Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.24

N.J. Sewell-Rutter, Guilt by Descent. Moral Inheritance and Decision Making in Greek Tragedy. Oxford Classical Monographs.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiii, 202.  ISBN 978-0-19-922733-4.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Enrico Medda, Dipartimento di Filologia Classica, Università di Pisa (
Word count: 2974 words

The subject and method of N. J. Sewell-Rutter's (hereafter S.-R.) study (based on the author's D. Phil. thesis, submitted in 2004 at Corpus Christi College, Oxford) are clearly stated in the Introduction. The primary focus of the book is the complex intertwining of supernatural and human causation in Greek tragedy, and particularly a group of tragedies (the Labdacid and Pelopid plays above all) whose characters act under the influence of a moral inheritance received from earlier generations. This process involves concepts that are familiar to readers of tragic texts, like inherited guilt, ancestral curses, the Erinyes and other daemonic powers. Despite a long tradition of studies,1 the discussion about these topics still suffers from a certain looseness of terminology, which often results in some degree of confusion. The aim of the author is to clarify the nature and working of each of these causal determinants and to understand how they cooperate with human motivations in the process of decision-making, which the author, at the end of his enquiry, describes as "the essential link between the awful happening and the mortal act" (p. 171).

The volume consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion; it is completed by a list of bibliographic references, a useful index locorum and a general index. The standard of production is very high; misprints are almost absent.2

Chapter 1 has an introductory function. In order to show that tragic theology is not an isolated creation, S.-R. chooses the stories of Croesus and Cyrus in Herodotus' book I as an example of how a contemporary author describes human actions as the product of four interacting forces: the retributive principle, fate, the sins of the fathers, and the uncertainty and mutability of human life. S.-R.'s main point is that Herodotus' handling of the divine level of causation often resembles the tragedians' use of it. None of these causal determinants prevails in fact over the other; each one of them tends to become prominent at particular moments of the story (the ancestral guilt of Gyges, for example, is mentioned at I 34, but only at I 91, after calamity has befallen Croesus, does the oracle recall it as the cause of the king's ruin). Moreover, in this multiply determined process the acknowledgement of the action exerted by the gods does not obscure the human level of responsibility, so that the 'amoral' perspective of inherited guilt coexists with the 'moral' idea of punishment for one's own errors.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4, which represent the core of the book, are dedicated respectively to inherited guilt, curses and Erinyes. The three sections are constructed along the same lines: first a survey of what is known from ancient sources about these concepts in archaic and late archaic culture, then an analysis of how they work in Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes and Oresteia and in Euripides' Phoenissae. The choice to segment the discussion of each tragedy among the three chapters (and also ch. 6) has the unwelcome consequence of frequent cross-references and summaries of previous conclusions, but on the whole the reader can easily gather the general picture.

The discussion of inherited guilt in chapter 2 brings out two relevant features of this concept in tragedy. (a) In Aeschylus and Euripides this is only one of a multiplicity of causal determinants, no one of which must be privileged in interpreting a play. In the Agamemnon, for example, at least four supernatural elements related to the family of the Atreidae (the death of Thyestes' children, the Erinyes, the daemon of the family, the curse laid on the house by Thyestes) concur to lead the king to death. I heartily agree with S.-R. in thinking that, instead of asking which is the most important, we should pay attention to the way Aeschylus recalls each of them at different stages of the play, in order to construct a crescendo. (b) The percolation of inherited guilt from one generation to another is not presented in tragedy as an amoral process that condemns an innocent to ruin only for the sins of his fathers. The inheritance received by Eteocles in the Septem, for example, consists not in a passive burden of guilt, but in a blighted disposition to choose crime that assimilates the king to his father. When Eteocles at 653ff. suddenly becomes conscious of his being the inheritor of a blighted past, he does not try to fight against Oedipus' legacy, but appropriates it, so that from now on his decisions as defender of the city are determined also by his inherited desire to destroy his brother and are made in a "morbidly heightened emotional state" (p. 31). The mechanism of appropriation of inherited guilt is valid for both brothers in the Phoenissae, but Euripides' treatment of the motive in this play is more complex and ramified than Aeschylus'. S.-R. shows how, instead of focusing on the influence of moral inheritance on an individual, Euripides pursues a multi-directional approach. He explores the tendency of the family to destroy itself through strife of its members as a part of an unceasing sequence of trangressions that involves all the descendants of the Spartoi. The whole polis is tainted from the time of its foundation, and hereditary guilt is a pervasive concept which articulates and informs the tragedy.

