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Polyphony to silence: the jurors of the Oresteia.


The Chorus of Aeschylus' Agamemnon seems to resemble a jury, although it cannot operate effectively because of the political structure of Argos. Embedded in the narrative voice of the Chorus are the critical words of Argive citizens that destabilize the equanimity of the Elders; their reluctance to confront Agamemnon's culpability for the slaughter of his daughter sends them into impotent confusion. While they use the language of the law court, they are incapable of making any judgment themselves. After being confronted with the death of their king, they leave the theater in stunned silence. Similarities with the silent jury of Athenian citizens whose split vote is resolved by Athena's intervention in the Eumenides suggest a contrast between the two groups of old men that privileges the democratic ideology of Athens.


The Oresteia ends with the trial of Orestes for matricide, a foundation myth of the first homicide court in Athens. The court of the Areopagus replaces a form of justice that consisted of individual reprisals, a blood feud constantly renewed but never resolved. Although there are intimations of some archaic remedies for homicide, such as exile and public curses, the text gives virtually nothing to suggest that any institutionalized legal system existed before Athena selected the jury for Orestes' trial. Justice predates law in Aeschylus' legal imagination. Justice is a concern for every character in the trilogy, but law is born in Athens as the product of divine intervention and human deliberation. The defining moment in its creation occurs when Athena selects dikastai or citizen jurors, who appear silently in the acting space to cast their ballots. My concern in this paper is with the silence of those dikastai, which is both a dramaturgical necessity in the original production (because Aeschylus was limited to three speaking actors) and a symbol for the integrity and sacrosanct nature of the new court.

The citizen jurors do not make a unanimous decision; at least half vote for condemnation. The goddess presides over the court but she also participates with a vote for acquittal. After Athena casts her ballot she announces that if the votes are equal, Orestes will go free (Eum. 734-35); when the votes are tallied Athena declares that Orestes has been acquitted. The Furies, who act as prosecuting family members on behalf of Clytemnestra, are appeased with cultic honors that absorb them into the polis, and the institutionalized process of the homicide court replaces the cycle of intra-familial murders that have been the climax of the first two plays of the trilogy.

This essay will explore how the Oresteia negotiates two elements of Athenian law that finally come together in this trial scene: divine authority and human decision-making. The convergence is exemplified by the voting process in the Eumenides, which incorporates the vote of the jurors, played by mute extras, and the vote of Athena. But as I argue, the jurors do not emerge ex nihilo-. their role has been intimated since the very beginning of the trilogy. In order to fully appreciate the importance of the Athenian jury's verdict we need to apprehend the meaningful connection between the silent jurors of the Eumenides and a more vocal group of old men whom the jurors would physically resemble, the Argive Elders who constitute the Chorus of the Agamemnon.

Accordingly, my objective is to analyze the implications of the silence of the Athenian jurors, whose verdict is not unanimous, in comparison to the increasingly fractured voices of the Chorus of the Agamemnon, which are eventually silenced. Embedded within the narratives of the Argive Chorus are other voices, usually in the form of direct quotations. The narrative strategy both enlivens the Chorus's accounts of the past and, more importantly for my analysis, suggests a democratic polyphony. The Argive Elders seem to give voice to a heterogeneous social group; while such heteroglossia, to use Bakhtin's term, might be freighted with democratic ideals, it works in this context as an index of social disintegration. Studied as a series, the choral odes reveal the increasingly shattered unity of a conventionally unified persona. At the same time, because they use certain legal terms and because they bear similarities to the Athenian jurors of the Eumenides, the old men of the chorus function as a kind of protojury. They introduce vocabulary and ideas that reappear in the final play, but they cannot act as proper jurors because of the political flaws in Argos. As we shall observe, the Argive Elders seem incapable of making a decision. In this respect they notionally share another quality with the Athenian jurors of the Eumenides, whose vote results in a tie (if we accept that they are an even number of men).

Yet there is an important distinction between the two groups: Athena breaks the tie of the deadlocked Athenian jury and a decision is made. While this in itself might seem to suggest that divine intervention rather than human deliberation exculpates Orestes, I hope to demonstrate how the vote of Athena exemplifies an important religious component in the idea of law. One of the challenges of this interpretation will be to understand how Athena's intervention supplements the agency of the mortal jurors without compromising their democratic authority. Divine justice combines with human deliberation--it does not override it--and produces a judgment that incorporates the democratic principles of Athenian law. In Athens, the birthplace of democratic law and justice, the twelve incompetent old men of Argos are seemingly reconstituted to judge the gravest of crimes in a way that secures social harmony without sacrificing one of the essential features of democracy, its productive lack of unanimity. What is a marker of political disintegration in Argos, i.e., the inability to produce a unanimous judgment, is translated into a democratic legal system, the Athenian jury.

My analysis is divided into four parts: I begin with a review of the ideological underpinnings of Greek tragedy in general and the Oresteia in particular, with specific emphasis on the representation of homicide in tragedy. From there I move to Argos to give a detailed analysis of the Chorus's theological ideas about justice. This section also explores how the narrative voice of the Elders begins to fracture and how their exchange with Clytemnestra reflects the juridical crisis of their polis. In the third section I return to Athens to examine the issue of the jurors' silence and their relationship with Athena. The final section offers comparisons with other trials for homicide (real and fictional) from late-fifth-century sources to illustrate how the trial of the Eumenides epitomizes the ideals of democratic justice.


My analysis of the Oresteia is informed by a fundamental axiom: Athenian tragedy is a cultural product of fifth-century Athens and, although its stories are set in the mythic past in a predemocratic world, the genre is inflected by the civic ideology of the city that produced it. This ideological inflection includes the notion that citizens have the freedom to disagree with each other. As Goldhill observes, Athenian democratic culture sustains and is sustained by a competitive spirit that allowes its members to encounter and evaluate different points of view, most notably but not exclusively in the legislative assembly. While at certain times this may have been more a theoretical ideal than a historical reality (given the rhetorical prominence of the elite classes), such a self-fashioned Athenian identity was the product of an environment that allowed for challenges and dissent in the law courts and assembly. Tragedy is thus one facet of an ideology that requires a "competitive, individualistic display" in order to function. (1) Athenian drama is, to cite Goldhill again, produced at a "festival of the democratic polis" and thus helps its audience to work though issues that they as citizens will have to confront in other democratic venues that require their participation (Goldhill 2000, 45). This is essentially what I mean by a productive lack of unanimity that typifies the democratic judicial system represented in the Eumenides.

