Archive for October, 2008

The Oresteian Trilogy (458 BCE) (Comprised of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides)

By Aeschylus

Penguin Classics, pp203

Translation by Philip Vellacott

And so we come, at last, to the first pieces I had have previously read from the Penguin Classics range, The Oresteian Trilogy of Aeschylus, made up of the three plays Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides. It won the first prize at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 BC.


Agamemnon, king of Argos, returns home following the Trojan War. His wife, Clytemnestra, has been planning his murder as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. In Agamemnon’s absence, Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin. The second strand is set with the discovery of Agamemnon’s keeping of the concubine Cassandra, whose entrance heralds death. So is set the stage for a very Greek tragedy.

Agamemnon is the first part of the Oresteian trilogy (originally a tetralogy, containing as it did the satyr play Proteus, now lost). This first part of the trilogy is a play haunted by the constant spectre of death.

“What is this persistent dread

Haunting, hovering to show

Signs to my foreboding soul” (P.76)

The Libation Bearers

The Libation Bearers continues the story of Agamemnon, opening with Clytemnestra’s nightmare in which she gives birth to a snake. Fearing retribution she orders her daughter Electra to pour libations on Agamemnon’s tomb. At the tomb, Electra meets Orestes, who has returned from protective exile in Phocis, and they plan revenge upon Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus together. Electra, pretending to bear news of Orestes’ death, finds Clytemnestra who calls Aegisthus to share in the news. Orestes kills them both. Immediately, Orestes is beset by the Furies, who avenge patricide and matricide in Greek mythology, and this brutal plays reveals its dark beating heart.

“A raging sea of gall batters my heart

The iron goes through my soul; out of the savage flood.” (p.110)

The Eumenides

The Furies pursue Orestes from Argos and into the wilderness. Orestes makes his way to the temple of Apollo, hoping to be for relief from the Furies. Apollo bears a portion of the guilt of the act, for he had encouraged Orestes to kill Clytemnestra. Apollo sends Orestes to the temple of Athena. There, the Furies track him down and, just before he is to be killed, the goddess Athena, patron of Athens, steps in and declares that a trial is necessary. Apollo argues Orestes’ case and, after the jury splits their vote, Athena decides against the Furies. She also renames them the Eumenides, or kindly ones, and declares that thereafter all future hung juries should result in acquittal, since mercy should take precedence over harshness. The Eumenides specifically extols the importance of reason in the development of laws, and, like The Suppliants, lauds the ideals of a democratic Athens.

“So, Heaven’s firm ordinance has now been told,

The task which Fate immutably assigned

To our devotion. Who will then withhold

Due fear and reverence? Though our dwelling lie

In subterranean caverns of the blind,

Our ancient privilege none dares deny.” (P.161)

This trilogy fulfils every modern conceivable notion of what tragedy is – however The Oresteian Trilogy confounds modern expectation, ending as it does, in line with what other extant Greek tragedy shows us – a happy ending. The dark heart of this drama has been leading to this; an extolling of the virtue of the city state, for this is what the best of Greek drama does, and what Aeschylus did so formidably.

Philip Vellacott’s translation of these three plays is truly great, managing to expertly maintain the balance of poetry and plot that exemplifies Aeschylus. Like all great drama, these three plays work on very different levels, open to much interpretation and debate. My few thoughts on this trilogy seem almost negligible. The Oresteian Trilogy is amongst the finest drama ever written – the plays hold up as well as they did in Ancient Greece. Aeschylus was a master storyteller, and it is little wonder his work has stood the test of time. But I am no Greek scholar, and am ignorant of much of this culture. Perhaps with more reading I will understand more of its depth, but for the time being this brief note shall have to do as my commentary upon The Oresteian Trilogy.


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Hiketides (The Suppliants) (c.470 BC)

By Aeschylus

Penguin Classics (grouped with The Persians, Seven against Thebes and Prometheus Bound), 160pp

The Suppliants is the first part of a lost trilogy that would have included the works The Egyptians and The Daughters of Danaus. As such, The Suppliants reads as an introduction to a larger work, and ends openly, with very few of its narrative threads resolved.

The Danaids are the fifty daughters of Danaus, and they serve as the chorus and the protagonists of The Suppliants. The Danaids are to be wed to their Egyptian cousins, but flee, and when they reach Argos plead for King Pelasgus to protect them.

“For who ever dreamed that kindred, native once, would bring such an unlooked-for flight (taking wing through abhorrence of wedded union) to an end at the shore of Argos?” (p.124)

King Pelasgus refuses them this request, pending the decision of the Argive people, but the people consent, and the Danaids praise the Greek gods. Then a herald of the Egyptians attempts to force the Danaids to return to their cousins for marriage, and so King Pelasgus threatens the herald and offers his protection to the women, who retreat behind Argive walls, and here the play ends.

