Orestes (play)
Orestes (408 BCE
408 BC
Year 408 BC was a year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Tribunate of Iullus, Ahala and Cossus...

) is an Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

 play by Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 that follows the events of Orestes
Orestes (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Orestes was the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. He is the subject of several Ancient Greek plays and of various myths connected with his madness and purification, which retain obscure threads of much older ones....

 after he had murdered his mother.


In accordance with the advice of the god Apollo, Orestes has killed his mother Clytemnestra
Clytemnestra or Clytaemnestra , in ancient Greek legend, was the wife of Agamemnon, king of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Mycenae or Argos. In the Oresteia by Aeschylus, she was a femme fatale who murdered her husband, Agamemnon – said by Euripides to be her second husband – and the Trojan princess...

 to avenge the death of his father Agamemnon
In Greek mythology, Agamemnon was the son of King Atreus and Queen Aerope of Mycenae, the brother of Menelaus, the husband of Clytemnestra, and the father of Electra and Orestes. Mythical legends make him the king of Mycenae or Argos, thought to be different names for the same area...

 at her hands. Despite Apollo’s earlier prophecy, Orestes finds himself tormented by Erinyes
In Greek mythology the Erinyes from Greek ἐρίνειν " pursue, persecute"--sometimes referred to as "infernal goddesses" -- were female chthonic deities of vengeance. A formulaic oath in the Iliad invokes them as "those who beneath the earth punish whosoever has sworn a false oath"...

 or Furies to the blood guilt stemming from his matricide
Matricide is the act of killing one's mother. As for any type of killing, motives can vary significantly.- Known or suspected matricides :* Amastris, queen of Heraclea, was drowned by her two sons in 284 BC....

. The only person capable of calming Orestes down from his madness is his sister Electra. To complicate matters further, a leading political faction of Argos
Argos is a city and a former municipality in Argolis, Peloponnese, Greece. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Argos-Mykines, of which it is a municipal unit. It is 11 kilometres from Nafplion, which was its historic harbour...

 wants to put Orestes to death for the murder. Orestes’ only hope to save his life lies in his uncle Menelaus, who has returned with Helen after spending ten years in Troy
Troy was a city, both factual and legendary, located in northwest Anatolia in what is now Turkey, southeast of the Dardanelles and beside Mount Ida...

 and several more years amassing wealth in Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

. In the chronology of events following Orestes, this play takes place after the events contained in plays such as Electra
Electra (Euripides)
Euripides' Electra was a play probably written in the mid 410s BC, likely after 413 BC. It is unclear whether it was first produced before or after Sophocles' version of the Electra story.-Background:...

by Euripides or The Libation Bearers
The Oresteia
The Oresteia is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus which concerns the end of the curse on the House of Atreus. When originally performed it was accompanied by Proteus, a satyr play that would have been performed following the trilogy; it has not survived...

by Aeschylus
Aeschylus was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose work has survived, the others being Sophocles and Euripides, and is often described as the father of tragedy. His name derives from the Greek word aiskhos , meaning "shame"...

, and before events contained in plays like The Eumenides
The Oresteia
The Oresteia is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus which concerns the end of the curse on the House of Atreus. When originally performed it was accompanied by Proteus, a satyr play that would have been performed following the trilogy; it has not survived...

by Aeschylus and Andromache
Andromache (play)
Andromache is an Athenian tragedy by Euripides. It dramatises Andromache's life as a slave, years after the events of the Trojan War, and her conflict with her master's new wife, Hermione. The date of its first performance is unknown, although scholars place it sometime between 428 and 425 BC...

by Euripides.


The play begins with a soliloquy that outlines the basic plot and events that have led up to this point from Electra, who stands next to a sleeping Orestes. Shortly after, Helen comes out of the palace under the pretext that she wishes to make an offering at her sister Clytemnestra’s grave. As in most of the plays of Classical Greece, Helen is played as a vacuous floozy. Some commentators criticize Euripides as being a misogynist; however his dialogue is often very ironic. Consequently, one reading of the play, especially from a patriarchal mindset, would have Euripides place blame for the Trojan War
Trojan War
In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. The war is among the most important events in Greek mythology and was narrated in many works of Greek literature, including the Iliad...

 and the fall of the House of Atreus at Helen’s feet. In fact, Euripides may arguably use Helen as a device through which to discuss several larger themes such as freewill, fate, and the role of the gods in the cosmos
In the general sense, a cosmos is an orderly or harmonious system. It originates from the Greek term κόσμος , meaning "order" or "ornament" and is antithetical to the concept of chaos. Today, the word is generally used as a synonym of the word Universe . The word cosmos originates from the same root...

. For example, Helen is unable to take personal responsibility for allowing herself to be abducted to Troy, and blames Apollo for the problems in the House of Atreus. After Helen leaves, a chorus of Argive women enters to help advance the plot. Then Orestes, still maddened by the Furies, awakes.

Menelaus arrives at the palace and he and Orestes discuss the murder and the resulting madness. Tyndareus, Orestes’ grandfather and Menelaus’ father-in-law comes onto the scene and roundly chastises Orestes, leading to a conversation with the three men on the role of humans in dispensing divine justice and natural law. As Tyndareus leaves, he warns Menelaus that he will need the old man as an ally. Orestes, in supplication
Supplication is the most common form of prayer, wherein a person asks God to provide something, either for the person or who is doing the praying or for someone else on whose behalf a prayer. This because of a supplication is being made, also known as intercession.The concept of supplication is...

 before Menelaus, hopes to gain the compassion that Tyndareus would not grant in an attempt to get him to speak before the assembly of Argive men. However, Menelaus ultimately shuns his nephew, choosing not to compromise his tenuous power among the Greeks, who blame him and his wife for the Trojan War.

