” he said, to paraphrase Lysistrata. “Give all the legislative powers to the women” would be heard from Praxagora’s lips (see Aristophanes’ Women In Parliament). ”Get rid of the jury men who sting Athens like wasps sting people!” (See Aristophanes’ Wasps). “Send away the sausage sellers” (See Aristophanes’ Knights) and “learn how to use Clever Logic rather than Wise Logic, if you want to avoid the clutches of your creditors.” Finally, ”don’t listen to the cloud-inhabiting sophists, like Socrates!” (See Aristophanes’ Clouds).
The satirist has the most powerful tool in his hand, because satire is a flame thrower. Aristophanes aimed that pointy flame at the belly of Athens’ corrupt politicians. He cauterized the wounds, prescribed the cathartics, delivered the purgatives. 
Dionysus, tyrant of Sicily, once asked Plato what his fellow Athenians were like. Plato’s response was to give Dionysus the books of Aristophanes’ plays. 
Aristophanes not only knew the Athenians, he also knew what they were made of, the full contents of their character, as Martin Luther King Jr put it.
The School of Athens
Scholars also called the Athenian stage a school, “The school of Athens,” with the intimation that it was also the school of the world.
This appellation is also quite valid. After all, is not a teacher also a doctor and is not a  doctor also a teacher? Don’t they both try to purge the man (and thus the city) of all his ills, his undisciplined pride, his ignorance, his injustice, his brutality and his corruption?  The practical details may differ, but both aim at the same: healing.
In both cases—school and clinic—Aristotle’s Catharsis takes place. It takes place not only at the end of every tragedy, purging all the painful emotions that the trilogy brought to the surface, but also, and far more importantly, at the end of the entire festival, once all the symptoms have been examined and all the necessary remedies prescribed. 
Fifth century BCE Athens went to the theatre to be healed, and the theatre did its very best to provide that healing.
Unfortunately, Athens continued to be ill. Her arrogance was not removed, her war mongering and her brutality were not tempered, and the inequality between the sexes continued.
Many of the Greek plays—tragedies as well as comedies—address this inequality. In them, women are punished for the wrongs committed by men. The young, Juliet-like Iphigeneia of Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis is a victim of her father’s sin against Artemis and of his wanting to go to war. Antigone, in Sophocles’ tragedy by the same name, suffers the death sentence because of her uncle Creon’s extreme, autocratic views. Helen, a most complex character, suffers abduction and endless insults because of Paris.  Hecabe, Cassandra, Andromche, Medea, are just a few more examples of women suffering the consequences of men’s arrogance and disrespect.
The death of Aristophanes marked the end of a golden age of culture and thought and the beginning of Athens’ steep decline. 
Then came the era of the Macedonians, of Phillip and of Alexander which was, in turn, followed by the era of the Romans. Homer of the 48 rhapsodies was replaced by Virgil of the 12.
Yet it was during that era—the fifth century BCE— that the Greeks had given to the world a new word to ponder over: paradox. For it was during her most turbulent era, the era of war and inequality, that she gave birth to the most magnificent, intelligent and effective remedies for society to heal itself. 
Any student today—and I daresay for many eras to come—can walk in any direction he or she chooses, enter any theatre in any University in the world, and he or she will hear references made to the fifth-century Greek theater, when the first healers made their appearance.
George Theodoridis, B.A., M.A. (Prel.), Dip.Ed., has translated all the plays written by the Athenian dramaturges of the fifth century as well as many of the Lyric poets, including Sappho, and a few morsels from Plato’s lush table. A retired secondary school teacher, he now lectures on classics at the voluntary University of the Third Age in Melbourne, Australia. George is also a member of the research team of the Barum Fabula, a digital library of classical literature. All of his translations are available on his website and thirteen volumes of the plays on available on

Aeschylus Speaks To Me

by June 12, 2020

Written By Walter Borden, M.D., Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Aeschylus speaks to me. Born in Eleusis, a village just north of Athens and the haunting grounds of the goddess Demeter, said to be the goddess of fertility and the harvest. To Aeschylus that was just a myth that masked her true identity—the goddess of grief. When he was a little boy crying at the grave of his grandfather, she’d whispered to him that his sadness and tears would make the soil rich, would bring new life to sprout.

