The Eumenides

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Revenge vs. Justice Theme Analysis

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Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon

The Eumenides has two prequels—Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers—and these three plays together form Aeschylus’s trilogy called the Oresteia. In both of those first two plays, revenge and justice are essentially equated—that is, paying back someone who has wronged you is considered the right and moral thing to do. In The Eumenides, however, revenge and justice are not only defined as two separate concepts, but in fact often stand opposed to each other. And, in the end, justice prevails.

Characters within the play are strongly associated with these two ideas. The Chorus of Furies symbolizes vengeance, while the goddess Athena stands for justice. The Furies seek only to punish a wrongdoer—Orestes—by whatever means necessary. They do not even attempt to explore the nuances of Orestes’ crime of matricide (killing his mother), despite the fact that his murder of his mother Clytemnestra was sanctioned, and indeed commanded, by the god Apollo. The Furies’ black-and-white understanding of the facts stands in contrast with Athena’s methodical and logical ability to comprehend the situation before her. Impartial and evenhanded, she seeks to hear all sides of an issue before making her decision, clearly displaying the power of justice.

The trial of Orestes constitutes a pivotal moment not simply within the structure of the play, but also within the mythological history of Ancient Greece. Athenians, who prided themselves on their fair and democratic justice system, considered the trial represented in The Eumenides to be the first of its kind. Thus the progression from vengeance to justice that takes place within the play—and, more broadly, over the course of the three works that make up the Oresteia—not only creates a satisfying dramatic arc, but actually represents a crucial moment within the creation of Classical Greek civilization. By leaving behind vengeance in favor of justice, the characters within the play are taking a huge step forward for their entire civilization. Their decision does not simply affect Orestes’ fate, but also that of Athens itself, where the play is set.

No dramatic moment better symbolizes the significance of this shift than the transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides at the end of the play. Wrathful, bereft, and robbed of purpose, the Furies seem poised to take revenge on the entire city. Yet instead of doing so, they finally hear reason, and decide to become beneficial goddesses who will watch over and bless the city of Athens. The literal symbols of vengeance have abandoned that force entirely, a metamorphosis that dramatically embodies the move towards a more civilized, rational, and just society.

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Revenge vs. Justice Quotes in The Eumenides

Below you will find the important quotes in The Eumenides related to the theme of Revenge vs. Justice.
Lines 64-234 Quotes

They disgust me.
These grey, ancient children never touched
By god, man, or beast—the eternal virgins.
Born for destruction only, the dark pit,
They range the bowels of Earth, the world of death,
Loathed by men and the gods who hold Olympus.

Related Characters: Apollo (speaker), The Furies
Page Number: 71-76
Explanation and Analysis:

Apollo visits his protectee, Orestes, who has been tormented by the Furies for killing his mother, Clytemnestra. Reassuring Orestes that he has more power than the Furies, Apollo then turns his anger on the goddesses themselves, voicing his contempt and "disgust" for them, and mocking their ugliness and age.

Apollo's attitude towards the Furies reveals the deep hatred that the Olympian gods feel for the Furies, despite the fact that they carry out the necessary function of avenging interfamilial murders. This mindset towards the Furies, embodiments of vengeance, reveals a change in Apollo since this play's prequel, The Libation Bearers. In that drama, Apollo urges Orestes to avenge his father, and acts as a force that pushes vengeance forward. Here, however, he has turned away from vengeance and violence--a change that indicates a drastic difference in this play's worldview, as opposed to its bloody predecessors.


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You—how can you sleep?
Awake, awake—what use are sleepers now?
I go stripped of honour, thanks to you,
Alone among the dead. And for those I killed
The charges of the dead will never cease, never—
I wander in disgrace, I feel the guilt, I tell you,
Withering guilt from all the outraged dead!
But I suffered too, terribly, from dear ones,
And none of my spirits rages to avenge me.
I was slaughtered by his matricidal hand.
See these gashes—Carve them in your heart!

