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Reigns of Terror: The Accommodation and Orientation of Fear in Aeschylus’ Eumenides

Xavier Jex Buxton

University of Oxford

ἐν δὲ τῷ σέβας

ἀστῶν φόβος τε ξυγγενὴς (Aesch.Eum.690-1)

This paper argues that Athena’s institution of fear on the Areopagus, at the climax of Aeschylus’ Eumenides (690-706), has been misunderstood, due to a neglect of its intratextual and intertextual contexts. While most scholars recognise that her fearful rhetoric is anticipated by the Furies, they are nevertheless keen to emphasize a ‘transformation’ of the emotion, within the Eumenides, from ‘l’angoisse’ to ‘la bonne crainte’ (Romilly 1958), from ‘destructive fear to reverence’ (Belfiore 1992); fear is ‘rationalized’ or ‘sublimated’ (Visvardi 2015); less extravagantly, its ‘protective, nurturing power’ is ‘discovered’ (Bacon 2001). These critics (Romilly excepted) largely ignore the elaborations of fear earlier in the trilogy; conversely, those who study fear in Agamemnon and Choephori, focussing on tyranny, rarely dwell on the Eumenides (Avezzù 2018; Bierl 2018). Moreover, few commentators compare Athena’s political psychology to others current in classical Athens. A more holistic approach reveals what is actually novel, and democratic, about her prescription.

My argument falls into two parts. First, following the intratextual hermeneutics of Lebeck (1971), I trace the varied, but persistent, invocations of salutary fear through the trilogy. I attend particularly to three stasima: Agamemnon 975-1074, Choephori 585-652, and Eumenides 490-565. In the first of these odes, fear emerges as a ‘protector’ of the heart (δεῖμα … προστατήριον, 976-7); ὄκνος, by pre-emptive action, saves the ship (1008-13). In the second, a sequence of mythical exempla serve as ‘terrible’ cautionary tales. The third establishes fear as a ‘watcher over the wits’ (τὸ δεινὸν … φρενῶν ἐπίσκοπον, 517-8). Thus, I demonstrate, the ‘good fear’ instituted by Athena is not so much an invention of the goddess, but a political accommodation of an emotion whose potential, conspicuously ignored by protagonists, was already apparent. This follows recent work on the Furies themselves (Bakola 2019), arguing that their beneficent role at the conclusion of Eumenides is prepared for earlier in the Oresteia. Fear, like the Furies, is not transformed so much as integrated into the contemporary polis.

The second part of my paper attends to what is new in Athena’s ‘emotional regime’, drawing on new cultural histories of feeling (Reddy 2001). This fear is democratically oriented: no passive chorus, but active citizens are its subject; its object is no king or tyrant, but the court of the Areopagus; it will inspire acquiescence, not revenge. Significantly, the Areopagite jurors are addressed: this oligarchical redoubt is urged to consider its own accountability. Such universal fear of the law seems to have been part of democratic ideology in classical Athens (cf. Thuc.2.37.3; Kantzios 2004). Yet this orientation is all too easily revised: Sophocles’ Menelaus (Aj.1073-90; Cuny 2007) adapts the arguments of Athena to justify tyrannical hierarchy; fear also functions to prevent violence in Plato’s ideal city (Resp.465a-b; cf. Prot.322c).

Athena’s speech, therefore, is best understood as participating in an adaptable discourse of salutary fear: here, the emotional regime is democratic, but the same rhetoric serves contrary political traditions in classical Athens.

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Greek Tragedy (1)

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