Of course, not every allusion to the Athenian political system in tragedy will be entirely self-congratulatory. But it seems for the most part that Athens is represented in the theater as the "the most truly civilized city in Greece" (Mills 1997, 43-86), where the principles of justice, generosity, and friendly reciprocity prevail over the disorder and hubris of other cities. (2) Tragedy helps to create this identity by constructing Athens as a place of solace and salvation to such figures as Heracles (by Theseus in Euripides' Heracles), Adrastus and the Argive mothers (by Theseus in Euripides' Supplices), or Oedipus (by Theseus again in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus), and of course Orestes, who finally finds justice in an Athenian court.

When Orestes arrives in Athens in the Eumenides, however, he encounters no king but rather a democratic polis. This is an unusual scenario for tragedy. With few exceptions, the genre is set in what was for its original audience the heroic past. Kings might rule in a kind of constitutional monarchy, but such a monarchy is a fictional construct rather than a historical reality. (3) Yet this exceptional feature of the Eumenides--its complete absence of a king or a royal family--sets it apart from other tragedies. The Athens to which Orestes arrives for his trial seems to have a very similar political structure to the city-state in which the play was performed.

The Athenian democratic legal system is the antithesis of the decadent monarchy of Argos represented in the Agamemnon, where the royal family commits homicide. The intra-familial murders by the governing body of Argos (i.e., the kings who should have supervised the punishment of murder) create a crisis of jurisprudence that cannot be resolved. It contrasts with the historical reality of Athens: the city had the benefit of a homicide law attributed to the sixth-century lawgiver Draco, part of which still exists as an inscription. (4) Draco's law makes no mention of the Areopagus, but according to the Athenian constitution, attributed to Aristotle, the council of the Areopagus was responsible for trying murders of Athenian citizens. (5) Shortly before Aeschylus produced his Oresteia, a group led by Ephialtes stripped the Areopagus of certain powers and transferred them to the ekklesia and the courts (Ath. Pol. 25-26). But the Areopagus either continued or began to preside over homicide trials and its membership was expanded. Scholars disagree about whether Aeschylus approved of the reforms, but in the final analysis the text gives no indication of the poet's own political views. Despite the obscurity of these reforms, which were some of the final stages in the radical democracy of Athens, it is obvious that the Oresteia celebrates the Athenian democratic legal system by contrasting it to the tyranny of mythical Argos, where the rule of law no longer exists, if it ever did.

A fifth-century Athenian audience might expect a family member to initiate a homicide investigation, but no such remedy exists in the tyrannical state of Argos. That Argos was a tyranny is obvious when Aegisthus makes his entrance at the end of the first play with an armed guard (Carter 2007, 85). Even before the regime of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, any remedy for homicide has been disabled by the fact that Agamemnon, the king who should preside over justice, killed his own daughter. That the homicide was apparently divinely decreed (by Artemis as a sacrifice) complicates the issue, but does not absolve the king: Orestes similarly obeyed a divine order (that of Apollo at Delphi, Cho. 900-901), but is still prosecuted for homicide in Athens. In a monarchy it would be the role of the king (represented in Athens as the Archon Basileus, or "King Archon") to facilitate investigations and trials for homicide, but in Argos the royal family members are both perpetrators and victims. (6) A related dilemma occurs in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, where Oedipus, as king of Thebes, initiates an investigation by issuing a decree that curses the perpetrator of the crime. (7) Part of the irony is that, in his ignorance, he does not understand that he is a kinsman of the deceased and is therefore unwittingly fulfilling his obligation to initiate the investigation. The other part, of course, is that he is the perpetrator.

Argos is a state that has no way of addressing the crime of homicide. Indeed, the city is under the control of murderers, and the only way to liberate Argos from tyranny is for Orestes to commit an act of matricide. The prince thus enmeshes himself in the same system of retributive justice that has defined his family for several generations; he now incurs a moral pollution that requires him to leave the very state that he has attempted to save. The solution occurs in Athens, which creates a democratic system to try murder in a citizen court. Aeschylus has adapted the foundation myth of the Areopagus in a version that features the element of human deliberation. The tragedian's decision or innovation offers an alternative to the etiology of the Areopagus, in which the court was invented so that the gods could try Ares for the murder of Halirrhothius, the rapist of his daughter. (8) The court was located on the "Rock of Ares" northwest of the Acropolis, from which its name derives. From the available evidence it would seem that Aeschylus made a second innovation, since his is the only surviving version in which Orestes is tried by a mortal jury. The tale of Orestes' matricide had already been in circulation for over a century: a fragment of Hesiod's Ehoiai (fr. 23a. 30 MW) makes the earliest mention of the crime. But the Eumenides is the first extant account of Orestes' trial and the only surviving account that features Athenian citizen jurors. It is impossible to know whether Euripides' versions of the trial revert to an earlier tradition or whether they are later innovations, but in Electra, Iphigenia in Tauris, and Orestes, a divine jury tries the case. Distinctively, Aeschylus' version of the trial features mortal judges, but their verdict is authorized, as it were, by the vote of a goddess.