Related Characters: The ghost of Clytemnestra (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 97-107
Explanation and Analysis:

The Furies sleep, exhausted from chasing Orestes, even as their prey is spirited away by Apollo and Hermes. As they slumber, however, the ghost of the murdered Clytemnestra emerges and berates them for failing in their task.

Her speech helps audiences and readers to understand the Furies' motivation, and their purpose in life. In their worldview, the dead cannot rest until they are avenged. Clytemnestra is a tortured ghost precisely because her murderer (and son) still lives, unpunished, despite having corrupted his familial bond with his mother.

Clytemnestra's appearance also emphasizes the vivid presence of the dead in The Eumenides, a fact that is true in many Greek dramas. To the characters in the play, the dead are still an active and powerful presence, and letting them down or going against their wishes can have terrible consequences. 

Lord Apollo, now it is your turn to listen.
You are no mere accomplice in this crime.
You did it all, and all the guilt is yours.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Apollo
Page Number: 196-198
Explanation and Analysis:

Apollo and the Furies confront each other; Apollo tells the Furies that they have no right to torment Orestes, while the Furies retort that Apollo, too, is at fault. It is important to note that in the prequel to this play, The Libation Bearers, Apollo ordered Orestes to kill his mother, and then promised to protect him after the deed was done. The Furies believe, therefore, that Apollo is at fault as well as Orestes.

This quote emphasizes the Furies' obsession with vengeance, as well as the power that the gods wield within this narrative. Even though the Furies know that Apollo was the driving force behind the plan to kill Clytemnestra, they can only punish his mortal instrument, Orestes.

While the Furies cannot actually harm Apollo, however, they do call attention to what they view as his hypocrisy at punishing Clytemnestra for murdering her husband, but protecting Orestes for murdering his mother. This debate highlights the tangled and often contradictory web that vengeance creates, particularly within the House of Atreus.

Marriage of man and wife is Fate itself,
Stronger than oaths, and Justice guards its life.

I say your manhunt of Orestes is unjust.
Some things stir your rage, I see. Others,
Atrocious crimes, lull your will to act.

Related Characters: Apollo (speaker), Orestes, The Furies, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Page Number: 215-221
Explanation and Analysis:

As Apollo and the Furies continue their debate, they touch on the difference between the bonds of mother and child, and those of man and wife. The Furies argue that because Orestes killed his own flesh and blood, he is at fault. Apollo, however, responds that the connection between a husband and a wife is fated to be, and that their bond is guarded by "Justice" itself. (Implicit in these arguments is also the sexism that undergirds Greek society at the time—Apollo is seen as more "correct" here because Clytemnestra not only violated a sacred bond in killing her husband, but also acted distinctly un-feminine.) This debate illustrates the tangled web of allegiances that vengeance creates. Although Apollo and the Furies are each trying to convince the other, they will never actually agree on who is in the right.

Apollo also brings up another crucial concept: the idea of justice. In accusing the Furies--goddesses of vengeance--of being unjust, he is implying that there is a difference between vengeance and justice. This attitude differs from Apollo's beliefs in The Eumenides' prequel, The Libation Bearers, in which he commands Orestes to perform an act of vengeance (killing his mother) in order to bring about justice. This shift highlights the evolution in The Eumenides towards a system of justice, rather than a system of vengeance.

Lines 235-566 Quotes

Queen Athena,
Under Apollo’s orders I have come.
Receive me kindly. Curst and an outcast,
No suppliant for purging…my hands are clean.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Athena, Apollo
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 232-235
Explanation and Analysis:

Having reached Athens and the temple of Athena, Orestes begs the goddess to shelter him from the avenging Furies. His prayer illustrates his deep faith in both Apollo and Athena, demonstrating the immense power of the gods over human life within this play—and presenting Orestes as a worthy hero because of his piety. 

Orestes' claim that his "hands are clean," meanwhile, allows us to understand that Orestes does not view himself as guilty of his mother's murder. He has followed divine orders, and carried out what he believes to be justice, and is therefore free of sin or corruption. At the same time, however, Orestes considers himself to be unfairly "curst" by the actions of the Furies. 

