Orestes, the Furies, Croesus, and Cyrus – What do all these disparate characters have in common? The answer is that divine justice decides the course that their lives will take. Divine justice plays a large role in both of the works that these characters are from – the Oresteia of Aeschylus and The Histories of Herodotus. However, the two works differ on what exactly constitutes divine justice, and how divine justice operates. Aeschylus would argue that divine justice is reactive. In other words, justice acts after man has committed some terrible act.
Herodotus would argue that divine justice is proactive, striking before the culprit has actually sinned. Also, Aeschylus and Herodotus disagree about why divine justice affects men. Aeschylus argues that man must commit a sin for justice to be meted out. In the views of Herodotus, however, God strikes down those who are too rich and successful. It is not necessary for a man to have sinned to be punished, in the view of Herodotus. Herodotus directly tells the reader his views on divine justice through the character of Solon.
Solon is one of “the great Greek teachers of that epoch. Histories Bk 1 Ch. 29) He was traveling around the world when he paid a visit to Croesus, the King of Lydia. Croesus gave Solon a tour of the palace, and then asked Solon a question. “Well, my Athenian friend, I have heard a great deal about your wisdom, and how widely you have traveled in the pursuit of knowledge. I cannot resist the desire to ask you a question: who is the happiest man you have ever seen? “(Histories Bk 1 Ch 30) Solon’s response to this question speaks volumes about Herodotus’s opinions on divine justice.
The two examples that he presents of people having true happiness have one thing in common – all of the people in them are dead. Why is this significant? It is significant because in Solon’s opinion, no man can be called truly happy until he is dead. “But mark this: until he is dead, keep the word ‘happy’ in reserve. “(Histories Bk 1 Ch 32) In Solon’s opinion, man cannot be truly happy until he is dead because “God is envious of human prosperity and likes to trouble us”(Histories Bk 1 Ch 32) In other words, God strikes down those who are too rich and successful.
That is why Croesus did not get the response that he wanted to hear – that he, Croesus was the happiest person Solon had ever seen. Solon expounds upon his views when he says, “Great wealth can make a man no happier than moderate means, unless he has the luck to continue in prosperity to the end. “(Histories Bk 1 Ch 32) In a nutshell, Herodotus, through the character of Solon, is saying that divine justice strikes those that are too lucky. Therefore, until he is dead, no man can be called happy. Solon’s views are confirmed a few pages later.
After Solon’s departure nemesis fell upon Croesus, presumably because God was angry with him for supposing himself the happiest of men. “(Histories Bk 1 Ch 34) Why did Croesus consider himself the happiest of men? Because he was rich and powerful, exactly the combination that God hates. Here the reader can see divine justice in action, as God strikes down Atys, the son of Croesus. Croesus himself can see the reason why Atys was killed, as he tells Adrastus, the actual murderer of his son, “Some god is to blame – some god who long ago warned me of what was to happen. “(Histories Bk 1 Ch 45)
Croesus, however, has not learned his lesson. He remains as greedy and ambitious as before. He first attempts to placate the gods with a huge sacrifice. However, he is merely trying to influence them so he can invade Persia. He receives favorable answers to his questions of the oracle, or so he thinks. In reality, because Croesus has not repented, the gods still have evil in store for him. He fails to recognize the ambiguous nature of the oracle’s answers. Thus, he foolishly invades Persia, and is defeated. Croesus did indeed destroy a mighty empire when he invaded Persia – he destroyed his own.
Thus Solon’s views on divine justice are fulfilled, as Croesus; the gods destroy the powerful King of Lydia. Contrasting with Herodotus’s views on divine justice are those views expressed by Aeschylus in The Oresteia. The justice presented by Aeschylus is not the justice of Solon, where God strikes down the powerful. Rather, it a sort of retributive justice, as the gods attempt to close the circle of violence that has engulfed the House of Atreus. At its heart, The Oresteia is about the inadequacy of the old system of justice, which called for kin to avenge their relatives.
The trilogy shows the transformation of justice, as it moves from the old system under old deities to the new system, the Court of the Areopagus, under a new deity, Athene. At the beginning of The Oresteia the old system of justice is firmly in place. Murder still demands blood vengeance, and there is a murder that has not been avenged, Atreus’s murder of the children of Thyestes. In the view of Aegisthus, it is his duty to avenge that murder. He does so by plotting the death of the son of Atreus, Agamemnon. When Agamemnon finally dies at the hand of Clytaemestra, the sin of Atreus is apparently avenged.
However, the murder of Agamemnon is merely another step in the cycle of violence. The murder of Agamemnon, justified or not, calls out for vengeance. Revenge falls on the shoulders of the son of Agamemnon, Orestes. However, now the current system of justice begins to become inadequate. Is it justifiable to murder one’s kin to avenge one’s kin? Orestes is faced with this dilemma, one to which the current system of justice has no answer. On one hand, Orestes is commanded by Apollo to avenge the murder of his father.
For he (Apollo) charged me to win through this hazardtold me to cut them down in their own fashion” (Libation Bearers 270,275) On the other hand is the ancient law against matricide, and the Furies. With either choice Orestes will be committing a grave sin. He will disobey the gods with either choice. Orestes chooses to avenge his father by murdering Aegisthus and his mother. Did he make the correct choice? The answer is that neither choice he could have made was correct. The dilemma of Orestes shows the inadequacy of the old system of justice, and the necessity of a new one. In steps the divine, Athene, with the solution.
She establishes a court to decide the fate of Orestes. In the end, the court decides in favor of Orestes, but that is not what is really important. What is significant is that Greece cast off an old system of justice based on private murder and run by the old gods (the Furies). It then establishes a new system where the public decides the fate of the accused. The old gods and their ways are rejected, and the new gods are ushered in. At its heart, The Oresteia is about changing from one system of justice to another. In conclusion, divine justice is a major theme in both The Histories of Herodotus and The Oresteia of Aeschylus.
Herodotus has a fixed view of divine justice that is articulated by Solon, where the gods punish rich and powerful who presume themselves to be happy. The downfall of Croesus, whose only sin was to presume himself to be happy illustrates this. Aeschylus, on the other hand, sees divine justice as something that needs to be changed and updated as necessary. When the old system of justice based on blood vengeance become inadequate, it is replaced by a new system where reason prevails over bloodlust, and public justice replaces private murder.