Athena's role in the trial is even more substantial than her vote. She is the creator of the homicide trial itself and provides a divine prototype for some of its processes. Acting on the instructions of Apollo, Orestes flees to Athens, pursued by the Furies, and appeals to Athena for a resolution. The goddess presides over a pretrial or anakrisis, effectively assuming the duties of Archon Basileus (the magistrate who would have presided over an Athenian investigation for homicide); Orestes and the Furies consent to her arbitration. (9) This is the first step in the creation of the court; the second is when Athena gives the citizens of Athens responsibility for the verdict by forming a jury to try the matricide. As she puts it, "It is not right [themis] for me to judge a case for murder which can cause wrath" (Eum. 472). It might be argued that Athena does in fact judge the case when she casts the deciding vote to exonerate Orestes, but such an objection ignores an important aspect of the Athenian concept of justice. As I insist above, law is a partnership between human decision and divine authority. Aeschylus uniquely uses the trial of Orestes to emphasize this point (at least according to available evidence). Athena's vote contributes to the divine element of law. Her selection of jurors adds a sacrosanct element to the first homicide trial, but it simultaneously includes the essential ingredient of human deliberation. She announces that

I will select blameless judges [dikastas] of murder for the city, men who respect the rule of oaths, which I shall establish for all time. Summon your witnesses [marturia] and gather your evidence [tekmeria], prepare your sworn testimonies to support your cases. (Eum. 482-86) (10)

Athena's invention of the Athenian court system is signaled by her selection of "judges of murder" (dikastaiphonou) who will swear an oath before they arrive onstage. It is language that creates their identity, both the inaugurating speech act of Athena and their own performative utterance, the oath. The oath is a contract that unites the secular with the divine: the oath-swearer invokes the gods and brings their attention to his or her actions. In Aeschylus' time citizens became jurors or dikastai by swearing oaths, just as these silent, nameless men have. Apollo sends Orestes to Athens specifically to be judged (Eum. 81), even though the court and its judges have not yet been created. (11)

The goddess's participation emphasizes a collaboration of mortal and divine as justice is assimilated into institutionalized democratic law. A divine prototype for the practice of voting was suggested earlier in the trilogy, when Agamemnon described how the gods all "cast their votes into a bloody urn for the destruction of Troy, none into the urn for acquittal" (Ag. 815-17). His language evoked the image of the court: like human jurors in the Areopagus, the gods cast votes (psephoi) into urns. The divine vote is a metaphor for the inevitability of the Trojan defeat, but it looks ahead to the vote of the Athenian jurors as well. It is an aspect of the dynamic semiotic system of the Oresteia as identified by Lebeck (1971): images from the symbolic register gradually move from abstraction to concrete reality. The vote of the gods anticipates the voting that occurs on a human plane in the Eumenides, but it is notably removed from human deliberation. While functioning as a prototype for a social practice that is instituted by a goddess, it nonetheless exists beyond the bounds of human society.

In Athens, the goddess who participated in the condemnation of Troy casts a different vote. Her intervention both in creating the jury and in casting a vote is a perfect example of how the Greeks understood law to be a partnership between mortal and divine. Plato typifies this concept: "To serve the laws is to serve the gods" (Laws vi. 762E). Likewise, Demosthenes claims that "every law [nomos] is an invention and gift of the gods" (Dem. 25.16). This divine element of nomos is why the lawgiver Solon prays to Zeus to grant success to his new laws (fragment 31, West). Concomitantly, the inscribed decrees of the Athenian assemblies usually began with an invocation to the gods, O Theoi. Law and religion, as Phillipson put it, "were so closely interwoven that it is difficult to say where religion ends and law begins" (1911, 43).

It is important to recognize that, from the perspective of the ancient Greeks, the divine element of law works in tandem with the human and that this human element is, as Aeschylus represents it, not a monolithic legal mind. In the trial of Orestes every juror has heard the same evidence but the verdict is split. The lack of unanimity typifies the Athenian democracy that, as noted above, allows for, incorporates, and even encourages conflicting opinions. One of my objectives is to explore how the Oresteia engages with the plurality of a democratic legal praxis, which synthesizes competing points of view into a single judgment. I argue that the split decision of this first Athenian court is prefigured by the indecisive behavior of the Chorus of the Agamemnon, to which I now turn.


As my title indicates, I want to probe how the polyphony, the lack of unanimity, and the eventual silence of this chorus both prefigure and contrast with the divergence of opinion and judicial silence of the jurors of the Eumenides. Accordingly, it is significant that the conflicting opinions of the Argive Elders exist in a tyrannical regime that has no institutionalized way of incorporating a deliberative legal process. Perhaps one of the positive aspects of the depiction of Agamemnon is his suggestion that some sort of council will be established when he returns:

But concerning the city and the gods, we will hold public assemblies and deliberate with all the people together. (Ag. 844-45) (12)

This is the type of constitutional monarchy found in other tragedies, as we have already noted. For the dramatic present, however, there is only the tyranny of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Whatever status the Elders might have held in the past, they have virtually no power or authority in the dramatic present. (13)

Nonetheless, the Argive Elders, whose songs comprise such a significant part of the first play and who have arguably the most complex persona of all tragic choruses, do resemble a jury of sorts, albeit one that cannot function properly. (14) I am not the first to note the similarity between the Chorus of the Agamemnon and the Eumenides jury. Gantz suggests that the Elders constitute "a kind of proto-jury, a flawed foreshadowing of what is to evolve in time" (1983, 68). Like other scholars, he observes that when confronted with evidence of Agamemnon's culpability for killing his daughter and for later crimes, they dissolve into confusion. I build on these observations by showing how this inability to reach a judgment is also presented as a plurality of voices, until the Chorus is eventually incapable of words, a powerful indicator of its lack of legal agency. We do not expect a tragic chorus to be divided in its opinion, but this one is. In the face of disaster, and especially when it needs to make a decision, it fragments into indecision and multiple voices. But polyphony is a part of its rhetorical constitution in that its lyrics feature the voices of other people. (15) This narrative strategy that makes their choral lyrics especially vivid in the parodos and first two stasima devolves into an intrusion of unbidden internalized voices in the third stasimon and, finally, a series of separate voices in the murder scene. The Elders are constitutionally inclined to multivocality, perhaps more so than any other tragic chorus. (16) It is a quality that affirms their function as the representatives of the city, or what Vernant and VidaLNaquet, in their discussion of the basic nature of all tragic choruses, refer to as "the mouthpiece of the city" (1988, 311).

