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Juliette Tournand-And Aeschylus Saves In One Day The Athenian Democracy

Queen Clytemnestra, by John Collier.


Today’s sharings from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an extract from Juliette Tournand’s timely and fascinating book, ‘La Fille de Sparte’ (The girl from Sparta). Thrilling, fair, impressively researched, this seminal study proposes a long due rehabilitation of the mythical figure of queen Clytemnestra.

This book is a perfect mirror of our time, where we are now able to re-evaluate our cultural milestones, and, like here, Aeschylus’ master work, the ‘Oresteia’, with fresh scholarship, where religious, political, ideological and philosophical biases are put where they belong, into the naphthalene museum of patriarchal pride, magical thinking and unfair social engineering.

Le Passeur Editeur, 2021. Chapter 19, from page 352 to 359. Our working translation from the original French.


‘So, how did Aeschylus, in this spring day of year 458 B.C., save the Athenian democracy?  Let me tell you more about this Aeropagus suspected to have assassinated the democratic leader, Ephialtes. As you know, it was composed of Archons, the most wealthy and powerful men of Athens. You don’t like them much, but here it is important to be fair.

The Athenians did not hate to entrust them with full political and judiciary powers twenty years earlier, when the city-state was in a state of emergency. In fact, at the dreadful time when the army of Xerxes was burning Athens, while the Athenian strategists s fled in despair, they have stood their ground. They took from their own wealth and gave money to the people of Athens, so that instead of fleeing, they would jump into the boats at Salamis. The victory of Salamis discouraged the Persians, forever. The Athenians were grateful, and we must admit that after their decisive and consequential action, the Archons thought they could count upon the eternal gratitude of the people and their irremovable clutch on power.

But Salamis was long past when Ephialtes assessed that it was finally time to redistribute the Aeropagus’s powers, only leaving them the power to judge murderers. It is the very setting-up of the independence of justice. An independence that, far from pleasing the judges was felt like a cruel loss.  They felt stripped, humiliated, and they were angry. Ephialtes was eventually assassinated, and the assassins went on the run, never to be found. The Aeropagus was suspected. But impossible to condemn or exonerate it because justice was the function of this very institution!

The successor of Ephialtes, Pericles, dared to continue his work. He managed the votes so to have the Dionysia Festival free of charge for the poor; then he lowered the threshold of wealth required  for anyone to be co-opted into the Aeropagus, another attempt to curb the upset assembly’s concentration of power into a wealthy minority.

If their anger would not have vented and would have swollen, if they truly were the assassins of Ephialtes, their next victim would be Pericles, his then successor, if he persists in the path towards democracy. If they are Ephialtes’ assassins, their ultimate victim would be democracy, whether a successor would stand up against to them or not. As for to avenge Ephialtes upon a suspicion by killing 150 leaders, that definitely would be a great scandal, a fateful weakening of the city-state…and paradoxically another crime against democracy.

Democracy that Aeschylus, you understand, loves passionately. It had not been needed to pay him to board, at 46 years old, the Salamis boats. He was the son of a rich Athenian family, perhaps from one of those who paid the people. He is tied to both sides.

When he presented the ‘Oresteia’ two years later, nothing was solved. And two years is just the time to conceive and write on clay tablets the three thousand and eight hundred of a work of political theater. Not a theater of ideas. A theater of action, of twists and a dazzling solution to the crisis that undermined the Athenian society. How did he manage?

No doubt, the Aeropagus had the flattering surprise to discover that Athena chose herself the members of the jury among the ‘wise men’. And they saw the action was located on Mount Ares, where the council sits; council that she had established for-ever. Also, they saw, magnified for the first time, the ‘only’ power their assembly had left. But, in Athens famed to be phallocratic, Aeschylus does credit a woman, Clytemnestra, for the creation of this independent justice and to a goddess, Athena, more than a male god, this very foundation of a tribunal that implements this justice. What did the proud Archons find, to recover in ‘respect and in dignity what they had lost’?

Certainly not, like I often read, by identifying with the ‘wise men’ of Athena’s jury because by voting in favor of Orestes and in declaring that evenness equals an acquittal, Athena actually reversed the expected verdict. What dignity or respect to find or recover in identifying with the overruled judges?

Certainly not, like I often read with modern commentators, by identifying with the ‘wise men’ of Athena’s jury because by voting in favor of Orestes and in declaring that evenness equals an acquittal, Athena actually reversed the expected verdict. What dignity or respect to find or recover in identifying with the overruled judges?

Would the Aeropagus have recognized itself in the Erinyes, like I also have read?  I do not think either. Their demonic ugliness casts away any desire of identification. And they had lost their case.

Yet, they are, like the Aeropagus, gifted with a noxious power, like them the arm of justice, like them humiliated and angry of having been dispossessed and finally, like them threatening the Athenian peace. So, I believe that the Aeropagus listened carefully when they heard that Aeschylus’ Athena forgives the Erinyes for their fiery anger. It also needed to be forgiven for its anger and tied to it, the crime the whole Athens suspected it had perpetrated. Because Ephialtes’s murder, by not having been confessed unlike Orestes’ and trialed because the suspect was the judge himself, continued to be assigned to it. Only the forgiving of its anger may erase the suspicion of the crime that hovered over it.

