Persia 29: The "Oresteia" of Aeschylus

The three Oresteian plays of Aeschylus have been compared to the Parthenon in terms of Greek cultural achievement. They were first performed in 458 BC, which was a pivotal year for Xerxes, who was facing the last serious challenge to his sovereignty. Two years earlier Inarus (a.k.a. Pausanias/Artabanus) began a revolt in Egypt and killed the Persian satrap Achaemenes. Athens decided to support Inarus against Persia. At the same time they began the so-called Peloponnesian War with the pro-Persian Sparta of Archidamus (the newly adopted Greek name used by Xerxes).

It was in 458 BC that Pericles was first elected as strategos (commander-in-chief) of Athens. Initially, Pericles supported Inarus against Xerxes, but later changed his mind and helped put down the insurrection. This reversal is reflected in the story of his Persian alter ego, the leading general Megabyzus II, who broke with Xerxes and joined forces with Artabanus, but later repented of it. Inarus surrendered in 456 BC, and by 454 BC he was dead, crucified between two thieves according to Ctesias (thereby becoming a “role model” for a future Reubenite of the Herodian royal family, Aristobulus III true son of Herod’s eldest son Antpater).

In 458 BC, despite over twenty years of careful planning, Xerxes was once again fighting for his kingly survival. Within this context, the Oresteian was clearly another attempt by Xerxes to counteract his fatalistic typecasting. As previously demonstrated (see links below), the usurper Darius the Great was patterned after Atreus (Assurdan III). Xerxes son of Darius was placed in the role of Agamemnon (Tiglath-pileser III son of Assurdan III). The son and successor of Xerxes was expected to become a new Orestes (Esarhaddon). A son of Xerxes might then eventually come to the Great Throne, but Xerxes would be murdered and not live to see it. Moreover, the son of Xerxes would be sickly and bring the entire line of Darius to a pathetic end. This, of course, was an unacceptable scenario, and one that Xerxes and his appointed seleni (“followers of Dionysos) found a novel way to combat.

In the Oresteian (The saga of Orestes son of Agamemnon son of Atreus), the curse on the House of Atreus is revisited. It is conceded that Atreus had killed two sons of Thyestes (Khaemwaset son of Ramses II), but countered with the assertion that Thyestes had first seduced Europa the wife of Atreus. The brutal sack of Troy by Agamemnon son of Atreus is a “no contest”, however Troy is said to have brought this upon itself by its disregard of the courtly hospitality code, that is, by Paris of Troy’s seduction of Helen while in Sparta in the absence of her husband Menelaus, and Troy’s willful asylum of the couple.

Agamemnon had also sacrificed rival princes in his hostile takeover of Troy, but this is ignored by Aeschylus. Instead, he brings up an episode not recounted in the Iliad or elsewhere. Aeschylus offers up that Agamemnon had put his daughter by Queen Clytaemnestra to death, but this was imposed upon him by his commanders and the army before leading them into a righteous war. (In the Bible, Agamemnon/King Ahaz is better known for killing his “sons”.)

From other sources, Agamemnon (Takelot III/Shabaka) was done in by his father-in-law Aegisthus (Hori/Iuput). However, Aeschylus makes Clytaemnestra the leading perpetrator and has her use the death of her daughter as an excuse to murder Agamemnon and seize power. Clytaemnestra’s murder of Cassandra is likewise framed as brutal and unjustified. The god Apollo, through his oracle at Delphi, had ordered Orestes to avenge his father’s murder (if not Cassandra’s) - even to kill his own mother Clytaemnestra. For this, Orestes was harried by the Furies of Clytaemnestra to his death (Esarhaddon is thought to have died from smallpox). In the Oresteia, Aeschylus serves up some refried Homer. Orestes is given a retrial in a hypothetical court of law at Athens, and this time is acquitted.

In 458 BC when the Orestia was staged, the aristocratic body of elders in Athens (called the Areopagus, and presiding from the hill of Ares - the fratricide Marduk-Re), had ironically been stripped of all powers except judgment over murder cases. In the imaginary proceedings of the Oresteia, Apollo makes a rather shameful number of points in favor of pardoning Orestes, which are based on traditional royal tactics:

1) arbitrary authority/prerogative
2) precedence/partiality
3) intimidation
4) sexism
5) bribery
6) slander/falsehood

Surprisingly, exactly half of the 12-man jury is persuaded! The jury is hung, so to speak, and Athena herself must cast the deciding vote. Athena is a goddess that thinks and acts more like a god. Born directly from the brow of Zeus, she claims no mother. Athena is a strong female, but she is no feminist. Her sentiments are for men, and for the man Orestes. Her vote for Orestes is also a vote for the Crown. Athena is made to uphold rule by a single god-king alongside one goddess-queen. This denouement in the Oresteia is a denouncement of true democracy. Orestes leaves the courtroom of Athens as a healed and redeemed man, and the imperial Dynasty of Darius with him.

