The only trilogy of ancient Greek plays in existence, the Oresteia combines Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides to tell the tale of King Agamemnon, his wife and murderer Clytemnestra, and their children Electra and Orestes, who kills his mother and her current lover to avenge his father.
The subject-matter of the Oresteia is familiar enough in Greek literature – betrayal, revenge, deceit in familial relationships. Its significance is far greater, however, as the play traces a profound transition in the history of western civilization – that shift from a kin-based justice of vengeance to a more formal and impersonal standard and process to assess innocence vs guilt and to order what compensation or punishment is appropriate. It reveals, then, the philosophical and moral debates that underpin the administration of justice in kin systems and those that come to predominate with the rise of the state.
With Sophocles and Euripides join him in the great triumverate of Greek tragedians, Aeschylus’ place in the emergence of classic theatre has earned him the unofficial title ‘father of Greek tragedy”, and our understanding of Greek thought, myth and society owes no small debt to his surviving works. But while his work was important in his own time, it was his military accomplishments that were celebrated upon his death – a death, we might add, that was said to be caused by a tortoise dropped on his head by an eagle that flew above: his “noble prowess” in war with the Persians being the sole focus of remembrance upon his gravestone.