Dawning of Civil Justice – Aeschylus – Retribution, Revenge to Societal Embedded Judiciary.

 From a tribal anarchic vengeful horror to the establishment of a civil and orderly system of justice.


 Ancient Greek drama developed in the city-state of Athens in sixth century BC. From the inception of the Dionysian honorific festivals there arose an emergence that would not only captivate and enlighten ancient Athenian’s, but would reverberate into the explicit particularity nature of the human condition of the 21st century, that of revenge, justice and hope. The birth of democracy through the medium of the ancient theatre saw an accelerated growth primarily by three master playwrights – Aeschylus, (c. 525 BC-c. 456 BC) Sophocles, (496BC-406BC) and Euripides (480BC-406BC)- were tragedians which, in order to interpret and perhaps as appeasement of the citizens of ancient Athens of the tragedies in which they saw murder, retribution and vengeance of their own times, were to create outstanding works of literature that would inexorably bring about an understanding and contribution towards the nature of good and evil. This dynamic reveals the simultaneously contradictory cogency of human nature and the natural world, where inherent in mankind is the potential for both good and evil. The history of mankind is prolific with actions for the good but equally for the bad, a heaven and earth tapestry that shows the warp and weft of man’s social fabric in all it’s sublime and gruesome nature. The capacity for the good is immeasurable in the ability for bravery, unselfishness, heroism and the ultimate laying down a life for another. Equally remarkable is man’s ability for outright slaughter, murder and sheer brutality that mark mankind most distinctly from the animals. C. M. Bowra pointed out in his book Classical Greece (2007) that “Greek tragedy provides no explicit answers for the sufferings of humanity, but it . . . shows how they happen and how they may be borne.”

 Drawing from ancient material of the Greek myths and legends, the tragedian playwrights engendered not only an establishment of new methodology of the art form but powerful and invaluable discernment of the tragic in human nature. In the work of the ‘Oresteia’ by Aeschylus, [1] thematic exploration of vengeance and justice gave rise to an intelligent and profound understanding through serious literature. Sophocles ‘Oedipus the King’ [2] a classic tragedy particularly dealing with what has become known as ‘the Oedipus complex’ where Oedipus commits terrible acts where he kills his father and inadvertently beds his mother. Euripides ‘Medea’ [3] is a volume of work that considers the traditional value system and the nature and power of the gods, perceptively exploring the pains and trauma of humanity in decision forming while in adverse situations. In the play ‘Antigone’, written individually both by Sophocles and Euripides, the narrative explores and examines the nature of moral conflict, of servitude to the state and to religious beliefs.

In this essay I want to follow the divergent tribulation capabilities that can only belong to mankind through the writings of the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus and his trilogy-tragedy, ‘The Oresteia’, first as a means of exacting the potential evil that engulfs humanity, secondly the rendering execution of revenge and retribution by the underworld goddesses, the Erinyes and finally to the redemptive progression to civil justice; from a tribal anarchic vengeful horror to the establishment of a civil and orderly system of justice for the individual and the community.

The trilogy focuses on vengeance, divine, communal and personal justice. Ancient Greek drama has over the centuries influenced, inspired and provided philosophers, psychologists, writers and artists unrivalled material of archetypal and universal themes that have become applicable to the very nature and notion of moral and ethical behavior that ultimately becomes legislation within the rule of law that further defines a civil society. The Oresteia has inspired some of the greatest artists and thinkers of the modern world. From Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche to T.S. Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir – the ‘Oresteia’ has fired the modern imagination and will continue to do so.


Orestes at Delphi, with the ghost of Clytemnestra, the Erinyes, Apollo & Athena | Greek vase, Paestan red figure krater

Why did Aeschylus make the family the subject of his bloody revenge tragedy? How did his trilogy make a contribution to the development of Athenian legal institutions? And why has the Oresteia had such a powerful hold over the modern imagination?