I begin by reviewing how the text represents the Elders of Argos as a type of jury. The Chorus is preeminently concerned with justice, a prominent theme of the trilogy, and in this first play it is the Argive Elders who speak the most about justice (dike). While Clytemnestra and Aegisthus each call the retributive murder of Agamemnon a form of dike, the Chorus has a more objective and theological perspective on the nature of justice. It does not specify the individual targets of justice, making its reflections frustratingly hard to interpret. But each one of its songs features some kind of gnomic statement about the nature of justice. For example, in the first stasimon, sung after the news about the fall of Troy, the Chorus observes:

The gods are not blind to those who kill many, and in time the black Furies enfeeble the man who is fortunate without justice. (Ag. 461-66)

In a later song (at the end of the second stasimon, just before the entrance of Agamemnon), it reflects on the corrupting power of wealth and declares that:

Justice shines out in the smoky homes and honors the righteous man. (Ag. 773-75)

While these sentiments ostensibly refer to Paris, who defiled the sacred bonds of guest-friendship (and thus offended Zeus Xenios) when he eloped with Helen, the ideas of retributive justice and ill-gotten wealth apply just as aptly to Agamemnon. This becomes obvious as the Chorus narrates events leading to the Trojan War and its consequences.

The Elders think about the expedition to retrieve Helen in legal terms. When they first mention the war they use the language of the law court to describe the actions of Agamemnon and Menelaus: collectively the brothers are antidikos (Ag. 41), a technical word that means "opponent at law." (17) But the parados concludes with a poignant account of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, an action that implicates him in the web of justice. Although the Elders try to avoid judging him and focus instead on the crimes of Paris, their thoughts at the end of the first stasimon, to give but one example, keep coming back to Agamemnon, who has been responsible for the deaths of many Argive citizens. Nonetheless, the Elders are reluctant to pass judgment on their king. Their interpretive dilemma (and it is ours as well) is that Agamemnon was supposedly an instrument of justice, yet seems to have incurred guilt in administering that justice. (18) The Chorus can see all sides of the issue, but its loyalties remain with its king. And thus the Elders become increasingly confused as they avoid the truth, a state of mind that ultimately renders them incompetent to make any sort of decision.

Even though (as the vivid narration of the parados seems to suggest) the Elders witnessed the killing of Iphigenia and even though they have heard the complaints of the townspeople about the loss of Argive men (recorded in the first stasimon), they withdraw from passing judgment on Agamemnon. As their gnomic reflections suggest, the Elders understand the nature of divine justice, yet they cannot apply this knowledge to Agamemnon's behavior. Their inability to judge him or to recognize the inevitability of his punishment is in contrast to their sustained concern with witnessing, proof, and evidence--the language of the court--although theirs is a world in which no such legal space exists. They use the same vocabulary as Athena does in the Eumenides when she institutes the court at Athens, including the judicial term tekmeria (evidence) (cf. Eum. 485). In response to Clytemnestra's news that Troy has fallen, they ask, "What proof do you have? Do you have evidence [tekmar] of this?" (Ag. 272). After the queen describes how her system of beacons relayed the news, the Chorus leader says,

Having heard your certain proofs [pista tekmeria], I prepare to address due prayers of thanksgiving to the gods. (Ag. 352-53)

The Elders sing a song of praise for the defeat of Paris, who transgressed the bounds of justice, but at the end of the stasimon, after reflecting on the justice of the Trojans' punishment, the Chorus's collective mind turns to Agamemnon, who has been the target of a public curse and whose own excesses and ambition cause the Chorus to withdraw from its celebration. The Elders have decided that the beacons are not reliable proofs of Troy's fall after all, only the fantasies of a woman. They give priority to the spoken word over the voiceless (anaudos, 496) fire signs of Clytemnestra, although they cannot bring themselves to speak the alternative (499). (19) The herald arrives and confirms the report, although the news of the storm at sea and the loss of lives dilutes the happy tidings. It seems that despite his Trojan victory, the closer Agamemnon gets to the palace, the closer he gets to paying the penalty for his hubris: the murder of his daughter, the desecration of Trojan altars, and the expenditure of thousands of innocent Greek lives to achieve his ambition. It is a conclusion that the Elders are loath to confront.

Thus it is evident from the early part of the play that the Elders are indecisive or reluctant to face the truth; they change their minds about believing the beacons because the implications of Troy's fall are too uncomfortable to consider. Contributing to their confusion is the murky evidence of Clytemnestra's beacons. Other forms of evidence are equally problematic. Cassandra tries to present ghostly visions of the children of Thyestes as witnesses (marturoisi, Ag. 1094) of the grim past that still infects the present. She asks the Elders to swear an oath (proumosas) that she does indeed "know the ancient sins in the story of the house" (1196-97). It is as if she is trying to invoke a legal procedure that would be familiar to the Athenian audience, for example the witnesses' exomosia, that has not yet been invented, since courts of law seem to be nonexistent in Argos. (20) Witnesses and oaths were fundamental components of Athenian court proceedings, but here a foreign slave woman distorts their significance by using the language of proof and evidence catachrestically. Visions that only she can see hardly count as evidence; while the attempt to get the old men to swear an oath as to their veracity may recall certain legal procedures, the Elders' perplexity at this suggestion only intensifies the sense that it is inappropriate.

The legal weight of proofs--witnessing and oaths--has been diminished by the fact that the Chorus is confronted with ephemeral proofs: fire signals and ghosts of children. The law court belongs to another dimension or transcendent reality that has not yet materialized in human society: the gods had enacted a kind of vote for the destruction of Troy, but this method of decision-making does not exist in the material reality of Argos. There is no external apparatus by which to process a judgment. In this brutal world, violent force rather than legal authority prevails; there are no courts in Argos. These conditions exacerbate the Chorus's judicial incompetence. This incapacity manifests, as I have suggested, as a fractured persona. It is unusual for the members of a tragic chorus to disagree with one another; the chorus is usually a unified persona, a corporate entity that refers to itself as "I" or "we" (Kaimio 1970).

This choral fragmentation begins in the first stasimon, the hymn of thanksgiving sung after the Elders hear about Clytemnestra's beacons. As previously mentioned, they begin by condoning the justice of the fall of Troy, but in their lyric reflections they move on to the discontent of the Argive citizens, who have issued a public curse against Agamemnon (Ag. 456-57). The Chorus functions as an ethical focalizer that provides a moral context for the events it narrates, and it casts some of these reflections in the voices of the Argive citizens who critique an aristocratic household that has accumulated excessive wealth at the expense of regular folk.

