Thucydides or Aeschylus?

The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by t...
Orestes pursued by the Furies. Image via Wikipedia

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who is as Eurosceptic as you would expect a former Telegraph Europe correspondent to be, has a piece comparing the treatment of the Greeks to that of the unfortunate Melians massacred at the hands of the Athenian army during the Peloponnesian war. I don’t think that the analogy works, because the Melians were fighting a war (which the Greeks aren’t), and the Athenians were looking for territorial advantage (which the Germans aren’t), and because it was in the context of a pre-modern society (not a Europe of deeply interconnected sets of banking institutions) but aside from those small niggles, I think there is a different classical analogy for what’s starting to happen in Europe – the Eumenides of Aeschylus.

Fade in: Orestes, son of Agamemnon, arrives in Athens pursued by the hideous vengeful Furies (the Eumenides – appeasingly-named “kindly ones” – of the title). He has murdered his mother Klytemnestra, in revenge for her murder of her husband/his father Agamemnon. The Furies are pursuing him because that’s what they do – they are ancient spirits of vengeance who hunt down who have broken oaths or spilled kindred blood. They say themselves:

Remorseless Fate gave us this work
to carry on forever, a destiny
spun out for us alone,
to attach ourselves to those
who, overcome with passion,
slaughter blood relatives.
We chase after them until the end,
until they go beneath the ground.

Athena appears, and – to the Furies’ horror – summons men from Athens to create the first jury court, to try the case of Orestes.

I’ll appoint human judges of this murder,
a tribunal bound by oath—I’ll set it up
to last forever. So you two parties,
summon your witnesses, set out your proofs,
with sworn evidence to back your stories.
Once I’ve picked the finest men in Athens,
I’ll return. They’ll rule fairly in this case,
bound by a sworn oath to act with justice.

The Furies are concerned about moral hazard:

If his legal action triumphs,
if now this matricide prevails,
then newly set divine decrees
will overthrow all order.
Mortals will at once believe
that everything’s permitted.
For Furies who keep watch on men
will bring no anger down
on human crimes—so then
we loose death everywhere,
all forms of killing known to man.

The trial proceeds, and at the verdict the votes are equal, which under Athenian law means Orestes is acquitted. The Furies rage:

Sterility will spread across the land,
contaminate the soil, destroy mankind.
What can I do now but scream out in pain?
The citizens make fun of us, the Furies.
How can we put up with such indignity,
daughters of Night disgracefully abused,
shamed, dishonoured, our powers cast aside?

However, Athena appeases them with the promise of a permanent shrine in Athens, where they will be honoured as protectors of the country.

Where Evans-Pritchard sees in Europe the red-in-tooth-and-claw world of the Melian Dialogue, I see the first stirrings of transition from old rules to new that Aeschylus’s play memorialises. Aeschylus was describing the mythical beginnings of the Athenian system of jury-trials (precursor to the Athenian democracy) – and did so by telling the story of how the old world of vengeance and blood-guilt was replaced by a new world of laws and evidence. Maybe the Greeks will leave the Euro in the end, but across Europe as a whole it feels like the Furies of austerity and no-bailout clauses are starting to lose the trial against a more rationalist, growth-driven, unifying approach. When the elections in France and Germany take place in the next couple of years, we should see what the outcome is.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.