The Oresteia is a complex psychological drama that even today, allows us to reflect and scrutinizes our modern life style, behavior and psychological archetypal nuances, as Jung’s universal and collective unconsciousness tributaries flow through our human constitution. [4]

In its simplistic outline it contains three sections: Agamemnon, The Libations Bearers and the Eumenides. The Agamemnon describes how Clytaemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon after he sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia to the god’s for safe travel to conquer Troy. The Libation Bearers describes how Orestes, the only son of Agamemnon and Clytaenestra returns to the House of Argos inorder to kill and take revenge for the murder of his sister, as directed by Apollo but in the process loses his sanity as a result of his mother’s Furies, the retribution for matricide. In the final part of the play, The Eumenides finds Orestes back at Delphi at Apollo’s shrine with blooded hands, seeking refuge and purification, having been pursued by the Furies where the god exorcises and unburdens him of his insanity and bloodguilt. However, Apollo cannot free Orestes from the redress of the Furies, so the god sends him to Athens inorder to stand before Athena. A manslaughter trial is setup, overseen and conducted by a group of men, which later becomes known as the council of the Areopagus, [5] (“Mars Hill”) Athena’s court of law. Orestes is acquitted and is given title of the House of Argos. But most importantly, it is here that Athena persuades the primitive devil Furies to regenerate into compassionate benefactors, to dispense with their vendetta-law and change their names to ‘Eumenides”, the Kindly Ones of Athens.


The theogony of Greek mythology has a myriad and inter-twinning exposition that is one continuous narrative. To be beginning at any one point in its history is to disregard and lose previous scenes and the Erinyes and their punishing rage are no exception. The Erinyes (Ερινυες, murky, dark, misty one’s) were the means that caused mayhem and slaughter to those crimes that demanded revenge and retribution, as the conscience of the law of human nature – ‘blood will have blood’,


It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak.

Augurs and understood relations have

By magot pies and choughs and rooks brought forth

The secret’st man of blood.—What is the night? [6]

They were the goddesses of the underworld, the executors of tormenting madness to those that committed patricide, matricide, manslaughter, family betrayal and even breaking of oaths. Evoked mainly through curses placed by one character upon another, they appear as the scourge and affliction of the guilty conscience. The Erinyes were born from the falling drops of blood of Uranus (Sky) when his son, the Titan Cronus, mutilated him. The drops fell on Mother Earth (Gaea) and impregnated her.

“…and Cronus cut off his father’s genitals and threw them into the sea; and from the drops of the flowing blood were born Furies, to wit, Alecto, Tisiphone, and Megaera.” [7]

In ‘The Oresteia’ of Aeschylus, Greek literature sets a remarkable precedence in that a profoundly humanitarian resolution is developed. It is within the pages of this play, acted out in the theatres, that the ancient Athenian’s are introduced to innovative and new form of social justice. Here in the heart of the city-state of Athens’s, Aeschylus uncovers an almost revolutionary and masterful concept of justice that would be eternally impact the whole of Western cultures with distinct attention that reason, a juried decision making process and the allowance of extenuating circumstances, that in time, would come to be the mechanism of future application of justice. This momentous inclusion within the literature, almost as if written as a political document, perhaps may be viewed as structure of state legislation that would come to supplant the vengeful justice of the Erinyes, particularly aligned to that of Solon’s (c. 638-558 BC) legal reforms over Draco (c. 640-20 BC) and his Draconian tyrannical rule of Athens. Plato even suggests that Solon was upheld as one of the celebrated Seven Sages of Greece. [8]


As the ancient Greek writers used the dark goddesses of the Erinyes to bring retributional revenge that would be seen by many of the theatre’s audience’s of ancient Greece, there are contemporary interpretations that utilize this powerful psychological theme that even today, because of the recognized universal archetypal inherent in mankind, has a mass appeal in theatre, literature and film such as The Godfather and its two sequels. This may also be seen in the daily plight of the people’s of Mexico and the murderous activities of the drug cartels and in the past the bloody affairs of the American gangster Al Capone and even modern Italian mafia gruesome activities.

Within this ancient tragedy, the circle of hereditary guilt and vengeance, Friedrich Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy comments,

‘All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both’. [9] The lines between good and evil become blurred and irrelevant, as there is no overall universal compassionate sense of justice in the world of the Erinyes.

