Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.01.01

Maximilian Braun, Die Eumeniden des Aischylos und der Areopag. Classica Monacensia Bd. 19.   Tübingen:  Gunter Narr Verlag, 1998.  Pp. 261.  ISBN 3-8233-4878-7.  DM 78.  

Reviewed by Z. Philip Ambrose, The University of Vermont (
Word count: 3806 words

Among the abiding non liquets of classical scholarship is the relationship of Aeschylus' Eumenides in 458 to the reforms of the Areopagus brought about through the leadership of Ephialtes in 462. Braun's book is an elaborate review of the issue. Chapter One lays out Braun's view of the historical development of the Areopagus down to the time of Aeschylus. Chapter Two considers carefully the pertinent passages from the play itself and makes some textual decisions and interpretations. Chapter Three is a review of the scholarship on this problem up to the present decade. Chapter Four presents an interpretation of the political intention of the play. Chapter Five is intended as a correction of the views1 of Christian Meier on the same topic. Braun seeks to overturn Meier's view that the foundation of the Areopagus in the play is about something new in world history: a citizenry having at its disposal the power to decide the political order. Chapter Six constructs out of the bare details of Aeschylus' life and works the picture of a poet committed to democracy. Chapter Seven is a summary setting the conclusions of the author in harmony both with pre-Socratic concepts of a world brought into order out of contrasts and oppositions, and with mythical and religious concepts of a cosmos of variety and discord made one through the power of Zeus. There is an appendix dealing with O. De Bruyn's challenge to the view that the reforms of Ephialtes were as extensive as usually thought.2 There is the extensive Bibliography that this subject requires and to which there are references in 972 footnotes. An index of passages, names, and subjects would have made this book more serviceable as a compendium on this difficult scholarly problem and might have led the author to avoid some repetitions and inconsistencies.

Some details now with commentary: Not only is what Aeschylus intended at issue but what the reforms actually were. When K. O. Müller wrote his sensible comments in 1833, the Athenaion Politeia of Aristotle was not yet discovered. But recent scholarship, especially that of Robert W. Wallace, The Areopagus Council, to 307 B.C. (Baltimore, 1989), with which Braun is in essential agreement and which he reports closely in Chapter One (pp. 13-80), discredits the historical merits of Aristotle's references to an aristocratic council meeting on the Areopagus before Solon and his denial (also in Pol. 1273b35-1274a5) of the tradition that Solon was the real founder of the Areopagus as a council. Since Wallace's views have themselves seemed somewhat polemical to several specialists3 Braun's conclusions in Chapter One may not be the last word. But he is right to put first things first, to review in Chapter One the historical evidence for the nature and development of the Areopagus, and quite properly without reference to Aeschylus. Testing each piece of evidence and agreeing with Wallace that Plutarch and others have more historical value on this matter than the Ath. Pol., Braun draws these conclusions: even before Dracon the Areopagus had jurisdiction over cases of homicide; between Dracon and Solon the Ephetai were the same as the Areopagus (strongest evidence: Dracon's law on murder (IG I2, 115 = I3, 104), in which the Ephetai are to make the judgment in a case of a non-premeditated murder); most importantly, the "Council on the Areopagus" qua council with some sort of nomophylakia was really an establishment of Solon; that in the period after Solon the Areopagus was shy in asserting its privilege of eisangelia (impeachment) against Pisistratus; that after the Persian Wars the influence of the Areopagus grew and its pro-Spartan stance became more pronounced, both factors leading to its reform by the Ecclesia through the leadership of Ephialtes in 462/1; while Cimon was at Ithome, Ephialtes saw his chance, got the Assembly to eliminate the political powers of the Areopagus, unblocking the latter's stance against an alliance with Argos, Sparta's most important Peloponnesian opponent.4

Chapter Two treats Eum. 482-89 (Braun transposes 489 to a lacuna after 484), 566-573 (Braun distinguishes between the stratovn "people" and the bouleuqrivou), 681-710 (Athena's foundation speech), and 287-91, 667-73, 762-74 (presumably references to the new alliance with Argos). The problem with Athena's foundation speech is that it is an address to the Attic people (ἀττικὸς λεώς, 681), which Braun takes as the new court ("genau genommen, den Rat," p. 88), although he admits that it sounds like an address to the whole people and, as 697-703 and 707 ff. show, is intended not only for the Areopagus but for all the Athenians. This is of some consequence for Braun's treatment of Meier's views in Chapter Five, the extent to which the play's Areopagites are pars pro toto for the Demos.