Only the citizens of Eleusis were aware of Demeter’s real meaning—and mission. She’d lost her daughter, Persephone, to a plague, but Demeter felt it as a robbery—her baby stolen by a death she called Hades, god of the underworld. He was the evil of ancient times. She vowed to find her daughter, bring her back, to her arms, to life.

The citizens of Eleusis were sworn to secrecy, never to reveal her grief—it was too agonizing. Their oath of secrecy became the cult of the “Eleusinian Mysteries.”

As a citizen of Eleusis, Aeschylus knew all that, but he revealed the secret of the mysteries in one of his early poems. For breaking the oath of secrecy he was prosecuted for heresy in an Athenian court under a system of public democratic justice, established by Solon some hundred years prior. Aeschylus was found not guilty. The jury decided that grief outweighed guilt. After experiencing Athenian justice personally, he became its powerful spokesperson.


Having killed his mother, Orestes is Pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Aeschylus later gave Persephone’s mysterious death his creative twist. Plague and death were thought to be a calamity wrought by the gods. The popular explanation was that Hades, the god of the underworld, abducted Persephone. Aeschylus thought this was the storybook way of saying the girl’s dying must have a sinister, but purposeful source. Indeed, even today, do we not explain senseless tragedy by attributing it to evil? Aeschylus said that people blamed the gods when something inexplainable happened. Did it simply mean that to lose someone really close was bad, and could make you feel bad?

In his metaphorical dramatic interpretation, Demeter and Persephone couldn’t accept losing each other. Their bond was so strong; grief endured and lashed them together.  They pined, persisted, persevered, and then—a miracle. Their grief-bond seemed to ferment and come alive in a new form. New life sprouted. They called it Spring, the time of fertility. Followed by a time of growth, Summer, and then harvest, Autumn. Cold set in, snow. Winter, the earth rested waiting for the return of Spring. The seasons came to be, cycles of life and death. The “Mystery?” It’s about fertile grief, how grief can bring new life.

Aeschylus’ best writing germinated in his personal tragedy on the plains of Marathon fighting the Persians. He saw his beloved brother, Koryenous, hacked to death by the Persians. He suffered grief which fermented—metabolized—blossomed (sprouted if you will) in his drama.


Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis [English: Battle of Salamis], Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868.

In 510 BCE, when Aeschylus was fifteen, the tyrant Pisistratus fell and Cleisthenes came to power, instituting a constitution that was the culmination of the movement toward democracy that had begun with Solon a hundred years earlier. Greece and Aeschylus were both in their adolescence, filled with idealism, energy, and enthusiasm. It was a time of hope. Then came attacks by Persia, and the beginning of Aeschylus’s personal suffering. His prime work was conceived after his brother’s death in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.  From the bitter sweet victory mixed with his brother’s blood came a passion to find non-violent ways to solve conflict. He knew the need for a system of justice to replace vengeful violence which then became a major theme in his work.

Of his ninety plays, only seven survived. They are all we have of his work, and there is controversy as to when each was written, except the first and the last. The Oresteia was produced in 458 BCE, two years before his death. The first was probably The Persians, the only non-mythological play, written shortly after the Battle of Salamis, in 480 BCE.

Aeschylus’s profound insight was the importance of freedom to speak one’s mind, as a generality, but especially in expressing the pain of loss, that unspoken grief is unresolved grief that can become madness and murderous retaliatory rage, breeding more violence. He is said to have observed that words are like a physician to the mind gone mad. From his own life and personal pain, in the Oresteia, he created a tragic drama that touched the deep need for psychological healing in a people that had experienced overwhelming losses from terrible wars, plagues, cycles of retaliatory violence, and the impact of social changes as the Bronze Age gave way to early modern civilization.


