The Eumenides



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The Eumenides Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Aeschylus's The Eumenides. 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, even fighting in the Battle of Marathon against invading Persian forces in 490 BCE. He began writing plays before this, around 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), Aeschylus 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 Eumenides

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 then led a fleet of troops to Troy to avenge Paris’s 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 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 Eumenides

Greek tragedies were usually written as trilogies, meaning that Aeschylus also wrote two prequels to The Eumenides: Agamemnon and The Libation Bearers. 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 and caliber are Sophocles and Euripides. Sophocles’ great 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. The most famous accounts of the original Trojan War—the backdrop to the events in the Oresteia—are Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey, which formed a foundation for the majority of Classical Greek literature and drama. Modern takes on the story of the Oresteia include Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies—an adaptation of the Orestes story from an existentialist philosophical perspective—and Mourning Becomes Electra, which is Eugene O’Neill’s retelling of the Oresteia set in Civil War America.
Key Facts about The Eumenides
  • Full Title: The Eumenides
  • When Written: 458 BCE
  • Where Written: Athens
  • Literary Period: Classical
  • Genre: Tragedy
  • Setting: Athens
  • Climax: Athena creates the first trial by jury in order to determine whether Orestes should be punished by the Furies.
  • Antagonist: The Furies

Extra Credit for The Eumenides

Historical fiction. Athens really did originate the first trial by jury—jurors were chosen by lot, to ensure their impartiality, and had an equal say in the proceedings regardless of class or wealth.

Copycats. The Greek tragedians Sophocles and Euripides also incorporated the Furies into their plays—Sophocles in his play Oedipus at Colonus, and Euripides in his play Orestes, a rewrite of Aeschylus’ own The Libation Bearers.