The house of Atreus; being the Agamemnon, Libation-bearers and Furies of Aeschylus online

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Some mourning words, which in our feeble tongue
Would come in these like accents ; O how frail
To that large utterance of the early gods !


IConlion :

Minrljester :


[All rights resened.}





son of Euphorion, an Athenian of the deme of
Eleusis, was bom, B.C. 525. He consecrated his life to the
tragic art from his youth upwards : yet he is held to have
been a valiant soldier, and with his brother Cynegirus to
have fought at Marathon, and at Salamis, and at Platsea as
some say. Afterwards, being at variance with the Athe-
nians, he went away from them unto Sicily, and dwelt at
the court of Hiero, tyrant of Gela, and was held by him in
high honour. He died in his sixty-ninth year by a strange
fate, whereof he had been warned in an oracle, saying A
stroke from heaven shall slay thee. For as he was walking
on the shore, an eagle, that had snatched up a tortoise into
the air, let it drop ; and it fell upon him, and he died.

Such is almost all that we are told, and more than we can
be said to know certainly, of the life of the poet, whose
masterpiece I have done my best to render into English
verse, with the hope of helping one or two of those to whom
the original is a closed book, to share in its treasures.

The remaining fragments of tradition the cause of his
quarrel with his countrymen the statement that he divulged
the Sacred Mysteries remain, not now to be verified. Of


those given above, the tale of his death has been preserved
for its striking singularity : it has the authority of story,
and no more. To his familiarity with war, by land and sea,
his surviving dramas bear the strongest witness. There is
a priori likelihood, and intrinsic evidence, and some external
testimony, of his having shared in one or more of the great
battles which saved the western world. Nor does his
departure from Athens to whatever cause it was due
nor his residence, apparently on two separate occasions,
in Sicily, admit of doubt. A vague statement* that his
poetry was inspired by wine a portraiture of him by
the pen of Aristophanes in the Frogs (intended, as, I am
convinced, those of Euripides and Socrates by the same
hand were intended, mainly as a literary portrait of the
author and teacher, not a delineation of the man as he was) ;
some notices! from Aristotle of the improvements intro-
duced by him into the arrangements of the dramatic stage :
these, and a few others, form the whole of our scanty
information respecting the life of ^Eschylus, son of
Euphorion. Slat magni nominis umbra.

Of his works there remain to us seven dramas only, out of
a very large number. Fragments or notices bring up the
total to seventy-eight plays of which the titles are known.
If we can judge of those we have not, in any degree, by
those which we have, and many of the fragments lead us
towards such an estimate, the chaos of lost things holds
no equal treasure : but it is not now to be rescued ; in his
own words

Perhaps a list of the surviving dramas may be useful to those
wishing to form an idea of the poet's scope and range.

* Athen. x, p. 428, F.

t Poet. 4, Hor. A. P. /. 278 ; Themistius Or. 26.


These plays (in the chronological order that seems most
probable) are

I. The Suppliant Maidens.

The Scene is laid at Argos.
II. The Prometheus Bound.

The Scene is on a Scythian peak, looking doumfrom
afar upon the Euxine.

III. The Persians.

Scene The Tomb of Darius at Susa, the treasure
city of the king of Persia.

IV. The Seven against Thebes.

Scene, the City of Thebes in Baotia.
i V. The Agamemnon.

VI. The Libation-Bearers.
I VII. The Furies.

Of these three last plays, which form a consecutive whole,
called a Trilogy, and yet are individually complete, the scene
is Argos or Mycensc : * afterwards, the Temple of Apollo at
Delphi : lastly, the Acropolis and Areopagus at Athens.

Of an Athenian Trilogy (i.e., a combination of three
dramas by the same hand, whether on the same or different
subjects, for consecutive presentment on the same day, and
followed by a lighter play called a Satyric Drama), there

* Argos and Mycenas are in reality about six miles apart, in the great
xorXo* "Ap>o?, wide valley of Argolis. The relics of the dynasty of
Atreus are undoubtedly at Mycenae. ^Eschylus however calls the scene,
always, Argos : not caring to particularize about a district so well known.
The fact that he describes the beacon fire on Mount Arachne as visible to
the palace need not lead us to conclude that he had Argos more in mind
than Mycenae : though the mountain is visible (if I remember right) from
Larissa, the citadel of Argos, and not (I am sure) from the Acropolis of
Mycenae. The beacon-glare would have been clearly seen from either, no
doubt But ./Eschylus ignores such detail : as Mr. Clark (Peloponnesus,
p. 70) remarks, every Athenian saw daily from his own hills the peak of
Arachne to the south, and knew it looked upon the region of Argos : and
this was enough for the poet


remains to us this solitary specimen : of the Satyric Drama,
the Cyclops of Euripides, familiar to English readers by
Shelley's translation.