You’ll give me blood for blood, you must!
Out of your living marrow I will drain
My red libation, out of your veins I suck my food,
My raw, brutal cups—
Wither you alive,
Drag you down and there you pay, agony
For mother-killing agony!
And there you will see them all.
Every mortal who outraged god or guest or loving parent:
Each receives the pain his pains exact.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Orestes, The ghost of Clytemnestra
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 262-269
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Furies find Orestes cowering at the shrine of Athena, they threaten him, demanding their vengeance. Their brutal, bloody language vividly illustrates their violent worldview. The language they use also illuminates their eye-for-an-eye mentality. The Furies' logic is very simple: since Orestes has shed his mother's blood, his blood must be shed in turn. Or in their words: "Each receives the pain his pains exact."

This point of view contrasts with that of Apollo and Orestes, who believe that since Orestes was avenging his father, he does not deserve to be punished for his own murder of his mother. It is this debate that will become central as the play continues. 

Hold out your hands, if they are clean
No fury of ours will stalk you,
You will go through life unscathed.
But show us the guilty—one like this
Who hides his reeking hands,
And up from the outraged dead we rise,
Witness bound to avenge their blood
We rise in flames against him to the end!

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Orestes
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 313-320
Explanation and Analysis:

Having confronted Orestes in Athena's temple, the Furies weave a spell in order to trap him there. As they do so, they explain the rules under which they carry out their grim task, promising not to harm anyone innocent of sin. Their only purpose, they say, is to punish the guilty, especially those (like Orestes) who hide among the innocent.

During their chant, the Furies also make clear the close ties that they have to the dead, explaining how they "rise" from "the outraged dead" in order to exact vengeance. To the Furies, the dead (such as Clytemnestra) are just as important as the living (like Orestes). They believe that it is their duty to put the dead to rest, and that the only way to do so is through bloody and violent vengeance. 

Two sides are here, and only half is heard.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Page Number: 440
Explanation and Analysis:

The Furies and Orestes turn to Athena for judgement, and the goddess agrees to hear both sides of the story. Her measured, balanced language contrasts with that of the Furies, who utterly reject logic and moderation. Athena also differs from Apollo, who is clearly biased in Orestes' favor.

In short, in both her language and her actions, Athena exemplifies justice personified. She is determined to render a fair judgment, and will do so by learning as much as she can about both the Furies' and Orestes' points of view. More broadly, Athena's logic and fairness represent the system of values that sit at the core of the city of Athens (as the Athenian Aeschylus portrays it). A city known for its enlightenment and intellect, Athens here represents a place where justice and reason will always prevail. 

ATHENA: …you are set
On the name of justice rather than the act.

LEADER: How? Teach us. You have a genius for refinements.

ATHENA: Injustice, I mean, should never triumph thanks to oaths.

LEADER: Then examine him yourself, judge him fairly.

ATHENA: You would turn over responsibility to me,
To reach the final verdict?

LEADER: Certainly.
We respect you. You show us respect.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), The Furies (speaker), Orestes
Page Number: 442-449
Explanation and Analysis:

The Furies try to convince Athena that they are in the right, but she quickly explains to them that she is interested in justice rather than simply shows of justice. Flattered that the goddess has shown them "respect," the Furies agree to abide by whatever she decides.

This moment is a crucial one within the play. Up until now, the Furies have remained convinced that only they can decide Orestes' fate. Impressed and placated by Athena, however, they have given that power over to her. In essence, the Furies--embodiments of vengeance--have acknowledged the authority of Athena, an embodiment of (relatively) unbiased justice. This shift from vengeance to justice will continue to gain momentum as the play continues, and parallels Aeschylus' praise of the ideals of Athens itself.

But were we just or not? Judge us now.
My fate is in your hands. Stand or fall
I shall accept your verdict.

Related Characters: Orestes (speaker), Athena
Page Number: 482-484
Explanation and Analysis:

With the Furies having agreed to accept Athena's verdict, Orestes does the same. Up until now, he has maintained his innocence. Now, however, he admits that perhaps he and Apollo were wrong to seek Clytemnestra's death, and leaves it up to Athena to decide. With Orestes' agreement, the trial begins, and Athena becomes a judge. 

