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1. Introduction

It is a problem in evaluating ancient literature that only a small part of the total body of texts has survived to a sufficient extent: statements about how frequent or common court proceedings are as a building block of dramatic action necessarily refer only to the surviving corpus; in the same way, descriptions of the literary-historical development of this trope in ancient dramatic literature must always remain incomplete, because the chronological gaps between the different preserved authors and texts are simply too large to be able to draw a secure, sufficiently detailed history of its development.

Despite the large gaps in the literary tradition, however, it is reasonable to assume that there was a connection between legal and dramatic scenarios in antiquity: Many orators of antiquity also practised as lawyers and argued for the innocence of their clients in impressive speeches. Consequently, the court speech plays an important role in the ancient theory of rhetoric (for more on this, see Hohmann 1996). The genus iudiciale was strongly formalised as a type of speech by Cicero’s time at the latest and had a clear structure whose sections were defined in regard to their content; it can therefore be assumed that the audience could also identify a court speech in a different context, for example in a theatre play.

Since both court hearings and theatre performances were open to the public (with restrictions, see Schaps 1998) and thus to some extent had the same audience (Bücher 2008, 268), both instances were interrelated in terms of form and content: Speakers in court gained influence by delivering their speeches as long monologues with a theatrical gestus to a wide audience, while dramatic playwrights could use their plays (along with the monologues they contained) to comment on political events (see Parush 2001 for more detail).

It only became possible to depict a trial with individual participants when the playwright Thespis invented the classic form of Greek tragedy: in 534 BC, he introduced the new practice that stage plays were no longer performed by a chorus alone, but that a single actor stood opposite the chorus as an interlocutor to take on various speaking roles. The tragedian Aeschylus added another solo actor to the ensemble about 50 years later; his successor Sophocles, whose creative period overlapped with that of Aeschylus, added the third actor and thus made it possible to bring the triad of accuser, defender, and judge onto the stage without the chorus having to stand in for one of these parties. Aeschylus adopted Sophocles’ innovation for his own late work, and so in the Eumenides, the last play in the Oresteia trilogy, the figures of Athena, Apollo and Orestes can stand opposite the chorus of accusing Erinyes as supreme judge, defender and accused. (On the development of Greek tragedy, see Winnington-Ingram et al. 1985; also, Aristotle, Poetics, 1449a15-19).

As mentioned above, the exciting, theatrical part of a trial lies not so much in reaching and pronouncing a verdict or in the subsequent punishment, but rather in the speeches of the prosecution and defence. This oratory competition between two parties, the agon, is an integral part of many ancient comedies and tragedies, where the conflict between prot-agon-ist and ant-agon-ist can be played out between two actors as well as between a single actor and the chorus (Humphreys 1887). However, the agon usually takes place without the institutional framework of a trial because it is not necessary for the confrontation on stage. The question of the protagonist’s guilt or innocence is also not truly relevant in a tragedy: the tragedy of the character lies precisely in the fact that the tragic hero is already guilty or inevitably becomes guilty in the course of the drama – his decisions and actions have no direct influence on this (illustrated by Sewell-Rutter 2007).

Thus, since the format of a court hearing has no effect on the suspense of the tragic plot, the institution of the court itself must play a meaningful role in the play in order for its use to be justified. This is the case with Aeschylus’ Eumenides, which is often regarded as the genre-founding play for modern legal drama.

2. Aeschylus’ Eumenides

2.1. Short Vita of Aeschylus

The playwright Aeschylus is considered the father of tragedy, as he is the oldest of the Greek tragedians whose works have survived as more than fragments. He was born around 525 BC in Eleusis (near Athens) and staged his first tragic play at the age of 25. He won his first tragic competition at the age of about 40 in 484 BC; he went on to win 12 more in the following 25 years, culminating in the Oresteia trilogy, which consists of the tragedies Agamemnōn, Choēphoroi and Eumenides, as well as the satyr play Prōteus. Aeschylus died two to three years later (456/455) in Sicily. Of his estimated 70 to 90 plays, only seven have survived, one of them with uncertain authorship. The Eumenides are the final piece of Aeschylus’ work that has been handed down to us (see Sommerstein 1989).