Reconstructions of the remainder of this trilogy have it that following a war with the Egyptians, Pelasgus has been killed, and Danaus becomes tyrant of Argos. His daughters are forced into the marriage, but Danaus instructs his daughters to kill their husbands on their wedding night following a prophecy. All obey their father except Hypermnestra, whose husband Lynceus flees but later returns and murders Danaus and takes the throne with Hypermnestra. Lynceus must now decide how to punish the murderous Danaids – only with the last minute intervention of Aphrodite absolving the women of their crimes, does the play close with the Danaids marrying forty-nine local Argive men.

As an introduction to this story, The Suppliants works well. The poetry of Aeschylus’s language is more discernable here than it was in Seven against Thebes, and he uses the chorus in a much more innovative fashion than previously. The true extent of Aeschylus’s work here cannot be completed however, due to the bulk of it being missing. There is one speech from Aphrodite that is extant, and from it one can deduce that the third play at least would concern itself somewhat with the redemptive nature of love. Another of Aeschylus’s themes comes through somewhat unclearly in this first part, but would become evident in the third, and that is that society must be based upon reason. Finally there is his slight distorting of the myth for public consumption – one of the issues of the original myth was that the Danaids viewed the proposed union as incestuous, but as the Greeks thought nothing of marrying their cousins, Aeschylus downplays this issue in his retelling.

The Suppliants marks the beginning of what may have been a strong trilogy from Aeschylus – the anthropological interest of early Egyptian society being represented by a Greek alone would be fascinating – but we shall have to live with this fragment alone.

The text used for these review purposes was the Bohn’s Classical Library edition, translated by Walter Headlam and C.E.S Headlam, printed in 1909, and downloaded from The Million Books Project.

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Epta epi Thēbas (Seven against Thebes) (467BCE)

By Aeschylus

Penguin Classics (grouped with The Persians, The Suppliants and Prometheus Bound), 160pp

Like The Persians, Seven against Thebes is part of a trilogy of which the other two parts are missing. In this instance, Seven against Thebes would have been paired with Laius and Oedipus, forming a connected Oedipus trilogy. Seven against Thebes marks the first known appearance of Aeschylus’s interest in the polis (the city) being a vital development of human civilisation.

Etreocles and Polynices are the sons of the King of Thebes, Oedipus. Oedipus is resigning the throne, and so decides that his sons will alternate the throne of the city, but after a year Etreocles refuses to step down, so Polynices wages war to claim the crown, with the help of the eponymous seven.

Seven against Thebes has very little plot, but is instead constructed around a series of monologues in which a scout describes each of the seven and the devices on their respective shields:

“Oecleides, that ‘out of cowardice he is shrinking before [the approach of] death and battle.’ Shouting such words, he shakes three overshadowing crests, the hairy plume of his helmet; and from beneath his shield bells of wrought brass are making a terrifying din. And upon his shield he bears a vaunting device as follows a sky fashioned ablaze with stars; and in the middle of the shield a brilliant full moon, most august of the stars, the eye of Night, stands out conspicuous. In such wild exultation, with armour of boastful device, he is shouting on the river-bank; longing for the combat, like a horse fighting against the bit in his impatience who chafes as he hears the trumpet-call. Whom wilt thou station to oppose this champion? Who, when the bolts of the gate of Proetus are withdrawn, can be trusted to defend it?” (p.88)

The brother go on to kill each other in combat, and Aeschylus’s original ending, was of lamentation for these fallen men.

“Brothers indeed, and now utterly destroyed by wounds unkind in frenzied strife as a termination to their feud. Their hatred is stilled, and their life-blood is mingled with the gory dust: thus are they united by blood indeed.” (p.104)

A sudden shift in tone and style at this point in the play reveals another ending attached, some fifty years later. Antigone and Ismeme mourn their dead brothers when a messenger enters announcing an edict prohibiting the burial of Polynices. Antigone declares her intention to defy this edict. This ending was attached to capitalise on the popularity of Sophocles’ Antigone.

Seven against Thebes is a play that has caused some consternation for historians. Archaeologists have been trying to reconcile the “seven-gated Thebes” with the actual city of Thebes which had fewer entrance points than that. Some postulate that the number seven may have been chosen for symmetry, or to refer to some other myth. Nobody is quite sure.

Of all Aeschylus’s work, I find Seven against Thebes the least well formed. Its construction is dramatically unconvincing, and although his language is as rich as before, the vital element of surprise is missing from this work. Seven against Thebes seems obvious and therefore duller than his other works. Nevertheless, we are lucky that it survives – for so little of Aeschylus’s work does – and to criticise so great a playwright seems a little disserving.