As this passage makes clear, the shift from vengeance to justice is rapidly occurring. The Furies, agents of vengeance, have agreed to follow Athena's judgement, and Orestes, who himself has carried out bloody vengeance, has done the same, even admitting that his original act may have been wrong.

Embrace the one? Expel the other? It defeats me.
I will appoint the judges of manslaughter,
Swear them in, and found a tribunal here
For all time to come.
My contestants,
Summon your trusted witnesses and proofs,
Your defenders under oath to help your cause.
And I will pick the finest men of Athens,
Return and decide the issue fairly, truly—
Bound to our oaths, our spirits bent on justice.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Orestes, The Furies
Page Number: 496-505
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Athena is the all-powerful goddess of wisdom, she admits that she alone cannot decide whether Orestes or the Furies are correct. Instead, she decides to create a trial by jury--in Greek myth, the first trial by jury to ever take place, setting a precedent "for all time to come."

The action that Athena takes here is emblematic of Athenian values. Athenians believed in justice, but also found the ideas of community and democracy to be equally important. Even though Athena is the patron goddess of the city, she still does not consider herself entitled to judge Orestes' fate. This decision illustrates Athena's fairness and rationality, while also emphasizing the importance of central Athenian values. 

Oh I can hear the father now
Or the mother sob with pain
At the pain’s onset…hopeless now,
The house of Justice falls.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker)
Page Number: 525-528
Explanation and Analysis:

As the trial begins, the Furies take the stand first and begin to testify. They do so by painting a picture of a world without justice, referencing fathers and mothers betrayed by their offspring, and the "fall" of the "house of Justice."

This argument, though vivid, also illustrates the Furies' fundamental failure of understanding. They believe that justice and vengeance are the same thing, and that a world without vengeance is the same thing as a world without justice. In contrast, Athena understands that justice is fair and rational, while vengeance is bloody and senseless. The Furies, however, come from an older world, one without courts of law, judges, or juries. Having devoted their whole existence to vengeance, they are unable to understand a world in which reason and justice would prevail but vengeance would fall by the wayside. 

Lines 567-1043 Quotes

You’d force this man’s acquittal? Behold, Justice!
Can a son spill his mother’s blood on the ground,
Then settle into his father’s halls in Argos?

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Orestes, Apollo, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 659-662
Explanation and Analysis:

After Apollo has testified in Orestes' favor, the Furies once again take the stand, mocking what the god has just said. While Apollo has argued that Orestes in fact carried out justice by killing his mother, the Furies find this argument laughable. To them, the fact that Orestes has killed his mother is unforgivable. They believe that he should be cast out of society altogether, rather than eventually take his father Agamemnon's place as king of Argos. 

The Furies' powerful argument illustrates the true difficulty of this case. Although Orestes seeks justice, he himself is a murderer, and an agent of vengeance. Apollo calls for justice, but the Furies point out his hypocrisy, given his investment in vengeance in this play's prequel, The Libation Bearers.

And now
If you would hear my law, you men of Greece,
You who will judge the first trial of bloodshed.
Now and forever more, for Aegeus’ people
This will be the court where judges reign.

Here from the heights, terror and reverence,
My people’s kindred powers
Will hold them from injustice through the day
And through the mild night.

Untouched by lust for spoil, this court of law
Majestic, swift to fury, rising above you
As you sleep, our night watch always wakeful,
Guardian of our land—I found it here and now.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker)
Page Number: 692-721
Explanation and Analysis:

Before the Athenian judges cast their lots in the case of Orestes v. the Furies, Athena notes the historic importance of this moment. She decrees that she has founded the first ever trial-by-jury court in history, and that Athens will be a city of justice and fairness forevermore.

It's vital to remember that The Eumenides is a deeply nationalistic piece, as well as a religious one; at its heart is not simply loyalty to the gods, but also loyalty to the city of Athens. In writing the play, Aeschylus seeks not only to tell a compelling story, but to explain how Athens became the pinnacle of reason and civilization that it was in his day.