In my treatment of the narrative voice of the Chorus I have adapted Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia, developed for analysis of the novel. The concept works well for my discussion of this ode because it features "another's speech in another's ... language," i.e., Bakhtin's definition of heteroglossia (1981, 304). The embedded voices of the ordinary citizens who lament and complain (Ag. 445-50) illustrate how a narrative voice can represent "a multiplicity of 'language' and verbal-ideological belief systems" (Bakhtin 1981, 311). The beginning of the ode characterized the perspective of the aristocracy who focus on the Trojans' injury to the house of Atreus, but then the Chorus shifts to the voices of the common citizen:

So they lament, praising now this one: "How skilled in battle!" now that one: "Fallen nobly in the carnage,"--"for another's wife--" some mutter in secret. (Ag 445-50)

The heteroglossia of the Chorus, the voices embedded in its own narratorial voice, leads it to consider the culpability of its beloved king--a culpability that began in Aulis but now incorporates the complaints of the Argive citizenry--and it recoils from the obvious conclusion.

Incapable of containing the truth, the choral identity fragments. The end of this song features a curious splintering of the choral voice (Ag. 475-87). There is no unanimity regarding the division of choral lines between individual speakers, but indications in the manuscripts and in the sense of the text strongly suggest that there was a split chorus. (21) As Scott notes, the Chorus is breaking from traditional form "under the strain of coping with the events around it" (1984, 156). I give a possible division here, which conveys the sense that the second voice (B) is criticizing the first (A) for changing its mind about believing the beacons.

A: By a beacon fire of good tidings a swift report has spread throughout the town. Yet whether it is true, or some divine deception, who knows?

B: Who is so childish or so bereft of sense, and his heart enflamed by the fresh report of fire and then despairs when the story changes?

A: It is just like a woman's eager nature to approve the pleasure before it is clear.

B: Too credulous, a woman's mind has boundaries open to quick encroachment; but quick to perish is rumor spread by a woman. (Ag. 475-87)

It appears that Aeschylus is manipulating the traditional format of the tragic chorus in order to signify the social upheaval of Argos. In its following odes the Chorus continues to exhibit signs of confusion and distress. Once Agamemnon is home, it is faced with the strong possibility that he will have to submit to some form of justice. As Clytemnestra ushers her husband to his last bath, the Chorus sings its last complete stasimon, an enigmatic song that reveals its utter confusion. Once again the Elders use the language of witnessing and proof. They have seen the return of the king and "witnessed it in person" (automartus, 989), but something does not seem right. Their soul or thumos sings unbidden and unwelcome thoughts (991-93); the other voices are now internal, coming from the core of their consciousness. (22)

When the inevitable happens and the Chorus hears the death cries of Agamemnon within the house, it individuates into twelve separate voices. Even when confronted with direct evidence its members cannot make a decision. Some are for breaking into the palace, others want to send for help, and others to form a committee to assess the situation. One of them expresses his opinion in the form of a vote; "I vote [psephizomai] for some sort of action" (Ag. 1351). Another determines that groans are not sufficient evidence (tekmerioisin, 1366) that the king is dead. It cannot escape notice that these conflicting opinions are formatted like the decision scene of the trial in the Eumenides, also presented as a series of couplets. The Elders' use of the language of the court (votes and evidence) emphasizes the lack of judicial procedures in Argos and their own incompetence.

At the end of this chaotic scene Clytemnestra makes her appearance to display the corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra; she boasts that her revenge has been executed with justice (dikaios and hyperdikos, Ag. 1396). The horrified Elders suggest that she will incur a public curse (demothroos t'aras, 1409) and be banished from the city. This is not the first time that a judgment of the people has been mentioned. As noted, the Chorus referred to the curse of the demos against Agamemnon in the first stasimon (456-57). When Clytemnestra urged her husband to step on the purple cloth, he mentioned his concern of the demothrous, "the talk of the people" (938), an anxiety that Clytemnestra brushed aside. This, of course, is the behavior of a tyrant and it contrasts with the Elders' concerns about the popular perspective. But in response to the Chorus's admonitions, Clytemnestra accuses it of having a double standard:

"So now you pass a judgment [dikazeis] that I be exiled from the city, and have the hatred of the townsfolk and public curses {demothroos ... aras}, but you didn't oppose this man before, when he set no value on her, as if her death were that of a beast.... Shouldn't you have driven him from this land as punishment for his polluting act? Now when you hear of my act, you are a harsh judge [dikastes]. (1412-20, abridged)

Notice that Clytemnestra quite explicitly calls the chorus a dikastes, or judge, and describes its proposed penalty as an act of judgment. Curses were part of the legal structure of the ancient Greek world and exile could be a penalty for homicide (as we saw earlier, the edict of Oedipus referred to such procedures). But these allusions to such forms of judgment only emphasize the lack of legal procedure in Argos. There is no institutionalized mechanism (a council of Elders or an assembly of citizens, for instance) that could make and enforce such judgments. It is also notable that she refers to their impotence or ambivalence in making a judgment about the murder of Iphigenia. They too bear some responsibility for the absence of legal structures in Argos. Of course there is no mention of a court of law. The penalty that Clytemnestra expected for Agamemnon seems to have been exile. But as she goes on to say, she will fight against the Chorus if it tries to enact the penalty against her, and by the end of the play the old men are cowed by Aegisthus and leave the theater in silence.

It is common for choruses to have the last word in a tragedy, either a brief aphorism or a choral song as it processes from the orchestra: both the Choephori and Eumenides exemplify this tendency. The Argive Elders are a significant presence in the exodus of the Agamemnon; their silent departure after Aegisthus' threats is a palpable reminder of the effects of tyranny on language. This silence concludes a remarkable devolution of the choral voice. The Chorus has articulated "the multiplicity of social voices" and the "rivulets and droplets of social heteroglossia," to quote Bakhtin (1981, 263) once again, in their representation of the common people's concerns. As the Chorus leader's interaction with Clytemnestra reveals, the voice of the populace has no weight in the political hegemony of Argos. Furthermore, the Chorus's own voice, which according to the conventions of the genre should be unified, becomes increasingly individualized, so that the Elders break off into separate voices during the assassination of their king. Thus while the Chorus offers the possibility of a discursive system that includes a multiplicity of voices, an ideal of democracy, its own voice is fractured and silenced in a way that emphasizes the toxic effects of tyranny on communication. (23)


