The Eumenides

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The Power of the Polis Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Revenge vs. Justice Theme Icon
Gender Roles Theme Icon
Familial Bonds Theme Icon
The Power of the Gods Theme Icon
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Eumenides, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Power of the Polis Theme Icon

While characters both mortal and divine drive the events of The Eumenides, there is another figure that is equally important: the city-state of Athens. During the Classical Age of Greece, when playwright Aeschylus wrote, the city-state, or polis, was considered the pinnacle of civilization—and Athens was considered the pinnacle of polises. In fact, the worst punishment for a citizen of Athens was not death, but banishment. It was believed that a man could not exist without his city, and that the greatest privilege in life was to serve one’s homeland.

In the face of this massive emphasis on community and home, Orestes’ punishment by the Chorus of Furies becomes even more horrific. Driven from place to place and never able to return to his own kingdom, Orestes would have been a cautionary tale for Ancient Greek viewers. His suffering would have been frightening to them, while his desperate desire to end his wanderings would have been moving and relatable.

The idea of the city-state becomes even more prominent once the character of Athena is introduced. As the protector of Athens, Athena must weigh her desire to harbor the fugitive Orestes against the dangers that he may bring to her favorite city-state. Her decision to take Orestes in speaks to the importance of hospitality in Greek culture, but also to the strength and self-sacrifice of Athens as a whole, as they risk the wrath of the Furies in order to protect a refugee. These positive Athenian qualities are demonstrated once again by the jury of Athenians who vote not to convict Orestes. The Furies have threatened to destroy Athens and curse its soil if they lose the trial, but the citizens of Athens believe in justice, and have faith in it as a moral imperative. They are admirable representatives of Athens, doing the right thing even when it means endangering themselves.

Perhaps the most moving and vivid emphasis of the power of the polis, however, comes from the Furies themselves. At the end of the play, the vengeful goddesses have been stripped of power and purpose. They have no tasks left in life, and nowhere to turn. At this moment, however, Athena and the citizens of Athens welcome the Furies with open arms, inviting them not only to bless their community, but to become a part of it. At the idea of being accepted by the Athenian citizens, the Furies transform from vengeful nightmares into kind and beneficent goddesses. The act of inclusion within a polis allows the Furies to change their very natures, proof of how important and essential the Greeks considered the idea of community and its ability to transform the vengeful, primal, and violent into the civilized and just.

The Power of the Polis ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Power of the Polis appears in each section of The Eumenides. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Power of the Polis Quotes in The Eumenides

Below you will find the important quotes in The Eumenides related to the theme of The Power of the Polis.
Lines 235-566 Quotes

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. 


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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. 

And now you’d vent your anger, hurt the land?
Consider a moment. Calm yourself. Never
Render us barren, raining your potent showers
Down like spears, consuming every seed.
By all my rights I promise you your seat
In the depths of earth, yours by all rights—
Stationed at hearths equipped with glistening thrones,
Covered with praise! My people will revere you.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), The Furies
Page Number: 812-819
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Athenian court has rendered a verdict against the Furies, Athena seeks to appease the older goddesses, begging them not to harm Athens. Forever wise and rational, Athena offers the Furies an alternative to taking vengeance on her city, promising that if they do not, she will make them honored, patron goddesses.

This passage shows Athena's devotion to her city, as well as her deep understanding of the Furies. Despite having voted against them in the trial, Athena clearly sees that the Furies have been stripped of their purpose in life. By offering them the position of patron goddesses of Athens, she is essentially offering them a new role in the world. Instead of being feared and despised, they will instead be revered and worshipped.

This is the life I offer,
It is yours to take.
Do great things, feel greatness, greatly honoured.
Share this country cherished by the gods.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), The Furies
Page Number: 876-878
Explanation and Analysis:

In order to appease the enraged Furies after they have lost in court, Athena offers them a place as patron goddesses of Athens. Ever tactful and insightful, Athena offers the Furies a chance to leave behind their identity as despised and feared agents of vengeance. Instead, she prophecies that they will be honored, and will do great things for Athens.

The story of The Eumenides, we must remember, is also the story of the rise of Athens. As patron goddesses, Athenian citizens believed, the Furies gave the city prosperity and greatness which helped it rise to the pinnacle of the known Greek world. Thus by showing how the Furies came to love and protect Athens (and in doing so became the Eumenides, "the kindly ones"), Aeschylus is also illustrating how Athens' rise to greatness began. 

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).

I will embrace
One home with you, Athena,
Never fail the city

Spirit of Athens, hear my words, my prayer,
Like a prophet’s warm and kind,
That the rare good things of life
Come rising crest on crest,
Sprung from the rich black earth and
Gleaming with the bursting flash of sun.

Related Characters: The Furies (speaker), Athena
Page Number: 927-938
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Furies sing a prayer for Athens' prosperity, the play begins to come to a close. While before these goddesses were barren monsters of vengeance, now they sing a chant of fertility, harvest, and peace. Through Athena's generous offer and kind words, the Furies have essentially transformed. Although robbed of their identities as embodiments of vengeance, they have instead found different roles in this new world of justice, reason, and hope.

It is vital to note that this play ends with a prayer for the prosperity of Athens. Plays in Ancient Greece were exercises in both piety and nationalism, and with this scene, Aeschylus touches on both topics. He depicts the full extent of the gods' power and generosity, while also praising and praying for Athens, his home city.

Do you hear how Fury sounds her blessings forth,
How Fury finds the way?
Shining out of the terror of their faces
I can see great gains for you, my people.
Hold them kindly, kind as they are to you.
Exalt them always, you exalt your land,
Your city straight and just –
Its light goes through the world.

Related Characters: Athena (speaker), The Furies
Page Number: 997-1004
Explanation and Analysis:

As the play draws to a close, Athena sums up what has happened: the Furies have ceased to be, and in their places are the Eumenides, kindly goddesses who will help Athens to attain greatness and fame. Athena's prophecy would have been tremendously moving for Aeschylus' audiences, who truly believed themselves to be living in a city blessed and protected by the goddess of wisdom.

It is also important to understand the references to justice that Athena makes within this passage. She clearly understands that huge "gains" have been made within this play, and urges her people to continue to act justly and fairly, as she has taught them to do. If they follow her command, she says, then Athens will prove a "light" that will shine "through the world," providing an example of dignity and fairness to all other nations.