Mosaic of Orestes, main character in Aeschylus’s only surviving trilogy, the Oresteia

Aeschylus was the first tragedian, but also soldier, democrat, social critic, psychologist, and philosopher. Called the religious or moral tragic dramatist because of his focus on crime and punishment and on personal responsibility for destructive behavior, he could more accurately be described as a psychologist of conscience.

As a dramatist of crime and punishment, he was the first to stage a courtroom scene, and he knew personally what it meant to be wrongly accused, since he had been charged with heresy for revealing the secrets of the mystical Eleusis, later vindicated in a law court. His genius combined psychology and sociology in the context of historical development, reinforcing his message with the arts of dramaturgy, staging, poetry, music, and choreography. He marketed justice with appeal to the senses as well as the mind.

There is very little known of a biographical nature except that his father, Euphorion, came from an old aristocratic family in Eleusis, near Athens. Of his two sons one became a dramatist. His sister was the matriarch of a dynasty of tragic dramatists. The lineage raises interesting questions about this family who wrote with so much insight about the importance of relationships and family issues.


Ruins at Eleusis, Greece. © Emmanouil Pavlis/

Although the women were invisible, Aeschylus’s sister could not have been an inconsequential person, and her brother’s work portrays some very strong female characters. Athena, who speaks for Aeschylus in the Oresteia, is the play’s most powerful figure, overshadowing Zeus and Apollo. The injustice to women in Greek society and its destructive impact on them and the community is the theme of his Suppliants and a subtheme in the Oresteia.

As an adolescent, he lived through the overthrow of Pisistratus, the murder of the latter’s son Hipparchus, and the establishment of the democratic constitution of Cleisthenes. It was a turbulent time: Persia was mobilizing to attack Attica, the Athenian heartland. Aeschylus became a soldier and fought in the infantry at Marathon and Salamis. The Persians was produced ten years after Marathon and immediately after the victory at Salamis. The Oresteia and Seven Against Thebes are strongly antiwar, and the themes of war’s waste of innocent lives and unresolved grief resonate throughout. In The Persians, he dramatizes the Greek victory as a mastering of a savage hubris latent within the victors. He also attacked the glorification of war in the Athenian celebration of the victory over Persia.

Until Aeschylus, drama was two-dimensional.  In the ancient epic/lyric form, there is one actor, the hero, and the chorus, which represents some facet of the voice of humanity.  The hero is defined, and engulfed, by external forces that grow stronger as he struggles against them. The character of the hero is almost irrelevant; he is pushed and pulled by destiny’s demons. The chorus, a communal voice with a character of its own, is the protagonist and defines the issues—usually grand communal themes, such as the polis, the defeated and/or the victimized—by focusing them on the single actor through a prism of moral force. Chorus and actor are in reciprocal relation.


The Murder of Agamemnon by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1817)

As the crisis develops and tension builds, the focus shifts. The actor becomes protagonist, the center of the moral struggle, which ends with the hero facing the crisis and making his decision. In the lyric epic, the initial situation never changes. The plot remains the same as in the first ode, when the actor enters and reveals the general situation. There is no moving plot. The only action is the increasing tension within the hero. There is no way to change perspective.

In a creative leap, Aeschylus adds a second actor, which brings movement to the plot and shifts the focus onto character. The second actor introduces new information, such as relevant events that would be impossible for the hero to know, events that may drastically change his circumstances. An old family employee can come onstage with news that the hero’s wife is really his mother, or a messenger arrives to tell him that the presumed dead son is alive and has returned with murder in his heart, or that the opponent he is going to fight to the death is really his brother. The plot moves and thickens. Moreover, interactions between characters add definition and dimension to their development.

In another creative leap, he modified the structure of the trilogy, linking three plays in a series with a unified theme. The concept of linked acts—action over time with continuity of motif—enables evolution of plot and issues associated with the generation of inner drama in the hero. Trilogy, as used by Aeschylus, can best be understood as the ancestor of the three-act play.