In contrast to the Agamemnon, the Eumenides situates these issues in a different ideological context. Lack of unanimity is a feature of democratic deliberation; the intervention of one powerful female figure with masculine qualities (Athena) helps to fashion a cohesive judgment, rather than prevent a legal verdict, as an earlier androgyne (Clytemnestra) had done. (24) The impotent council of Elders in the Agamemnon is revisited in the group of judges in the Eumenides and there are striking commonalities. To begin with, both groups are comprised of roughly the same number of old men. (25) There were twelve chorus members when Aeschylus produced the trilogy, but the number of judges in the first production of the Eumenides is a point of contention. Estimates range from ten to thirteen, with their votes being cast during a series of alternating couplets between the Furies and Apollo. An important question is whether Athena's vote makes or breaks a tie. There are compelling arguments for both productions (and here we are concerned with the initial staging at the festival of Dionysus). If her vote makes a tie, then as Hester points out, Athena has disabled a guilty verdict after giving the jury the power to try the case (1981, 270). (26) In Athenian court procedure a tie vote would be broken by the presiding officer, who would not otherwise participate (Aristotle Ath. Pol. 63.1 and Aeschines 3.252). Such is Athena's role in this case. Certainly an original staging with twelve jurors is entirely possible, with Athena casting her vote after the count. According to my calculations, the first juror would cast his pebble after Athena gives the signal for the voting to begin (709-10). Each one of the remaining eleven jurors would come forward after a couplet, with the last and twelfth vote being cast at line 733.

The jurors are qualitatively similar to the Chorus as well. Generally speaking, jury duty was an old man's occupation, as Aristophanes' Wasps suggests. Jurors had to be at least thirty, but were usually older. Age is more prescriptive for the Areopagites, who had to be at least fifty years old. If the mute actors of the Eumenides were decked out like Athenian jurors they would be carrying staves (Aristotle Ath. Pol. 69.2) and would probably be wearing the conventional masks of old men. (27) If Marshall is correct, these masks were generic and therefore the Athenian jurors would be practically identical to the Chorus of Argive Elders. (28) Thus the audience of the Eumenides would see twelve old men onstage, probably carrying dikastic staves, one of the essential implements of Athenian judges and a visual echo of the twelve members of the Chorus of Agamemnon who enter the theater on their staves (epi skeptrois, 75).

The audience has last seen the first group of twelve old men leaving in defeated silence through the parodos during the exodus of the Agamemnon. But the appearance of the twelve Athenian jurors, who so closely resemble the Argive Elders, through the same parodos in the Eumenides, gives a different semiotic valence to the attributes of the Chorus: their articulation of a popular voice, their disagreement, and finally their silence. The Elders had been able to represent the views of the general populace, but the Argive hegemony had no place for such discourse. Contrastingly, the Athenian jurors are representatives of the Athenian citizenry and their decision occurs in a democratic context that theoretically gives all citizens a voice. In the Argive context the individualized opinions of the Chorus--at the end of the first stasimon and during the assassination of their king--reflect confusion and, since the Chorus is the "voice of the city," its uncertainty conveys a sense of political disintegration in the wake of tyranny. But in Athens such dissonance is a constructive feature of a democracy that encourages debate and uses what I termed earlier a productive lack of unanimity to refine a decision-making process that will achieve the best verdict. The divided judgment of the Athenian Elders reflects the equal weight of both arguments: that Apollo commanded Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, but that a son should not kill his mother. Finally, as I have argued, the silence of the Chorus at the end of the Agamemnon is a provocative marker of the suppression of its members' political agency, a signifier of failure, and a powerful contrast to the silent vote of the Athenian jurors. But in order to fully appreciate this contrast we need to unpack the apparently contradictory implications of silence in both plays.

Taplin's analysis of Aeschylean silences begins with the observation that "silence can be imbued with a significance; that it can say more, on occasion, than ever words can say." (29) The Oresteia employs the motif of silence in different ways. Its first and most predominant function in the Agamemnon is to convey the suppression of speech due to fear and impotence. The play begins with the watchman curbing his own words lest he speak ill of Clytemnestra (sigo, "I am silent," 35). At the end of the parodos the Chorus describes how Iphigenia was gagged to prevent her from uttering an ill-omened word, or a curse (238-43). Later the Chorus attempts to silence Cassandra when she forecasts the murder of Agamemnon: "Be silent (zuphemon), poor wretch, put your tongue to sleep" (1247). They would rather not hear the truth, as if the spoken word has the power to actualize a situation. As Clytemnestra takes Agamemnon to his fatal bath, the Chorus ends the third stasimon, its most confused and distressed song yet, by admitting that it cannot put its thoughts into words. The Elders' collective heart "mutters in the darkness" (1030), incapable of articulating its fears. "Their silence marks them, like the others, as helpless against the relentless flow of events," as Thalmann (1985b, 228) so aptly writes. This is the thematic context in which we must read the silent exit of the Chorus. It no longer has a voice in the city and its status as a council of Elders (presbos Argeion tode, 1393) gives a political weight to its silence.

However, silence in the trilogy can also affirm autonomy and agency. This is first exemplified by Cassandra, the only character in the Agamemnon who is immune to Clytemnestra's deception and persuasion. The captive Trojan princess remains dramatically silent until Clytemnestra enters the palace, refusing to answer the Queen's questions or obey her commands (Ag. 1035-68). Her silence is an act of resistance and a measure of her self-control. (30) Orestes exhibits a similar defiance and strength of mind in the Eumenides when he withstands the attempts by the Furies to draw him into an argument (Eum. 302). Orestes silently resists their binding song (321-95) and does not speak until Athena addresses him. His silence contrasts with the raucous songs and animal noises of the Furies. (31)

It is shortly after the second stasimon that Athena calls the court to order and requests all to "be silent" (sigan, 571), a command that allows for the orderly presentation of the arguments at the trial. The silence of the jurors is consonant with the conventions of Athenian drama, which had only three actors who divided the speaking parts among them; but this dikastic silence is also a meaningful hush. Each man has his own mind, influenced only by the speeches of the defense and the prosecution. There were laws against irrelevance in homicide trials and Athenian homicide juries did not deliberate among themselves before casting their verdict; this was an important component of justice. Now it is as if the remarkable individuation of the Argive Elders has evolved into a system of justice that makes each vote separate and independent. The voting procedure of the new homicide court is secret, and this play seems to be the first account of a secret ballot. (32) What was in Argos a chattering indecision silenced by tyranny emerges in Athens as a judicial hush. Yet the result of this important silent vote is indecisive. In this respect the Athenian jury resembles its Argive counterpart, but the similarity is only superficial. The human and divine combine when Athena breaks the tie. As I have already indicated, an ancient audience would not align Athena's intervention with Clytemnestra's autocratic repression. The coalition between Athena and the jurors produces a verdict that ends the cycle of retributive justice. I n order to appreciate just how important this partnership would be, I turn now to a different representation of a trial of Orestes in which the divine and human elements are not conjoined and which depicts the judgment of a noisy mob during a popular assembly.


