Study Guide

Agamemnon Justice and Judgment

By Aeschylus

Justice and Judgment

(Chorus): "[Menelaus and Agamemnon's] loud and ringing cry was of war, from anger,
like vultures which in extreme anguish for their young
wheel and spiral high above their nests […].
On high, someone – either Apollo or Pan or Zeus –
hears the birds' wailed lament, the sharp cry of these settlers in their home,
and for the transgressors' later punishment sends a Fury.
In just this way the mighty Zeus who guards hospitality
sends Atreus' sons against Alexandros,
because of a woman with many husbands" (48-52, 55-62)

This is how the Chorus first describes the Trojan War, by comparing Menelaus and Agamemnon to vultures that are enraged because their chicks have been killed. Obviously, this isn't a very exact parallel, because what happened to Menelaus was that his wife, Helen, was kidnapped by (or maybe ran off with) Alexandros, a.k.a. Paris; nobody hurt Menelaus's children. As for Agamemnon, he's simply along for the ride, and, ironically enough, he is going to end up killing his own child, Iphigenia. Do you think the Chorus is acting with justice and exercising good judgment in making this comparison, then? How about this: the Chorus says that Zeus sent the sons of Atreus against the Trojans because he wanted to punish them for their violation of hospitality; does this mean they think the war is just? What kind of justice can be dealt out by a Fury, anyway? (Think of our modern legal system; does frenzied rage typically play a major role in this process?) Because it raises all these questions, the first Choral Ode really gets the ball rolling on play's theme of "Justice and Judgment."

(Chorus): "I reverence great Zeus of Hospitality who has carried this through,
bending his bow long since against Alexandros
so he might not launch its shaft without effect
either short of the mark or beyond the stars." (362-366)

What does Chorus take Zeus for, some kind of idiot? We mean, we've heard of missing something by a long shot, but aiming your bow at somebody and shooting "beyond the stars"? That's pretty extreme. That said, it's important to remember that the Chorus is speaking metaphorically here. Once again, they're talking about the Trojan War; the arrow stands in for the Greek army, led by Agamemnon and Menelaus, that Zeus is shooting at the Trojans because Alexandros (a.k.a. Paris) stole Helen. How might the idea that Zeus aimed his bow correctly relate to the issue of whether the war was just?

(Chorus): "Zeus' blow: they can speak of that;
it is possible to track down this at any rate:
he fulfilled as he willed. Some person denied
that the gods deign to have concern about men
who trample grace
in untouchable things; but he was not pious.
Destruction is shown
exacting its price for their audacity,
aspirations greater than just,
houses teeming with excess
far beyond what is best." (367-372)

Once again, the Chorus cites the punishment of the Trojans as an example of Zeus's justice. Here, they also argue that this is proof against people who claim that the gods don't care about punishing humans who violate justice. This theme will come up again in the speech of Aegisthus in lines 1577-1582.

(Herald): "[Agamemnon] is the most worthy to be honoured of mortals now alive: for not Paris nor his city as associate proclaim their deed greater than their suffering. Convicted of robbery as well as theft he both lost his stolen prize and reaped total ruin for his father's house, soil and all; the sons of Priam have paid double for their misdeeds." (530-537)

One way of understanding justice is giving people what they deserve. But does it count as giving people what they deserve if you do something much worse to them than they did to you? Here, the Herald says that Agamemnon should be "honoured" because he gave Paris and the Trojans double payback for what they did to him. Actually, it seems like a bit more than double, if you weigh stealing someone's wife against fighting a ten-year war that ends with destroying an entire city. Can what Agamemnon did be considered just? Do you think the rest of the play supports the idea that this is just, or not?

(Herald): "So, as to Menelaus, first and above all you may look forward to his return; in fact if a ray of sun finds him alive and flourishing through the devices of Zeus who is not yet willing to destroy his family-line utterly, there is some hope he will come home again." (674-679)

Here, the Herald suggests that, if Menelaus is still alive, it might be because Zeus doesn't want to destroy his entire family ("yet"). But if Agamemnon is being punished for the crime his father Atreus committed against Thyestes, why does Menelaus get off scot free? If Agamemnon is guilty because his father is guilty, then Menelaus should be just as guilty, right? What do you think this means? Is Agamemnon guilty for some other reason (such as, say, sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia), or is this just a sign that the will of the gods is incomprehensible?

(Chorus): "Justice gleams in houses foul with smoke,
doing honour to the righteous life;
but gold-bespangled mansions where hands are unclean
she leaves with her eyes turned away,
and approaches those which are pure,
with no respect for riches and their power
when falsely stamped with praise;
she directs all things to their ending." (772-781)

Don't worry if you find this passage, spoken by the Chorus, a little tricky to understand. The most difficult idea is that "Justice" here doesn't just refer to something abstract; instead, the Chorus imagines Justice as a goddess, who leaves houses that are sinful and seeks out houses that are pure. The idea here is that, by killing his brother Thyestes's children, Atreus made his house "unclean." Because his house was unclean, Justice left; because Justice left, Agamemnon acts in unjust ways. Here's the big question though: if Agamemnon acts in unjust ways because his father drove out Justice, how is he responsible for those actions? Can it still be just for Clytemnestra to punish him?

