The Orestia

ISBN: 1419176331
ISBN 13: 9781419176333
By: Aeschylus

Check Price Now


Classics Currently Reading Drama Favorites Fiction Greek Literature Mythology Plays To Read

About this book

These plays embody Aeschylus' concerns with the destiny and fate of both individuals and the state, all played out under the watchful eye of the gods.In "Agamemnon, the warrior who defeated Troy returns to Argos and is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia before the Trojan War.In "The Libation Bearers" (Choephoroi), Orestes, Agamemnon's som, avenges his father by murdering his mother.In "The Furies" (Eumenides), Orestes flees to Delphi, pursued by the divine avengers (Erinyes) of his mother. After being purified by Apollo, he makes his way to Athens and is there tried (and acquitted) at the court of Areopagus.

Reader's Thoughts

Mark Adderley

This is an excellent trilogy (of course), about a woman's revenge upon her husband for the sacrifice of her daughter, and a son's revenge upon his mother for having murdered his father...kind of confusing, like a lot of Greek tragedies. This one involves a conflict between the old ways, represented by Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon, and the Furies, and the new ways, represented by Orestes, Athena, and Apollo. It's Athena, through the use of reason and justice, who puts an end to the cycle of revenge and violence, and reconciles the old and new ways. The first two plays are tragedies, from at least one point of view, but the last one has an optimistic ending, with Athena and the Furies reconciled.Richmond Lattimore's translation is occasionally opaque; you have to read it twice to really get anything out of it.


I enjoyed "The Eumenides" more than I thought I would, more than the other two parts of the trilogy. Reading "The Libation Bearers" was incredibly confusing, because I had read two versions of "Electra" before going into The Oresteia, and sophomore year of highschool I saw a play entitled "Orestes 2.0," which was a wacky retelling of the mythos of Orestes and Electra. None of these fell into my understanding of the myth, which is Orestes kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Electra has a part in it but ends up going insane and either killing herself or someone else, and then Orestes is hounded by the Erinye.This is a pretty hard translation to get through, very long and flowy and it's incredibly easy to get lost in the language. It's also easy to miss subtle little nuances in the text. Over all, though, it seems to stay pretty true to Aeschylus. Or so my professor hinted at.


Murder, betrayal, revenge, torment . . . you might wonder, “Why would I bother reading three Greek plays when I could see the same sort of lurid problems on an episode of Jerry Springer? And fold laundry at the same time??” Two possible answers: First, you’re not going to get patricide, matricide, human sacrifice and unintentional cannibalism on daytime TV because we still draw the line somewhere, and you have to admit those are pretty dramatic. More importantly, though, along with the dysfunction in the House of Atreus comes a searing examination of guilt, retribution, and justice. It’s a lot of philosophical bang for your buck.The first play in the trilogy, Agamemnon, sets up the conflict for the remaining two. Agamemnon returns home from the Trojan War to his wife, Clytemnestra, who has spent the last ten years plotting revenge because he sacrificed their daughter to appease a god at the outset of the journey. The verbal interplay at their reunion is the stuff of English majors’ dreams. Clytaemnestra’s subsequent murder of Agamemnon, with the help of a lover who has his own history with Agamemnon, is the stuff of Mafia dreams – though actually I’m only guessing on that one. However, Clytaemnestra’s revenge creates the conflict that drives the other two plays and generates the ethical conundrum Aeschylus ultimately wants to solve. For now Clytaemnestra’s son, Orestes, needs to avenge his father’s death . . . but what happens if you kill your own mother? And how is the cycle of revenge ever supposed to end??The Libation Bearers has Orestes debating what he should do, sort of like Hamlet, until the advice of his sister and the chorus women wins the day. . . and that’s when the excitement kicks up a notch. Clytaemnestra’s death at the hand of her son calls forth the avenging Furies — ancient goddesses of chthonic tradition who appear here as gorgon-like horrors, swathed in black, heads writhing with snakes. It’s so dramatic!! Also it’s fitting, for Clytaemnestra is like a Fury herself: in avenging her daughter’s death she acts within the old paradigm of blood ties that the Furies champion, wherein maternal claims are stronger than marital. So even though Orestes does his duty to avenge his father (in accordance with the current ethos), he’s pursed by snaky-haired horrors for killing his mother. Like his father, Orestes appears to be both an agent and a victim of fate, for in following the gods’ direction to avenge his father’s death, he both aligns himself with the Furies’ spirit of vengeance and becomes subject to it. Perhaps Orestes’ contradictory relationship with the Furies is Aeschylus’s commentary on a theology rife with snares and contradictions. In The Eumenides, Aeschylus resolves the problem, but his “solution” to the blood feud tradition is hardly unproblematic itself — read it and lose sleep! But you’ll know for sure why this is a masterpiece.


