The Libation Bearers

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The Libation Bearers Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Aeschylus's The Libation Bearers. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Aeschylus
Born in Eleusis, Greece, Aeschylus grew up in the Golden Age of Athens, and fought in the Battle of Marathon against invading Persian forces in 490 BCE. He began writing plays even before this, in the year 500 BCE, and by 484 he had won first prize at the Dionysia, the most important festival of tragic plays in Greece and a huge honor for a Greek dramatist. Eventually writing over 90 plays (of which only seven have survived), he went on to win first prize in the Dionysia twelve more times. The Oresteia trilogy was some of his latest and best work, and his influence over Greek drama was so great that in Aristophanes’ The Frogs (written in 405 BCE), the comic playwright named Aeschylus the greatest poet that the world had ever seen.
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Historical Context of The Libation Bearers
The events that take place in the Oresteia would have been well known to the plays’ original audience. According to Greek mythology, the Trojan War began as a result of Paris, the Trojan prince, stealing Helen, who was married to the Greek king Menelaus. Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon led a fleet of troops to Troy to avenge Paris’ insult, and the following siege lasted ten years. The events of the Oresteia then begin the moment the war ends with a Greek victory. Aeschylus himself, however, lived and wrote nearly a millennium after the Trojan War supposedly occurred—during the Golden Age of Athenian democracy. This was a time when Athens dominated the Ancient Greek world, preaching their values of republicanism and enlightenment. Aeschylus himself played a role in establishing Athenian hegemony, taking part in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, when Athens vanquished invading Persian forces. This sense of Athenian dominance and power is evident in Aeschylus’s works, all of which argue for reason over revenge, order over chaos, and democracy over tyranny.
Other Books Related to The Libation Bearers
Greek tragedies were usually written as trilogies, meaning that Aeschylus also wrote Agamemnon, a prequel to The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides, the sequel. All three plays center on the tragic House of Atreus and the consequences of Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War, and together they make up a group called the Oresteia. The two other great Greek tragedians of Aeschylus’s time are Sophocles and Euripides. Sophocles’ tragic trilogy is made up of the three Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. These works contain elements of Greek tragedy similar to those within the Oresteia, such as a forewarning Chorus, an emphasis on the divine power of fate, and a series of heroic but flawed main characters. Euripides’ tragedies, too, display similar qualities, with an added emphasis on the plights of female figures within these stories. He is known for tragedies such as Medea and The Trojan Women. Also relevant to the narrative of the Oresteia is Euripides’ play Iphigenia at Aulis, which recounts the actions of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra before the Trojan War, and Electra, which portrays a different version of the events within The Libation Bearers, focusing much more heavily on Electra than Orestes. The event of the Trojan War—the backdrop to the Oresteia—are most famously related in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, epic poems that formed a foundation for the majority of Classical Greek literature and drama. Some modern takes on the story of the Oresteia are Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies—an adaptation of the Orestes story from an existentialist philosophical perspective—and Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill’s retelling of the Oresteia set in Civil War America.
Key Facts about The Libation Bearers
  • Full Title: The Libation Bearers
  • When Written: 458 BCE
  • Where Written: Athens
  • Literary Period: Classical
  • Genre: Tragedy
  • Setting: Argos, Greece
  • Climax: Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, thus avenging his father Agamemnon
Extra Credit for The Libation Bearers

A foundational text. The plays of Aeschylus are the earliest full works of Greek tragedy that we possess. They were also incredibly innovative for their day, because they included two actors interacting on stage at once (along with the Chorus), and because they expanded the use of props and scenery.

A founding father in more ways than one. Of Aeschylus’s two sons, both went on to be tragic poets (as did his nephew), and one even won first prize at the Dionysia, the festival of tragic plays that the Oresteia won in 458 BCE.