I think that in hearing the goddess declare before all Athens, gathered to the great Dionysia Festival that the Erinyes would be unfair to pour spite, wrath or vengeance upon a whole city ready to honor them, the Aeropagus heard that was actually meant for it.  It understood that in exchange for forgiveness, in order for the Athenians to deem it worthy, it must accept its fate gracefully and fast. It will not have the leisure, like the Erinyes that had only threatened, to test the sincerity of the offered forgiveness.

I believe it identified also with Athena’s last words that did surprise me because everything seemed resolved: “As loud prosperity may be (and the Archons of the Aeropagus were the noisiest and prosperous men of Athens), anyone who would neglect the might and unyielding goddesses of justice (The ex-Erinyes, now the Eumenides) would be because of his crimes, pulverized, silenced and annihilated.” This warning is all the more threatening that the unyielding goddesses of justice from now on all devoted to Athena and will be dwelling under Ares’ Mount where the Aeropagus is seating. It can be powerful and in charge of justice, Aeschylus’ Athena announces it is, alike Agamemnon, watched over by a justice that outweighs it.

It is my opinion the very beauty of Aeschylus’ gods. They represent the higher forces of a general interest that nothing obliges the mighty to respect. But in dealing with them, alike Agamemnon or the Aeropagus, it is wiser to comply. Agamemnon didn’t and swept his feet on the god’s crimson carpet. Aeschylus, with his Athena and the Eumenindes (ex-Erinyes) now allies, dissuades the Aeropagus to emulate such a fateful attitude.

Finally, when Athena warns Athens against jealousy and internal disputes; I believe the Aeropagus has been ordered to renounce its enviousness of the heirs of its other former powers, the People’s Assembly, other tribunal, other councils-and to abandon, right now, any surviving quarrel. Had the Aeropagus found back its former respect and dignity? At this point, I believe not. Athena had up to now more admonished it than honored it. I believe, that unlike it identified with Agamemnon to better take its distance, it identified only to itself.

Let’s not forget, in this conflict, the other side:  the democratic party and Pericles, Ephialtes’ successor. Pericles, was in the front line to be threatened; Pericles who, alone, could vouch for the City’s forgiveness. Everyone, and the Aeropagus better than anyone, knew that he was close to Aeschylus because he financed, fourteen years earlier, the staging of ‘The Persian’. Pericles was in an inextricable situation. What to do? I imagine Aeschylus coming to him, alike Odysseus seeking Tyndar before Helen’s wedding, with an idea. Pericles’ forgiveness at stake, if-at the end of a day of theater performance that Aeschylus had committed to write, the Aeropagus gives clear signals of immediate reconciliation.

Let’s not forget finally the people. The final procession exhorts it also: “And may the entire people collect itself.” Yes, may it collect itself to better give a chance for reconciliation.

Athena goddess of Athens, goddess of victory and wisdom, goddess of a wise victory good for both sides, did she exist? Aeschylus’s craft made her exist. And perhaps was she never more powerful than that day when Aeschylus achieved an ultimate victory, alike Sun Tsu, the Chinese strategist who, on the other side of Persia, was writing: “Ultimate victory is to win without spilling blood.”

However, it was needed to help the Aeropagus recompose itself after this lesson. If my hypothesis is correct-Alike Clytemnestra, I imagine-it was needed that after spending two years sulking with a scowl the annoyed mighty ones come out of the day’s performance a smile to the face without its fate being changed.

How to help the Aeropagus to volte-face, after Athena’s public lecture?

The problem was not for those who believed the proud archons solaced from the loss of their political powers and for having seen their resting power being honored and finally having recognized itself in the overruled judges or the threatening Erinyes. The problem stayed intact, as I believe, it did receive a peace offering and a forgiveness followed by a serious warning. Fortunately, the performance day was not over for the Athenians.

One more play was to be performed. Lost but for some scattered fragments, we do know it was a satirical drama, in which Aeschylus was excelling thanks to his craft. We know also its title, ‘Protheus’.

Protheus is a sea god, a ‘old man of the sea’ that the Athenians knew through the ‘Odyssey’ where he is Menelaus’ only hope, as he is lost at sea on his way back from Troy. But Protheus will be silent unless he is seized in his sleep.

“Then be agile with your arms; hold him tight whatever he will try in order to escape your grasp; he will try to elude you, will take all kinds of forms, will transform into everything that crawls upon the earth, in the waters and in divine fire. Hold him without yielding, squeeze even harder.”

Here is a hilarious theme for the public, and for the Aeropagus still shaken by the many contortions Athena applied upon it, blowing hot and cold. And here is what can give back its dignity because Protheus, tightly held by Menelaus, becomes a noble prophet again and indicates him the right way home.

After having orchestrated the Archons’ re-conversion, Aeschylus makes them commune with the city in general hilarity. They are now able to come down the steps of the amphitheater with a happy face, assured to cross other happy faces. And they can reconcile with the city as soon as the ‘Oresteia’ has ended. In fact, the Aeropagus gained hereafter a stainless reputation of integrity.

See, Aeschylus was a genius, a genius of democracy. For the third time after the battle of Marathon and Salamis, he picked it up from the gutter and rose her up again, alone, by the very might of his mind and his craft. To let her in peace, shining in health.

Sadly, fifty years later, democracy was murdered.’

Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. / /
Juliette Tournand-And Aeschylus Saves In One Day The Athenian Democracy

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