Chapter Three is an assessment of the scholarship on this problem since K. O. Müller, without knowing the date of Ephialtes' reforms, first raised the question in his edition of the Eumenides (1833), long before the discovery of Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians. J. G. Droysen (1842), G. F. Schömann (1845), Paley (1879), Sidgwick (1887) and Wecklein (1888) follow Müller's conclusion that the play was directed against Ephialtes. While the democrat George Grote took an opposing stand, Braun gives special attention to W. Oncken, Athen und Hellas (Leipzig, 1865), the first major objection to Müller's view: how could the play have won in 458 in a Populist climate? Unlike Müller, Oncken thought, as the Ath. Pol. would confirm, that Ephialtes' reforms were in 462/1, so that if Aeschylus was indeed warning against the reforms, the warning came too late; that the play's favorable references to the alliance with Argos was a sign of opposition to Cimon, and the generally positive tone of the trilogy's end couldn't be an expression of antipathy to Ephialtes' party. What Braun is concerned to oppose in Oncken's interpretation is the view that Ephialtes had restored the Areopagus to the constitutional status Solon had given it, namely just to a court. Wilamowitz (1893), in the first interpretation to use the Ath. Pol., thought both political poles would have found support in the play. F. Cauer, "Aischylos und der Areopag," RhM 50 (1895), 348-356, interpreted Eum. 693-95 (but with the reading ἐπικαινεύντων νόμους) as a criticism of the citizens for changing the laws, not as Oncken would have it, of the Areopagus for expanding the powers given it by Solon. Cauer may be on the right track in thinking that the real political reference of the play was not to Ephialtes one way or the other but to the law admitting the Yeomen to the archonship and in turn to the Areopagus, already under debate at the time. But Braun thinks the reforms of Ephialtes had made that body unimportant and, invoking the support of Jacoby and Dodds, argues that had Aeschylus opposed the Zeugitae, he wouldn't have made positive references to the Argos alliance, which had depended upon their support. Though Braun doesn't agree with A. W. Verrall (1908) that the play is primarily interested in religion and only secondarily in politics, Verrall's view that Aeschylus was for the middle course is close to Braun's own summation of the political message of the play in Chapter Four.

In Chapter Four, Section 4.4, pp. 150-202, is more than 20% of the book's text. This section, "The Paradigm of the Erinyes," attempts to demonstrate that the play's appeasement of the Erinyes was intended as a model for a plan of reconciliation of the conflict caused by the reforms of the Areopagus in 462/1. Aeschylus is proposing as a compromise between the party of Cimon and the party of the Ephialtes (and his successor Pericles) that the Areopagus regain the status given it by Solon but not exercise the partisanship it had displayed increasingly after 479 B.C.

I wonder whether more could be made of Cleisthenes' reforms of the tribes in the development of the Areopagus. To the extent that those reforms enlarged the citizenry, they opened the magistracies in effect to new blood, thus changing the character of the Areopagus, membership in which was held for life by ex-archons. More important, choosing the Nine Archons by lot from a pool of 500 (Ath. Pol. 22.5) in 487 would have exposed membership in the Areopagus to the ways of chance. But opening the archonship to the Yeomen in 457/6 or 458/7 and by a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, admission of the thetes, as well (Ath. Pol. 26. 2; see P.J Rhodes, CHA V, p. 75), would have meant that many of the Areopagites would not have belonged to the upper economic classes. With this thought in mind I suggest that the metaphor of staining at Eum. 694-5, following the vexed reading of the participle in 693 (Braun prefers Zakas' ti kinouvntwn, not followed by a period) might have drawn attention to the debate on the eligibility of the third census class to the archonship. The very formulation of the Areopagus as the aristocracy (admittedly true before Cleisthenes) and the Assembly as demos, implicit in Wallace, Braun, and Meier, may be quite overdrawn. Whatever rights Ephialtes' reforms took from the Areopagus, the Areopagus was not dissolved. Areopagites as former magistrates, as men of political experience, must have continued to have some public visibility, even some dignitas in the formation of public opinion, and thus some compensation for the loss of political "clout" that sortition had inflicted on the archonship.

Ephialtes did not change the way one became a member of the Areopagus. And if after 458 this body would have an increasing number of members from the lower classes, would its political bias not be expected to shift accordingly towards the Popular party? Whether it actually did shift does not preclude the possibility that at the time some -- including Aeschylus -- might have anticipated such a shift. This point seems all the more critical in view of Braun's eventual argument in this chapter that Aeschylus is calling for an end to the partisanship of the Areopagus that emerged after 479.

