The scene shifts to the Hill of Ares, the Areopagus. Athena, Apollo, and Orestes enter, along with the silent actors who will represent a herald, the judges, and the audience. Athena bids the herald invite the people to take their places and bids the trumpet sound; now all are to be silent and learn her ordinances for this new court, now established to last forever. The Chorus of Furies call on Apollo to explain what he is doing at the trial. He explains that he is there as a witness and to argue for Orestes, and he takes responsibility for the killing of Orestes’ mother. He calls on Athena to preside over the court. Athena calls on the Chorus of Furies to act as prosecutor and present their case.
The Chorus Leader chooses to present the case by questioning Orestes. First she gets him to admit he killed his mother and to say how, then to say that he acted upon Apollo’s oracles. When he says that he has no problem with what Apollo persuaded him to do, the Leader threatens him with what he will suffer if he loses the case, but Orestes speaks of his confidence that his father from his grave is helping him. His mother committed two crimes, killing her husband and Orestes’ father. Why didn’t the Furies persecute her? The Leader answers that she was not killing someone of the same blood. Orestes asks whether he has the same blood as his mother, and the Leader in horror asks him whether he actually wants to “disown [his] mother’s dearest blood” (608). Orestes turns to Apollo for help—did he act justly?
First Apollo points out that he has never spoken an oracle that did not come from Zeus, and that should carry the day with the judges. The Chorus Leader asks whether it was really Zeus who told him to tell Orestes to avenge his father and put aside his reverence for his mother, and Apollo answers yes, for the murder of a man and a ruler by a woman is a more serious crime than the killing of a woman. And worse yet, Agamemnon was killed by a woman treacherously and shamefully, entangling him with a robe as he stepped out of the bath. I have said these things, explains Apollo, to stir those who judge to anger. You say Zeus cares so much about fathers, says the Leader, yet he chained up his father. Apollo calls the Furies beasts, and explains that chains can be undone, but once a man is dead and his blood is spilled on the earth, that is the end—even Zeus cannot undo that.
The Chorus Leader asks how, then, can one who spilled his mother’s blood on the earth go home to live and be part of society in Argos. Apollo answers that it is only the male who begets the child; the mother simply nurses it in her womb. As proof, he points to Athena, who never had a mother at all, but sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus. And he promises Athena that he will do everything he can to make her city and her people great, as he already has sent Orestes to her, that her city might have his city as an ally.
Athena asks whether she should now call a vote; the Chorus Leader says they’ve said all they have to say, and Apollo tells the judges to respect their oath. Athena speaks to the citizens in what she calls “this council of judges” “who are trying your first trial for the shedding of blood” (684, 682). Here on this hill the Amazons camped when they came to attack Athens, and here they sacrificed to Ares, whence the name Areopagus. Here, she says, she establishes this council for future times, and as long as Athenians fear and revere this court and keep their laws intact, avoiding both tyranny and anarchy, they will restrain injustice and have the best possible protector for their city. Her central words are these:
Neither anarchy nor tyranny shall the citizens defend and respect, if they
follow my counsel;
and they shall not cast out altogether from the city what is to be feared.
For who among mortals that fears nothing is just? (696-99)
This council will not be greedy for profit but worthy of respect and ready to be angry when necessary, guarding the land. That is her advice for the future, she says; now they must decide the case.
As the judges one by one deposit their ballots in the voting urns, the Chorus Leader and Apollo speak in turn, urging them to vote the right way and continuing their argument with each other. The Leader threatens the land with disaster if the Furies are dishonored, and Apollo calls on the judges to respect Zeus, ultimate source of his oracles. Athena explains that if the votes are equal, she will cast the decisive vote for Orestes. She had no mother, and is always on the man’s side, since she belongs to her father, and can’t consider a woman’s death more important than that woman’s killing of her husband.
As the votes are counted, Orestes calls on Apollo, and the Chorus Leader on her mother, Night. Each sees this decision as meaning ruin or escape from ruin. Apollo adjures the counters to count fairly—a single vote can save.
Athena announces that the votes are equal, and so Orestes is acquitted. Orestes rejoices, uttering his thanks to Athena for giving him back his homeland, and to Zeus, who saw how his father died and has saved him from the Furies. He swears solemnly that no ruler of Argos will ever attack Athens. And if anyone should go against his oath, he from his tomb will visit them with misfortune and make them repent. Only if they always are steadfast allies of Athens will he show them favor. Wishing good fortune in war to Athena and her city, Orestes leaves, and Apollo with him.
There is much here that is extremely strange to a modern audience, and the debates about meaning have been going on ever since scholars began to write about the play. How should we see Apollo and his arguments? Did Aeschylus himself believe them? Why are Athena’s reasons for her decision so purely personal and even arbitrary? Why did Aeschylus make the council split evenly on the decision?
In the first place, it’s important to remember that the Greeks had no problem with presenting gods on stage with major flaws, as should already be obvious. Apollo was behind Cassandra’s suffering in the first play of the trilogy, and we’ve already discussed the contrast between his attitude to the Furies and Athena’s. In this scene, he only brings out his argument that the mother isn’t really of the same blood as the child when the Furies have him backed into a corner; Athena never mentions the argument; and clearly it does not carry overwhelming weight with the council of judges, since they split evenly on the matter. Apparently the theory had been advanced by some of the advanced philosophers of the day, one of whom (Anaxagoras) had been a guest and friend of Pericles for many years, but it was by no means universally held. Aristotle, in the fourth century, accepted it, and so it prevailed where Aristotle was considered authoritative in later centuries, but Aristotle himself tells of other theories held before his time. Given these and other arguments, it seems reasonable to see Aeschylus as presenting Apollo as an extremist, ready to discard the traditional reverence for the tie between mother and child in order to establish male dominance beyond question.
Aeschylus, on the other hand, is not so much concerned to establish male dominance (though he clearly does not challenge it—no one did, in his world) as to show that even the most difficult question can be resolved if the people respect the will of the majority of the highest court, even if they completely disagree with it. On such respect, the possibility of a stable democracy with an effective legal system depends. Changes were happening in Aeschylus’ own time with which many disagreed, and at times it even seemed the city might sink into civil war. Only respect for the decision-making process itself could save Athens.
More important than the reasons Athena gives for casting her vote for Orestes are the words she speaks that echo the words of the Furies. Awe and fear are needed to preserve justice. She here calls on all to have that kind of awe for the council she has established; in the next scene she exhorts all to continue to reverence and fear the Furies. In fact, the council of the Areopagus was closely associated with the Furies. That council had recently been stripped of many of its powers, leaving it only with jurisdiction in cases of homicide. Aeschylus may well have been trying to reconcile conservatives to that change by suggesting that the function of trying cases of homicide was central from the beginning, as well as by showing the utmost reverence for the council.
The deeper reconciliation, the one that invites an interpretation in terms of depth psychology, comes only in the next (and last) scene.