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“A Case of Domestic Violence: Euripides’ Orestes

Jan Kucharski

University of Silesia in Katowice

Few plays have seen the political reality of 5th-century Athens encroach more unceremoniously on the tragic stage than the Euripidean Orestes. Frequently deplored for its glaring ‘anachronisms’ (cf. Porter 1994 with Easterling 1985) this tragedy is set in a quasi-democratic polis, where decision-making remains in the hands of the people. The eponymous hero is tried not at a solemn, aetiological congress of gods and men, but an ordinary judicial session of the assembly. It is even suggested that instead of killing his mother Orestes should have sought legal punishment, or perhaps prosecuted her for homicide (Or. 500-502). Set in such painfully ordinary context the hero’s revenge acquires a very particular political color when compared to other extant dramatizations of this myth. Or rather, as I seek to argue in my paper, is actually deprived of it.

The Aeschylean, Sophoclean, and even Euripidean (Electra) Orestes is represented as the archetypal ‘avenger’ (timōros) of blood. In classical Athens the prosecution of homicide was considered the cornerstone of political order (e.g. Dem. 23.66), and at the same time consistently conceptualized as ‘revenge’ (timōria), which furthermore remained the exclusive and discretionary prerogative of the victim’s relatives (e.g. Ant. 1; cf. Phillips 2008). Orestes’ actions provide thus a mythical template to these legal and political tenets, one set in the conceptually distant world of tragic Argos (Zeitlin 1986), where violence is not provided with a viable institutional alternative and thus becomes inevitable. Foregoing violence is tantamount to foregoing revenge altogether (Aesch., Cho. 899-909; Eur., El. 973-8), and only by killing his mother can Orestes become – for the better or worse! – the ‘avenger’ of his father. In Aeschylus, furthermore, this violent pattern serves as the basis for negotiating the primacy of the male over the female, yet another tenet of classical Athenian democracy and its discourses (e.g. Zeitlin 1996: 87-126). A more explicitly political aspect of these essentially domestic woes stems from the fact that they affect the ruling family. The fate of the house is thus inherently bound with the fate of the polis (cf. esp. S. El. 1413-14), and in the case of Orestes’ revenge, this bond is subject to a very particular twist: his victims, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, are consistently represented as tyrannoi (Aesch. Ag. 1356, 1367; Cho. 973; S. El. 661, 664; E. El. 93, 876 but see Finglass 2005 for Sophocles), who usurped the throne, and subsequently attempt to force the polis into obedience (Aesch. Ag. 1617-50; S. El. 1458-63). Matricide thus becomes tyrannicide (Aesch. Cho. 1044-7; S. El. 973-85; E. El. 876-7, 880-5; with Juffras 1991 and Ajootian 1998), an act of therapeutic political violence (Ober 2003), one which falls neatly into the well-established motif of ‘tyrants killed out of revenge’ (Phainias of Eresus; FGrH 1012 F 3-6).

The eponymous hero of the Euripidean Orestes, however, is denied these political qualities. Where legal punishment is represented as a viable alternative, his vengeance can no longer be seen as an act of foundational, archetypal violence, and his appeals to the Aeschylean topos of gynaecocracy ring a deliberately hollow tune (Or. 935-7). Even more significantly, in a world where the decisions belong to the entire polis (Or. 46), which has the power to make and unmake kings (Or. 437), there is little room for deploying the motif of liberation from tyranny, all the more that the political status of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (rulers? tyrants?) in this play is almost deliberately vague (cf. Euben 1986: 234). In this tragedy Orestes emerges as neither archetype nor tyrannicide: stripped of its political significance, his revenge is contemplated as a purely domestic affair, a case of gratuitous, sordid and bestial (e.g. Or. 524, 819-22) violence, where the only saving grace is sought in divine folly (e.g. Or. 417).

Session/Panel Title

Violence and the Political in Greek Epic and Tragedy

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