This dramatic trilogy is amazing. Unless you are intensely familiar with Greek history and myth, get a good copy of Aeschylus' writing with notes and glossary in the back. I read a Penguin publisher edition, translated by Robert Fagles. It was beautiful. The language: stunning. My vocabulary, like most eary-twenty-somethings I know,is grossly bleak. My language skills suck. The third play, The Eumenidies is the first record of a trial in dramatic history. Drama is at its core, the art of a democratic civilization. But what good is democratic law, when our power of rhetoric, our knowledge of language, or ability to use our freedom of speech is weak beyond belief? ---Classics like this have disappeared from public education. Why?. . . Why? Because standards must sink in a passive socialist society. Well, that thought is just what sprung to mind. I'm not really sure why. The point is: people should be learning about the roots of their society, how democracy was born (i.e. in the theaters of ancient Greece), and how the knowledge of language is the greatest power a person can ever hope to weild. Introducing literature such as this early on in a person's life--like, before the age of ten--will expand their linguistic potential and also get them thinking for themselves. "Thinking for oneself" That phrase reminds me of another phenomena: independant thought, questioning authority--are other abilities that recede in a Socialist society along with the ability to put thoughts, impulse, and emotion into words, much less into flexible, persuasive, powerful rhetoric. You want world peace? Brain to banish the power of brawn? Then cultivate your mind, baby. Peace talks take persausive language by people with enough knowledge of speecha and words to creatively adapt their language to persuade another body of persons into doing what they want by their own volition. Basically, if you want world peace: make your four-year-old learn Greek and Latin. Let him/her read Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound and Orestia, and you will get a freethinking, genius of a kid.


Aeschylus, as the original Greek playwright, sticks to the basics of his time. There is a chorus, a few singularly riveting lines from Clytemnestra (who has been harboring hot anger for over a decade since her husband sacrificed their daughter to the winds), a murder, revenge, etc. There are definitely some lines that I loved when I read through these plays. Reading is a different experience when you are reading through plays, after all. Agamemnon was an excellent piece. Electra, however, is awful. Not because Aeschylus is, but because she is. And she only gets worse. Sophocles and Euripides wrote their own versions of Electra and with each one she just gets whinier, turns into a wannabe goth-girl, and makes me just want to slap her. That being said, it's still worth reading through the whole thing.

Anthony Nelson

I won't tell you what happens - read it for yourself. I will tell you that I read it every year - and have done since studying it at university decades ago. This is among the earliest surviving dramas - and also among the leanest, sparest and most elemental of all classical dramas. And it contains everything that defines tragedy - hubris, ignorance, fatal flaws, coincidence, discovery/anagnorisis, power, fall. If you've read Homer, then the Oresteia, while "set" in Homeric times, will demonstrate for you how society and art developed from the Bronze Age in Epic ("Age of Heroes") to the dawn of Classical Greece ("Age of the Polis") and the rise of Athens. Try to resist reading it as being "about" something, but instead as being both of its time and universal and timeless. It is many things, including an optimistic expression of the development of civilised society, and a mirror of the human condition.


I'm giving this five stars for Agamemnon. I only give The Libation Bearers four. I wouldn't have objected to a few more explanatory notes in the text, but the Introduction was very good. I'm not normally a fan of murder, but Agamemnon is such a jerk that killing him hardly seemed like a crime. I'd have liked Clytaemnestra better, though, if she'd let Cassandra go.