Euripides' Orestes was produced nearly half a century later against a very different political backdrop. The tragedy made its debut in 408 BCE, around the time that Draco's homicide law was inscribed (or reinscribed) for public viewing. In this play a public assembly in Argos tries the matricide reported by a messenger {Or. 866-956}. It is possible that Euripides' tragedy reflects the increased use of the popular courts or dikasteria in homicide trials, rather than the specialized and august homicide courts, a trend that had become more prevalent at the end of the century (see Lanni 2007, 78). In Euripides' version of the trial of Orestes, the entire demos votes rather than just a selection of judges. The crowd is tumultuous and one of the advocates for the execution of Orestes is described as putting too much trust in the thorubos, or the "clamor" of the popular assembly (Or. 905). The vote is by a show of hands rather than the secret ballot of the Areopagus and the assembly passes a guilty verdict.

As I have suggested, it seems that in Athens around this time a murder trial did not have to be conducted by the specialized homicide courts that only met at certain times of the year. Sometime between 417 and 411 (i.e., a few years before the production of the Orestes), the logographer Antiphon composed a defense speech for a non-Athenian client accused of killing an Athenian citizen. The speaker protests that he is being tried as a kakourgos or "wrongdoer" in a dikasterion, rather than through the homicide courts. There are, he points out, significant differences: he has been imprisoned until his trial, but a person accused of homicide has the option of going into voluntary exile. Most importantly, he emphasizes the religious nature of the specialized the homicide courts:
   The laws, the oaths, the sacrifices, the proclamations, in fact the
   entire proceeding in connection with trials for murder are so very
   different from other types of proceedings simply because it is of
   supreme importance that the facts at issue, upon which so much
   turns, should themselves be rightly interpreted. Such a right
   interpretation means vengeance for him who has been wronged;
   whereas to find an innocent man guilty of murder is a tragic
   mistake, and an impiety, against both gods and laws. (Antiph. 5.88)

The speech resonates with Euripides' version of the trial of Orestes in what seems to be a version of the people's court: in both cases the religious elements that sanctify the dikephonou (a trial for murder) are entirely absent. In the play, Apollo intervenes at the end to tell Orestes that he will be taken to Athens to be judged not by the Areopagus nor by any Athenian homicide court but, rather, by a divine tribunal. What this play considers is a radical breach of human and divine justice, and this may speak to the trend of using the people's courts to deal with homicide rather than the holy courts of Athens.

Euripides is not giving a detailed replica of an Athenian homicide prosecution; rather, he creates a situation that bears some similarity to a procedure familiar to his audience. In doing so he contradicts the version of the trial of Orestes provided by Aeschylus' Eumenides. In that play Athena instates the court of the Areopagus by selecting citizens who swear an oath: human and divine agents collaborate in the institution of justice. Euripides' version keeps the human and divine separate. Like Aeschylus, he emphasizes the role of Apollo in compelling Orestes to kill his mother. In Eumenides Apollo is an advocate for Orestes and testifies that the matricide was a response to a divine injunction. There is no divine intervention in the trial of Orestes in Argos: Apollo only appears at the end of the play as a deus ex machina. Mortal and divine justice are conspicuously separated.

In Aeschylus' version of Athens it is different. A goddess inaugurates a procedure that produces the most august and respected court in Athens. She does not intervene ex machina, but participates in the administration of justice in a way that emphasizes the partnership of human and divine. The court of law is dignified by the silence of the jurors who are not swayed by the thorubos of the popular assembly and whose vote is secret and therefore less biased. The Eumenides emphasizes the special nature of the courts for homicide and contrasts their silent dignity with all the background noise that confused the Elders in Argos. While the Elders seemed incapable of making a decision, the verdict rendered by the Athenian jury would be unimpeachable. There were no appeals for verdicts in Athenian homicide courts. Above all, the text affirms that while the judges for homicide represent the virtues of democracy, they are uniquely qualified to judge this case by their partnership with Athena.


(1) There is a vigorous debate about the cultural specificity of Greek tragedy. Scholars such as Griffin (1998) and Rhodes (2003) argue against Goldhill and others by claiming that tragedy has only limited relevance to Athenian civic and political issues. In the case of the Eumenides in particular, it is obvious that the subject is the Athenian civic institution of the law court.

(2) Cf. Zeitlin (1990, 130-67), who theorizes that Athenian virtues are highlighted in tragedy by the representation of Thebes as the "anti-Athens."

(3) As Carter (2007, 84) observes, monarchy is the default form of government in tragedy. In Aeschylus' Supplices the Argive king makes a point of emphasizing the role of the demos that votes to accept the supplicant daughters of Danaus as residents in his city. On the other hand, Sophocles gives Theseus, mythical founder of democracy, sole authority to make a decision in Athens about accepting Oedipus into Colonus. The best that we can say is that each play has its own political structure determined by the requirements of plot and theme; these political structures are never consistent but may sometimes feature anachronistic references to democratic processes familiar to a fifth-century audience. See Easterling (1985, 2-3) for a survey of the political anachronisms of tragedy.

(4) This inscription survives in fragmentary form and seems to be dated from the reinscription of Athenian laws that took place in 409 BCE. For further discussion see Gagarin (2008, 93-109).

(5) There were five homicide courts in Athens. If Orestes were being tried in Athens for homicide, perhaps he would have been tried in the Delphinium, like the speaker of Lysias 1, Euphiletus, who killed his wife's lover.