It may be added, to explain the apparent difficulty of
listening continuously to three dramas, each in itself a
perfect whole, that, in the first place, a whole day of leisure,
and not the few last hours, between work or play, and sleep,
of an exhausted audience, was devoted to the Theatre ; and
secondly, that the whole length of the three plays combined
which form this Trilogy is rather less than that of Hamlet.
I do not say that they would not necessarily take longer to
act than Hamlet : but merely that the intellectual strain,
to an appreciative audience, would not necessarily be greater.
Change of interest, not mere rest, is the essential relaxation
of the mind, and this, which Shakespeare provides, e.g., by
the soliloquies of Hamlet, the Greek dramatists and pre-
eminently ^Eschylus provided by the Choric Odes, or
chants inserted between the several episodes of the play.
Of such Odes, this Trilogy, and especially the Agamemnon,
presents to us the noblest surviving specimens. They may
be regarded as the poet's profoundest musings on the moral
and religious and historical problems suggested by the
mythical tale which forms the groundwork of his drama.

Of the grandeur, the preternatural effect, of these
musings, while the imminent doom is preparing, no words
of explanation or translation can give an adequate account.
If it is lawful to adopt words written for a very different
purpose by a poet in whom survives more of the spirit of
^Eschylus than in any other -modern one might say of
these choric odes, " They are as a pause, a breathing-space,
a curtain behind which God, the great scene-shifter, prepares
the last and supreme act of the mighty drama. Listen,
how, in the deep shadow behind, a dull and heavy sound
is waxing ! Listen, what footstep is that which passes to


and fro ? Look ! how the curtain sways and waves and
trembles before the breath of that which is behind ! " *

Of the mythical tale, well known as it is, which forms the
groundwork of this Trilogy, some slight sketch may be

Atreus and Thyestes, sons of Pelops, fled from their
father and dwelt at Argos with Eurystheus the king thereof:
and when he died, Atreus f ruled in his place, and wedded
his daughter. But Thyestes wronged his brother's wife, and
was banished from Argos. And after a while he returned
again, and clung unto the altar at Argos; and Atreus,
fearing to slay him, devised this deed. He slew certain
of the children of Thyestes, and bade him to a banquet, and
gave him to eat of his own children's flesh : and he ate,
knowing not what it was. But when he knew what was
done, he spake a bitter curse upon the house of Atreus, that
they all should perish by a doom like that of his own
children. And there befel these woes unto that house, that
for three generations the curse of murder departed not
away. For the children of Atreus, Agamemnon and
Menelaus, wedded the daughters of Leda, Clytemnestra
and Helen : and afterwards Paris the son of Priam, being
the guest of Menelaus, did bear away Helen his queen unto
Troy. And Agamemnon and Menelaus went forth to
vengeance against Paris and Troy. But Artemis was wroth
with the brothers, and forbade their ships to sail ; and they
lay at Aulis many days. And Calchas the prophet pro-
claimed that they should not go forth, unless Agamemnon

* V. Hugo, Napoleon le Petit, ch. last.

t The position of Pleisthenes in the family of Atreus seems doubtful,
though the lineage is twice called by his name. (Ag. II. 1569, 1602).
Atreus is distinctly called father of Agamemnon (/. 1561), yet tradition
rather holds that Pleisthenes was son of Atreus and father of Agamemnon
and Menelaus, but, dying young, left his children to the care of their
grandfather Atreus.


should offer up his daughter Iphigenia in sacrifice unto
Arteinis. And the king was unwilling so to do : yet for his
oath's sake, and for his brother and the captains of the
fleet, he consented, and offered up his daughter : and the
fleet sailed. And they besieged Troy for nine years, and in
the tenth year it fell.

But Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, was wroth
because of her daughter's death ; and she did evil with
yEgisthus, the youngest son of Thyestes ; and they plotted
to murder Agamemnon when he should return, and sent
away his son Orestes unto Strophius, king of Phocis, that
he might not know what they did. And when Agamemnon
came back from Troy Clytemnestra received him gladly,
and led him into the palace : and as he was bathing himself,
she flung over him a net, and smote him, and he died : and
Clytemnesti'a and ^Egisthus ruled in Argos.