Like so many other things that I've been reading lately, Aeschylus's trilogy is concerned with human beings thrown into the crucible of extremest intensity, pressured from every direction my conflicting obligations, driven to violent action and violent remorse. Few poets are as willing as Aeschylus to stare into the profound darkness of human suffering and name the curse that seems to hold us to the wheel of our own violence. Yet, even fewer are ultimately as hopeful about the possibility of our breaking that wheel, of our suffering a way through to wisdom and truth. In this way, Aeschylus is a religious poet who believes in redemptive sacrifice. And by placing his faith in the power of civic institutions to domesticate the chthonic forces of our souls and turn them toward public service, he is also a political poet. At a time when it is hard for poets to be either of these things, a time when our families and our politics seem equally bound up in sterile cycles of fear and retribution, Aeschylus may have much to teach.


I've come to the conclusion that anyone who says he or she is a fan of Greek drama must also, by default, be a fan of soap operas and the ridiculous story lines that surround them. This, of course, is not a bad thing (soap operas definitely have a fan base), but I can't refrain from sighing and inwardly groaning at all the ridiculous plots these characters go through. If you've read Sophocles, Aeschylus' Oresteia is more of the same thing. Rocky mommy/son relations, cheating spouses, murder, scandal, ghosts, etc., etc.The Oresteia follows the rise and fall of Agamemnon, his wife, Clytemnestra, and their son, Orestes. Even though I'm not going to give spoilers in this review, it's kind of a futile effort since this is a trilogy of Greek tragedies, and it's obvious what happens in tragedies (-cough- people die -cough). I don't know. If Greek tragedy is your thing, by all means, enjoy every bit of it. It definitely isn't mine, but for some reason or another, I still find myself being assigned it in almost every English class I take.

Ben Dutton

And so we come, at last, to the first pieces I had have previously read from the Penguin Classics range, The Oresteian Trilogy of Aeschylus, made up of the three plays Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. It won the first prize at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BC.AgamemnonAgamemnon, king of Argos, returns home following the Trojan War. His wife, Clytemnestra, has been planning his murder as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. In Agamemnon’s absence, Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin. The second strand is set with the discovery of Agamemnon’s keeping of the concubine Cassandra, whose entrance heralds death. So is set the stage for a very Greek tragedy.Agamemnon is the first part of the Oresteian trilogy (originally a tetralogy, containing as it did the satyr play Proteus, now lost). This first part of the trilogy is a play haunted by the constant spectre of death.“What is this persistent dreadHaunting, hovering to showSigns to my foreboding soul” (P.76)The Libation BearersThe Libation Bearers continues the story of Agamemnon, opening with Clytemnestra’s nightmare in which she gives birth to a snake. Fearing retribution she orders her daughter Electra to pour libations on Agamemnon’s tomb. At the tomb, Electra meets Orestes, who has returned from protective exile in Phocis, and they plan revenge upon Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus together. Electra, pretending to bear news of Orestes’ death, finds Clytemnestra who calls Aegisthus to share in the news. Orestes kills them both. Immediately, Orestes is beset by the Furies, who avenge patricide and matricide in Greek mythology, and this brutal plays reveals its dark beating heart.“A raging sea of gall batters my heartThe iron goes through my soul; out of the savage flood.” (p.110)The EumenidesThe Furies pursue Orestes from Argos and into the wilderness. Orestes makes his way to the temple of Apollo, hoping to be for relief from the Furies. Apollo bears a portion of the guilt of the act, for he had encouraged Orestes to kill Clytemnestra. Apollo sends Orestes to the temple of Athena. There, the Furies track him down and, just before he is to be killed, the goddess Athena, patron of Athens, steps in and declares that a trial is necessary. Apollo argues Orestes’ case and, after the jury splits their vote, Athena decides against the Furies. She also renames them the Eumenides, or kindly ones, and declares that thereafter all future hung juries should result in acquittal, since mercy should take precedence over harshness. The Eumenides specifically extols the importance of reason in the development of laws, and, like The Suppliants, lauds the ideals of a democratic Athens.“So, Heaven’s firm ordinance has now been told,The task which Fate immutably assignedTo our devotion. Who will then withholdDue fear and reverence? Though our dwelling lieIn subterranean caverns of the blind,Our ancient privilege none dares deny.” (P.161)This trilogy fulfils every modern conceivable notion of what tragedy is – however The Oresteian Trilogy confounds modern expectation, ending as it does, in line with what other extant Greek tragedy shows us – a happy ending. The dark heart of this drama has been leading to this; an extolling of the virtue of the city state, for this is what the best of Greek drama does, and what Aeschylus did so formidably.Philip Vellacott’s translation of these three plays is truly great, managing to expertly maintain the balance of poetry and plot that exemplifies Aeschylus. Like all great drama, these three plays work on very different levels, open to much interpretation and debate. My few thoughts on this trilogy seem almost negligible. The Oresteian Trilogy is amongst the finest drama ever written – the plays hold up as well as they did in Ancient Greece. Aeschylus was a master storyteller, and it is little wonder his work has stood the test of time. But I am no Greek scholar, and am ignorant of much of this culture. Perhaps with more reading I will understand more of its depth, but for the time being this brief note shall have to do as my commentary upon The Oresteian Trilogy.