(6) Dawe (2006, 96) enumerates the kinds of proclamations that would allow a relative or a Basileus to initiate a homicide trial in Athens.

(7) See Carawan's discussion (1999, 187-222) of this decree (and the authenticity of the manuscript tradition) and its allusions to Athenian homicide procedures.

(8) The story of the trial of Ares is first attested by Hellanicus of Lesbos and survives only in fragmentary form (FGrH 3.B323aFI). It is also told by Euripides at Electra 1258-63, where the Dioscuri send Orestes to Athens to be tried at the Areopagus, which has already been established, and in Iphigeniaat Tauris 945-46.

(9) Gagarin (1986, 19-50, esp. 41-44) provides literary precedents for this procedure and a good analysis of this passage.

(10) There are textual problems with this passage and various editors transpose or rearrange some of the lines. All translations are my own and follow Page's Oxford Classical Text (1972) unless otherwise noted.

(11) Sommerstein (2010, 17) draws attention to nomenclature here: the members of the new jury are called dikastai (Eum. 483, 684, 743), the term employed for jurors in the large popular or heliastic courts, but not one normally used in the specialized homicide courts. Homicide judges are usually called ephetai but as Boegehold et. al (1995, 3) note, judges in homicide cases can be called either ephetai or dikastai. The orator Isocrates (18.52-54) uses the term dikastai to refer to judges of a dike phonou (a murder trial), although this speech was written at least fifty years after the Oresteia was produced. See Mirhady (2007) for further discussion of the dikastic oath, and Fletcher (2012, 35-69) for an analysis of the evolution of the oath in the Oresteia.

(12) Similarity he is concerned about the censure of the "voice of the people" (pheme demothrous, 938) when he tries to resist Clytemnestra's invitation to step on the purple fabrics leading to his death.

(13) Clytemnestra refers to them as presbos Argeidn tode (Ag. 1393), which might suggest an official "council of Elders."

(14) For a general discussion of the dramatic personae of Aeschylean choruses see Podlecki 1972, 187-204.

(15) See Fletcher (1999) on the merging of character and narrator voices in the first stasimon.

(16) See Fletcher (1999, 32n11) for my observation that the Agamemnon features the most numerous and lengthy examples of indirect discourse in tragic lyric.

(17) Podlecki (1966, 65) discusses the legal terminology of the parodos.

(18) The question of the guilt of Agamemnon is complex, with no easy answer. He accumulates guilt from the time he decides to sacrifice his daughter, but it is hard to determine if he had any choice if he wanted to fulfill the will of Zeus and punish the Trojans for abducting Helen, a violation of the sanctified guest/host bond. The best commentary is that of Lloyd-Jones (1962, 187-99), who argues that the very dilemma in which Agamemnon finds himself at Aulis is a result of the curse on the house of Atreus. Dodds (2007) observes that while it was the will of Zeus that Troy should fall (Ag. 60-68), Agamemnon did act voluntarily by choosing to sacrifice Iphigenia. In Greek tragedy, divine motivation does not relieve mortals of responsibility for their actions.

(19) Montiglio (2000, 205) draws attention to the opposition between the semiotics of feminine silence and masculine words here, although she does not comment on the Elders' inability to speak.

(20) Demosthenes reveals that witnesses had the choice of either giving evidence or "swearing off" with the exomosia, literally "denial on oath of knowledge" (e.g., Dem. 19.176). See Carey (1995, 114-19) for further discussion.

(21) As Denniston and Page note in their commentary, the three syndetic sentences make a case for alternating speakers (1986, 114). Scott (1984, 133) reviews some of the controversy regarding assignment of lines. The most extreme position is that of Fraenkel (v.2, 1950, 246) who is unwilling to allow division because there is no evidence in text. It is hard to imagine what form this indication could take. Noting the lack of connecting words between 482 and 483, Scott determines that this was a question-and-answer format, with the Chorus fragmenting into two parts. Sommerstein (2008, 55M01) finds the division of the Chorus "unavoidable."

(22) It is "a confession of the failure of language," as Thalmann (1985, 117) notes. See also Scott's comments (1969, 336-46) on the confusion of the chorus in this song.

(23) This case illustrates Montiglio's hypothesis (2000, especially chapter 3) that the ability to silence an opponent can be construed as a type of victory in Greek thought.

(24) Athena's virginity and martial interests contribute to her positive androgyny; the Watchman describes Clytemnestra's "man-counseling heart" (n) as an opprobrious phenomenon.

(25) The two groups, however, would not be played by the same actors. The different choruses of the trilogy (and the lost satyr play) would be the same group, their personae changed by masks and costumes.

(26) Cf. Seaford 1995, 202-21. For the opposing view, that Athena's vote breaks a tie, see Gagarin (1975, 121-27) and Sommerstein (1989, 222-24).

(27) For further testimonia on dikastic staves, see Boegehold et al. (1993, 238).

(28) Marshall (1999, 188-202) argues that the mask of the old man was standardized in fifth-century Athenian drama.

(29) Taplin (1972, 37) discusses Aeschylus' characteristic use of silence, including in the lost plays, the Myrmidons (of Achilles), and of Niobe in her eponymous play, in addition to the dramatic silences of Cassandra and Pylades in the Oresteia, but the scope of his article does not include the silence of the Chorus of Elders or the Athenian jurors.

(30) The implications of Cassandra's silence are skillfully analyzed by Taplin (1972, 79) and Thalmann (1983, 228-29), although Montiglio's reading (2000, 197-213) offers a different perspective in the context of gender.

(31) There may be further ritual implications in the conversion of the noisy Furies into Semnai Theai (Venerable Goddesses). Athena finally calms their anger by promising them a ritual that transforms them into this group of goddesses. The priestesses of this cult were the Hesychides, or "Silent Ones." As Montiglio (2000, 390178) suggests, the final procession of the Eumenides, with its double call for euphemia, may refer to this cult.

(32) There is controversy about whether the practice might have occurred earlier (Boegehold 1963, 368-69).


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JUDITH FLETCHER is Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario. Her teaching and research focus on ancient Greek language, literature, and social history and she has a special interest in the intersections of law and theater in classical Athens. Representative publications include Performing Oaths in Classical Greek Drama (2012) and numerous articles and chapters on ancient Greek literature.
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