But Orestes heard of his father's wrongful death, and
went unto the oracle of Delphi to enquire thereof, and
Apollo bade him avenge his father, and not spare his own
mother but slay her. And secretly he came to Argos,
bearing feigned news of his own death in Phocis, and so
came into the palace of his father again, and slew his
mother Clytemnestra and ^Egisthus. Then was he dis-
traught and maddened by the Furies, in revenge for
Clytemnestra's slaying : and he wandered over the earth,
seeking purification for his deed, but the Furies followed
him. At last he came to the temple of Delphi, and clung
to the altar : and the God cast a deep sleep over the Furies,
and bade him fly to Athens, where he should find safety.
But the ghost of Clytemnestra arose from the shades and
awoke the Furies, and they followed him, and were wroth
with Apollo. And they held dispute on the Acropolis, and
Athena bade certain of the men of Athens decide the cause
with her. And in the end they proclaimed the deed of


Orestes to have been rightly done, and the guilt of matricide
to have been wiped away. Then the Furies were angered
with Athena and her land : but Athena promised them great
honour from the Athenians, and a sacred dwelling place in
the land, even a cave beneath Areopagus ; and they were
appeased, and were called no more Furies, but Gracious
Goddesses. And Orestes went back unto his father's
kingdom, and the curse of blood upon the house of
Atreus was stayed.*

It will be obvious, even from a compendium like the
foregoing, that the myth is an epic in itself : and
regarding ^Eschylus' treatment of it as a whole, we may
discern a special propriety in the poet's recorded saying,
that his dramas were "scraps from the lordly feast of
Homer." I have sometimes fancied that an interesting
parallel might be drawn between the three parts of the
Trilogy, and the three divisions of the Divina Commedia.
For we have in both, the same central idea ; the succession,
that is, of guilt, atonement, absolution. Dante fixes his
epic in the future world, ^Eschylus in the present: but
mutatis mutandis, substituting the deepest religious thought
of Athens for that of the middle ages, the most shadowy
and gigantic vision of retributory forces for the clearest
and most distinct we shall find the parallel curiously
suggestive, to say the least, of the essential unity of moral
speculation. The first part of the Trilogy, the drama
Agamemnon, takes up the above myth at the point
where Agamemnon's return from Troy is being anxiously
awaited at Argos, in the tenth year of the war. The first
choric ode recalls some of the previous history, dwelling

* I have ventured to give to the whole Trilogy the title of The House of
Atreus as the name most applicable to all three parts. The older name
Oresteia seems to me to have meant, in Aristophanes, (Frogs, 1124),
The Libation-Bearers only : it is hardly applicable to the Agamemnon,


particularly on the circumstances of the sacrifice of
Iphigenia. Then follows the appearance of the Herald,
and of Agamemnon ; the treacherous welcome of Cly-
temnestra; the prophecy of Cassandra, daughter of Priam,
now a captive in Agamemnon's train ; the murder of the
king, and Clytemnestra's savage exultation over his body
and that of Cassandra. With the appearance of yEgisthus,
and his avowal of his plot and motives, the drama closes,
leaving Clytemnestra and her paramour in supreme power
over Argos.

The second part, called the Choephoroi, or Libation-
Bearers from the duty imposed upon the chorus of pouring
libations on Agamemnon's tomb opens with the secret
return of Orestes, the mutual recognition of himself and
his sister Electra, and their invocation of the sleepless spirit
of their father to aid their planned revenge. Then Orestes,
assuming the character of a Phocian stranger, recounts to
Clytemnestra a feigned tale of his own death in that land.
Then, received into the palace, he slays ^Egisthus and
Clytemnestra, and avows his commission from Apollo to
do the deed. But already his " are but wild and whirling
words ;" and, maddened by the guilt of blood, he sees the
Furies arise, with dark robes and snaky hair; and, calling
on Apollo for protection, he flees wildly away.*

* Two scenes of the Trilogy have been thus admirably sketched by Mr.
Browning in " Pauline."

"Old lore,

Loved for itself and all it shows ; the king
Treading the purple calmly to his death,
While round him, like the clouds of eve, all dusk,
The giant shades of fate, silently flitting,
Pile the dim outline of the coming doom.

And the boy

With his white breast and brow, and clustering curls,
Streaked with his mother's blood, and striving hard
To tell his story ere his reason goes."


The third part, called The Furies (the Greek name
" Euuienides " signifying literally " The Gracious Ones,"
from the change in the nature of the Furies with which the
drama closes), opens at Delphi in the temple of Apollo.
The Furies lie in sleep, made drowsy by the God : Orestes
clings to the altar : Apollo bids him be of good hope, and
depart unto Athens while the Furies are yet asleep. As
he passes from the stage, the ghost of Clytemnestra rises
and calls the slumbering Furies to arise and pursue the
criminal. Then Apollo himself, with words of loathing,
bids them forth from his temple ; and scenting like hounds
the truck of blood, they follow the flying Orestes.

Here the scene shifts to Athens ; Orestes, having followed
the behest of Apollo, clings to the statue of Athena on the
Acropolis, and claims her aid. The cause is tried, appar-
ently on Areopagus (the scene probably representing both
the Acropolis and the adjacent Areopagus) Athena pre-
siding, Apollo pleading Orestes' part, the Furies impeaching
him of matricide. The votes are cast, and found equal, for
acquittal and condemnation ; and this result, as Athena
has previously ruled, gives Orestes the benefit of the doubt.
The Furies, wroth at being thus defrauded of their victim,
vow vengeance on Athena's land and nation : but she
appeases them by promising them honourable worship for
ever, as gracious and fostering Powers of Earth, from her
own Athenians : and so, solemnly escorted by torches and
processions, they pass down into their subterranean cave
beneath Areopagus, with words of blessing upon Attica;
and the third and last part of the Trilogy closes with joy
and with extinction of the curse.

It will appear by a glance at this plot that the Agamemnon
and The Libation- Bearers are both of them Tragedies in the
accepted modern sense ; the one closing with the death of
Agamemnon and the triumph of murder and adultery ; the
other, with the death of Clytemnestra and with madness as


the reward of matricide. The Furies might seem, to modern
eyes, less a tragedy than a drama of restoration ; yet it con-
forms in all respects to the Aristotelian definition of Tragedy.
The situation is undeniably tragic, though the conclusion
dispels the gloom.

The Trilogy is ^Eschylus' presentment of two problems,
each of eternal import, though the form in which he
contemplated them was the common theme of the Greek
drama. These problems are :

I. The Retribution of Crime.

II. The Inheritance or Transmission of Evil.

The views of the poet on each may perhaps be illustrated
by a few excerpts from his writings. It has been pointed
out (Plumptre, Biographical Essay) that, in many cases, they
are reflections on the <yva)fj,ai, or current proverbs of the day:
the foundations of Greek philosophy, but often as forgotten
as those who laid them. Sometimes the poet actually quotes
and acknowledges the proverb, as a rpiyepwv /u)0o?,
" an immemorial saying ; " but often, it is probable that
some piece of apparently irrelevant mysticism is in reality
the poet's reflection on some saying familiar to his audience,
but not recognizable by us. Such, e.g., I believe to be the
case in the celebrated passage (Agam, 160) Zevs, 6'<rrt<?
TTOT' eoTtV. tc.T.\.

RETRIBUTION. " Among the dead, this bitter name of
murderess clings ever to my soul ; I wander scorned of
all." " Though he go down to the grave, the guilty is
never freed . . . the sinner on whose hand is the stain
of blood must see the Furies rise at his side, avengers of
murder, champions of the slain." The Furies, II. 175, 316.

" There is one who spoils the spoiler ; the slayer in his
turn is slain; while Zeus is lord of the world, it is fixed
that all who sin shall suffer." Agamemnon, I. 1562.


" The anvil-block of Justice is planted firm : Fate the
sword-smith hammers the steel of her design : the mighty
Fury from her dark depth of counsel requites to the
uttermost at last the guilt of blood shed forth of old."
The Libation-Bearers, I. 647.

"There is a law that blood-drops shed upon the ground
demand other bloodshed in requital : Murder calls aloud,
summoning a Fury, who brings a further woe, sent up in
vengeance from those who were slain before. Ibid, /. 400.

INHERITANCE OF EVIL. "One said of old that the gods
have no heed to punish him who tramples down the grace
of things holy : 'twas impiously said ! their vengeance is
manifested upon the children of all who breathe forth
rebellion overmuch, what time their houses teem with weal
too great for man." Agamemnon, I. 369.

" There is an ancient saying, that human bliss, if it reach
its summit, doth not die childless ; that from prosperity
springs up a bane, a woe insatiable. I hold not so : 'tis
impious act that bears those many children, all like the race
from which they sprang : but the house of the upright hath
a blessed fate, a progeny of good." Agamemnon, I. 750.

These excerpts, few oiit of many passages bearing on
the same subject, may perhaps be a help towards grasping
the import of these dramas as a whole. Not the least of
^Eschylus' claims to honour in his divergence, in some
points, from the traditional and accepted views of the time,
with respect to hereditary guilt and responsibility. A belief
in a jealous and vindictive Power, in children suffering for
their fathers' sins, in families lying under a curse for
generations was not only familiar to the Athenians of this
epoch, but approached the condition of an accepted tenet :
it was even, at times, a political force : as, in the case of
Pericles, his membership of the Alcmceonid family (which
lay under a curse for the perfidious and impious murder of


the partisans of Cylon) undoubtedly operated in his
disfavour. (See Thucyd. Bk. i, ch. 127.)

The proportion of people who believe in an unjust,
capricious, and vindictive God may have diminished since
the time of ^Eschylus and Ezekiel : yet to this day so
large a minority are haunted by corresponding ideas so
considerable even in our own time has been the political .
influence of such notions that the earnest protest of the
Hebrew prophet and the less distinct yet equally purified
doctrine of the Athenian poet can neither of them be said
to have lost their importance nor to have done their work.
The eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel, and the third chorus of
the Agamemnon, should be read together, as the grandest
assertions, in pre-christian times, of the justice of God.

The poetry of ^Eschylus is the precursor of the philosophy
of Plato : the vague and mysterious problems over which
the poet brooded became the subjects of moral philosophy
in the next generation. Let it be remembered that we
have in ^Eschylus the beginnings of speculation, not its
ultimate forms ; and the greatness of this first step will be
at once apparent. ^Eschylus deals especially with two
popular theories : (i.) The doctrine of the jealousy of
Heaven against human prosperity as such; (ii.) The
doctrine above mentioned of the inheritance of evil in
certain families.

The first, he may be said to deny. The teaching of
Solon, as recorded and exemplified by Herodotus in the
history of Croesus (Book i, ch. 30-33), "that the Divine
Power is altogether jealous, and loves to trouble the estate
of man," is confronted by ^Eschylus with the assertion of
justice, not caprice, as ruling over man. That this con-
ception brought the poet into collision with the popular
ideas of Zeus, is manifest from the drama of Prometheus
Vinctus (where, unfortunately, we have the problem without


its solution, the rest of the trilogy being lost) : that the
national polytheism had little hold on his belief, however
largely it affected his poetry, seems to me plain from all his
deeper utterances, notwithstanding the assertion of Klausen
(Theol. JEsch., p. 5) to the contrary.* But of the poet's
attitude towards the theory of a vindictive God, there is
no question. " I am alone in my thought" he cries ; " it is
not wealth, nor prosperity it is impiety that breeds other
sins, and woe for its sequel." It is hard to resist the
temptations of wealth, and power, and victory ; yet not
these things, but the yielding to their temptations, do
the gods punish : not Agamemnon's triumph, not even
the carnage of Troy, but his arrogance and pride on his
return : his making himself equal to the gods. (Ag. I. 811).
The second doctrine that of the inheritance of evil in
certain families, forms the groundwork of the whole Trilogy;
and the poet's views on it must be collected : they are
nowhere concentrated or distinctly expressed. Substantially
they appear to apply to the following condition of things.
The idea of an Ate, or inherited curse which dogs certain
families, has a double origin.

I. An origin of fact : that children are like their parents,
grow up under their influence, borrow from their connection
with them much of their own character.

II. An origin in custom. A family crime had a far more
serious import to an ancient Greek than we can readily
realize.! It is the simple fact, that the idea of individual
responsibility, and even of individual existence, was almost
absent from him. The family was his unit; the family
sinned in the sin of any of its members ; the family exacted
or suffered vengeance ; any member of the family who was
slain by another was held to have incurred the stain of

* See Fr. 295. f See Maine, "Ancient Law," ch. 5.


The author of the Trilogy endeavours to purify these

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