Although Homer’s The Iliad and Æschylus’ three-part drama The Oresteia belong to different times—the one Archaic, the other Classical—they both express the Greek condition, responding to the human plight as it is experienced in relation to a pantheon of gods who participate in the lives of humans and even resemble them. The gods meddle in and determine the affairs of men in both works; however, whereas in the Iliad man is a mere plaything, the Oresteia has man play a more active role.
In the story of the Trojan War as told by Homer, the gods’ agency takes precedence over that of mortals’, reducing them to puppets. The opening scene establishes this immediately, as we are told that the dire situation of the Achæans is due to Agamemnon’s having spited Apollo (1.9-12). By refusing to do a sacrifice, the king and his army suffer a reversal of fortune; they are purely at the mercy of the gods and their whims. This means that the course of the war is directed externally, independent of the warriors, so it is not a matter of meritocracy; that is, whether an army has good warriors becomes less important than whether it has good fortune. As such, the humans have little to no bearing on the outcome of the conflict except as it relates to their appeasement of the deities. Another implication is that free will is stripped from the warriors because Agamemnon is stuck with only two options: He can either do the sacrifice or not. Because his actions are framed purely within the context of the gods, his will is subordinated to theirs; his intentions are disregarded if they are in conflict with the gods’ desires.
The theme of determinism is most explicitly developed by Hector in conversation with his wife before going out to battle:
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—
it’s born with us the day that we are born (6.581-4).
Homer thus assigns to the gods a complete control over the lives of every individual. It is not a simple determinism, either: Hector describes an extreme form of fatalism since the beginning—birth—is intrinsically and causally related to the end—“Death.” It would be one thing to say that he is fated to die, but Hector says that his death must occur in accordance with, rather than “against,” his “fate,” which is contrived by the gods—and he is indeed slain by Achilles, as foreordained. Furthermore, fate and destiny are not abstract plans but rather gods themselves, showing that at the root of all temporal happenings, the scheming of the gods can be found. Therefore, it is actually redundant when Hector notes that “No one alive has ever escaped [fate],” as if escape were even an option in the first place since, in reality, fate is by definition inescapable.
Throughout the battle, the gods regularly intervene, disrupting the flow of battle: Athena prevents Achilles from killing Agamemnon (1.227-60), Aphrodite swoops in at the last minute to save Paris from Menelaus (2.430-40), “godsent Panic” (9.2) disorients the Achæans, and Apollo facilitates the killing of Patroclus (16.993), among others. It may be pointed out, though, that there is one moment where human agency prevails, contradicting this view: Achilles pleads with the goddess Thetis to get Zeus to turn against his army, and succeeds (1.484-90). While it is true that Achilles initiates this change of circumstance, one must acknowledge, first, that it stems from his anger, which is often attributed to the conniving of the gods, and second, that the actual interaction is conducted by and between the gods; for without Thetis’ pleading, and without Zeus’ compliance, Achilles’ would not have had his way. If the gods are taken out of the picture, then Achilles is merely left sulking and wallowing in his self-righteousness, impotent and useless; whereas it is only with the aid of the gods that his desire can be fulfilled. Consequently, in The Iliad, the gods predominate the action, depriving humans of their will.
In contrast, Æschylus, while retaining the centrality of the gods in Agamemnon, restores to humans a say in their lives, which can be seen foremost in The Furies. Like his predecessor Homer, Æschylus has the gods pull many strings to influence human events. The murder of Agamamenon at his wife Clytemnestra’s hands, for example, is not a matter of human whim or volition; instead, it is the culmination of a series of events, the root of which is to be identified with the gods. Working backwards, one learns that Clytemnestra kills her husband because she was enraged at his having sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia (140-51), to obtain good weather because Artemis created a storm in response to an omen—Zeus’, most likely. Thus, at every step of the way, a trace of the gods surfaces. Agamemnon’s death, like that of every other Greek, is foreseeable. In a sense, neither he nor his wife is morally culpable because their actions are divinely inspired. To blame Clytemnestra would be to overlook Artemis’ influence, while to blame Agamemnon would be to overlook the pride and fickleness of Zeus. The two mortals are pawns in a game, and their agency is negligible. Later on, Cassandra embodies this helplessness with her ignored prophecies. She foresees Agamemnon’s and her own death, yet not only is she unable to forestall or somehow avoid it through action, but nobody takes her seriously (1214-6, 1276-8). Her unintelligibility to those around her and her absence of will perfectly represent the tragedy of the human condition as Æschylus sees it in a world ruled by the gods.
But it is against the backdrop of this tragedy that Æschylus is able to create dignity in mankind, give it a will, and preserve hope. The Furies, dealing with the aftermath of Agamemnon, narrates how the rule of law and justice—and the potential salvation of mortals—was brought to Athens. When Orestes, under the auspices of Apollo, seeks pardon from Athena to save himself from the vengeance of the Furies, Athena declares, “This matter is too great to be decided by a mortal” (470), but she immediately follows up with a curious statement: “It is not even appropriate that I preside over / a murder trial that inflames such furious rage” (471-2, emphasis mine). It is striking that Athena, a goddess, the daughter of Zeus, thinks herself incapable of judging, either out of capacity or warrant, particularly since she has, in the meantime, granted him protection from the Furies—if she can do the latter, then why not the former? Remarkably, her solution is to place Orestes’ fate not in her, the Furies’, or Zeus’ hands, but in the hands of his fellow Athenians; she radically inverts the power dynamic and makes man, not god, the arbiter, the decider of life and death and justice. The solution seems counterintuitive and even nonsensical, for she asks that the Athenians “return an honest verdict… and deliberate with judicial minds” (488-9) even though mortals, compared to their counterparts, are flawed, finite, and probably biased toward one of their own. In fact, there is no bias among the Athenians because the vote is tied 5-5.
Here, it may be objected that man’s role is diminished rather than augmented because Æschylus seems to be implying pessimistically that it is only with divine intervention that a court can be established, and it is Athena’s vote, after all, rather than the Athenians’, which ultimately acquits Orestes; however, one ought to remember that the Areopagus is deemed necessary and is composed of fallible men, not gods. Additionally, Athena’s deciding vote suggests that, were it not needed, she, and therefore Apollo and the Furies, too, would have complied—not with Zeus, but with the mortals. As such, Athena calling the Areopagus “this sacred court” (484) turns something mortal into something immortal; in a sense, Æschylus is saying that man has been elevated to the level of divinity since he now has moral responsibility; the Athenian court is not dictated by gods but equals, and it rivals the unilateral decrees of the gods, thereby granting agency to man. As a result, Æschylus is more optimistic than Homer because for him, the gods do not entirely act on humans: they interact with them.