Releasing the Oligarch Within: Euripides' Orestes

Robert Holschuh Simmons

University of Iowa

Euripides' Orestes is the first of the three plays produced at the end of his life that reveal his preoccupation with changing Athenian leadership dynamics as the Peloponnesian War comes to a painful close.  Followed by Iphigenia in Aulis and the Bacchae, produced after Euripides' death in 406, Orestes depicts a society in which the aristocracy is conspicuously enervated, unprincipled, and lethargic, nudged further toward irrelevance by demagogues' manipulation of the masses.  In this way, it reflects the Athens of this era portrayed by notorious conservatives such as the Old Oligarch ([Ath. pol.] 2.19-20) and Aristophanes (Ran. 718-37), suggesting that, at the end of his life at least, Euripides' despair for Athens was an oligarch's. 

This aristocratic weakness is manifest first in Orestes' delusional bowshots at the invisible Furies (255-74).  Unlike the same character's maddened slaughter of cattle in IT (281-319) and Heracles' murder of his family in Heracles (922-1015), Orestes in Orestes does not actually kill anything while hallucinating, nor, unlike the other two figures, does he accomplish much of anything in the rest of the play, either to save his own life or to take vengeance on others'.  But he is in good aristocratic company in his feebleness.  Trojan War hero Menelaos claims to be unable to support Orestes against the Argive mob (682-716).  And none of the khrestoi will defend Orestes' in court, leaving a single farmer to speak in vain against Orestes' execution (919-31). 

The only effective group in the play is the masses, called at six points ho demos, ho okhlos, to plethos, or hoi polloi.  They deter Menelaos from action, Tyndareus seeks their support to condemn Orestes, and Orestes calls them a dangerous force when they are effectively led, as by demagogues. 

This wariness of the unsettling power of the masses at the hands of demagogues is evidenced also in Eur. Hec. and Supp. (cf. Ar. Eq.)  And aristocratic withdrawal from politics, in response to the incursion of the demagogues who dominated Athenian politics since 429, is reflected in Eur. Hipp. and Ion (cf. Xen. Mem.).  But only beginning in Orestes, and continuing in IA and the Bacchae, does Euripides tie these movements together to portray a city with its previous ruling class cast adrift, with a highly unsuitable replacement.

This city is not unlike Athens of 408 B.C.E., torn by an oligarchic revolution, dominated by the demagogue Cleon, and disgusted by a long war and a neglected chance at peace.  The similarities are not coincidental: Orestes' Mycenae is Euripides' Athens.

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