In This Article Aeschylus’s Oresteia

  • Introduction
  • The Oresteia and the Transformation of Received Myth
  • Chorus, Meter, and Music in the Oresteia
  • Staging the Oresteia
  • Reception

Classics Aeschylus’s Oresteia
by
Robin Mitchell-Boyask
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0289

Introduction

The Oresteia, the pinnacle, and likely the final production, of Aeschylus’s long career in Athens, was produced at the City Dionysia of 458 BCE, where it won the first prize. The Oresteian tetralogy consisted of four plays—Agamemnon, Libation Bearers (Choephori), Eumenides, and the satyr-play, Proteus, which was lost—with the first three plays forming the only trilogy to survive antiquity. Since Aeschylus died in Sicily two years later and there is no evidence of any Athenian productions in the intervening period, Aeschylus likely ended his career victoriously at the City Dionysia with the Oresteia. The theme of the Oresteia, justice, was a particularly urgent concern for a democracy that was still only a half-century old. To address this theme Aeschylus transformed from the Odyssey the myth of the final phases of the House of Atreus: the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and cousin Aegisthus after the sack of Troy, and the consequent matricide committed by their son Orestes. Aeschylus, to maximize the dramatic potential of his theme, re-imagined the myth so that the system of justice as vendetta reaches an absolute crisis in the form of an intra-familial gender war that takes on a cosmic scale that results in the origins of the legal system wherein humans are held accountable for their actions and tried by other humans who are not party to those actions. In addressing justice through the origin of the Areopagus tribunal, Aeschylus, uncharacteristically for Greek tragedy, engaged one of the most explosive political issues of this time, since, a few years earlier, Ephialtes, attempting to check the power of aristocratic institutions like the Areopagus, stripped it of its broader powers, but was assassinated shortly after the changes were instituted. The Oresteia also participated in major changes to Athenian dramaturgy, as Aeschylus used—possibly for the first time—the skēnē building, the wheeled cart (ekkyklêma), and a third actor.

Resources for the Study of the Oresteia

For information on the biography of Aeschylus, general overviews of Aeschylus, bibliographies, and texts and commentaries, See the Oxford Bibliographies in Classics article Aeschylus.

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