2.2. The Eumenides

The tragic trilogy of the Oresteia deals with the family curse of the Atreides and its removal by the Athenian legal system. The eponymous protagonist Orestes finds himself in an initially irresolvable dilemma: the god Apollo had ordered him to kill his mother Clytemnestra in revenge for her having killed Orestes’ father Agamemnon. For killing his mother, however, Orestes is now persecuted by the goddesses of blood vengeance, the Erinyes. In the final play of the trilogy, the Eumenides, Orestes follows Apollo’s advice to seek protection from the Erinyes with Athena (in Athens) and ask for his guilt to be expunged. In order to resolve the dilemma, Athena then founds the court of the Areopagus and, together with human judges, decides the conflict between the Erinyes and Orestes (along with his defender Apollo) in the form of a trial. The trial takes place over the course of about 100 verses and thus takes up one tenth of the entire tragedy. Orestes is narrowly acquitted; the enraged Erinyes are appeased by Athena, who appoints them as patron goddesses of the new court and the city as a whole and gives them their new name, “Eumenides” (translated: the well-meaning).

2.3. Historical Context

The tragedy of the Eumenides contains a founding myth for the Areopagus, which as an institution is so firmly anchored in the cultural memory of the city of Athens that a court with this name exists to this day: Today, the Areopagus or Arios Pagos is the supreme court of civil and criminal jurisdiction in Greece. The historical development of the Areopagus is uncertain: the only assured fact seems to be that it was one of the oldest legal institutions in the city, which gradually took on more responsibility for social and political life in Athens over the course of time, and eventually, in addition to blood jurisdiction (i.e., the trial of murder cases), had various administrative and governmental functions (e.g., fighting corruption and maintaining democratic order by convicting enemies of the state; see Conacher 1987, 199, and Ath Pol 3.6 and 8.4).

Approximately three years before the staging of the Eumenides in 458 BC, the democratic politician Ephialtes had relieved the Areopagus of some of its “additional duties” (Ath Pol 5.2), thus dividing its preeminence over several councils. Before Ephialtes could continue his reform programme, he was assassinated in 461 BC, which caused civil unrest in Athens and led Aeschylus to see the threat of civil war looming.

From its form, the trial in the Eumenides is not clearly identifiable as a blood trial of the Areopagus (Braun 1998, 101; in great detail: Taplin 1977); nevertheless, Aeschylus did not choose the Areopagus as a mere stand-in for an arbitrary court: Instead, the changes he made to the text of the myth suggest that the tragedy is a commentary on current political developments related to the role of the Areopagus within the Athenian polis.

Aeschylus modifies the mythological basis for his tragedy at two points: The first change is that Orestes is not a native of Sparta or Mycenae, but of Argos – this is significant because at the time of the stage performance Athens had just broken away from its alliance with Sparta and, at the instigation of Ephialtes, had entered into a new alliance with Argos, which is now reflected in the tragedy through Orestes’ promise of alliance towards Athena and the city. Secondly, Aeschylus changes the founding myth of the Areopagus to the effect that, from the beginning, the court is comprised of human judges (instead of Olympian gods) and is therefore an immanently civic, democratic institution. Since it is not clear from the surviving sources what exactly Ephialtes’ reforms in relation to the Areopagus entailed, it is also impossible to say with certainty whether Aeschylus’ portrayal of the Areopagus in the Eumenides supports or criticises these reforms. (For a detailed overview of the positions and arguments regarding this research question, see Braun 1998, 105-133; on politics in the Eumenides, see Dover 1957 and in Aeschylus’ work in general, Podlecki 1966).

2.4. Forms of Justice in the Eumenides

In general, tragedy as a literary form deals with the existential individuality of man: The tragic protagonist, who becomes guilty through no fault of his own or has no way of preventing his becoming guilty, reveals the human complexity behind the abstract question of guilt and puts into question the simplistic black-and-white model of injustice and justice (Nicolai 1977, 21). As a rule, the issue of justice is not resolved within the framework of the tragedy but remains as a thought-provoking and unresolved conflict. The fact that Aeschylus resolves the conflict in the Eumenides through a differentiating trial therefore deviates in a striking manner from the typical tragic format. (On this see Vismann 2006; on the differences to the classical hikesia drama with further literature references see Bernek 2011).

