Background to the Oresteia

Replaces Roche, p. xxiii ("The Pedigree of Sin")

1. Tantalus and his descendants

Tantalus.  A friend of the gods, he invited them to dinner to see if he could trick them into eating human flesh.  He cut up and served his own son, Pelops.  The gods saw through the trick and punished Tantalus by confining him in the Underworld, where he stood in water that always receded when he tried to drink it.

Thyestes.  The son of Pelops.  Seduced or was seduced by the wife of his brother Atreus.  This betrayal was the beginning of conflicts between Thyestes and Atreus.

Atreus.  Another son of Pelops.  Pretended to make peace with Thyestes; invited him to a banquet; killed the sons of Thyestes and served them to him.  Thyestes had another son, Aegisthus, who eventually killed Atreus.  Atreus was the father of Agamemon and Menelaus.

 
What happened to Thyestes after the banquet?  Aeschylus says nothing.  But Aegisthusí declaration, in Agamemnon, that the murder of Agamemnon is vengeance suggests that no vengeance on Atreus had been taken earlier.  There was a story (for which Hyginus is the source) that Thyestes went to Sikyon, where he had a child by his own daughter, Pelopia.  This child, named Aegisthus, is ultimately raised by Atreus, who does not know who the childís father is.  Agamemnon and Menelaus capture Thyestes at Delphi and bring him to Atreus, who orders Aegisthus to kill him.  Before the murder can take place, father and son recognize each other.  Aegisthus then kills Atreus and restores the throne to Thyestes.  This story is not the one that Aeschylusí Agamemnon presupposes.  In the logic of the vendetta, after the murder of Atreus by Aegisthus, it would be time for vengeance against Aegisthus.  But, as said, in Agamemnon, Aegisthus is finally getting vengeance against Atreus, through the murder of his son, Agamemnon, whose kingship Aegisthus and Clytemnestra have usurped.  (The story in Hyginus is much more complicated than this summary indicates.)


Agamemnon.  Brother of Menelaus.  Husband of Clytemnestra.  Because of an offense against Artemis, Greek fleet (on way to Troy) is becalmed at Aulis.  Artemis requires sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigeneia.

Aegisthus. Seduced or was seduced by Clytemnestra.  Her accomplice.

Hereafter the events of the Oresteia begin:

Aegisthus.  With Clytemnestra, murders Agamemnon upon his return from Troy.

Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge Agamemnon.  There were several versions of the aftermath of the matricide.

2. Trojan War

 The Trojan War myth begins with the Judgment of Paris or Alexander (he has two names).  At the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (eventually the parents of Achilles), a dispute breaks out between three goddesses as to which of them is most beautiful.  The decision is left to Paris, a man of Troy.  Each of the goddesses tries to bribe him.  He chooses Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who has promised him marriage with the most beautiful woman in the world.  Paris then sails to the city of Helen, who is that woman.  Paris takes Helen back to Troy.  Menelaus, her husband, enlists an army from all the cities of the Achaeans (in what is now called "Greece").  The army gathers at Aulis.  The leader is Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus.  The departure of the army and its progress to Troy are hindered by various misfortunes.  Having reached Troy, the Achaeans are unable to capture the city for the first nine years of fighting.  Their successes come in raids on smaller cities in the territory of Troy.  Amongst the spoils from these raids are two women, Chryseïs, the war prize of Agamemnon, and Briseïs, the war prize of Achilles, the greatest of the Achaean warriors.  Agamemnon is obliged to give up his prize and takes Achillesí in her place.  This act inspires the anger of Achilles, which drives the plot of the Iliad.**  Finally, through the stratagem of the Trojan Horse, the Achaeans are successful.  They sack the city.  Menelaus recovers Helen.  Some of the Achaeans return home without mishap.  Others have difficulties.  For example, Menelaus and Helen are driven by storms from place to place in the southern Mediterranean and are stranded in Egypt for several years.  But finally they reach Lacedaemon (Sparta), their home.  Someone else who had difficulties was Odysseus.  The story is told in the Odyssey.

 **The IIiad narrates an episode of forty-odd days in the tenth and final year of the Trojan War.  The theme of this epic poem is the anger of Achilles, which is provoked by Agamemnon.  Circumstances force Agamemnon to return Chryseïs to her father, and, in recompense, he takes Briseïs from Achilles.  In an act of passive-aggressive retaliation, Achilles withdraws from the fighting.  In the absence of Achilles, a Trojan counter-offensive carries the battle up to the Achaeans' ships.  At this point, Achilles' closest friend, Patroclus, joins the fighting and rallies the Achaeans.  But Patroclus is killed by Hector, the greatest of the Trojans.  Achilles now reenters the battle to get vengeance for his friend.  He kills Hector and drags his body back to the Achaean camp.  Priam, king of Troy and father of Hector, comes to Achilles to ransom the corpse of his son, in order to give it proper burial.  The Iliad ends with the ransoming of Hector.