Chapter 3 picks up and develops M. West's recent reaction3 against the tendency to assign to inherited curses a primary role in the interpretation of some plays even when the text does not provide explicit indications in that direction. S.-R. resumes the debate about the so-called 'Pisander scholion' (sch. MAB on Eur. Phoe. 1760) and about the possibility that Euripides' Chrysippus was part of the same trilogy as the Phoenissae. He rightly does not regard the content of the scholion as a reflection of an archaic source, and shares the opinion of scholars who think that the Phoenissae probably did not refer to the ancestral curse uttered by Pelops against Laius after the rape of Chrysippus. The lesson S.-R. extracts at p. 74 from the case of the Phoenissae is that we must be very cautious in reconstructing extant tragedies from external sources, often later and of uncertain reliability, and that we should be even more cautious in basing our interpretation of a play on an architectural principle arbitrarily derived from sources of that kind. Though rightly refusing to consider ancestral curses the main causal determinant of tragic action, S.-R. does not deny that they often have a relevant role in the plays. The key to a better understanding must be sought in dramatic chronology, since it is the collocation within the piece that gives to the mention of an ancestral curse the particular effect aimed at by the author. The dramatists were also aware of the performative potentialities of curses uttered on stage: an interesting excursus examines the ἀραί of Theseus against his son in the Hippolytus and the terribly ironical curse of Oedipus against the murderer of Laius in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, whose emotional effect is intensified by the lack of knowledge displayed by the character who is speaking.

The discussion about the Erinyes (chapter 4) aims to demonstrate that the main feature of these goddesses in tragedy is complexity and multi-functionality, so that, instead of a vain attempt to construct a unitary picture by summation of their many facets, interpreters should look for a full appreciation of their dramatic potentialities. The name Erinys can bring with itself at different places the idea of vengeance, of a curse coming to its fulfillment, of familial disorder, etc.; moreover, these goddesses are always characterized as implacable entities who pursue the punishment of sinners. Another feature that S.-R. regards as essential is the tendency of tragic Erinyes to obtrude themselves suddenly in the action at moments of high drama (an example of this kind of 'irruption' is Cassandra's scene in the Agamemnon). In the last part of the chapter, S.-R. tackles the difficult question posed by Aeschylus' Eumenides. In this play, the only one in which the Erinyes are incarnate on stage, their character and behaviour seem to be at odds with the features described above. How can we explain the fact that the implacable powers par excellence are eventually placated and welcomed into Athenian cult? S.-R. lists six possible responses elaborated by scholars, to which he adds an interesting suggestion of his own. When Aeschylus decided to bring the Erinyes onto the tragic scene as embodied characters, he had to pay a price for the reification of what in other plays was only a broadly suggestive concept. In order to give them an effective stage presence, it was necessary to make a simplifying choice among their multi-faceted attributes: this resulted in a play which "stands far apart from what the tragedians generally intended to accomplish in deploying an Erinys" (p. 109).

Chapter 5 is dedicated to what S.-R. calls a "crucial difference" between Sophocles and the other two great tragedians from the point of view of the treatment of familial disorders and their connection with supernatural modes of causation. The analysis of the Theban plays and the Electra shows that Sophocles does not emphasize the divine component of human action in the way Aeschylus did in the Oedipodeia and in the Oresteia. Neither Antigone's nor Oedipus' decisions show any trace of double motivation. S.-R. points out that in Sophocles' Labdacid plays we notice "the absence of any hereditary curse on the line that serves as the causal lynchpin of the action" (p. 129) and that in general Sophocles' plays do not show the tendency to the 'irruption' of the Erinyes or of an ancestral curses at a climactic point of the drama. The absence of these motives in the final scenes of the Electra and the very limited role of the inherited curse of the Pelopids in that play prove that the Atreid myth could be brought on stage with a very different approach to matters of moral inheritance.