Grave of Agamemnon

Electra and Orestes at the grave of Agamemnon. Greek tragedy by Sophocles. ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Using this structure, he was able to portray the transfer of influences from person to person, generation to generation, within a family and within a people. Change, growth, and decline was brought to life on the stage. He could dramatize the legacy of emotions—a sense of obligation, a sense of guilt—that passed from fathers to sons and daughters and on to future generations. He could depict the harbingers of madness and the long-term effects of grief, abuse, conflict, and violence—thus showing that retaliatory violence, even in the name of justice, only breeds more violence, that oppression of women and children makes them violent in turn, that brutality is destructive to society. He was able to show that unspoken grief results in an inability to come to terms with the past and leads to the reenactment and perpetuation of old conflict and pain. His dramas are the first psychiatric studies.

Aeschylus helped lay the foundation of psychodynamic psychology. He was also a consummate advocate for the incorporation of psychological understanding in democratic justice. He dealt with the issue of criminal responsibility when madness is an element of criminal behavior. Guilt had deep roots in Hellenic culture, stemming from the primitive conviction that the gods—Zeus in particular—would take revenge on any mortal who offended them. In Homer’s time, guilt was associated with the anger of the gods; extenuating circumstances and motivation were irrelevant; psychological issues were irrelevant. Only the act counted, and punishment was absolute. The Furies were the gods of vengeful punishment and could drive the offending mortal to ate, guilt-ridden madness.

Orestes at Delphi

Orestes at Delphi, flanked by Athena and Pylades, among the Erinyes and priestesses of the oracle. Paestan red-figure bell-krater, c. 330 BC.

As psychological understanding evolved, ate was seen as arising within the human mind rather than having been put there by the gods.  Furthermore, guilt—and by extension, depression—was seen as impairing thinking and judgment. The orator and legislator Lycurgus (390-324 B.C.), in Against Leocrates, quotes an unnamed poet:

“When the anger of the demons is injuring a man, the first thing is that it takes the good understanding out of his mind and turns him to the worse judgment, so that he may not be aware of his own errors.”

Aeschylus refined this notion into the theory that the guilty could unknowingly seek punishment. Guilt and despair were not seen as visitations from the gods but as an internalized sense of wrongdoing that could rise to the level of ate─that is, reach such intensity that it became insanity.

There are crimes that arise from a sense of guilt, and some criminal behavior is a seeking of punishment. While Solon planted the seeds of psychology in justice; Aeschylus cultivated and helped shape the growth, giving clear and dramatic power to a basic element buried in Solon’s legal code: that the substance of justice includes humanism—that is, compassion, mercy, respect for the person, for the rights of the weak, and at the same time dispassionate psychological understanding.

The transformation of the passion for retaliatory violence into a higher order, a system of rational justice, began in the seventh century BCE and was institutionalized by Solon in the sixth century. Aeschylus dramatized this transformation in the fifth century, distilling and refining the psychological elements of Solon’s justice, giving them a powerful voice. Solon separated theology from the administration of justice for the first time in human history, and took the gods out of the law.


Roman marble herma of Aeschylus dating to c. 30 BC, based on an earlier bronze Greek herma, dating to around 340-320 BC

Aeschylus used the gods as symbols; his religion is secular, reflecting the evolution of the theology founded on Zeus’s law, “to the doer be done”—the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “eye for an eye”—into a new institution of justice and a moral code based on human psychology. In the Oresteia, Zeus, Furies, and Apollo are symbols of the old order; Athena is the new; they are clearly dramatic symbols, not to be seen as real deities. As Solon had done with his legal code, Aeschylus dramatically brought the laws of Olympus down to Earth so that they could be seen inside men and women, understood, and elaborated in a system of public justice.

He dramatized the development of mature conscience and its relationship with law. The gods do not direct human actions; the direction comes from within. The individual, not the gods, bears all responsibility, but responsibility is not absolute, as under Zeus’s law, nor should punishment be absolute. The mature sense of responsibility, conscience, is rational—meaning actions directed toward others are determined by reason and empathy tempered by values.