The text used for these review purposes was the Bohn’s Classical Library edition, translated by Walter Headlam and C.E.S Headlam, printed in 1909, and downloaded from The Million Books Project.

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Persai (The Persians) (472BCE)

By Aeschylus
Penguin Classics (grouped with Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants and Prometheus Bound), 160pp

Aeschylus is the father of tragedy. Of his estimated 92 plays, only six confirmed works have survived to the present day (with another possible, Prometheus Bound, whose authorship is now uncertain, but once was credited to Aeschylus). Of these six, the earliest is The Persians, a notable play in that it is the only extant Greek tragedy based on contemporary events, though he was not the first to do so.

In 480 BCE the Battle of Salamis ripped through the strait between Piraeus and Salamis Island. The Greek city states and Persia battling over territory came finally to this decisive battle – an event that shaped not only the futures of Greece and Persia, but some historians argue the rest of Western Civilisation as it allowed for the preservation of Athenian democracy. Aeschylus was recalled to military service in 480 BCE became a part of the Greek force at Salamis, and fought the Persians. Eight years later, with memories of this battle still on his mind, he dramatised this now famous conflict in his play, The Persians. It is unique not only for being the only extant Greek tragedy based on contemporary events, but that Aeschylus took the opposing view. The Persians is seen from King Xerxes’s point of view.

The Persians was the second part of a trilogy (the first part had been called Phineus and can be presumed to detail Jason and the Argonauts rescue of King Phineus; the second part was Glaucus, and concerned itself either with a mythical Corinthian king or a Boeotian farmer) and won the first prize at the City Dionysia festival in 472BCE at Athens. The Persians cast Xerxes’s defeat as divine retribution for attempting to build a bridge across the Hellespont, and given Aeschylus’s apparent love of connected trilogies, one can also assume that the two missing plays concern themselves in some fashion with that theme.

The Persians is set in Susa, and a chorus of old men are joined by the Queen Mother Atossa, awaiting news of her son King Xerxes campaign against the Greeks. The chorus tell us of Xerxes’s ambitious plans.

“The army of the king, which makes havoc of cities, by now has passed to the neighbouring land beyond the narrow sea, having crossed the strait of Helle daughter of Athamas on a cable-fastened pontoon-bridge, by casting a riveted causeway as a yoke upon the neck of Ocean.” (P.42-43)

However, the arrival of a messenger, and his detailed and gory description of the Battle of Salamis:

“But since the multitude of our ships was crowded in the narrows, and they could give no assistance the one to the other but [on the contrary] were rammed by the brazen-pointed beaks of their friends, they splintered their whole equipment of oars, the Greek ships, too, all around them noting their opportunity, kept charging them on every side, and the hulls of our vessels began to be capsized nor was the sea any longer visible, so choked was it with wrecks and slaughtered men ; and the shores and the reefs were full of them.” (p.53)

The Persians have been defeated, and Aeschylus, not missing a trick, allows a brief flurry of Greek patriotism, with the now famous cry:

“Sons of the Greeks, advance! Deliver your country, deliver your children and your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods, the tombs of your ancestors. Now is the contest which decides all!” (p.52 – 3)

At the tomb of her dead husband Darius, Atossa summons his ghost, and Darius condemns the hubris of his son. Before departing Darius foretells of another Persian defeat at the Battle of Plataea (479BCE).

“No, their abiding-place is where Asopus waters the plain with his streams a kindly nourishment for the Boeotians’ land: where the height of disaster is in store for them to suffer as retribution for their pride and impious spirit, in that when they came to Hellas they made no scruple to despoil the statues of the gods, nor to burn temples.” (p.66)

Xerxes’s arrives home, crushed by the defeat, and laments the future of his once great nation, and the failures that are to come. This final section of the play has led some to read it as being sympathetic to the Persians loss, revealing a deeper humanity within Aeschylus, whilst others have read it as a deeper celebration of one Greek victory in a brutal ongoing war. This second reading could bring in claims of xenophobia on Aeschylus’s part – but in a time of conflict, hatred of one’s enemy is natural.

The Persians became an important play, often having revivals in Greek culture, and seventy years after its premiere, it is still being referenced in Greek theatre. It is a play that also became popular in the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. Aeschylus’s form of tragedy transcended its national boundaries, to become a true work of art. In 1993, Robert Auletta wrote and Peter Sellars directed a new version of The Persians, which articulated the play as a response to the Gulf War of 1990-1991, proving again the versatility of Aeschylus’s work.