In addition to the commentary on the reforms of Ephialtes, which is unclear from today’s perspective, Aeschylus also uses the trial depicted to compare two types of justice (Conacher 1987, 4-5): The principle of blood revenge, carried out by a private individual and embodied in the play by the Erinyes, is juxtaposed with the institution of the public court, in which justice is administered by the state or a body of impartial judges. In the Eumenides, Athena introduces the Areopagus as precisely such an institution.

The kind of justice administered by an impartial court like the Areopagus makes it necessary to differentiate between different types of perpetrators and to consider the judgement of the act itself. Walter Nicolai discusses the various aspects of this differentiation in his article “Zur Theodizee des Aischylos (am Beispiel der Orestie)”:

In the Oresteia, Aeschylus distinguishes between the “untragic” and the tragic perpetrator and suggests that the consequences of their actions are different for both types of perpetrators (Nicolai 1977, 25f.): Clytemnestra is an “untragic” perpetrator because she acts of her own volition. She is morally guilty to the full extent, therefore her punishment (the blood revenge by her son) is an expression of divine justice and is consequently ordained in the drama by Apollo. In contrast, Orestes, as a tragic perpetrator, feels morally obligated to murder his mother (to avenge his father) as well as to atone for this crime; however, he does not act of his own free will, but rather on Apollo’s command. The consequences of his deed are more profound for him than those of an “untragic” perpetrator: Orestes is not only physically punished by the persecution of the Erinyes, but also undergoes psychological distress because he is aware of the moral severity of his deed.

By ascribing multi-layered motives to the perpetrators, Aeschylus diversifies the assessment of the deed and questions the kind of justice exercised by the Erinyes in the form of blood revenge (Nicolai 1977, 21 f.): For them, only the question of who committed the crime is relevant (v. 425), but not the motives of the perpetrator; they avenge according to the principle of exact retribution (drasanti pathein, transl. “to suffer the same”). In contrast, the judicial prosecution does not take revenge, but determines a punishment, the extent of which is influenced by the circumstances and the motive for the crime: Athena raises the question of the circumstances of the crime in conversation with the Erinyes (v. 426) and persuades them to accept this novel perspective as a basis for passing judgement.

Since the Erinyes are not expelled at the end of the tragedy, but reside in Athens as the new patron goddesses of the legal order, it becomes clear that the punishment by the Areopagus does not completely replace the blood revenge of the Erinyes: Wherever the jurisdiction of the Areopagus cannot take effect or other jurisdiction is not available in sufficient measure, the personalised vengeance of the Erinyes continues to be applied (Nicolai 1977, 23f.). Revenge is only the second-best form of justice, because it does justice to the deed, but not always to the perpetrator, whose motives it does not take into account - nevertheless, the Erinyes and also Athena in her final speech repeatedly emphasise that the fear of punishment and retribution is the prerequisite for people and states to abide by applicable law and for the citizens of Athens to benefit from the well-ordered conditions of the polis (on this in more detail: Bernek 2011, 107 and 114). Therefore, the Erinyes not only are charged with protecting the institution of the Areopagus, but also continue to exercise their own form of justice, albeit in a newly defined environment (Conacher 1987, 169).

3. Court Scenes in Literature after Aeschylus

3.1. Direct Succession

Aeschylus’ Eumenides have been referred to several times in Greek and Latin literature.

The Greek tragedian Euripides (480-406 BC) alludes to Aeschylus’ adaptation of the material in two of his tragedies: The entire plot of the Eumenides, including the judgment of the Areopagus, is foretold in Euripides’ tragedy Electra in the form of a prophecy (vv. 1254-1269). Euripides’ drama Orestes is set just before the action of the Eumenides, but deviates from Aeschylus’ version at several points: Orestes is first sentenced to death for killing his mother by a different court - but this trial does not take place on stage and is only narrated by the characters. Apollo saves Orestes and prophesies the trial before the Areopagus in Athens, which in Euripides’ version is held by the Eumenides and the gods instead of human judges, as was the case in Aeschylus (vv. 1648-1652).