The Eumenides tells the story of justice overcoming vengeance, and is also the origin story of Athens. This fair and enlightened city is embodied both by Athena and her judges, whom the audience members and readers are meant to see as paragons of virtue and wisdom. 

Beware. Our united force can break your land.
Never wound our pride, I tell you, never.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Athena
Page Number: 726-727
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Athenian judges begin to cast their impartial votes, the Furies attempt to sway the outcome of the trial, threatening to "break" Athens if the verdict doesn't go their way. This moment illustrates how little the Furies understand justice. Although they believe that they are in fact carrying out just punishments, their attempt to tip the scales in their favor through violence and threats shows that they are not in fact agents of justice.

Further, the Furies' threat here is essentially a threat of vengeance--if Athenian citizens insult them, then the goddesses will "break" Athens itself. As readers, we now fully comprehend how opposed vengeance actually is to justice. In this moment, the Furies have actually set up vengeance as an obstacle to justice, demonstrating how invested they are in the former at the expense of the latter. 

I will cast my lot for you.
No mother gave me birth.
I honour the male, in all things but marriage.
Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child.
I cannot set more store by the woman’s death—
She killed her husband, guardian of their house.
Even if the vote is equal, Orestes wins.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), Orestes, The ghost of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Zeus
Page Number: 750-756
Explanation and Analysis:

With the jury split down the middle, Athena casts the deciding vote for Orestes. Greek myth has it that the goddess was born from her father Zeus' head, hence her statement that, "No mother gave me birth." Although she is a woman, Athena still believes that children belong to their fathers, and views men as the dominant gender.

Given these facts, Apollo's argument--that a father matters more to a child than a mother--has been successful, and Orestes wins. Although modern readers may view this reasoning as appallingly sexist, ancient audiences would have approved of it as traditional and correct.

It is important, too, that Athena casts the dividing vote in the trial. The Athenian court is as even-handed as the justice that it serves: blind and impartial. They have clearly understood the difficulties of the case, and it is up to Athena, a god, to make the final decision. The brand-new Athenian court is a fair and balanced one.

You, you younger gods!—
You have ridden down
The ancient laws, wrenched them from my grasp—
And I, robbed of my birthright, suffering, great with wrath,
I loose my poison over the soil, aieee!
Poison to match my grief comes pouring out my heart,
Cursing the land to burn it sterile and now
Rising up from its roots a cancer blasting leaf and child,
Now for Justice, Justice!—cross the face of the earth
The bloody tide comes hurling, all mankind destroyed.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Athena, Apollo
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 820-828
Explanation and Analysis:

Learning that they have lost the trial, the Furies launch into a horrifying and vengeful rant, vowing to pay back all those who have wronged them. In reality, the ancient goddesses are terrified. In losing the trial, they have essentially lost their identity--unable to punish someone whom they believe deserves vengeance, they have been robbed of their purpose in life. The only recourse, in their understanding of the world, is to wreak vengeance on those who have decided against them. They are essentially portrayed as being unwilling to admit that they have been usurped by the "younger gods" and the polis of Athens itself.

Once again, the Furies imply that since vengeance has been thwarted, justice has as well. They truly do not understand that the two concepts are different, and can even exist in opposition to each other. Rather than understanding that in this instance justice has defeated vengeance, the Furies instead believe that justice on earth has come to an end, and destruction is near. 

Your magic is working…I can feel the hate,
The fury slip away…

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Athena
Page Number: 908-909
Explanation and Analysis:

Trying to protect her city, Athena works to entice the Furies away from their vengeful plan, and to convince them to become patron goddesses of Athens. Although they are initially skeptical and hostile, the Furies gradually come to accept Athena's offer.

This passage is a crucial one, as the Furies finally let go of their identities as wrathful goddesses of vengeance, instead becoming kindly deities of protection. The feeling of their fury "slip[ping] away" is a kind of transformation as they exchange one identity for the other. Officially, they have now changed from the Erinyes (furies) to the Eumenides (kindly ones).