Chapter 6 is articulated in three sections. The first gives a general picture of the concept of μοῖρα in tragedy and clarifies the reasons of the limited role played by fate in the architecture of tragic plays. The second tackles the decisive question of freedom vs. ἀνάγκη in tragic decision-making. After a 'philosophical' excursus which explores the possibility to conciliate at least partially the conflicting instances of determinism and free will, S.-R. discusses again at length Eteocles' decision in the Septem. He convincingly argues that no significant problematization of freedom and responsibility may be found in the play: Eteocles' decision is a process by which the king himself constructs the necessity that brings him to ruin by recognizing and appropriating his cursed past, which becomes part of his personal motivation to fratricide. This process is unique in tragic theatre and makes Eteocles' decision different from those of Agamemnon or of Orestes in the Oresteia, who are pressed by an explicit divine order expressed in the form of an oracle or of a teras: "no one, man or god, is telling Eteocles to meet his brother. . . Eteocles is both self-motivated and untouched by doubt" (p. 161). The last section of the chapter refines the perception of the uniqueness of Eteocles' decision by contrasting it to a later treatment of the myth (again Euripides' Phoenissae) and to a play of Sophocles (the Ajax) where the state of mind of the central character is of primary relevance.

S.-R.'s study is on the whole stimulating and successful in trying to look at well known topics from a new point of view, and it has the merit of calling attention again to a subject that had been left out in the critical work on tragedy during the last decades of the twentieth century. The author's approach to the texts is sound and his arguments lucidly developed. The main strength of the book is represented by the vivid consciousness of the connection between the conceptual burden of the plays and their dramatic and emotional aspects. S.-R. makes his readers alert to the danger of looking at tragedy primarily as a vehicle of ethical and religious ideas, and regards the concepts relating to guilt by descent not as absolute principles governing a 'tragic' vision of human life, but as a moldable stuff that the dramatists bend to their particular projects. The treatment of the dramatic exploitation of these motives is surely the most interesting contribution of the book (whose best results may be found in chapters 2, 3, 4 and in the second section of chapter 6) and could sometimes have been privileged at the expense of general discussions which are not particularly new (for example, the ten pages dedicated to the defixiones, which play a very limited role in tragedy, or the section on fate in ch. 6). The discussion of the Septem is very fruitful: S.-R.'s interpretation of the decision-making process is stimulating, and his 'unitarian' reading of the character of Eteocles is well argued (I am, however, persuaded that character-drawing is not Aeschylus' primary focus here: what really matters is the sudden change in the atmosphere of the drama caused by the new knowledge acquired by the king at 653ff.). As for the the Erinyes in the Eumenides, in my opinion the relevance of the Athenian cult of the Semnai has been a little underestimated by S.-R. The presence of this cult in the city is the starting point for Aeschylus' ambitious political-religious and dramatic project, whose keystone is the idea that there will be 'a great profit for these citizens from these terrible faces' (Eum. 990-91); in other words, fear must have a primary relevance in the life of the city in order to ensure a future of justice and prosperity. The aetiological placation of the Erinyes was an unavoidable part of this project, but the poet did not at all intend to weaken the terrible nature of the goddesses. On the contrary, he transforms the elsewhere 'irrupting' deities into a fearful presence firmly embedded in civic life and into a terrible scenic reality that talks directly to the spectators' hearts and minds (the theatrical dimension is clearly alluded to at 990 by the words φοβερὰ πρόσοπα; see Sommerstein's note ad loc.).

On the other hand, a rather perplexing feature of the volume is represented by the author's parsimony in referring to previous studies relating to the same issues, even when they have made points that are relevant to his discussion. The final list of references shows several surprising omissions. For example, among the 'classic' treatments of the topics faced by the author, one would have expected a mention of N. G. L. Hammond, 'Personal Freedom and its Limitations in the Oresteia',4 whose discussion begins with the assertion that we cannot properly judge the relevance of the curse motive in the Agamemnon without paying due attention to dramatic evolution. It is particularly regrettable that S.-R. neither took into account in his discussion nor mentioned in the bibliography two contributions dedicated to the very topic of his book: T. N. Gantz's article 'Inherited Guilt in Aeschylus',5 whose ideas about the Oresteia and the Septem are partially coincident with some of S.-R.'s conclusions, and S. Föllinger's detailed study Genosdependenzen. Studien zur Arbeit am mythos bei Aischylos, Göttingen 2003. S-R.'s discussion of the Agamemnon would have greatly profited from the confrontation with one of the latest and profoundest writings of S. Timpanaro, the article 'Antinomie nell'Agamennone di Eschilo';6 nor is it easy to understand why V. Di Benedetto's penetrating analysis of the relationship between the complex of fearful ideas relating to the Erinyes and the new role that Aeschylus assigns to fear in Athenian society7 did not deserve any attention. A mention of D. J Mastronarde's 'Euripidean Tragedy and Theology'8 would also have been welcome in the bibliography, and the item concerning A. Rivier should have included his 'Remarques sur le <<nécessaire>> et la <<nécessité>> chez Eschyle'.9