Aeschylus dramatically portrayed the transition of values from gods to parents and the identification with those values within the family. Empathy and parental identification are at the core of a rational sense of right and wrong and the ability to anticipate causing harm. Rationality also means that all relevant circumstances have to be considered, and that there are degrees of responsibility. Circumstances, such as chance, accident, motivations, intent, harm done, and psychological understanding are factored into the equation that the mature rational mind uses in assessing guilt. There are degrees of guilt, and punishment should be proportional. These conditions are integrated in the rational sense of responsibility called conscience. While for the most part conscience and law coincide, they may differ, and even conflict. That is the stuff of tragedy, too, and Aeschylus is its master.

The Murder of Agamemnon: Birth of Modern Justice

by December 13, 2019

Written by Stella Samaras, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Weekly

“The poet’s grace, the singer’s fire,

Grow with his years; and I can still speak truth

With the clear ring the God’s inspire…” 

Aeschylus, Chorus from Agamemnon

In 458 BCE, the aging Aeschylus was a contender at the Dionysia. Athens, although enjoying peace between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, was undergoing political change.  Aeschylus had a word or two to sing about it. With the Dionysia on his radar he knew he had a wonderful outlet to be heard and an opportunity to persuade the masses toward empathy and reason. He also had his eye on the annual prize.  He was in it to win.

The Context: Areiopagus vs Heliaia

To achieve both ends he needed to employ a thinly veiled allegory in the guise of a story from antiquity. You see, his thoughts touched upon the stripping of power from the old and well-established council of nobles, the Areiopagus, and its replacement by the more populist court of citizens, the Heliaia. The reform reduced the Areiopagus from a legislative power to just bringing down rulings on murder.

It was a touchy subject, the transference of power, the loss of honour. How to approach it? Which myth would serve his purpose? Something set during the war of the Titans, the time when the patron goddesses of the Areiopagus, the Erinyes (Furies), were born? Hmm…maybe not.


Northern Elevation of the Acropolis seen past the Areiopagus Hill before it centre left, 1888 photograph by Adolf Bötticher [Public domain]

Aeschylus, a veteran of the Persian Wars, saw the good the Areiopagos had done for Athens and wanted to remind its citizens of the virtues of this council, while reassuring the polis of its own empowered ability to mete out justice under the auspices of the goddess Athena. He wasn’t out to ruffle feathers, rather to soothe them.

Perhaps he could pitch his views in the mythical battle between Poseidon and his niece Athena? The battle was cross-generational and pertained to Athens but the scope for pathos was limited. No, the Festival called for something with more oomph.

Justice and Vengeance

Straight social commentary and pandering wouldn’t win him the prize at the Dionysia. The winning triad of plays had to provide something more, perhaps a discussion of a higher principle, one that was at the core of what the Areiopagos and Heliaia were about: an eternal principle—justice.

Should the law circumscribe behaviour by meting out justice retrospectively in acts of revenge and risk perpetuating vendetta? This was the old way, the way of the Furies whose curses and mad retribution scared Athenians into behaving. Or should justice be meted out in an Athenian court where revenge had no place and couldn’t self-perpetuate?

The Areiopagos

The Areiopagos Hill in Athens by Polychronis Lembesis [Public domain]

Aeschylus would write a cycle of three plays for the festival to hammer his point home. His story had to capture Athens’ attention: it had to establish the roots of a crime, grapple with the ethics involved, see its consequences play out, and then provide a denouement that would satisfy, cleanse, and teach. The first play would have to be tantalising, capturing their imagination and holding it through to the end of the third.

Hmm…which myth? Troy?

A Cursed House

With the Areiopagus in mind, the story had to deal with murder, but not just any murder. It had to be an act of retribution and to the minds of some, a justifiable act. Could the death of Agamemnon fit the bill? He lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, to enable him to entice her to bring their daughter Iphigenia to Aulis where the restive Greek army awaited the winds to rise. She was to be a bride for Achilles, he said.