Finally I understand the furies.

A.J. Howard

Just a few edition specific notes, because, really, who gives a shit what I have to say about Orestia. What am I going to say, "gee I don't really see what the greatest minds in Western Civilization over the past 2500 years see in this thing, it was boring." Nope, no one needs me to cape up for Aeschylus. Anyways, I was fretting over picking a translation before I had the problem solved for me by finding a nice used copy of the Richard Lattimore translation. I can't really speak to the comparative quality of this translation, but I didn't find any faults in it either. There is a pretty great introductory essay, that particularly serves the reader well for Agamemnon, but doesn't cover the next two plays (The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides) particularly well. (I would guess that the essay was originally written for an earlier volume that only included Agamemnon, and Lattimore quickly updated it for this volume.) However serviceable this essay was, explanatory notes were sorely missed. Unless you're either a expert's expert on Greek mythology or a transplant from pre-Alexandrine Hellas there is a lot of references that you're just not going to be able to get. There's only so much Wikipedia can do to help you. Hence, some of the long choral sections have a tendency to be either beautifully poetic or utterly incomprehensible. Hopscotching to reference notes can be a pain, but here it would be worth it.


** spoiler alert ** When I finished the first play in the trilogy of The Oresteia, titled "Agamemnon", where the king was slain by Clytemestra, his wife, I was bothered that no one seemed concerned that Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, (and Orestes and Electra's sister) Iphigenia. Orestes and Electra are hell bent on revenging their father's (Agamemnon) murder in the second play, The Libation Bearers, and do so. The last "The Eumenides" concerns the trial of Orestes.The play celebrated birth of tribunals in Athens - an achievement for the time. Aesclylus' was the earliest of the three ancient playwrights to survive to the 21st century and it helped me to know that he was the first to introduce a second character thereby creating dialogue. Some of his language (in translation) was impressive especially a few of Athena's speeches. My 21st century self is still horrified by 5th B.C.E. portrayal of women. I'm glad I read it.


This is more like it! I read Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers in the Grene translation, and Agamemnon was great, but The Libation Bearers was a bit "meh." So I got another copy, this one translated by Fagles, and What a Difference! Going by reviews, Grene seems to be regarded as more "literal," which sounds like a good thing, but I'll take "vigorous and engaging" over "literal and (a bit) dry" any day. Fagles' introductory essay was fascinating, if sometimes a little abstruse, and both The Libation Bearers and Eumenides were terrific this time. What a rat Apollo is, though!