Before concluding I add a few observations on points of detail.

On pp. 19-20, S.-R. writes that tragedy reserves little space for "the hypothetical converse of inherited guilt, inherited credit" and that "the Δίκα that shines fort in smoky dwellings in one passage of the Agamemnon (772 ff.) is often scarcely visible through the pall of transgression, Erinys and curse". This is obviously right if we look at the tragic corpus as a whole, but not in the case of the Oresteia, where the theme of the retribution for men who live according to Dike and refuse excessive wealth is particularly relevant to the dramatic project, both at the level of individual life (see Ag. 378-80, 471-74, 758-62, 774-80) and of the social life of the Athenians (Eum. 526-37, 550-52, 991-95, 996-97).

On p. 65 n. 52. Mastronarde's explanation of ἀράς at Eur. Phoe. 1610-11 as a term referring generically to the malevolent influence of a divine power is confirmed in my opinion by the following sentence, introduced by an explicative γὰρ: (I say this) because 'I am not so lacking in sense that I brought this ruin to my eyes and to the life of my sons without the prompting of some god' (1612-14, Kovacs' translation).

On pp. 75-76. In the section dedicated to inherited curses in the Oresteia, I miss a mention of the terrible detail of Ag. 235-37: by ordering his attendants to gag Iphigeneia, Agamemnon prevented her from uttering a φθόγγον ἀραῖον οἴκοις. This ominous cry (not necessarily an articulated curse, as Fraenkel points out) could have given new strength to the γονὰν ἀραῖον (Ag. 1564) that cannot be expelled from the house of the Atreidae.

S.-R.'s book, despite some minor shortcoming, must be regarded as a relevant contribution to the studies on tragic concepts about moral inheritance, and will be useful both to students of Greek tragedy and to scholars interested in broader religious and philosophic questions.


1.   At p. xiii n. 1 S.-R. mentions some classic treatments of problems relating to causation, familial interaction and decision making in tragedy: E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley 1951: A. Lesky, 'Decision and Responsibility in the Tragedy of Aeschylus', JHS 86, 1966, 78-85 (= E. Segal, ed., Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy, Oxford 1983, 13-23); H. Lloyd-Jones, 'The Guilt of Agamemnon', CQ 12, 1962, 187-199 (= Greek Epic, Lyric, and Tragedy. The Academic Papers of Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Oxford 1990, 283-299); K. J. Dover, 'Some Neglected Aspects of Agamemnon's Dilemma', JHS 93, 1973, 58-69 (= Greek and the Greeks, Oxford-New York 1987, 135-150).
2.   I have noticed only: p. 2 n. 3 ποιήσις; for ποίησις (bis); p. 62 λάου and p. 101 λάιου for λαΐου; p.143 τίμην and τίμη for τιμὴν and τιμή.
3.   M. West, 'Ancestral Curses', in Sophocles revisited. Essays Presented to Sir H. Lloyd-Jones, edited by J. Griffin. Oxford 1999, 31-45.
4.   JHS 85, 1965, 42-55.
5.   CJ 78, 1982, 1-23.
6.   GIF 50, 1998, 131-184 (= S. Timpanaro, Contributi di Filologia greca e latina, a cura di E. Narducci et al. Firenze 2006, 39-90).
7.   See L'ideologia del potere. Ricerche su Eschilo, Torino 1978, and the Introduction to V. Di Benedetto et al., Eschilo. Orestea, Milano 1999 (2nd ed.) , 96-140.
8.   SemRom 5.1, 2002, 17-49.
9.   REG 81, 1968, 5-39.

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