‘It is as if crime were contagious – and perhaps it is – the dead pursued the living for revenge, and revenge could only breed more guilt’. [10]

For Aeschylus, The Oresteia is used as a platform from which he would be able to present to the ancient Athenian world a sense of justice in which all parties have a rational objectifiable means of hearing of a crime and its sentence without the savage retribution of the Erinyes. It is here that Aeschylus examines in his own day, the structure of law where he now voices his contribution towards a more civilized society that would finally establish sanity in a – ‘blood will have blood’ – insane world. Within the Areopagus, determinates and substantiates against cold-blooded revenge, the progenitor of modern jury compliance. Apollo is seen as establishing the role of the advocate in the narrative but a 50/50 hung jury is unable to ascertain how Orestes should be punished. Aeschylus again posits a remarkable scene in which, the equal votes of hung juries should find the acquittal of the defendant that protection be afforded to the probable innocent in the light of insufficient evidence. Finally, Athena casts the deciding vote and allows Orestes to go free. The Areopagus became the guardian of the laws, the body ultimately responsible for the Athenian law-code also maintained the scrutiny of officials during and after their term of office. Some academics have argued that Aeschylus inscribed the reforms of Ephialtes, an Athenian politician who in 461 BC was assassinated (more than likely by the oligarchs opposed to his more radical democratic reforms – more blood guilt!)

In order to demonstrate the powerful narrative within the final part of the trilogy, The Eumenides of 458 BC, it is here of great value to read Athene’s defence of Orestes at his trial.

O men of Athens, ye who first do judge
The law of bloodshed, hear me now ordain.
Here to all time for Aegeus’ Attic host
Shall stand this council-court of judges sworn,
Here the tribunal, set on Ares’ Hill
Where camped of old the tented Amazons,
What time in hate of Theseus they assailed
Athens, and set against her citadel
A counterwork of new sky-pointing towers,
And there to Ares held their sacrifice,
Where now the rock hath name, even Ares’ Hill.
And hence shall Reverence and her kinsman Fear
Pass to each free man’s heart, by day and night
Enjoining, Thou shalt do no unjust thing,
So long as law stands as it stood of old
Unmarred by civic change. Look you, the spring
Is pure; but foul it once with influx vile
And muddy clay, and none can drink thereof.
Therefore, O citizens, I bid ye bow
In awe to this command, Let no man live,
Uncurbed by law nor curbed by tyranny;
Nor banish ye the monarchy of Awe
Beyond the walls; untouched by fear divine,
No man doth justice in the world of men.
Therefore in purity and holy dread
Stand and revere; so shall ye have and hold
A saving bulwark of the state and land,
Such as no man hath ever elsewhere known,
Nor in far Scythia, nor in Pelops’ realm.
Thus I ordain it now, a council-court
Pure and unsullied by the lust of gain,
Sacred and swift to vengeance, wakeful ever
To champion men who sleep, the country’s guard.
Thus have I spoken, thus to mine own clan
Commended it for ever. Ye who judge,
Arise, take each his vote, mete out the right,
Your oath revering. Lo, my word is said. [11]


Purification of Orestes at Delphi, with ghost of Clytemnestra, the Erinyes & Apollo | Greek vase, Lucanian red figure nestoris

Scholars see the tragedy as promoting the great civilization and rule of law in Athens and that the avenging underworld goddesses and that of mortal man now acclaims to the Rule of Law. However there remains an ambiguity in the rational of this kind of justice where justice indeed seems not to have accorded the correct and just outcome. “What sort of justice- lets go the murderer of the mother while condemning the murder of the father?” But, nevertheless the cycle of generational suffering is broken and civil law established.

Finalizing the voting on Orestes, Athena persuades the tormenting Erinyes to redress their role as the revenge retribution goddesses that they should henceforth become Athenian deities who would bring kindness and prosperity and that their name should change to the Eumenides, the “Kindly Ones” (Εὐμενίδες).

