The Eumenides of Aeschylus is one of the less frequently performed of the mainstream plays which have survived from antiquity, and we were very lucky to see it staged as the 2014 Oxford Greek Play. As the third of the only complete trilogy from ancient times, there is a considerable back story before the play opens. In the play of his name, Agamemnon has been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover; the sequel tells of the revenge killing of the murderers by the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes, with the support of his sister, Electra.

Until this revenge is effected, it appears to be the difficult, but heroic and ultimately right thing to do; but once completed it is the source of intense problems for Orestes. The Eumenides opens with Orestes as a suppliant at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. He is hounded by the Furies, who punish wrong-doers. Apollo decides that the problem will be resolved only by a judicial vote by the Areopagus, the highest criminal court of Athens, to which the scene then moves.

The opening scene builds up relentlessly the picture of Orestes and his torment. The tension was remarkable and had the very appropriate feeling of going nowhere much. But then the case comes to court – and here the exchanges are lively and challenging and this draws the audience right into the issues. Athene presides and Apollo debates with the Furies on Orestes’ behalf. When the Athenian jury are equally divided, Orestes is acquitted by the single vote of Athene; the Furies, by this stage reduced to chattering ghouls whom Athene renames the ‘Eumenides’ or ‘Kindly Ones’ who will be protectors of the city and honoured with sacrifices.

This would obviously bring it together for an Athenian audience, but there are other issues as well. When it was produced in 458BC the Areopagus had just lost most of its traditional power; the Athenians were also very proud that they had developed a system of law that no longer promoted the blood feud by which the earlier plays of the trilogy are governed. The reduction of the Furies to deities which can be seen as well disposed, so long as worshipped appropriately, accords well with the standards of the Athenian democracy at its best.