“Becoming as savage as a bull because of penalties not to be paid with money”: Orestes’ Revenge and the Ethics of Retaliatory Violence


  • Luca Fiamingo PhD Student at University of Verona




This article aims to suggest a different interpretation of Aeschylus’ Choephoroi 273-5. The terms and expressions used here and in many other sections of the Oresteia may have reminded the Athenian audience of the contemporary homicide laws and legal procedures, where the archaic ethics of revenge was now ‘institutionalised’ and handled by the polis’ authority. Moreover, these lines seem to allude to a well-known pre-legal practice whereby the violent retaliation underlying revenge could be extinguished if the offender paid a compensation (ποινή) accepted by the family of the victim. The results of this study will allow, first, to highlight some linguistic intersections and analogies between tragedy and oratory when referring specifically to the notions of justice, guilt, and responsibility in homicide cases. Secondly, the paper will propose an alternative translation for the ambiguous ἀποχρημάτοισι ζημίαις (Ch. 273), after examining the interpretations and hypotheses of leading scholars of this play. Finally, I will try to determine the synonymy of ζημία and ποινή from the perspective of Athenian law, since both these terms might express a variety of related concepts (revenge, money-fine, penalty, and compensation) all inherent in the offender’s punishment and the resulting satisfaction of the prosecutors’ claims for justice.

Keywords: Greek tragedy; Aeschylus; Oresteia; ancient Greek law; revenge; retaliation; retributive justice