When we look at the history of the world, it resembles nothing so much as a police blotter. Even the Bible is predominantly a record of crime and punishment, of sinfulness, large-scale and trivial, followed by rather Technicolor retribution—floods, plagues, ethnic cleansing, holocausts of every description. Similarly, our classical myths, so central to our Western culture, regularly chronicle acts of deicide, genocide, parenticide, and infanticide, as well as the more usual fleshly transgressions of incest, rape, and adultery. To the randy and contentious deities of Mount Olympus, the world is little more than a harem or an amusing global chessboard. Gloucester famously remarks in King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.”
Adam’s expulsion from Eden for disobeying what one might call God’s pomological commandment marks the beginning of Judeo-Christian history. In the classical world, a comparably important event also begins with an apple. When Paris awards the golden apple to Aphrodite in return for the favors of the lovely Helen, he sets in motion the major cataclysm of antiquity. The Trojan War initiated a conflict between West and East that was to continue throughout ancient times, to be celebrated in song and remembered as history. Those ancient hostilities are in some senses still with us.
Like the Bible, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—bulked out with some now lost epics about the return home from Troy of the various Greek heroes—soon became sourcebooks for artists and poets, philosophers and theologians. Here were stories that could be used to hammer home arguments in the law courts, illustrate points of moral philosophy, or provide plots for some of the great tragic dramas.
Of these last, the greatest by far is Aeschylus’ three-part Oresteia, consisting of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Considering its relative brevity, this trilogy constitutes a deeply affecting study of crime and punishment, probing such irresolvable and vexatious issues as the nature of justice, the frequent conflicts between love and duty, the torments of moral decision making, our obligations to the gods, society, and ourselves, and the spiritual consequences of irremediable actions. Above all, the Oresteia shows us the burdens of a culture based on the lex talionis—an eye for an eye—and the blessings of a jury trial in a court of law. After seemingly endless bloodletting—in just one family a man ritually sacrifices his child, a wife murders her husband, and a son executes his mother—there is a final cauterization, and the butchery stops for good. Quite literally for good. In every way, it is a foundational literary work for examining the crucial place of law in society.
That said, the Oresteia’s widespread reputation for solemn grandeur may scare off some modern readers. Even Aristotle preferred Sophocles’ Oedipus the King as the ideal or model tragedy. On the surface Oedipus the King might seem a more attractive example of classical crime and punishment, indeed almost an instance of early detective fiction. Who killed Laertes? King Oedipus reopens this cold case and in due course discovers that the least likely suspect, the man who couldn’t possibly have committed the murder, is in fact the culprit—the investigator himself. Agatha Christie would be envious (and indeed would adopt a close variant of this solution in one of her most famous novels). Yet as wonderful as Oedipus the King is, it sometimes feels just as clockwork as a Christie, a carefully tooled piece of slick drama focusing largely on a single revelation and a single character. But compare it with the Agamemnon: while Sophocles’s play might be seen as a pièce bien faite, Aeschylus’ drama bursts from any stage that tries to contain it.
Just recounting the plot of the Oresteia suggests some of its complexity and troubling power.