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Unanimous Gods, Unanimous Athens? Voting and Divinities in the Oresteia

Amit Shilo

Voting in the Oresteia offers fertile ground for reexamining the trilogy’s political themes. The staged instances of voting (Eu. 674-753) and of group deliberation (Ag. 1344-71) display debate and division of opinion. This paper will demonstrate, however, that verbal representations of group decisions consistently revert to the need for unanimity (Ag. 813-17, Eu. 985-6), among both mortals and gods. It will further argue that the trilogy closely connects unanimity with unchecked political violence.

Much of the major scholarship on the Oresteia over the last several decades has focused on its ideology as strongly endorsing democratic ideas (Euben 1982, Meier 1990, challenged by Griffith 1995 and Carter 2007). The Oresteia has also been placed in its context within Athenian institutions, especially the Greater Dionysia festival (Longo 1990, Goldhill 1987 and 2000, Sourvinou-Inwood 2003).  Moreover, literary analysis of the Oresteia has decisively demonstrated that its language tends to undercut ritual and resist closure (Zeitlin 1965, Goldhill 1984). Yet the trilogy’s emphasis on a new law and on blessing the Athenian polis has prompted interpreters from Kitto 1939 to Fletcher 2014 to assume a positive role for voting on an Athenian model. I argue, instead, that each example in the Oresteia of the plurality inherent in voting problematizes the conceptualization, the legitimacy, and the exercise of power. It is recognition of these intransigent political dilemmas that prompts the simultaneous, paradoxical calls for unity. 

The first of my two examples occurs when Agamemnon returns from the Trojan war and declares that the gods were unanimous in voting for Troy’s destruction (Ag. 813-17). The king imagines a scene among the gods that imitates Athenian voting with pebbles (ψήφους ἔθεντο) but is a far cry from actual democratic procedure. He presents a scenario with no split opinion (οὐ διχορρόπως), no debate, no persuasion, and no dissenting voices (δίκας γὰρ οὐκ ἀπὸ γλώσσης θεοὶ κλύοντες). Agamemnon’s depiction undercuts the very point of the voting process. In this tyrant’s view of politics as total unanimity the consequence is the uncurbed eradication of Troy, including its temples.

Yet even in the second example, set in Athens and goverened by Athena, voting turns out to be problematic in practice and in speech. In the central scene of the Eumenides, the silent human jury’s divided vote refracts the verbose but ineffective chorus of Elders in the Agamemnon. Instead of the ostensible harmony between men and gods, the trial is under total divine control: Athena has decided the jurisdiction, established the court, chosen the jurors, governed the trial, declared acquittal on a tie, and cast possibly the decisive vote (though this point is disputed). The asymmetry between human and divine dramatized in Orestes’ trial may nullify its paradigmatic value for voting as a human process that integrates plurality and debate.

Furthermore, the incorporation into the city of the previously dissenting voices, the Erinyes, does not eliminate problematic violence—as seems to be the case (cf. Bacon 2001). The Erinyes counsel the Athenians to love with a common purpose (κοινοφιλεῖ διανοίᾳ) and to hate with one heart (στυγεῖν μιᾷ φρενί, Eu. 985-6). Moreover, the divinities offer the blessings of “victory without evil” (νίκης μὴ κακῆς Eu. 903), thereby purifying violence of any possible harm. Though it is meant to end stasis, the blessings serve as a commandment for land-annexing war (cf. Eu. 397-402). Thus the outcome of voting even in the Oresteia’s optimal Athens does not result in accommodating plurality, but again connects a rhetoric of unanimity with the violence of warfare.

Analyzing these juxtapositions of voting with unanimity and violence helps to raise new questions for the Oresteia’s infamously complex relations to its political environment. There is a distinct fissure between its univocal ideal and the polyphony of voices in both the Greek mythological pantheon and actual Athenian democracy. Yet even in glorifying divine-human cooperation, does not the Oresteia divulge an alarming—even totalitarian and jingoistic—urge for unity at all costs?

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Athenian Unity?

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