Libation Bearers

Libation Bearers Themes


Also called philos-aphilos, this central theme is explained by Lattimore in his introduction (9-10). Aristotle writes in the Poetics that violence between those who are close is part of tragedy; the violence in the Oresteia all occurs between family members. Consequently, no murder can occur without guilt, and love is always accompanied by fear. The viper nursing at Clytaemestra's breast is a symbol of this theme. Hate and love have a complicated relationship with each other; at times, they drive each other on rather than alleviate each other. An example is the fierce bitterness and hatred Electra and Orestes have for her mother. Much of her hate comes from the fact that she feels rejected by Clytaemestra; her betrayal of them could not cause so much hatred if she were not their mother.

The position of women, male power versus female power, and the vulnerability of women

These elements are closely related. Particularly in Agamemnon, male power versus female power is a central issue. Aeschylus genders the different forms of power wielded by Clytaemestra and Agamemnon. Cunning is one of her most important weapons. In the first two parts of the trilogy, Aeschylus genders the conflict as one of female usurpers (Aegisthus is characterized as being feminine, because Clytaemestra is clearly the dominant partner) versus male rightful authority, embodied first in Agamemnon and then in Orestes. Aeschylus also shows some sensitivity to the difficulties that adhere to the position of women; the vulnerability of women is shown through Electra and the Chorus of slave women. It is their lot to cling to men, even those who have caused their enslavement. But Aeschylus is not Euripides: when it comes to issues of gender and injustice, this female Chorus is not as reflective as the Chorus of, for example, the Medea.


Although this theme has the most presence in the first part of the trilogy, the burden of the past is part of the whole trilogy. Two themes come together in the Curse: the theme of history and the theme of violence's self-perpetuating nature. The whole bloody history of the House of Atreus continues to affect events in the presence. The Libation Bearers has more psychology and plot than the other two parts of the trilogy, but it is by no means a character-driven tragedy. Orestes is able to go through with the murder because of the orders of Apollo and because the force of history propels him forward. The legacy of the House of Atreus and the Trojan War, as well as the commands of Apollo, drive Orestes toward his fate. This theme is closely connected to the divine plan and Aeschylus' methods of explanation.

Teleology/the Divine Plan/Fate

Part of Aeschylus' project is to fit the story of the House of Atreus into a grand design, explaining events in terms of the progress of civilization. The murders in the house all are made to fit into an explanatory model that makes us understand the future and the past. Orestes is aware of the Curse on his house, and he hopes that in killing his mother he will put an end to the cycle of violence. By the end of the play, we know that ridding himself of the Curse will not be so simple. But by the end of the end of the whole trilogy, Orestes will have been key not only to ending the Curse, but also in laying the foundation for a new step in the progress of humanity. The Olympian gods have a great part in this progress, and their plans make possible a more civilized future. We are made to see the events of the trilogy as part of a grand design, a design that has ramifications not only for the characters but for all of mankind.

The self-perpetuating nature of violence

Violence begets violence; the murders of Thyestes children continue to plague the House of Atreus two generations later. Although each new murder has its justifications, every new killing inevitably leads to other new killings. Thyestes' Curse is part supernatural, and partly a result of the nature of violence itself. Finally, the gods must intervene to put a stop to the murders.

Conflict between different moral systems

When Orestes doubts if he can kill his own mother, Pylades tells him that he should count all men hateful to him rather than the gods. Orestes has been ordered by the god Apollo to kill Clytaemestra. He has the right to vengeance; she killed his father, and Orestes has responsibility to his dynasty. But Clytaemestra is also his mother. Orestes must make a choice, and though his actions are justified, he cannot commit matricide without consequences.


An important theme for Athenians. Clytaemestra and Aegisthus have seized power by force, and they have done little to make themselves loved since they have taken power. A large part of Orestes' justification is that the King and Queen have taken power unrightfully, and Orestes is the lawful heir to the throne. For more on tyranny, see the notes in the analysis for lines 653-782.