Resentment in the Oresteia: The Power of the People

In a world without kings, where does power come from?

Resentment in the Oresteia: The Power of the People
Photo by Enric Domas / Unsplash

Every era has a defining anxiety. Ours is an era of technological anxiety. We ask ourselves questions like: What are smartphones doing to us? Is social media making us miserable? We’ve been asking these kinds of questions since the industrial revolution. The early 20th-century folk song “John Henry” and contemporary movies like Ex Machina ultimately pose the same question: Will these machines be the death of us?

John Henry was a newborn baby
Sittin’ down on his mama’s knee
Said, “That Big Bend Tunnel on C-and-O Road
It’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord
It’s going be the death of me
– John Henry, as sung by Leadbelly

Aeschylus, judging from The Oresteia and Prometheus Bound, lived in an era of political anxiety. The world is unstable in his tragedies. Power is in flux. Regimes come and go. The tragedies of Aeschylus are concerned with power, and particularly with the instability of power. These works ask the question: In a world without kings, where does power come from?

There are two types of power in Aeschylus. First, there is the power of rulers. This is the stereotype of power, secured with violence. Zeus, for example, exercises this kind of power when he punishes Prometheus in Prometheus Bound. But violent power is not absolute in Aeschylus. It is constrained by a more novel form of power: the power of the governed. The governed exercise their power by either accepting or rejecting the legitimacy of their rulers. This ongoing ratification — or rejection — of regimes is the cause of the political instability in Aeschylus. But it doesn’t happen in a formalized way. The power of the governed is expressed emotionally. The emotion that signals the dissatisfaction of the governed is one of the key characteristics of Aeschylus’s tragedies: resentment.

The instability of Aeschylus stands in stark contrast to the more stable world of the Iliad. In the Iliad, the hierarchy of gods, kings, and ordinary men was an unchanging fact of life. Even when Agamemnon committed a gross injustice by taking away Achilles’ concubine Briseis, it was taken for granted that Agamemnon was superior to Achilles and the rest of the Achaeans. Nestor spelled this out to Achilles (emphasis added):

And you, Achilles, never hope to fight it out
with your king, putting force against his force:
no one can match the honors dealt a king, you know,
a sceptered king to whom great Zeus gives glory.
Strong as you are — a goddess was your mother —
he has more power because he rules more men. (Fagles, 1.324–329)

Agamemnon’s status among the Acheaens was not ever in question. It came from the gods and was manifested in the number of subjects he ruled over. In Aeschylus, things aren’t so simple. Aeschylus portrays a world where power is always at risk. We even encounter a new word for a type of leader that exemplifies this unstable power: tyrant.

In Prometheus Bound, even Zeus is described as a tyrant. In the cosmic timescale of the tragedy, he had only recently ascended to power and his reign would not be permanent. “Yet shall this Zeus, for all his arrogance / be humble yet” (907–908). Like a stereotypical tyrant, Zeus secured his power through violence. Aeschylus makes this clear by personifying Might and Violence. But Prometheus Bound seems more concerned with what violence cannot achieve.

Might tells us that Zeus punished Prometheus “so that he may learn to accept the sovereignty of Zeus” (10–11). But Prometheus was defiant. He fully rejected Zeus’s power, preferring exile and torture. “Be sure of this,” he told Hermes. “When I measure my misfortune / against your slavery, I would not change” (964–967). Zeus could not force Prometheus to accept his sovereignty. Aeschylus is showing us a world where power consists of more than strength. In this world, the governed actually have their own kind of power: the power of consent. When resentment grows sufficiently high, consent may be withdrawn.

Resentment is even more destabilizing when it is shared by a large group of people. In Agamemnon, popular resentment took a violent turn when the chorus of Argive elders heard Aegisthus celebrating Agamemnon’s murder. In response, the chorus threatened Aegisthus: “There shall be no escape, your head / shall face the stones of anger from the people’s hands” (1615–1616). One gets the sense that Aegisthus won’t last. Agamemnon shows us what happens when resentment grows beyond a mere refusal to be governed. Resentment turns into violence.

Unlike Aegisthus, Agamemnon possessed an intuitive understanding of the hazards of popular resentment. In particular, he understood that popular resentment could also stem from symbolic action. When Clytaemestra invited Agamemnon to walk upon a luxurious red tapestry, he recognized the risks of doing so.

Do not try… (to) cross my path with jealousy by strewing the ground
with robes. Such state befits the gods, and none beside.

Discordant is the murmur at such treading down
of lovely things; while god’s most lordly gift to man
is decency of mind. (918–928)

Clytaemestra continued to goad Agamemnon into walking on the tapestry, but he recognized it as a trap: “The people murmur, and their voice is great in strength” (938). Both of these characters understood the stakes of this symbolic and public performance.

In the Iliad, Agamemnon behaved with impunity when he stole Briseis from Achilles. In Aeschylus, he behaves more like a modern politician. One can almost imagine him employing political consultants to help manage his “optics,” and running focus groups to ask citizens how it makes them feel when their leader walks on tapestries. His communication director would probably recommend he issue a statement saying “I tell you, as a man, not god, to reverence me” (925), and follow that up with a “relatable” photo op of Agamemnon eating corn dogs with his fellow citizens at the local county fair.

The potential for popular resentment constrains the behavior of a savvy politician like Agamemnon. By contrast, when resentment exceeds a critical threshold, it can turn into threats of retributive violence, as it does later in The Oresteia. After the jury trial of Orestes, the furies refused to accept the verdict, taking resentment to poetic heights:

I, disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger
shall let loose in the land
the vindictive poison
dripping deadly out of my heart upon the ground;
this from itself shall breed
cancer, the leafless, the barren
to strike, for the right, their low lands
and drag its smear of infection on the ground.

With resentment having reached a boiling point, Athena was forced to reassert her divine power to break the cycle of violence that had escalated throughout the Oresteia. She rescued the court from a crisis of legitimacy by making a concession to the furies, granting them new powers:

I establish in power
these great divinities, difficult to soften.
To them is given the handling entire
of men’s lives.

By forcing Athena to intervene after the trial, Aeschylus once again shows how power — and political stability — is a delicate balance. Violent power wielded by leaders is constrained by the potential for resentment among the governed. But too much resentment can become gasoline on the fire; an accelerant of violence that leads to chaos. Power starts to look like an unwritten agreement between the government and the governed. The governed grant power to rulers only if the rulers adhere to certain unwritten criteria.

We have a name for these criteria: “justice.” If leaders act unjustly, a cost is paid by the powerful and the currency is the resentment of the governed. When resentment reaches a critical threshold, one of two outcomes can be expected. Concessions might be made by the powerful, as we saw with Athena and the furies. If concessions aren’t made and resentment is sufficiently high, the result is revolt, as was the case with Aegisthus.

As to how we might precisely define justice, Aeschylus provides no explicit answers. Those questions would have to be picked up by the philosophers who followed him. Aeschylus, however, clearly outlined the stakes for those in power, which the chorus in Agamemnon summarized:

There is not any armor
in riches against perdition
for him who kicks the high alter
of Justice down to the darkness. (381–385)