A “compromise” was being offered to Athens and to Pericles, which like the production of Oresteia, he probably could not refuse. Xerxes had destroyed the Athenian acropolis as Agamemnon had ruined Troy. Xerxes had even killed many of his “sons” (and perhaps also a daughter), even as Agamemnon had done. But, if Athens was willing to forgive him, he was willing to forget the sins of Athens against the Crown. If Athens was able to restore the Aeropagus (of loyalists), Xerxes was prepared to accept the people’s council (Boule) of 500 strong. If Athens would acknowledge the indefinite continuance of his line as Great Kings, he would accept the pseudo-independence of Athens under its elected leader. They would receive an everlasting franchise of the order of Phinehas, that is, one that could and would be annulled at any time.

Xerxes summoned all his powers of persuasion to make Pericles again become a faithful and true Joseph, one that would not foment revolt, but toil selflessly and tirelessly in submission to the superior election of his brother. Xerxes especially wanted to suppress any notion that Pericles would become a Joseph-figure of the magnitude of Menelaus (Piye/Sargon II), that is, a Joseph that would gain and retain the birthright by seizing the throne upon the death/murder of Xerxes in the role of Agamemnon.

It is unfortunate that the fourth and final play of the Oresteia did not survive. It was a satyr-play (i.e., a farce/spoof) called “Proteus”. From myth, Proteus was the reluctant prophet of the god Poseidon (archetypal Joseph). Therefore the play very well may have mocked Pericles by associating him with the impotent High Priest Pinedjem son of Piye/Sargon II. Pericles is often ridiculed in other Athenian plays, as are pro-democratic leaders in general, but never the proponents of aristocratic rule.

The Oresteia did not offer much in the way of royal reform. It did call for an end to self-perpetuating vendettas and the institutionalizing of political murder based on tradition (typecasting/precedent). This was only convenient to Xerxes as the reigning Great King after he had done his dirty work of succession. Those killed by Xerxes were to be considered justifiable homicides, even as the killing of Clytemnestra by Orestes. And by association, the murder of Ephialtes was also vindicated in the Oresteia, because he tried to suppress the inviolable Areopagus. The killers of Ephialtes were never identified, much less brought to justice.

Assassinations did not by any means come to an end or even decline, nor did the emphasis by the royal family on role playing. However, Xerxes and his successor Darius II were not supplanted by a collateral (“Joseph”) line. The Dynasty of Darius was extended to a rare, even unprecedented, fifth generation, excelling even the bloody Dynasty of David. This made it worthy of emulation, and particularly by the Julio-Claudians in the Roman Era.

By humbling himself and even appearing to be foolish, Xerxes possibly became the wisest king of them all. With perhaps only the exception of Piye/Sargon, never had a king been so pro-active in managing royal typecasting - and not merely toward securing his own throne, but also that of his eventual successor. Piye/Sargon (Menelaus) is in fact portrayed more favorably in the Oresteia than in the Iliad. Xerxes seems to have admired Piye/Sargon for his manipulation of typecasting, and specifically for assimilating almost every divine role within his own person.

Xerxes was also mindful that Piye/Sargon, as Menelaus, had been considered the king of Sparta. Xerxes therefore established himself as the leading king of Sparta in his own time. His eventual successor Darius II would do the same. This in effect blocked Pericles and his sons from claiming that aspect of the Menelaus/Joseph precedent. It also allowed Xerxes to reclaim the role of Joseph for himself and his own natural line. (This topic will be taken up again in a future segment.)

The four plays of the Oresteia were in effect the archetypal Gospels. Watchwords of the plays include such phrases as, “I speak to those who know”, and, “We must see clearly”. In the Gospels of Aeschylus, Orestes is made over as a neo-Dionysos. A curse has been unfairly laid upon him, but through his patience in suffering, he breaks that curse, not only for his own salvation but for all of mankind. Orestes, like Dionysos, has come back from the dead, and with healing in his wings. His word is that men are no longer to repay evil with evil, murder for murder, wrong for wrong. They are to respect God-given authority and render unto the Great King what is the Great King’s.

As the Odyssey was made to anticipate the coming of Darius the Great (Telemachus), so the Oresteia anticipates the coming of another Darius. Darius II, like the Jesus of the New Testament, proved to be a Savior that did not deliver the promised peace until he had first visited the people with famine and the sword. A royal person’s enemies continued to be the members of his own household. Kingly succession was anything but orderly. It was business as usual.

Useful Links:

Introduction to the Oresteian Trilogy by Philip H. Vellacott
(missing pages 12, 15, 19, 22, 26, 29, 33, 35-37)

“The Serpent and the Eagle” by Robert Fagles
(missing pages 18-19, 22-23, 29-30, 36-37, 40, 44-56, 60, 63-97)

On-Line Text of the Oresteia

The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles, Loren Samons II, ed.,M1

The “House of Atreus”

Note: The identification of Tyndareus as been uncertain, but upon one more consideration, this figure is better associated with Atreus (Osorkon III/Assurdan III) rather than Thyestes (Sheshonq V/Khaemwaset). The inclusion of Dareus/Darius in the name Tyndareus is the clincher. Osorkon III was also the father of Shepenwepet (“Helen of Troy”), and Tyndareus was generally considered the father of Helen.