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Both the Antigone and the Eumenides recognize a distinction in the law: that of the

family and that of the state. Humans are bound to obey these laws, but what if one conflicts with

the other? The question of which law takes precedence is answered differently in each of these

plays with different results. First we will examine the case of Orestes and the distinction made

between the jurisdictions of family and state law. From there we will see how Aeschylus resolves

the conflict between those laws. We will analyze Sophocles’ Antigone in the same way. By

comparing the presentations of both Aeschylus and Sophocles we will find that neither author

gives sufficient resolution in defining which law has precedence; leaving men to suffer

punishment for one crime or another.

Throughout most of the Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by the avengers of Clytaemestra:

the Furies. These Furies distinguish themselves from the order of the Olympian gods, claiming to

uphold a law or “powers gray with age” (Eumenides, line 150). They are of the Titanic

generation, predecessors of the younger gods who inhabit Mount Olympus. These two

generations clash once again in a battle to establish what order or law has precedence over the

case of Orestes. The Furies claim that it is their duty (Eu. 208) to punish Orestes on the grounds

that their jurisdiction of the law encompasses “the shedding of kindred blood” (Eu. 212). The

law which the Furies uphold is referred to as family law. Family law does not concern anything

outside of blood relations. An example of this would be the murder of Agamemnon by his wife

Clytaemestra. Although married, the Furies have no claim in punishing Clytaemestra because

“[t]he man she killed was not of blood congenital” (Eu. 605). Orestes does not deny his guilt in

breaking the family law (Eu. 588), but this will not be enough to condemn him.

On the other side of the law we have Apollo, “the spokesman of his father, Zeus” (Eu.

19). Apollo reminds us that he only says “that which Zeus…might command” (Eu. 618). Given

this, we recognize just how powerful of a backing state law has (Eu. 619). Zeus demands justice

for those who commit crimes against the state; such as the murder of Agamemnon, King and

highest representative of the state. The problem is that Zeus, in commanding the upholding of

state law, causes Orestes to break the family law. Apollo does not deny this, but argues that

Orestes’ actions were just nonetheless. Apollo does not see Orestes as a son exacting revenge,

but as an agent of Zeus upholding the law. The law of state, argues Apollo, is above that of

family law: “For not even the oath that binds [the Furies] is more strong than Zeus is strong”

(Eu. 620).

We thus have two parts of the law claiming precedence over Orestes’ case. Aeschylus

acknowledges the difficulty of resolving the issue through the words of Athena: “The matter is

too big for any mortal man who thinks he can judge it” (Eu. 470). Athena then establishes a court

to decide the issue. In the end the votes of the twelve jurors are split “equal in number for each

side” (Eu. 752). With this tie Orestes is free from guilt and precedence goes towards state law

over the family. Although this is Aeschylus’ resolution, it is anything but absolute. Orestes’

victory was the result of a technicality, not of actually being acquitted by the majority.

Furthermore, Athena acknowledges that the Furies have not really been defeated by the court

(Eu. 795). Because of this, there is very little reasoning to assume that the state always trumps

the family. Given the results of the court, the Furies have now lost their powers to uphold “the

laws of an elder time” (Eu. 779). Athena then persuades the Furies to accept this change

positively, and to embrace a new role of protectors of the city. After some hesitation they accept,

blessing the city and thus changing from the Furies to the Eumenides. In many respects they

have no choice, for Zeus’ power had already been unquestionably proven superior in the war

with the Titans. However, this resolution remains insufficient in defining which law has

precedence. Rationally, there is little reason to assume the state over the family simply because

the court was so divided. However, it seems as though this resolution takes into account the

victory of the Olympians over the Titans and thus establishes precedence based purely on power.