Couldn't the anecdote in Ath. Pol. 23.1 (perhaps taken by Aristotle from Atthidographers; cf. Cic. De Off. 1. 75) that the Areopagites offered 8 drachmas to the citizens to join the fight against the Persians before Salamis, considered "frankly ludicrous" by Wallace and, "hardly credible" by Braun, contain a germ of truth, namely that the Areopagus was learning the art of moving the demos? (Would those who were to thrive on the Periclean building program have turned up their noses at those wages?) Even Braun, p. 67, grants that the Areopagus knew how to move the political will of the people. While further "democratization" of the Areopagus was in the offing around the time the Oresteia was produced, Ephialtes' reforms had apparently checked the authority of the Areopagus in its oversight of the laws and magistrates, thus preempting the political consequences of a more populist Areopagus. It is for this reason that I must doubt the conclusions of Braun and others that Aeschylus would have been calling for a repeal of the reforms of Ephialtes, especially if I were to agree that Aeschylus' play takes a rather conservative line. Wouldn't a stronger, "restored" Areopagus have ceded another instrument of power to the Demos?

As for the alliance with Argos, Braun holds with others (C. D. N. Costa, M. Gagarin, A. Lardinois) that the Oresteia's setting of the scene of the House of Atreus in Argos was politically significant, eliminating the basis for Sparta's claim (Herodotus 7.159) to hegemony on Agamemon's leadership in the Trojan War.5 K. J. Dover, "The Political Aspect of Aeschylus's Eumenides," JHS 77 (1957), 235-36, argues persuasively that 287-91, 667-73, 762-74 refer to an alliance with Argos. There is no doubt that in this trilogy the name Argos could evoke in the audience attention to an alliance or any dealings with Argos. But could it not have meant more? I would suggest that one of the times it did is at 767-774 when the grateful Orestes claims that his tomb will be an obstruction for the Argives so that, should they think to make war on Athens, they will change their mind. Here, I think, Orestes uses Argos for all the Peloponnesians, just as Eurystheus, King of Argos, in Euripides' Heracleidae 1026-1036, assures the Athenians that burying him on Attic soil will oppose the Heraclid descendants, i. e., the Spartans, when they invade with a great army. The Athenian audience knew that Sparta had retrieved the bones of Orestes from Tegea (Herod. 1. 67-69). Like Argive Eurystheus, Argive Orestes promises apotropaic influence upon Spartan invaders.

Another instance where Argos is not only Argos is at Agamemnon 855 ff. Braun notes part of this passage in Chapter Four, p. 146, taking Meier to task for his interpretation of Ag. 877-885, which I quote in McLintock's translation, op. cit. p. 121: "When Clytemnestra receives Agamemnon, she explains to him why Orestes is absent: she has sent him away because of her uncertainty about the outcome of the Trojan War and her fear that the 'lawlessness of popular clamor might overthrow the council' (or 'reject the counsel'). These words have no function in the play. They are an unmistakable allusion to what happened in Cimon's absence. The formulation, however is clearly characteristic of the queen, who will soon be seen as a criminal and a tyrant." Copying Meier's words, Braun, p. 146, "Die Warnung des Strophios hat im Kontext des Stückes keine Funktion." He goes on to criticize Meier for not seeing that the grounds for removing Orestes come from Strophios, not from Clytemestra. As a source historian, Braun seems to have been taken in by the queen here, for whether the words are really from Strophios or invented by her and attributed to Strophios cannot be known. And both Meier and Braun are wrong in seeing no dramatic function for her words, since the cunning queen knows full well that words reported as those of his Phocean ally (and in later sources, husband of his sister Anaxibia) would have been reassuring to Agamemnon. Further, Meier's point here is that Clytemestra's reference to potential political disorder at home while the leader is away is clear reference to Cimon's absence at Ithome puts her on the side of Areopagus and Aeschylus on the side of the demos. Perhaps the beginning of her speech, 855 ff. makes his point less far-fetched:

ἄνδρες πολῖται, πρέσβος Ἀργείων τόδε,
οὐκ αἰσχυνοῦμαι τοὺς φιλάνορας τρόπους
λέξαι πρὸς ὑμᾶς· ἐν χρόνωι δ' ἀποφθίνει
τὸ τάρβος ἀνθρώποισιν.
She is addressing not only Agamemnon, but the citizens, in particular the Argive elders. Now if a Spartan were in the audience might he not have thought of his Gerousia, and wouldn't the Athenians have thought of their own "elders," the Areopagus? Without drawing Meier's conclusions about Aeschylus' political stance here, I should think that this passage adds some weight to his view that Clytemestra's words drew attention to the Areopagus, one of whose traditional responsibilities was to guard Athens against the kind of tyranny Aegisthus and she posed to Argos. Her own wry comment about the influence of fear upon human behavior, the absence of which in this case explains her own "male-like ways," looks forward to the discourse on fear in the third play. Her word for the fear she doesn't have, τάρβος, occurs in only one other passage of the trilogy, Cho. 546, as Orestes tells of Clytemestra's fear of her dream. Does this τάρβος foreshadow the "good fear" (τὸ δεινὸν εὖ, Eum. 517, cf. 698) which both Erinyes and Athena espouse in the third play as a deterrent to injustice and attribute of both Areopagus and the Semnai Theai / Eumenides?

I have dwelt so long on this detail in order to prepare for a general comment about a larger problem raised by Braun's attention to textual details and their possible relation to ideology and historical events. Braun is probably right in Chapter Five that Meier's attempt to see the work of the play's Areopagus as a representation of the Athenian politai at work in the design of their constitution isn't borne out fully by the text, but Meier's approach may be closer to the right poetics of reading ancient drama in searching for the general political tone of the trilogy (and surely the trilogy as a whole is to be considered). Why would Aeschylus' attention have been necessarily or primarily to the political events four years past? Why not to the opening of the archonship to the Yeomen? Or to "politics" in general or to other events of which we lack any clear record?6 Aristotle, Poetics 9. 3, had it right when he judged tragedy superior to history in that the latter deals with particulars, the former with general truths. Thucydides (1. 22) saw the problem and strove for a kth'ma ej" aijeiv. Re-production of the Oresteia in Athens in the 420's would surely not have failed simply because the audience was not abuzz about the latest matters areopagitical.7 Aeschylus, who himself had experience with re-productions of his works in Sicily, must have had some sense that he was an author of "classics," works to be read in any age with profit. Just as Thucydides, keen to make his work useful for all time, professes to make his speakers say what the situation typically requires, didn't Aeschylus and the poets of Tragedy consciously develop the poetics of generalization that made their intentions -- moral and political -- perceptible and applicable to any age? Aristotle's praise and their very endurance as classics suggest that they did.

Braun does approach a poetics of generalization or of associative poetics in his very long attempt to demonstrate a kind of analogy between the appeasement of the Erinyes and a real proposal for the appeasement of the disempowered Areopagus. Footnote 762, p. 199, overcomes any doubt that there was a close bond between the historical Areopagus as a court and the Semnai Theai = Erinyes = Eumenides. And in their function of putting restraints upon the city, both the Eumenides of the play and the new court founded by Athena are closely tied. But to push for an equation between the appeasement of the Erinyes of the play and a proposal dealing with the historical Areopagus involves even Braun in a large problem: how to deal with the fact that the play's Areopagites vote against the Erinyes (-- well, not exactly, since in Braun's view Athena erases by her vote the majority that favored the side of the Erinyes, p. 215)?8 Here Braun attempts to shore up his point by reminding us, p. 198, that the defeated Erinyes represent the Areopagus before the reforms of 462/1, whereas the Areopagus founded in the play is a representation of its ideal Solonian form.

Chapter Six wants to bring the picture of a moderate reformist in line with other evidence from what is known of Aeschylus' life and from his other works. Without adding anything strikingly new to the hefty scholarship on the subject (in fact substantially following Meier, as 8 of the chapter's 28 footnotes indicate), Braun extracts from the works, especially the Suppliants, the profile of a convinced democrat. Though he sees the Persians and its reference to Salamis as an "einmaliges Denkmal" to the democracy, he does not even mention the fact that the Fasti reports that in 472 B.C. Pericles of Cholargus was the producer of Aeschylus' play (and that the hypothesis to the play reports its production as in the archonship of Menon = 472 B.C.). Podlecki, whose work is cited scantily by Braun, had made this point and its analog, Themistocles' choregia of Phyrnichus' Phoenissae, fundamental starting points for his Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy (1966). Braun concludes that Aeschylus' dramatic intervention (my word) on behalf of the Areopagus sprang from his belief that this Solonian establishment was intended to preserve constitutional order, and the order of the day was the Democracy, threatened by the prospect of civil war. Not referring to Pericles' association with Aeschylus, Braun bypasses the problem that with his interpretation of the poet's views on the Areopagus Aeschylus would have been at odds with Pericles, both patricians, both democrats, both cooperating in 472 B.C. Or perhaps Braun would agree after all with my suggestion above that if the Areopagus was in a sense becoming an instrument of Popular power, to strengthen the Areopagus would mean strengthening the democracy? Does that mean that to repeal the reforms of Ephialtes was the plan of the party of Pericles? This is definitely not what Braun wants us to conclude.

