Euripides’ Orestes

Thomas Fleming


February 13, 2018

The Orestes, performed in 408, is one of Euripides’ last surviving plays–the poet died only two years later.  It was very popular in the Hellenistic and Byzantine eras, much cited and taught in schools.   It is a vivid melodrama (in the modern not the ancient sense), but it is also a profound and difficult meditation on the meaning of friendship.

One caveat before I make a few remarks on the play.  Though Euripides was, in the following centuries, the most popular writer of tragedies, I have always rated him distinctly third compared with his predecessors, Aeschylus and Sophocles.  I do not say that my judgment is correct, but even if I am wrong, I persist in disliking many things about the poet.  He is, for example, much too bookish and intellectual for my taste--and Aristophanes ridicules him for staying in his library and ransacking his predecessors.  He is, and this is worse, not unaffected by the sophists, who taught their students to be skeptical of received traditions.  Worst of all, he is a religious skeptic, not in the sense that he doubts the existence of divine forces in the universe, but that he has doubts about Greek religious traditions.  His unvarnished critiques provoked one famous critic to arguing that he was a devoted enemy of Delphi.

On the other hand, no Greek dramatist--not even Aeschylus--was better at conveying that sense of supernatural power that lies beyond human understanding, and of all the dramatists he was the most humane, most capable of conveying  empathy for human suffering and folly.  He can go overboard, as Aristophanes complained, in portraying evil women or miserable human beings, but it is not too much to expect of modern readers that we can appreciate even these deformities.  In concluding these prefatory remarks, I should add that I find it easier to read and reread the plays Euripides than those of his rivals I more esteem.

In the Orestes, Euripides he takes up, and not for the first time, the familiar theme of Orestes’ killing of his mother Clytaemestra and her lover Aegisthus, who had murdered his father Agamemnon.  When Homer sketched the story in the first book of the Odyssey, there is no mention of the matricide and no hint that Orestes could be considered as anything less than a glorious hero.  But Euripides, hardly ever content with a traditional version or conventional attitude, portrays an outraged city of Argos debating–democratically of course–whether or not to punish Orestes and his sister Electra (his collaborator) with death.

When the play begins, six days after the killing of Clytaemestra,  the sleeping Orestes is being watched over by Electra who grieves for her brother’s spasms of madness that have been inflicted on him by his mother’s Erinyes–the Furies that avenge the murder of a relative.  Electra hints at a curse that  has afflicted her family since Tantalus, most blessed of humans, decided to tempt the gods by serving them–unbeknownst to them–his son Pelops.  (The son was restored to life but Tantalus is punished everlastingly in Hell.)  The curse afflicted her  grandfather Atreus, who was engaged in a terrible and homicidal struggle with his brother Thyestes.  She refuses even to name Atreus’ crime–again one involving kin-murder and cannibalism.  Finally, there was Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia (named here but not as victim) and the murder of Agamemnon and the revenge killing of Clytaemestra.  While Aeschylus, in going over the same ground, had sought to probe the justice and wisdom of Zeus, Euripides is concerned far more with the human casualties.  This gives the play something of the flavor of a soap opera.

The first family spat breaks out when Electra’s aunt Helen asks her to bring libations “to my sister’s tomb”–carefully avoiding the word mother.  Helen is ashamed to appear in public, but Electra suggests Helen’s daughter Hermione as the more appropriate substitute, to which Helen agrees.

The chorus enters in a sort of “Zitti, zitti scene” and have to be quieted.  Electra and the chorus debate the delicate subject of Apollo’s complicity.  If a god commands an act, how can it be wrong?  If a god commands an evil act, how can he be worthy of reverence?   When Electra (191) claims Apollo has made brother and sister sacrificial victims, the chorus chimes in “δικᾳ”–with right or justly, but she adds καλῶς δ᾽ου–but not well, implying the possibility that while the slaying of their mother was justified, it was still a rotten thing to do. Orestes awakens, depressed but returns to his senses and he takes heart at the news that his uncle Menelaus has arrived, obviously (so he thinks)  to rescue his niece and nephew.  Orestes, however, feels another fit coming on, and the chorus sings an ode about the Furies and the cycle of retribution that has afflicted the family.  Echoing Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, they do not, however, invoke the justice of Zeus but pray for mercy.

Thus the stage is set.  All the basic elements have been introduced:  1) the unending cycle of violence within the house of Tantalus, 2) the conflict between the family of Helen and the children of Agamemnon, 3) the duties of blood, and 4) the expectation that we can depend upon our kin for support.