Pylades, Orestes’ best friend and his accomplice in Clytemnestra’s murder, arrives after Menelaus has exited. He and Orestes begin to formulate a plan, in the process indicting partisan politics and leaders who manipulate the masses for results contrary to the best interest of the state, perhaps a veiled criticism of contemporary Athenian factions. Orestes and Pylades then exit so that they may state their case before the town assembly in an effort to save Orestes and Electra from execution, which proves unsuccessful.

Their execution certain, Orestes, Electra, and Pylades formulate a plan of revenge against Menelaus for turning his back on them. To inflict the greatest suffering, they plan to kill Helen and their daughter, Hermione. However, when they go to kill Helen, she vanishes. In attempting to execute their plan, a Phrygian slave of Helen’s escapes the palace. Orestes asks the slave why he should spare his life and the slave supplicates himself before Orestes. Orestes is won over by the Phrygian’s argument that, like free men, slaves prefer the light of day to death, resulting in the first act of compassion in the play. Menelaus then enters leading to a standoff between him and Orestes, Electra, and Pylades, who have successfully captured Hermione.

Just as more bloodshed is to occur, Apollo arrives on stage Deus ex machina
Deus ex machina
A deus ex machina is a plot device whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.-Linguistic considerations:...

. He sets everything back in order, explaining that Helen has been placed among the stars and that Menelaus must go back to Sparta. He tells Orestes to go to Athens to the Areopagus
The Areopagus or Areios Pagos is the "Rock of Ares", north-west of the Acropolis, which in classical times functioned as the high Court of Appeal for criminal and civil cases in Athens. Ares was supposed to have been tried here by the gods for the murder of Poseidon's son Alirrothios .The origin...

, the Athenian court, in order to stand judgment, where he will later be acquitted. Also, Orestes is to marry Hermione, while Pylades will marry Electra. Finally, Apollo tells the mortals to go and rejoice in Peace, most honored and favored of the gods.


Like much of his work, Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 uses the mythology of the Bronze Age
Bronze Age
The Bronze Age is a period characterized by the use of copper and its alloy bronze as the chief hard materials in the manufacture of some implements and weapons. Chronologically, it stands between the Stone Age and Iron Age...

 to make a political point about the politics of Classical Athens during the Peloponnesian War
Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War, 431 to 404 BC, was an ancient Greek war fought by Athens and its empire against the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. Historians have traditionally divided the war into three phases...

. Orestes first played at the Dionysia
The Dionysia[p] was a large festival in ancient Athens in honor of the god Dionysus, the central events of which were the theatrical performances of dramatic tragedies and, from 487 BC, comedies. It was the second-most important festival after the Panathenaia...

 during the waning years of the war, both Athens
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

 and Sparta
Sparta or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. From c...

 and all of their allies had suffered tremendous losses.

Euripides challenges the role of the gods and perhaps more appropriately man’s interpretation of divine will. Orestes and others note the subordinate role of man to the gods, but the superiority of the gods does not make them particularly fair or rational. Even Apollo, the god synonymous with law and order, ultimately gives an unsatisfactory argument. For example, he cites the reason for the Trojan War as the method the gods chose to cleanse the earth of surplus population. This leads one to question why gods (or political leaders) would use war as an instrument for a greater good, and, this being the case, why these gods/leaders are worthy of our admiration and praise?

In addition to the will of the gods, the role of natural law
Natural law
Natural law, or the law of nature , is any system of law which is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature and deduce binding rules of moral behavior. Natural law is contrasted with the positive law Natural...

 and its tension with manmade law is noted. For example, Tyndareus argues to Menelaus that the law is fundamental to man’s lives, to which Menelaus counters that blind obedience to anything, such as the law, is an attribute of a slave.

Perhaps most important to the play is Apollo’s closing statements that Peace is to be revered more than all other values. Orestes best embodies this value by sparing the life of the Phrygian, driving home the point the beauty of life transcends cultural boundaries whether one be a slave or free man. This was also the only successful supplication in the play. This point is of particular value, since the Peloponnesian War had already lasted nearly a quarter of a century by the time of this play’s production.


  • Vienna Papyrus G2315, from Hermopolis Egypt. This fragment contains a choral ode with musical notation dating from the Hellenistic period.

Listen to this music on the website of the Ensemble Kérylos (dir. Annie Bélis).


  • Edward P. Coleridge, 1891 – prose: full text
  • Gilbert Murray
    Gilbert Murray
    George Gilbert Aimé Murray, OM was an Australian born British classical scholar and public intellectual, with connections in many spheres. He was an outstanding scholar of the language and culture of Ancient Greece, perhaps the leading authority in the first half of the twentieth century...

    , 1911 – verse
  • Arthur S. Way, 1912 – verse
  • William Arrowsmith
    William Arrowsmith
    William Ayres Arrowsmith was an American classicist, academic, and translator.-Life:Born in Orange, New Jersey, the son of Walter Weed Arrowsmith and Dorothy Arrowsmith, William grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts...

    , 1958 – verse
  • Andrew Wilson
    Andrew Wilson
    Andrew Wilson or Andy Wilson may refer to:*Andrew Wilson , Unificationist educator*Andrew Wilson , US actor*Andrew Wilson , Scottish landscape-painter...

    , 1994 – prose: full text
  • George Theodoridis 2010 – prose: full text
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