Great Trials IV Lecture Series - The Trial of Orestes


The Great Trials lecture series considers a collection of history-making trials across time and examines the social and political contexts in which they took place as well as their cultural consequences. The series takes the position that ‘law’ happens as much outside the courtroom as it does within it, and that each of these pivotal events stands as testament to the ways in which constructions of authority, law, and justice have informed cultural consciousness across centuries.

IPLAI is pleased to offer the lectures in this series for CLE credit through the Barreau du Québec.

Aeschylus’ Oresteia is our only extant Greek tragic trilogy, and with a production date of 458 BC, includes one of our eariest examples of courtroom drama. Over the course of the trilogy, the House of Atreus moves through a cycle of blood vengeance and murder that only comes to an end in the final play, the Eumenides, where a murder trial is finally convened. This evolution, from a system of vengeance to civic justice, reflects a real change in Ancient Greek law as the polis emerged as the principle organising institution of Greek culture. At the same time, the play's depiction of the Areopagos (the Athenian homicide court) in some part responds to the first half of the fifth century’s series of radical democratic reforms and the refinement of the role of the court. This lecture tracks the shift from blood-feud to legal justice through Greek literature and law--culminating in a discussion of the Oresteia--and asks what these two opposing systems can teach us about our own notions of justice in North America today.

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