In his madness, Orestes imagines that he is fighting the divine Furies by means of the bow and arrow Apollo gave him–surely a vivid acting out of his dilemma.  Turning to Electra he begs his sister to comfort him and when he sees her down cast, promises to be at hand to reproach her with friendship (φίλα) for such acts of support are good in friends (τοῖς φἰλοις).  This passage is one of many that confirms Aristotle’s treatment of friendship that includes kinfolks as primary friends.

Menelaus enters, and from the first he is ambiguous.  He mourns his brother’s death and wanted to comfort Orestes, but now he has heard that Orestes killed his mother, who happens to be Menelaus’ sister-in-law.  When Orestes explains to him that Apollo ordered the killings, Menelaus (417 ) says Apollo is rather ignorant of the good (kalon) and the right (dike).  The first term refers to what is beautiful and of good repute, the second refers to correct behavior, justice.  If Apollo is responsible, why does he not come to protect Orestes, the uncle asks.  This leads to a sophistical interchange.  Gods are wont to tarry (mellei), says Orestes, but, Menelaus counters, these goddesses–the furies–did not tarry.  Orestes responds with what I believe to be a key line (424):  οὐ σοφός, ἀληθὴς δ᾽εἰς φίλους ἔφυν φίλος.  ”I was not born/am  not by nature wise/clever but a real friend to friends.”   So Menelaus is intelligent, sophisticated (as we might say) like the sophists of that generation who were excellent at playing upon words, but Orestes’  nature is to be loyal to those he is by nature supposed to be loyal to, that is, friends, and the primary class of friends are kinfolks, and the highest kinfolks are parents, father first and mother second.   Thus he killed the second most important person in his life in order to avenge the murder of the first most important.

Menelaus, being a practical political type, asks what good this vengeance did Orestes.  The answer is obvious: Everyone hates him, and he cannot even be purged, because no one will let him in a house where his blood-guilt can be washed away.  There is an anti-Atridae coalition, it seems, which  includes Oiax, the brother of Palamedes who was killed at Troy by the commanders on false evidence of treachery planted by Odysseus, who hated Palamedes for unmasking his phony madness.   Oiax can stand for everyone who had a loved one killed in the war.  There are also Aegisthus’ friends and supporters who did well under his regime.  Now it seems likely that they will have  Orestes stoned to death.

Menelaus pities the poor young man, who tells him that he, the uncle, is the only hope.  Orestes (448 ff.) tells he he should share his prosperity with his unfortunate friends and  not hoard his utility/good fortune.  He should take a share of their sufferings, paying back/requiting Orestes’ father’s favors (Charitas) to those to whom he ought, that is, he received favors (e.g., the entire Trojan War to recover his wife) from Agamemnon, and he can only repay his debt of Charis to the children.  And now comes the great Euripidean tagline, which does not sound so tinny when it is uttered in the dramatic scene: They have the name and not the fact/action of friends who in misfortunes are not friends.  Remember, again, that friendship not only includes but is exemplified by kinship.

Tyndareus, Clytaemestra’s father, enters seeking vengeance.  He freely admits his daughter deserved to die but insists that her son should not have killed her.  This comes close to Orestes’ view that what he did was just but not good.    He chides Menelaus for sympathizing with his nephew and accuses him of turning barbarian after spending so many years in foreign parts.  ”But it is Greek always to honor kinship.” (488).  Yes, the old man says, but not to want to go ahead of the laws/traditions.  Orestes should have turned to “the common law/tradition of the Greeks” and cast her from the home.  If murder is to be allowed to avenge murder, the killing will never stop.  (The point taken up more profoundly by Aeschylus).  In helping Orestes, Menelaus would be striving against the gods (531 ff).

Orestes treats his vengeance-seeking grandfather with due reverence, but if he is stoned for punishing an adulteress who murdered her husband, then women will think it nothing to kill their husbands.  Here O. is making the argument from utility.  And, had he done nothing, he would equally have incurred the wrath of the Erinyes for not avenging his father.  If anyone sinned, it was Apollo, and he is pure.

Tyndareus is all the more enraged by Orestes’ defense, and he threatens to strip Menelaus, who holds Sparta as a dowry with Helen, of his possessions.  Menelaus, far from being the bravest of men, is perplexed.

To be continued

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Cody Nicholson says:

    Thank you, Dr. Fleming, for these posts. Though not qualified to comment on them, I read them fairly assiduously. They supply a few pools of water in that empty reservoir where my classical education should reside.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Always good to read your posts Mr. Nicholson. Wish you would offer more in the future

  3. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Cody, it’s a pleasure to hear from you. At some point, I’d like to return to see friends in Oklahoma.

  4. Cody Nicholson says:

    That would be a great treat for me, and I’m sure Robert as well.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    It’s always good just not often enough.