The tragedy Eumenides by the Latin poet Ennius (c. 239-169 BC) was probably a loose adaptation of the Greek original; it survives only in fragmentary form, but one fragment suggests that Ennius’ version also included a trial:

dico vicisse Orestem; vos ab hoc facessite.
I say that Orestes has won; desist from him.
(Fr. 53; counted following Goldberg/Manuwald 2018.)

Lastly, a Late Latin poem (possibly by Drakontius) from the 5th century AD has survived. It is a pastiche of several narratives of the Orestes-myth from different sources: Orestes is accused before the Areopagus for the murder of Clytemnestra and his rival Pyrrhus by the son of the latter. When the verdict ends in a draw, Athena appears and votes for Orestes to break the tie and exonerate Orestes.

3.2. Aristophanes’ Wasps (Sphēkes)

Aristophanes’ works belong to the genre of “Old Comedy” (5th century BC), which was known for its critical commentary on political developments and caricature of contemporary politicians. As politicians and demagogues sought to exert influence on the civic courts, the courts themselves consequently became the focus of comedic satire as well.

In his 422 BC comedy The Wasps (Sphēkes), Aristophanes criticises the politics of the demagogue Kleon, who secured the support of the poorer Athenian citizens by raising the remuneration for voluntary judicial office to 3 obols per day. (To put this into perspective: for 1 obole one received about 3 litres of wine at that time; Davidson 1998, 59). Aristophanes accuses Cleon of instrumentalising the courts for his own political plans through these and other measures; in the comedy, the antagonist remarks accordingly that the remuneration enables him to live a financially independent life in old age and that it pleases him that the noble Athenians flatter him in order for him to rule in their favour in the trials.

In the comedy, the protagonist Bdelycleon (transl.: enemy of Cleon) tries to dissuade his father Philocleon (transl.: friend of Cleon) from his “obsession with court” by offering his father the presidency of a house court as an alternative to the public court, where he can judge domestic disputes. The trial that ensues on stage, however, is utterly ridiculous: two pet dogs fight over stolen food, kitchen utensils are called as witnesses, and the yowling wails of a pack of puppies are meant to make the father lenient towards the thief. But although Philocleon is not impressed by this, his son outwits him at the verdict and ensures that Philocleon votes for an acquittal, which appals the latter as he usually ends public hearings with a guilty verdict. This show trial includes several elements that were part of a trial at the time, such as the hearing of witnesses for the prosecution and for the defence, the emotional display of the defendant’s family members (here: the puppies) to influence the judge in his verdict, and the verdict being reached by voting via ballot boxes in which the presiding judges placed their voting stone.

Although the subject matter of the comedy would support the depiction of a real court hearing, Aristophanes merely brings a parody of such a hearing to the stage. The discussion between Bdelycleon and his father Philocleon, in which they talk about the advantages and disadvantages of being a judge, is indeed performed as an agon (oratory contest) in front of a chorus of old men who, like Philocleon himself, work as judges, but the formal framework of a court hearing is not adhered to. Although Bdelycleon’s arguments eventually convince the chorus of old judges, this has no effect on the further plot of the comedy, because Philocleon remains obsessed with being a judge, even though he did not succeed in refuting his son’s counterarguments in the agon.

3.3 The Ancient Greek Novel

Other literary works in which court proceedings are part of the narrative are the ancient Greek novels, whose storylines cover more time than the plots of the ancient tragedies. In modern times, the ancient Greek novels are perhaps most comparable to adventure or romance novels, which follow the fate of one or two protagonists over an extended period of time. In these novels, the trial is not the central event of the entire plot, but the subject of a plot episode and, for example, the trigger for a change of location (in the form of banishment or flight) or a change in the fate of the main character (for better or for worse, depending on the outcome of the trial). This topic is one of the research interests of Saundra C. Schwartz, see Schwartz 1998, eadem 2010 and eadem 2016.


Text Editions

Aeschylus, Eumenides, Edited with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Anthony J. Podlecki, Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1989.

Aeschylus, Eumenides, Edited by Alan H. Sommerstein, Cambridge: CUP, 1989.

Aischylos, Tragödien, übersetzt von Oskar Werner, hg. von Bernhard Zimmermann, Sammlung Tusculum, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2011, therein Eumeniden: 398–467.