(Agamemnon): "Leda's child, guardian of my house, your speech was appropriate to my absence: you drew it out at length. Fair praise, however, is a reward which should come from others. Besides, do not pamper me in a woman's fashion; and do not give me gawping or obeisance crying from the ground as if I were some barbarian, or strew my way with vestments and open it to jealousy. It is the gods these things should magnify; as a mortal it is impossible for me to walk on beautiful embroideries without fear. I tell you, show me respect as a man, not as a god. Foot-wipers and embroideries cry out different meanings; a mind to avoid wrong is god's greatest gift. The man to call blest with success is the man who has ended his life in precious well-being. If I could fare in everything as I fare now, I shall be quite confident." (914-930)

Agamemnon's speech here, shortly after his arrival back home in Argos, is elaborately concerned with a certain meaning of justice: giving people what they deserve, though here Agamemnon expands this to include ideas, things, and gods as well. Thus, Agamemnon says (1) that the length of his absence got what it deserved when Clytemnestra made a long speech; (2) that Clytemnestra shouldn't treat him like a barbarian, which is contrary to what he deserves; (3) that she shouldn't treat him like a god, which is contrary to what he deserves; and (5) that she shouldn't treat embroideries as foot wipers, which is contrary to what they deserve. He seems pretty obsessed, doesn't he? Why do you think Agamemnon cares so much about this kind of appropriateness or justice? Why do you think Aeschylus made a point of making him blabber on about it for so long?

(Cassandra): "Not, I swear, that he and I shall die without retribution from the gods: there will come another in turn to avenge us, a child born to kill his mother, one to exact penalty for his father. A fugitive, a wanderer, an exile from this land he will come home to put a coping-stone on these ruinous acts for his family; his father thrown on his back on the ground will bring him back. Why then do I lament so piteously? Now that I have seen Ilion's city faring as it fared, and those who took the city getting their outcome like this in the gods' judgment, I shall go and do it: I will submit to death." (1279-1289)

Cassandra consents to die when she realizes (a) that someone (i.e., Orestes) will come to avenge her and Agamemnon, and (b) that the death of Agamemnon will be payback for what happened to Troy. Does this mean she thinks her own death is just?

(Chorus to Clytemnestra): "You are great in your plans,
arrogant in your talk –
exactly as your mind is mad from this event
and the gore which drips from it; the thick smear of blood in your eyes is obvious.
Payment in return you have still to make, and you shall be deprived of your friends;
a blow is to pay for a blow." (1425-1430)

In these words to Clytemnestra after they learn what she has done, the Chorus presents a certain view of justice: "a blow is to pay for a blow." That is to say, whatever you did to someone else, you should get the same back in return.

(Clytemnestra): "I think, neither was this man's death ignoble,
[a line missing]
for did he not also bring ruin on the house through treachery?
Yes, my child by him which I raised,
the much lamented Iphigenia,
[her father sacrificed].
What his actions deserved he deservedly suffers;
so let him make no great boast in Hades,
now that he has paid for just that deed, felled in death by the sword." (1521-1530)

Although the manuscripts have left this part of the play with some piecing missing, we can still get the general idea of what Clytemnestra is saying. Basically, she is saying that Agamemnon got what he deserved. She also uses a similar logic to that of the Chorus in the previous quotation: you should suffer the same thing that you did to someone else; thus, Agamemnon killed Iphigenia, so Agamemnon should be killed.

(Aegisthus): "O kindly day, bringing justice with its light! Now at last I would say that the gods keep watch from above upon earth's evil deeds, as avengers of mankind, when I see this man lying here in the woven robes of the Furies; as I dearly wanted, he pays in full for what his father's hand contrived." (1577-1582)

You might want to compare these words of Aegisthus with those of the Chorus in lines 367-372. In both cases, they view the suffering of evil-doers as proof that the gods intervene in human life to protect justice.

(Aegisthus): "That, I tell you, is the cause of the man's fall you see here; and I had the right in justice to scheme this killing. I was the third child after ten others; while I was tiny, in my swaddling, Atreus expelled me together with my hapless father; and when I was grown up, Justice brought me back again. I laid my hands on this man from outside, fitting together every device of ill intent. So even death is well for me too, now I have seen this man in Justice's toils." (1603-1611)

Here, Aegisthus continues with the idea that Agamemnon got what was coming to him, and that this was an instance of justice – indeed, that it was "Justice" (i.e., the goddess who personifies it) who brought him back to Argos. But isn't it a little weird to call it justice and also say that "I laid my hands on this man from outside, fitting together every device of ill intent"? Is this just some sort of cultural difference between us and the Greeks? We know, that's way too big a question to answer right now, but it's good to start thinking about it. On a more basic level, does what Aegisthus says fit in with the picture of justice that we get from the rest of the play?