Chapter Seven is a kind of peroration, often recasting and reshading the rhetoric of even those it disagrees with, including Meier (especially in the references to philosophy). Braun is right to emphasize the role of Peitho. I think he does neglect one central institution of the polis in the play, however, and that is the institution of public poetry itself at Athens. The wisdom that comes through suffering is useless unless it is remembered and made available to the powers of persuasion. In the institution of the Theater of Dionysus poetry is the stuff of memory, the material upon which Persuasion should base her vital and redeeming message. It is this truly unique institution that laid before the most inclusive gathering of the Athenians the problems inherent in both their public and private lives. Braun speaks of the unity of Gegensätze brought to fulfilment by the Aeschylean Zeus. Isn't that unity something like the poet's ability to transform through the mask of myth actual historical issues into general ideas?

Braun's work is brave, a vigorous attempt to grasp, clarify, and solve one of the most celebrated issues in the study of surviving Greek plays. It reaches far into the scholarship and examines carefully the texts not only of Aeschylus' Eumenides but of the other sources for the history of the Areopagus. Yet those consulting the book will disagree with some of the assessment of the ancient sources leading to Braun's conception of the Solonian Areopagus. Braun's reading of the Eumenides is painstaking and for any reader instructive. But considerations of the political import of the play which will certainly continue, should treat the trilogy as a whole and consider the full richness of Aeschylean language, rather than placing so much stress on a few passages, ones often containing uncertain readings and implications. In a very general way Braun's picture of a moderate Aeschylus urging the middle way is fairly persuasive. But how precisely actual political issues are reflected in the play will probably continue to occupy us either until we find the answer or reshape the questions. Outright errors are very few (the misrendering of an objective genitive with "durch" instead of "von" at the top of p. 155 is probably only an editorial error -- cf. p. 152, n. 580).


1.   Now accessible in English in The Greek Discovery of Politics (originally 1980), tr. D. McLintock (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990) and The Political Art of Greek Tragedy (originally 1988), tr. Andrew Webber (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993).
2.   O. De Bruyn, La compétence de l'Aréopage en matière de procès publics: des origines de la polis athénienne à la conquête romaine de la Grèce (vers 700 - 146 avant J. C.) (Stuttgart, 1995).
3.   D.M. Lewis, CR (1990), sees no distinction in the sources between court and council and doubts the credibility of the sources for an increase in the power of the Areopagus in 479-462; R. A. Knox, JHS (1990), and E. M. Carawan, AJPh (1990) share similar doubts about Wallace's reconstruction of the pre-Solonian Areopagus.
4.   The absence of Cimon hardly seems necessary. See G.E.M. De Ste. Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, (London: Duckworth, 1972), p. 179 n. 43: "The reforms of Ephialtes must have taken place on Cimon's return, not (as Plut. represents) during his absence. It should be sufficient to refer to Jacoby, FGrH III b (Suppl.) i.458-9; ii.369-70 n. 17."
5.   Missing from the bibliography is A. J. N. W. Prag, The Oresteia: The Iconography and Narrative Tradition (Warminster and Chicago, 1985), where see p. 74 on this point.
6.   A. J. Podlecki, The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy, Ann Arbor, 1966, p. 96, thought Aeschylus was protesting some further attempt to modify further the Areopagus between 462 and 558.
7.   For allusions to reproductions of Aeschylus in the 420's see T. B. L. Webster, The Tragedies of Euripides, (London: Methuen, 1967), pp. 12-13.
8.   B. considers M. Gagarin, AJPh (1975) 96, 121-127, decisive. But for the view that the votes were equal before Athena's, see R. Seaford, "Historicizing Tragic Ambivalence: The Vote of Athena" in History, Tragedy, Theory; Dialogues on Athenian Drama, ed. B. Goff (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1995), 202-221.

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