Shannon (Giraffe Days)

Oresteia is the only surviving trilogy of Greek tragedy plays, performed in 458 BCE - two years before Aeschylus's death in 456 BCE. This review summarises all three plays as a trilogy, and because I think that it's easier to read them if you know what to expect, I do give away all the relevant plot points.The first play, "Agamemnon", is about betrayal: King Agamemnon returns home to Argos after the successful sacking of Troy (in modern-day Turkey), only to be killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Agamemnon's cousin, Aegisthus, who had taken over Agamemnon's rule in his absence. Clytemnestra is wrathful because her husband sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to placate the god Artemis and secure calm winds for the voyage to Troy, and kills Agamemnon in his bath. They also murder Cassandra, his spoils of war, the prophetess cursed to never be believed who sees her own death but is, of course, disbelieved. Such is the curse of Agamemnon's family continued.The second play, "Libation Bearers", is about just revenge, or deliverance. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon's son Orestes returns from another kingdom where he was sent to live, having learned from the oracle Loxias of his mother's murderous betrayal. Through Loxias he is given leave by the god Apollo to exact revenge by killing his mother and her lover. When he arrives at the palace he goes first to the tomb of his father to pay his respects; there he encounters his sister Electra, also in mourning. With the help of the palace servants, he disguises himself as a traveller bearing news of his own death so as to trick his way inside and see Aegisthus privately. He slews him and then his mother, who knows she is going to her death but does not fight it.The third play, "Eumenides", is about justice and change - it displays a new way of seeking justice, that in a new court-of-law, with the verdict decided by a group of citizen jurors in Athens. The Furies are hounding Orestes, demanding payment for the matricide. Orestes seeks out Apollo's temple and Apollo's protection, and then Athena (Pallas Athena), goddess of war, wisdom and justice (among many other things). Athena decides to hold a trial to hear the case, with the Furies the prosecution and Apollo defending Orestes. Athena casts her own vote in Orestes' favour, and the result is a tie: Orestes goes free. The Furies threaten to destroy the land but Athena placates them instead into protecting it, and decrees that henceforth a trial by jury shall always be used to decide such cases.That's the general overview of this trilogy of Greek tragedies, though there is a lot more going on in the details. I did struggle a bit, reading these short plays, because it's so hard for me to concentrate these days. I found my mind wandering continuously, thoughts intruding, and even when I made the effort to focus I often had to re-read passages several times and then admit defeat. The notes do help, but the fact remains that I had trouble with the structure of many lines, that like obscure poetry they alluded me. Full of metaphor and requiring a great deal of knowledge to get the mythic and historical references, a lot of "Agamemnon" in particular was hard to follow, in particular the Chorus' chants, like when they tell the story of the family curse (I only know that's what it's about from reading the intro and some notes. Other names are often used - like Ilion, for Troy, or Pallas, for Athena - and like an optical illusion the lines seem to double in on themselves so you don't know what the hell is really being said, or so it seems to me, like it's a language I don't know. It gives me a headache.Yet, on that note, it also made me wonder (an intruding thought among many), how these plays would have been heard by ordinary people, just as Shakespeare's plays were heard by the poor and uneducated as much as the rich - regardless, they all understood them, didn't they? I mean, the style of speech was understandable in all its convolutions and beseechings. We struggle to follow all the lines in Shakespeare today - it just makes me really recognise how much verbal language has changed, verbal English (I know Greek isn't English, but the translation honours the original). But I digress.I'm not entirely sure what to make of this story. We've all heard the story of Troy even if you haven't read The Illiad, and you've probably heard of Agamemnon and Cassandra too. Aeschylus wasn't the only playwright to create plays based on this myth of Agamemnon's murder - Euripides, for example, who came just after Aeschylus died, wrote one too. I've studied some ancient Greek plays, years ago, but I don't really have a background in it. To me, as a modern-day reader and an emancipated woman, I can't help but find them almost misogynistic in tone, even though scholars have apparently seen Clytemnestra as an early feminist figure for taking over the male role of ruler - the translator, Christopher Collard, Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Wales, says in his introduction that "it seems unnecessary to think of her as more than a playwright's imaginative construction for the sake of his drama." (p.xxvii) But there are far stronger anti-women sentiments voiced in these plays, especially the third one. (I want to bring it up not because I'm offended or anything, but because it's an interesting theme, to me at least, and because I vaguely remember when I studied Greek plays in university that strong, powerful, mad women are a common theme - but more than that, I