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The Oresteia: The Value of Compromise

In Eumenides, the final installment of Aeschylus‘ trilogy Oresteia, Orestes is tried for matricide on Areopagus, a flat rocky hill by Athens. He is tried by a jury and gets the chance to defend himself instead of falling victim to the old system of violent, tit-for-tat, revenge. The Oresteia frames the demise of a do-it-yourself revenge model to the emergence of a legal system composed of jurors, judges, and lawyers. And, if we look closely, the Oresteia can also illuminate a very important leadership lesson.

Orestes killed his mother, Clytemnestra, who killed his father, Agamemnon. Orestes is guilty of killing his mother by fulfilling his duty to avenge his father’s death. Orestes is tried by the Furies. Athena acts as the judge, and 12 random Athenian male citizens make up the jury.

Athena and the jury eventually agree that Orestes is innocent. The Furies, angered by the decision, become enraged and threaten to unleash a plague upon Athens. The Furies’ wrath and threats of retribution stand in the way of a functioning, jury-based, legal system. Without their acknowledgment of the results of the trail, the system Athena struggled to create will break apart. Athena has to enter negotiations with the Furies if she doesn’t want her new system to break apart. Leaders who have had to figure out a way to placate opposition can understand how Athena feels. It can be hard to enter into negotiations with someone who doesn’t easily accept the chartered course.

Athena first attempts to comfort the Furies. She urges them not to become angry or to bring sickness to Athens. It doesn’t work. Athena then promises the Furies their own underground place where they can sit on golden thrones near the hearth and accept sacrifices from the Athenian citizens. This doesn’t work either. Athena remains calm and sweetens her offer. She proposes that any household that wishes to be prosperous in Athens must first get the Furies permission.This works. The Furies accept Athena’s offer, become protectors of Athens, and are renamed the Eumenides, or the “Benevolent Ones.”

Orestes’ family’s tragedy ends with a new promise of hope for Athens. Not only do Athena and the powerful Eumenides promise to protect the city with their divine powers, but they have built a virtuous court to punish criminals and stop people from taking the law into their own hands.

Athena embodies reconciliation in the play; she is the strong negotiator who makes compromises without appearing weak. The old version of Athena, featured in the first part of the Oresteia, functioned as a sanctified, benevolent, all-wise arbitrator, protector of the weak, and a representative of Zeus’ will and judgment. In her new role in Eumenides she becomes a balanced, rational, and deliberate thinker and negotiator who possesses a rational eye (like her brother Apollo). She represents the ideal mixture of old and new, a combination of primal heroic ancient myth and rational modern democracy.

The Eumenides reconciles the divide between the Olympian gods and the chthonic gods, between savagery and civilization, between the primal and the rational. Athena performs that reconciliation by being fair, level-headed, and taking emotions out of the equation. She shows leaders that success happens when you can persuade opposition to buy-in once you make them important contributors to the group. As Athena proves, small concessions and making team members feel as if they are part of the group help create a sense of belonging that keeps people moving in the same direction. Further, Athena highlights the benefits of letting others contribute to the decision making process. More importantly, the citizens from Athens gain from the compromising ability of the deities. So to, do customers and clients when businesses can execute negotiations quickly and peacefully.

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