Instead, father sacrificed daughter at the altar so his army could set sail for Troy. Ten years passed and Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin, were well prepped to avenge the murder. Once the deed was done, Orestes and Electra were compelled to avenge the death of their father with the death of his murderers.

Of course, the house of Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) was already cursed when Atreus served his brother, Thyestes, the bodies of his children in a meal. The crime was atrocious. Until Aeschylus’ treatment of the myth, Aegisthus, the eaten boys’ younger brother, avenged them by being the one to physically plunge the sword into Agamemnon.

Sleeping Furies

Clytemnestra wakes the sleeping Erinyes (Furies), Louvre Museum [Public domain]

However, Orestes avenging his father by killing a figure of such low esteem as Aegisthus would not elicit the pathos needed for a powerhouse production. Aegisthus was a coward, who took no part in the war but stayed at home and courted his soldier/cousin’s wife.

The Mannish-Woman and the Womanish-Man

In a stroke of genius, Aeschylus flipped the perpetrator from being a craven man to a strong woman and mother of the avenger. By placing the net and sword in Clytemnestra’s hands he heightened the dramatic tension, the pathos of the play, and highlighted the issue with calling on the Furies to provide justice.

When father killed daughter the family was cursed anew. His wife avenged their daughter as justice had to be served. The next course of justice was son killing mother. Without the intervention of the Athenian council the chain of killings would not be broken, for the justice of the Furies must needs be served regardless of the will of s/he who is called to serve it.

“If pity lights a human eye

Pity by Justice’ law must share

The sinner’s guilt, and with the sinner die.”


Having killed his mother, Orestes is Pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

By making Clytemnestra the instrument of justice, Aeschylus faced another challenge: the audience accepting her as an equal to a man. When he refers to her in terms such as, “…Clytemnestra, in whose woman’s heart a man’s will nurses hope,” he is not making a feminist stand. Had he intended to make such a political point he would not describe Aegisthus, who he clearly has an aversion to, as:

“You woman! While he (Agamemnon) went to fight, you stayed at home;

Seduced his wife meanwhile; and then against a man

Who led an army, you could scheme this murder!”

Aeschylus, in trying to maintain a strong argument against vengeance as a form of justice, had to accord as much honour to each victim/perpetrator. He could only do this by elevating the status of Clytemnestra to be equal to a man. The choice may have perturbed some.

 Fate, the Sanctity of the Guest-Host relationship and a Middling Course

Having conceived a vital plot line, Aeschylus had recourse to tragic tropes to strengthen his play. By repeating the story of Atreus and the death of Iphigenia he reinforces the role that indelible fate plays in driving the inevitable.

Agamemnon death

The Murder of Agamemnon [Public domain]

From the outset, Aeschylus pummeled his audience with foreboding, remembering past wrongs of the family but also connecting the family curse of Atreus with Paris’ transgression, stealing away with Menelaus’ wife, Helen. Menelaus was a son of Atreus too. By reliving his grief and the consequences of the ten-year war, Aeschylus built on a sense of ill will and disharmony.

Compounding the sense of impending doom is the act of hubris Clytemnestra easily convinced Agamemnon to do – by treading on the costly tapestries she had strewn before him, he overreached his measure as a man and a king. He put the gods offside. By the time the audience is presented with his prostrate corpse, the suspense of having to wait for the inevitable has reached fever pitch.

Would all this be enough to put Aeschylus’ play on a winning path? Well, he did have more to offer.


Aeschylus’ imagery reached out and touched his fellow citizens and even reaches forward to us today. Whether he is describing the conditions of a campaigning soldier, the heartbreak of an abandoned spouse, or the plight of old age, his imagery is poignantly relatable.