can't remember!)In "Agamemnon", the king himself speaks of the gods' undivided and just support for the destruction of Tory, saying "it was for a woman that Troy was ground into dust..." (p.23)Apollo has the worst denouncement, though, when he says during the trial in "Eumenides":The so-called mother is no parent of a child, but nurturer of a newly seeded embryo; the parent is the one who mounts her, while she conserves the child like a stranger for a stranger, for those fathers not thwarted by god. [p.103] And Athena makes her judgement thus:It is my business in this case to give my judgement last; and I shall cast this vote of mine for Orestes. [...] I do so because there is no mother who gave me birth, and I approve the masculine in everything - except for union with it - with all my heart; and I am very much my father's: so I will set a higher value on the death of a woman who killed her husband, a house's guardian. [p.105](Athena, a rational goddess, is the daughter of Zeus, born of his head.)So combined with Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, his other daughter Electra's idolatry of her father, Clytemnestra's usurping of a man's role and adultery, the gods' promotion of the masculine over the feminine is rather like having the last word. Bit hard to gainsay a god.I bring up the theme of women in these plays because I feel it is relevant in questioning, what is Clytemnestra's greatest crime here? Why does Orestes feel the need to kill her rather than bring her to justice? Certain lines jump out at me that make it apparent that her greatest crime was taking on a man's role, and therefore depriving Orestes of his inheritance. In "Libation Bearers", Orestes says of his decision to kill his mother, "Many desires are falling together into one; there are the gods' commands, and my great grief for my father; besides, it oppresses me to be deprived of my property, so that our citizens, who have the finest glory among men, and honour for their heart in sacking Troy, should not be subjects like this of a pair of women. [p.59](By "pair of women" he refers here to his mother's lover Aegisthus, who he calls "effeminate at heart".)I wonder whether she would have been so abominable in mens' eyes if she had not sought to rule, which she was doing in her husband's absence anyway. It is so easy in mythology to lay all blame and evil and everything that goes wrong, at the feet of women. What scapegoats we make! Though to be fair, if Athena had not cast her own vote, Orestes would have been found guilty, for her vote made it a tie in which case she decreed he would be pardoned. The majority of jurors voted against him. Which brings me to the big idea of the trilogy of plays, though: justice itself. Here we have the myth of how the first court of law, the first trial, began and was institutionalised in Athens, making it the most sophisticated and modern city-state in Greece. With the Furies trying to avenge Clytemnestra's murder and losing, they bemoan the change: "You younger gods! The ancient laws - you have ridden them down! You have taken them out of my hands for yourselves!" [p.106] The tied verdict, though, helps Athena, the patron of Athens, placate the Furies by saying they have not been dishonoured, and the goddess moves quickly to give the Furies a new role, that of protecting Athens rather than bringing destruction upon it for losing the trial. In doing so, she posits the city as the pinnacle of all things, blessed by the gods and made fortunate by the Furies who she gives the role of "keeping both land and cit on the straight way of justice." (p.111) In telling the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's downfall, this trilogy of plays gives us the mythologised story of how Athens became great - to an Athenian audience, so it's very much a self-aggrandising story.There's lots more going on here; I've barely scratched the surface. I don't feel I can give it a rating, so I've given it a 3 because it's so middle-of-the-road. In terms of the general plot, it brought to mind "Hamlet" and also "Macbeth" - it's true that everything borrows from everything else, and stripped down, I'm sure there are probably only about three real plots or something (or was it seven? I think there's a book on this already!). It's tricky to read because all the action happens off the page; or rather, it happens in speech, making it fairly bogged-down with details, but this was also an interesting aspect of the plays. It was hard to read Cassandra and Clytemnestra's dialogue when they are both aware they are walking to their deaths - there's real emotion in those lines. The chants of the chorus are the hardest to read, being like poetry rather than prose and requiring significant background knowledge to understand. A note on this edition: This is a new 2002 translation by Christopher Collard for Oxford World's Classics, and it's more of an academic translation than a popular, readable one. There is a long introduction and essay by Collard on the characters, the theatre production of the plays, dramatic form and so on, as well as extensive notes in the back. It comes with a summary of the three plays - which it's a great idea to read first or it's hard to follow what's going on - as well as a chronology of Agamemnon's family and a map that shows Greece and Turkey, which I really appreciated. All in all, it's a very thorough translation, noting when lines and words are missing from the original manuscripts, and probably your best choice if you're studying the plays.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *