Reading Enslavement in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers

Paul Eberwine (Princeton University)

In this paper, I read Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers from the perspective of the enslaved chorus –– neglected, with some exceptions, by scholarship (McCall 1990, Vellacott 1984: 107-115). In doing so, I emulate recent approaches to the Antigone (Chanter 2011, Henao Castro 2021). The play’s free characters (Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes) treat the chorus as figures of death, limiting their autonomy to the sphere of chthonic ritual. In doing so, they impose upon the chorus a proximity to death which they disavow for themselves. Rather than resisting this imposition, the chorus takes advantage of it, positioning themselves as full participants in the action by claiming to channel the voice of the dead Agamemnon. They use this power to foment rebellion, conspiring with Orestes’ enslaved nurse Cilissa to overthrow their masters on the basis of shared loyalty to the dead. The chorus therefore plays a pivotal role in the action, turning the forced association between death and enslavement into the basis for political upheaval.   This moment reveals deep tensions in the House of Atreus. The play’s free characters rely on the enslaved as a communicative link between themselves and the Underworld. This renders their own relationship to the dead unstable, leaving Orestes unable to tell whether or not Agamemnon’s spirit collaborates with him in killing Clytemnestra (Goldhill 1984: 153-4). In that sense, the play explores the fragility of systems of political domination which force some people to live in closer proximity to death than others. The chorus’s motives are ultimately opaque: they work to swap one master for another, not to liberate themselves. However, perhaps the consequence of their actions –– the near-collapse of the House of Atreus –– speak for themselves. Rereading this play from below therefore uncovers the role of the enslaved in managing the social meaning of death, and engages that role’s latent political power.


Chanter, Tina (2011) Whose Antigone? The Tragic Marginalization of Slavery. SUNY Press.

Goldhill, Simon (1984) Language, Sexuality, Narrative: The Oresteia. Cambridge University Press.

Henao Castro, Andrés Fabián (2021) Antigone in the Americas: Democracy, Sexuality, and Death in the Settler Colonial Present. SUNY Press.

McCall, Marsh (1990) “The Chorus of Aeschylus’ Choephori,” in Cabinet of the Muses: Essays on Classical and Comparative Literature in Honor of Thomas G. Rosenmeyer. Scholars Press, pp. 17-30.

Vellacott, P. (1984) The Logic of Tragedy: Morals and Integrity in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Duke University Press.