Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

IN cases of homicide, no punishment these days seems too severe in the eyes of the victim's family, and there are voices in government that seem willing not only to listen to these families' selfrighteous bleatings, but even to consider taking them into account when it comes to sentencing. It seems Aeschylus was wasting his time writing his Oresteia but, if government wants to suck up to these self-pitying victims, it can be done.

Aeschylus' trilogy Oresteia (458 BC) tracks a blood-vendetta passing down through the generations. In Agamemnon, we learn that Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphigenia to raise the wind for Troy, and we witness his wife Clytaemnestra killing him in revenge on his return; in Choephoroe, their son Orestes perpetuates the vendetta by killing Clytaemnestra; and, in Eumenides, the vendetta is ended by the establishment of an objective court of law. In other words, the problem is solved by the introduction of an independent third party which does not seek revenge in a spirit of fury, but listens to arguments in a spirit of reasoned investigation, and, being no part of the vicious cycle of vendetta, cannot be punished in turn for its final decision. As Aeschylus saw, this was the proper way for a democratic legal system to operate. …

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