Sophocles and Aeschylus: Blood Justice and the Founding of Legal Order

This is a Reading List based upon a Liberty Fund Conference on “Blood Justice and the Founding of Legal Order in Sophocles and Aeschylus.”

Blood Justice and the Founding of Legal Order in Sophocles and Aeschylus


These readings help us consider the importance of liberty and responsibility in Sophoclean Thebes and in the Aeschylean world governed by the Furies. If destiny plays a major role in the latter, the former evinces interesting aspects of individual autonomy. One should consider the new order established by Athena in the third play of Aeschylus’s trilogy and compare it to rule of law established by Oedipus and Creon. How is the rule of law established, and what are the necessary conditions for its establishment? What must the family cede to the state in order to affirm civil justice? Is familial loyalty a natural right? Can it be alienated? If so, at what cost to families, individuals, and to the State?

The trilogy of Oresteia, by providing a mythological account of the founding of the Athenian justice system, presents relevant questions related to individual responsibility in a social context. After a long and successful war against Troy, Agamemnon is killed. His wife Clytemnestra pursued vengeance: their daughter Iphigenia was sacrificed and she had been deceived. Their son Orestes must seek revenge killing her mother. If the Furies demand blood and vengeance, Athena finally achieves civil justice. The Areopagus constitutes the end of a previous tribal stage and the beginning of a new society governed by formal justice. Individuals have autonomy, but also norms to follow. Society finds its civil pillar through the rule of justice. Orestes is absolved and a new era emerges.

Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone explore issues related to responsibility towards family, gods, and law. Both tragedies also uncover interesting facets of individual autonomy, and the conflicts that emerge with society, and within society. This particular dichotomy between the individual and the collective, mainly represented by Oedipus and Antigone’s interaction towards the laws, is particularly significant in the shaping of civil society. Oedipus, the man who knew, found out what he did not know. Antigone knows what to do, but she ignores the laws. Both tragedies represent universal questions about individual liberty, justice, and responsibility.

Guide to the Readings

Editions used:

See also in the Online Library of Liberty:

For additional reading see:

Session I: Aeschylus: The Agamemnon

Aeschylus, The Agamemnon

Session II: Aeschylus: The Libation Bearers

Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers

Session III: Aeschylus: The Eumenides

Aeschylus, The Eumenides

Session IV: Sophocles: Oedipus Rex

Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

Session V: Sophocles: Antigone

Sophocles, Antigone

Session VI: Final Discussion