The resolution remains insufficient because might does not necessarily mean right. In order to

give a clear and acceptable resolution it seems necessary that such a resolution makes sense


With the question of precedence insufficiently answered by Aeschylus, we now turn to

Sophocles’ attempt in the Antigone. As opposed to Orestes’ murder in the Eumenides, the

Antigone has its question of precedence based around the corpse of Polyneices. As we know,

Polyneices met his end while simultaneously taking the life of his brother during an attack on

Thebes. With the deaths of both Oedipus’ sons, Creon is the only one left to rule. By his power,

Creon declares Polyneices an exile; prohibiting any one from burying or mourning for him

(Antigone, line 205). In this case Creon represents the state law; asserting that those who commit

crimes against the state of Thebes will be punished. Polyneices not only laid siege to the state

with sinister plans, but he also killed the King—his brother—Eteocles. Although it could be

argued that Polyneices was only trying to claim his rightful position on the throne, his actions

were nonetheless criminal.

On the side of family law we have Antigone. In Oedipus at Colonus, Polyneices asked his

sisters to give him a proper burial should he die in the forthcoming battle with his brother

(Oedipus at Colonus, line 1410). As family of Polyneices, it is the duty of the sisters to give him

a proper burial in accordance with “the god’s unwritten and unfailing laws” (Antigone, 455) of

the family. On one hand, Ismene decides that she cannot “act against the citizens” (Antigone, 78-

79) despite her wishes to honour her brother. On the other hand, Antigone thinks it best to honour

her brother as she will be among the dead far longer than the living (Antigone, 75).

The real question here is if the state has the right to deny what family law demands: the

burial of Polyneices. Is it appropriate for Creon to deny the rights of the dead, regardless of

whether they were friend or foe? Creon argues that he (and thus the state) can never “honor the

wicked” (Antigone, 209) while Antigone claims that death renders all men equal under the law

(Antigone, 519). Sophocles’ resolution to such a clash of laws leaves us with utter uncertainty as

to which law takes precedence. Creon condemns Antigone to death, despite the disproval of his

son and “the whole town” (Antigone, 793). Soon after, Teiresias advises Creon to “yield to the

dead” (Antigone, 1029) but he proves stubborn and fails to heed the advice. All the warnings of

Teiresias then come to pass: “the Furies sent by Hades” (Antigone, 1076)—although more

symbolic than in the Eumenides—wreck their havoc and punish Creon through the suicides of

his wife and son. This resolution seems to imply a precedence of the family law over that of the

state, or at the very least that the death of Polyneices was punishment enough for his crimes

against Thebes. However, this interpretation does not take into account the death of Antigone.

Had she survived the ordeal such an interpretation would give us an answer, but because no

divine interference saved her we are left with much uncertainty. She was punished for her crimes

against the state while Creon was also punished for dishonouring the family.

It might be argued that this ‘irresolution’ of the conflict was intended by Sophocles.

Perhaps we can see it as highlighting a grimmer reality for humans: that all roads can lead to

suffering. Maybe there is no hope of making a better choice for men at all. However, if there

could be hope—if men could find a way not to compound their suffering beyond their proper

share—we would not find it in Sophocles’ resolution. In Sophocles’ account, it appears that

transgressing any law—even to uphold another—still renders punishment. Although better

classified as an irresolution, Sophocles’ account is not exempt from being insufficient.

It has been demonstrated that neither the Antigone nor the Eumenides sufficiently resolve

the issue of precedence. Aeschylus makes an attempt to establish the state over the family, but

does not rationally demonstrate why it must be so. He almost seems to second guess himself by

allowing Orestes to win through a technicality rather than a majority decision of the court.

Sophocles also fails to establish precedence either purposely or not. His irresolution may have

some deeper message of inevitable human suffering, but it still does not place one law over the

other and is thus insufficient. These insufficient resolutions leave the question open; how is it

that humans should act where there is conflict between the state and family? Is there even a

resolution, or is the law simply a double-edged knife? Perhaps Athena was right; no mortal,

including Aeschylus or Sophocles, is capable of judgment (Eu. 470).

W.D. Jay Matheson B00493718