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A Critical Analysis of the Play "Oresteia"

Updated on May 10, 2022


In his play, the “Oresteia” Aeschylus presents a mythic foundation story concerning the establishment and functions of the Areopagus court in Athens. According to him, the court’s judges had been given the Spirit of wisdom from the goddess of Athens. He goes on to attribute this as the reason for the significant success that had been achieved by the Areopagus court by leveraging the injustices and primitive elements of morality in the city. Livy on the other hand presents a contrary view on the foundation of Rome which he accepts as being derived from the myths involving the gods. In their writings, both Aeschylus and Livy have engaged much in the discussions about the relationship between humans and gods. Furthermore, the two authors affirm that the gods played a significant role in human life and the formation of some institutions such as the courts. This hub is focused on analyzing the similarity and variation of the two author’s views concerning human efficacy, divinity, and the human ability to dictate their own course. Aeschylus believes that that the world is controlled by a deity and determines its existence.


An analysis of Aeschylus’ writing and views concerning religion shows that he depicted the Greek religion highly, particularly regarding moral dignity. He states that the Greek religion had worked much in safeguard morality and ensuring that humans lived coercively in their respective societies. According to him, it is the gods that determine the course of human life and that man is not able to dictate himself. In other words, there could be implications to the point that life could become cumbersome for a man if there were no outside forces governing the world. He gives an example of the Athens court where the judges were only made efficient by the powers of the Athens gods. The deities subsequently made these judges execute justice fairly and authoritatively, thus contributing significantly to leveraging of morality in the city.

From his views, it is apparent that the historian sublimes to the conception of Zeus as the highest ruler of the world. The other gods are highlighted as the ministers of his will and despite possessing their supernatural features are ranked below Zeus. He employs a monotheistic language in describing Zeus and the praises accorded to him are chanted in the strains of the highest level of exaltation. “He is the most blessed of all beings” he is the king of all rulers. “There is nothing that happens under the sun without the will of Zeus” “Zeus is the earth, sky and heaven” “he is all things above all things” His power is omnipresent and omnipotent.

Nonetheless, Aeschylus high-level conception of Zeus has huge variation with the same character which he presents in the Greek Mythology, or with the actions which the author performs himself. This makes the audience to imagine the possibility of a double Zeus, the omnipotent deity which he believed and a common polytheistic religion. It can also be presupposed that Aeschylus did not have a genuine faith concerning the credibility of myths, but simply employing them in setting context for his tragedies. In addition, it can also been seen from his philosophical perspective which are seen in some of his passages.

Among the divine attributes accorded to Zeu by Aeschylus none of them is more emphasized than justice. According to him, justice is the offspring of Zeus who also avenges and protects her. However, the author does not consider the beneficent perspective of Justice. Zeus does not tolerate sin and he punishes it accordingly. This may explain why there a couple of passages in Aeschylus proclaiming the penalties of sin and he takes a great time to emphasize on it. He calls Zeus the prophet of retributive justice requiring all humans to be pious and just since sin always expiated by suffering and that it is not possible to reverse human action.


Similar to Aeschylus, Livy in his “History” involves a lot of references to gods, deities and worship. Livy's belief in the supernatural has been confirmed by several historians such as Stübler 1941, Steele 1902, and Reichart 1938. Moreover, Livy’s faith and belief in the intervention of the gods in the current world is conveyed by religion. However, in contrast to Aeschylus, Livy observes that events in his history are largely determined by human beings rather than divine forces (Warrior, 2006). This is a sharp contrast from Aeschylus articulation that all things happening in this world are dictated by Zeus or a divine deity.

In chapter 1, Livy’s account of P. Licinius Crassus’s profectio in 171 B.C.E, there is an example furnished by the historian with a purpose of facilitating the practice of political authority within the Roman Empire. The procession of the consul from the Capitoline temples to city gates can offered prompt for the then spectators on reflecting the sequence of past magistrates and how they had performed their roles. However, there emerges an interesting tension between the levels of the spectator’s reflection and the kind of ceremony that had caused provocation. The religious rituals and ceremonies that had been performed by the consul at the Capitol as per the traditions and religion of Rome were supposed to, without question influence the campaign of the consul. However, in this context, whenever the spectators take into concern the factors underlying the success or failure of the military endeavors, the thoughts on the propriety of religious ceremonies does not cross their minds. Their concern are centered on the possibility of whether they will access the fortune alongside the mental capabilities of the army commander. This is just a confirmation that despite his belief on the gods, Livy believed that the success of life or human endeavor largely depends on the competitiveness of the one in the position. To be more precise, Livy embraced both the traditional aspects, religion and human efforts in achieving success. This point to the reason why he insists on correct observance of a religious practice prior to a military operation and a requirement for the commander to posses the necessary traits such as courage, experience, and good fortune (felicitas). In a similar situation, Aeschylus would have stated that the army could win only if god was with them, irrespective of the mental or physical capabilities of the commander. This can therefore be considered as the center of deviation concerning the religious foundations of Livy and, Aeschylus.

Nonetheless, Livy also observes the relevance and significance of religion in the society. This means that both of them acknowledge the key role played by religion in creating a harmonious society. On the other hand, Livy can be perceived as a person who believed so much on myths and traditions of which he supplemented with the belief in the emperor Augustus as a divine deity who had been instituted to save the city of Rome. This belief was contrary to those of Aeschylus who did not consider any human being to possess the features of a deity. The reason why Livy places more emphasis on traditional myths, practices is because these practices have been accorded special places in philosophical discipline.


In summary, key similarities and differences can be seen in the works and believes of Livy and Aeschylus who have been the center of this analysis. While Livy both of them affirmed the significance of religion and in particular gods or divine forces in the society, they failed to agree on some of the fundamental aspects of religion. For instance, Aeschylus does not attach so much faith on faith and traditions and although he provides a strong description of a might force, he makes it in such a controversial way as to confuse readers as the true identity of this Zeus and which of them did he believe in. Another area of variation is whether human beings can be considered deities of which Aeschylus does not ascribe to this school of thought. This is why Aeschylus affirms that there is no human beings who can control or dictate his or someone’s fate expect the gods or divine power. On the contrary, Livy believes that it’s the human beings actions that can determine his or her direction.


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