Aristophanes, Die Wespen, übersetzt von Lutz Lenz, Griechische Dramen, Berlin/München/Boston: De Gruyter, 2014.

Aristotle, Poetics, edited and translated by St. Halliwell, Loeb Classical Library 199, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Aristotle, Athenian Constitution. Eudemian Ethics. Virtues and Vices, Translated by H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library 285, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935 (= Ath Pol).

Ennius, Fragmentary Republican Latin, Volume II: Ennius, Dramatic Fragments. Minor Works, Edited and translated by Sander M. Goldberg, Gesine Manuwald, Loeb Classical Library 537, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Quintus Ennius, Fragmente (Auswahl), Lateinisch/Deutsch. Ausgew., übers. und hrsg. von Otto Schönberger. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2009.

Euripides, Helen. Phoenician Women. Orestes, Edited and translated by David Kovacs, Loeb Classical Library 11, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Euripides, Tragödien, übersetzt von Bernhard Zimmermann, Sammlung Tusculum, Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2014, therein Elektra: 367–477, Orestes: 975–1113.

Secondary literature

Rüdiger Bernek (2011): Dramaturgie und Ideologie: Der politische Mythos in den Hikesiedramen des Aischylos, Sophokles und Euripides, Leipzig: B. G. Teubner.

Maximilian Braun (1998): Die Eumeniden des Aischylos und der Areopag, Tübigen: Narr.

Frank Bücher (2008): Die Polis braucht ihre Poeten – Aischylos’ Eumeniden und die Reformen des Ephialtes, in: Hermes 136:3, 255–274.

Desmond J. Conacher (1987): Aeschylus’ Oresteia: a literary commentary, Toronto [et al.]: Univ. of Toronto Press.

James Davidson (1998): Courtesans & fishcakes: the consuming passions of classical Athens, London: Fontana Press.

Kenneth Dover (1957): The Political Aspect of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, in: Journal of Hellenic Studies 77, 230–237.

Hanns Hohmann (1996): Gerichtsrede, in: Gert Ueding, Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik, Vol. 3 Eup–Hör, Tübingen: Niemeyer, columns 770–815, esp. 773–790: B.I. Theorie der Gerichtsrede in der Antike.

Milton W. Humphreys (1887): The Agon of the Old Comedy, in: The American Journal of Philology 8:2, 179–206.

Walter Nicolai (1977): Zur Theodizee des Aischylos (am Beispiel der Orestie), in: Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 29:1, 18–28.

Adi Parush (2001): The Courtroom as Theater and the Theater as Courtroom in Ancient Athens, in: Israel Law Review 35:1, 118–137.

Anthony J. Podlecki (1966): The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy, Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press; esp. bibliographical overview: 80–100.

Daniel M. Schaps (1998): What Was Free about a Free Athenian Woman?, in: Transactions of the American Philological Society 128, 161–188.

Saundra C. Schwartz (1998): Courtroom Scenes in the Ancient Greek Novels, Ph.D. diss., Columbia University.

Eadem (2010): Chronotopes of Justice in the Greek Novel: Trials in Narrative Spaces, in: Francesco de Angelis (ed.): Spaces of Justice in the Roman World, Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 35, Leiden/Boston: Brill, 331–356.

Eadem (2016): From Bedroom to Courtroom: Law and Justice in the Greek Novel, Ancient Narrative Supplements 21, Groningen: Barkhuis.

Neil J. Sewell-Rutter (2007): Guilt by Descent: Moral Inheritance and Decision Making in Greek Tragedy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oliver Taplin (1977): The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: The Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cornelia Vismann (2006): Das Drama des Entscheidens, in: Cornelia Vismann/Thomas Weitin (eds.): Urteilen/Entscheiden, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 91–100.

Reginald P. Winnington-Ingram et al. (1985): Tragedy, in: Easterling et al. (eds.): The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. Vol. 1, Pt. 2: Greek Drama, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 258–345, esp. 258–263: The Origins of Tragedy.

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How to cite this entry

Vera Engels (2022): Court and Drama in Antiquity, in: Thomas Gutmann, Eberhard Ortland, Klaus Stierstorfer, eds., Encyclopedia of Law and Literature (last edited 30 November 2022),
doi: 10.17879/71089504727



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