The ancient Athenian plays are of course as relevant today as they were in the days of Aeschylus, providing substantial reflection and examination of not only our selves, but also in that we are able to view international justice or perhaps the execution of revenge on the global stage. Were the Greeks justified in the conquest of Troy, were the English and American governments justified in invading Iraq as so many other worldwide examples too numerous to mention, we must ask the question, were they motivated by justice or revenge? If we fail to understand the significance of the intellectual content of the trilogy of The Oresteia, we fail to find relevance in our own day in that we may ask the primordial universal questions of who we are…………

Pre-history has many examples of the need to end blood letting, revenge and retribution through social, religious and political means the possibility of public justice. Among the earliest known legal documents is the Code of Hammurabi, [12] king of Babylon around 1750 B.C. This was not the first code initiated but Hammurabi is significant in that it sought to inaugurate stability of recognized law enforcement to the kingdom. Here are three such laws that identify Hammurabi as a forerunner in the establishment of common law.

If a man has borne false witness in a trial, or has not established the statement that he has made, if that case be a capital trial, that man shall be put to death.

 If he has borne false witness in a civil law case, he shall pay the damages in that suit.

 If a judge has given a verdict, rendered a decision, granted a written judgment, and afterward has altered his judgment, that judge shall be prosecuted for altering the judgment he gave and shall pay twelvefold the penalty laid down in that judgment. Further, he shall be publicly expelled from his judgment-seat and shall not return nor take his seat with the judges at a trial.

Early communities of antiquity attempted to establish sustainable practice of criminal justice that manifested ethical and moral legislation. The need to initiate this legislation may have arrived from a sense of kindness or mercy that would be applied consistently, that would eventually have at the centre of the criminal laws the notion of equality and neutrality, no doubt this may also have created a sense of security to the kingdoms.

 Lessons must be learnt that we may discern between justice and revenge. The continuing bloody Syrian civil war between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, with other fundamental groups and with Syrian Kurds in the minority, while the fighting is on differing fronts for equally differing reasons, it is engulfed in blood letting on a massive scale. The Arab Spring movement heralded new and democratic freedom for many, a raging fire of self-determination and sovereignty though revolution was the only path to freedom. Suffering is nothing new in war but in modern warfare it would seem that children, women, mother’s and the elderly are particularly vulnerable and most at risk. The many wars fuelled by hate, retribution and revenge on the planet incur their own tragedy, as those countries become soaked in the blood of their children. Have we learnt nothing from history? Have we learnt nothing from being human? Are we now writing our own tragedy? But then we don’t have to wait for the tragedy to materialize – do we?

We don’t have to save the world, not even Jesus asked us to do that – only peacefully and suppliant initiatives where we are – ‘glocal’; worldwide responsibilities on a local basis, with Greek and Turkish neighborly intent revealed in faithfulness obliging, forgiving, practicing priceless living in a just rule and peace to all creatures on earth under the sun. Artists and innovators, contemporaries of prophetic leadership in creativity and cultural biogeneration, a corpus of intelligent appreciation and gratitude that nourishes and satiates the distraught, unforgiven, the poor, the marginalized, the outcast. Let us now write a new history.



World Centric – Social & Economic Injustice:

Socially and economically, we have created great disparities of wealth. A minority of the world’s population (17%) consume most of the world’s resources (80%), leaving almost 5 billion people to live on the remaining 20%. As a result, billions of people are living without the very basic necessities of life – food, water, housing and sanitation.


Specifically, 1.2 billion (20%) of the world population now lives on less that $1/day, another 1.8 billion (30%) lives on less than $2/day, 800 million go to bed hungry every day, and 30,000 – 60,000 die each day from hunger alone. The story is the same, when it comes to other necessities like water, housing, education etc. On the flip side, we have increasing accumulation of wealth and power, where the world’s 500 or so billionaires have assets of 1.9 trillion dollars, a sum greater than the income of the poorest 170 countries in the world’.



Worldwide international justice:

Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on International Justice:

‘International justice has only recently become a serious topic within political philosophy. Philosophers have, of course, long debated certain moral aspects of international politics; the morality of warfare and international relations has always been a central focus of political ethics. It is only in the past thirty years, however, that a sustained effort has been made to develop ethical analyses of international politics drawing upon the traditional concerns of domestic justice. Topics such as rights, constitutionalism, toleration, and—perhaps most importantly—the distribution of scarce resources have now been placed at the forefront of discussions of international ethics. In this, philosophers have begun the project of extending their domestic analyses of justice into the international arena’.