Did he do enough to win that year? Yes. Did he get his point across with logos, pathos, and ethos? Did his audience leave the theatre renewed by a cathartic experience? That would depend on the veracity of his actors and his music. For a victorious playwright, I’d like to imagine that they did.

Aristophanes’ The Frogs: A Way to Stop a War?

by August 21, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Frogs, an ‘old’ comedy play by Aristophanes, was performed in 405 BCE at the Lenaia festival of Dionysus. With the Peloponnesian War raging on, plays of the time had a tendency to deal with saving the state, matters of right and wrong, and background events of the war itself. Writers focused on political themes, pushing the idea that a poet has the ability to save the state from war.

Illustration of the Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat

The Plot of Aristophanes’ The Frogs

Originally disguised as Heracles, the god Dionysus ventures down to the underworld to seek out Euripides, the tragic poet who had died in the previous year. Against the backdrop of war, Dionysus thinks that Euripides is the only one who can safe Athens from itself. Dionysus crosses the lake with Charon while debating with a chorus of frogs along the way.


the Self-Portrait as Bacchus, is an early self-portrait by the Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, dated between 1593 and 1594.

Soon, the issue of Dionysus’ disguise as Heracles presents itself when he realizes Heracles made a few enemies in the underworld. Accompanied by his slave, Xanthius, Dionysus makes him wear the costume instead. Then Xanthius, dressed as Heracles, gets invited to a banquet of feasting and dancing. Dionysus, not surprisingly, wants to be the one at the banquet so they swap clothes yet again. However, at the banquet Dionysus dressed as Heracles makes even more people mad, so they switch again. This whole first half of the play is mostly Dionysus’ fumbling with choices, making Xanthius cover for him and improvising to right his wrongs.

Vase of Xanthias

Red-figure vase painting showing an actor dressed as Xanthias in The Frogs, standing next to a statuette of Heracles

As the play progresses, Dionysus finds himself in the palace of Pluto where Aeschylus and Euripides are competing for the best tragic poet. Dionysus acts as the judge while Aeschylus and Euripides quote snippets of their verse, critique, and respond to one another. In the final judgment of the debate, a scale is brought in and whichever poets’ words have the most weight to them will cause the scale to tip in their favor.

Ultimately, this measuring device proves ineffective and Dionysus asks the battling poets to provide advice for how to save the city. In the end, Aeschylus proves to be more practical and suited for the job, so Dionysus chooses to take him back to earth.

Portrait of Aeschylus

Bust of Aeschylus

Key Themes in Aristophanes’ The Frogs

In this play in particular, Aristophanes unequivocally posits that it is the poet’s duty to save the city. However, this is fully dependent on defining who is the right poet, who has the right ideas, and who makes the right decisions. This is expressed through a series of choices, disguises, and deceptions throughout the play. Dionysus is the butt of the jokes in the first half of the play, constantly going back and forth with Xanthius and constantly making the wrong choice.

Aristophanes - bust

Bust of Aristophanes

In the second half of the play, Dionysus transitions into a stoic, perceptive judge of others. His final choice of Aeschylus is left up to the audience to decide whether or not it was the right decision. Aristophanes also leaves the success or failure of Aeschylus to save the city open-ended. Aristophanes is intentionally ambiguous and subtle, which the audience no doubt would have picked up as a larger comment on the present day backdrop of war. Aristophanes manipulates the reality that his plays are set against, providing audiences a transcendent view of truth.

The Reception of Aristophanes’ The Frogs

The Frogs performed by The Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group

Having won the contest in 405 BCE, the Frogs was a comedic hit from the beginning. Some sources even suggest that Athens commissioned in the same year for the play to be put on again. The Frogs is also commonly performed in modern day theaters, being adapted into musical form as well. The onomatopoeia of the frog croak, witnessed in the choral ode of the play, has been used in Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and was referenced in Jesting Pilate by Aldous Huxley.

It is clear that Aristophanes’ The Frogs was a great success. The fact that the raging Peloponnesian War ended the year after, however, probably didn’t have much to do with it, despite the Poet’s attempts.