The text used for these review purposes was the Bohn’s Classical Library edition, translated by Walter Headlam and C.E.S Headlam, printed in 1909, and downloaded from The Million Books Project.

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Vita Columbae (The Life of St. Columba) (c.700)

By Adomnan of Iona

Penguin Classics, 432pp

The life of St. Columba, as detailed by Adomnan of Iona in his Vita Columbae (c.700AD) is vital source of information about life in the sixth century, and of religious belief in that century. The Vita Columbae contains the first reference to King Arthur, details of the Loch Ness monster, and the battles between those of Christian faith, and the Picts and their pagan beliefs. It is also a book espousing Christian rhetoric, propaganda and information. Beneath that surface, however, is a book of great interest, though all of its stories are transcribed from an oral tradition, and we are often told such things as:

“I have heard this as an undoubted fact from the lips of an aged and pious priest and soldier of Christ, called Oissene, son of Ernan, of the tribe Mocu Neth Corb, who averred that he had himself heard these very words from the lips of St. Finten, son of Tailchan, whose monk he himself had been.” (P.9)

Adomnan wrote his work a century after St. Columba’s death, and it is constructed around three central themes: “Of his Prophetic Revelations”, “Of his Miraculous Powers” and “The Apparitions of Angels”. Each of these books contains details of St. Columbia’s miracles and acts of God, some of them are Biblical in nature, with St. Columba imitating Christ (he turns water into wine, for instance), some (such as those involving sea creatures, such as the Loch Ness monster) come across as folk tales, often divorced from the usual monastic setting, and then those of everyday miracles.

When St. Columba died on the 9 June 597, a Sunday, in front of the altar at his Church on Iona, he left behind him a turbulent and interesting time, known now as the Age of the Saints. Christianity was spreading across the country with speed, and monasteries, such as the one at Iona, were becoming important centres of communities. He was a man of extreme authority in Iona, and during his lifetime his disciples would have been recording his actions for later generations – his sainthood would have been expected, even during his lifetime – so the Vita Columbae can be understood to have some factual basis, but as with any story celebrated and retold, losses and accretions can be expected within it. Those with agendas of hagiography might wish to glorify their study, or create a more dramatic story. The Vita Columbae is at points overly concerned with the dramatic.

Where Adomnan’s text fails is as an historical document. He is sparing with the dates, and with other contextualising details. There are incidents mentions that would be of great interest – such as Columba’s meetings with the Pict King Bridei, or that some Pict’s have books of their own, and that these people were intellectual and industrious – leading to the question of why no Pict work survives to this day? These questions are not deemed pertinent to the life of St. Columba, so form nothing more than background chatter to this epic life. For a nonbeliever, and a historian, it is this background noise that is the most fascinating, but one cannot penetrate Adomnan’s gushing to truly appreciate it.

There are other absences in Adomnan’s text. St. Columba’s age was, as previously mentioned, a century of great Christian expanse, and though we are often regaled with stories of visiting monks to Iona and the miracles they witness St. Columba performing (so they can return to their own monasteries and testify to St. Columba’s power), we never see St. Columba interact with other church’s or monasteries, despite the extensive travelling we are told he undertakes. So although Adomnan’s text provides a fascinating insight into the workings of St. Columba’s church, it gives nothing of this church’s place in the wider Christian Church. At times this creates the impression of St. Columba’s church being the only truly religious centre in Ireland and Scotland. Other events of his life go almost unmentioned or are passed over without comment:

“For indeed after the lapse of many years, when St. Columba was excommunicated by a certain synod for some pardonable and very trifling reasons, and indeed unjustly,” (P.79- 80)

This incident is not mentioned again, nor is any explanation of it ever truly forthcoming, for as it is with the Christian faith, all things are forgiven if one has atoned. St. Columba, according to this testimonial, does not even need to do that. One speaks for him:

“I have seen,” said Brenden, “a most brilliant pillar wreathed with fiery tresses preceding this same man of God whom you treat with contempt; I have also seen holy angels accompanying him on his journey through the plain. Therefore I do not dare to slight him whom I see foreordained by God to be the leader of his people to life” When he said this, they desisted, and so far from daring to hold the saint any longer excommunicated, they even treated him with the greatest respect and reverence. This took place in Teilte” (P.80)

The Vita Columbae is as unique, moving, frustrating and discordant as all lives of the saints are. It is a fascinating, if one sided, portrait, a beautiful piece of hagiography, if a little repetitive when read in one sitting. It is a work, like all religious texts, designed to be read in passages, for the aid of contemplation and affirmation of faith. As such, Vita Columbae is a great work.

The Penguin Classics edition was unavailable to me, so I used the Historians of Scotland edition, published in 1874, by Edmonston and Douglas, and edited by William Reeves.

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