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 Power of the Polis Quotes in The Eumenides
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.
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.
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?
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.
Beware. Our united force can break your land.
Never wound our pride, I tell you, never.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Your magic is working…I can feel the hate,
The fury slip away…
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.
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.