 ‘This extension has proven to be a challenging project. The extension of liberal political philosophy to the international realm has come up against what seems to be a basic contradiction in how liberalism ought to understand itself:

 1-Liberal political philosophy begins with the premise of moral egalitarianism. All human individuals, simply in virtue of their status as human, are entitled to equal moral consideration—however much philosophers disagree about what such consideration entails. Allowing differences in the administration of political justice to rest upon some morally arbitrary fact about persons is anathema to liberal theory. Nothing which is a matter of luck can be allowed to serve as the basis for a distinction in equality of treatment.

  2-Liberal political philosophy has traditionally applied its egalitarian guarantees only within the confines of the territorial state. Our best worked-out theories of justice do not begin with the entire population of the world, but with that small subset of humanity which shares the citizenship of a territorial state’.


First published Fri Jul 8, 2005

Human Rights Watch:

‘Human Rights Watch considers international justice—accountability for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—to be an essential element of building respect for human rights. We actively engage with the work of the International Criminal Court and other international tribunals as well as the efforts of national courts, including in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bosnia, to bring perpetrators of the worst crimes to justice. Human Rights Watch also supports the efforts of national courts to use their domestic laws to try those charged with serious crimes in violation of international law, regardless of where the crimes occurred’.


Amnesty International:

‘Amnesty International’s Campaign for International Justice demands justice, truth and full reparations for victims of serious human rights violations. In recent history, millions of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances have been ignored by national authorities’.


The International Court of Justice:

‘The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN). It was established in June 1945 by the Charter of the United Nations and began work in April 1946. The seat of the Court is at the Peace Palace in The Hague (Netherlands). Of the six principal organs of the United Nations, it is the only one not located in New York (United States of America). The Court’s role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies. The Court is composed of 15 judges, who are elected for terms of office of nine years by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. It is assisted by a Registry, its administrative organ. Its official languages are English and French’.



[1] Aeschylus, Oresteia. Translated by R. Fagles. Penguin Classics. 1966.

[2] Sophocles ‘Oedipus the King’. Translated by S. Berg & D. Clay. London, 1989.

[3] Euripides ‘Medea and Other Plays’. Translated by P. Vallacott, London. 2002.

[4] Jung, C.G. Four Archetypes, Translated by R.F.C. Hull. England. 2001.

[5] The Areopagus or Areios Pagos is the “Rock of Ares”, (Aρειος Πάγος) – north-west of the Acropolis, which in      classical times functioned as the high Court of Appeal for criminal and civil cases in Athens. the trial by jury.

[6] Shakespeare, W. Macbeth – Act 3, Scene 4.

[7] Apollodorus, Library and Epitome, Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Cambridge, 1921.

[8] The seven sages were 7 Archaic Age Greek men who lived in the later 7th and the first half of the following    century B.C. There is disagreement over the last three of them, but the ones agreed on are Thales, Bias, Pittacus,             and Solon. Writers differ with respect to the apophthegms of the Seven Sages, especially ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΕΑΥΤΟΝ         ‘know thyself’, and ΜΕΔΕΝ ΑΓΑΝ ‘nothing in excess’, attributing these to different authors. [K. Freeman and H.              Diels: Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers]. The 7 men considered the wisest in Ancient Greece. Bias of    Priene (fl. 6th century B.C.); Chilon of Sparta (fl. 6th century B.C.): Cleobulus of Lindus (fl. 6th century B.C.):    Periander of Corinth (d. 585 B.C.): Pittacus of Mytilene (c.650 – c. 570 B.C.): Solon: Thales of Miletus. Diogenes L    L. Thales xiv. The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. Translated by C. D. Yonge. London, 1853.

[9] Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy. 1872

[10] Fagles, F; Stanford, W.F. introductory essay, Aeschylus, The Oresteia. Penguin Classics. 1966.

[11] Aeschylus, The Orsteia, Translated by E. D. A. Morshead. New York, 1971.

[12] The Code of Hammurabi Translated by L. W. King. The text of this work is based on the 1915 translation by L. W. King, which is now in the public domain.