previous next

A red-figured Attic vase1, belonging to the first half of
Evidence from art.
the fifth century B.C., depicts a scene which does not come from any extant literary source. Orestes, wearing a cuirass, has plunged his sword into the breast of Aegisthus, who is falling from his seat,—the throne that once was Agamemnon's. Meanwhile, something has startled Orestes; his face is turned away from Aegisthus; he glances over his right shoulder at a woman who hurries up behind him. This is Clytaemnestra, as an inscription certifies. She grasps the handle of an axe with both hands; she is coming to the rescue of Aegisthus. But an old man, wearing the conical hat of a herald, has overtaken her; his left hand grasps her right arm, his right, the axe; her purpose is baffled. Between her and Orestes stands a maiden whose uplifted hands express horror; this (as the artist informs us) is Chrysothemis. Vase A (as we shall call this one) must next be compared with vase B,—another red-figured Attic vase2 of the fifth century, but of later date than the other. The subject on B is fundamentally the same as on A, but it is curiously abridged, or rather mutilated. Orestes—who here is in full armour, with helmet and greaves as well as cuirass—has dealt the mortal wound to Aegisthus, and is looking straight at him. Clytaemnestra, furiously brandishing her axe, is close behind Orestes,—so close, that nothing can now save him from her blow. Electra (the name is inscribed) stands behind the dying Aegisthus; her outstretched right hand points at Clytaemnestra, her left is raised to the back of her head with a gesture of bewilderment and terror; evidently she is uttering a cry of warning to Orestes. The painter of B was led by considerations of style or convenience to omit a vital feature of A,—viz., the old man who stops Clytaemnestra at the critical moment.

Now A and B belong, as Robert shows, to a small group of vases which must have had a common archetype; and while A has preserved the meaning of the whole scene more truly than B, the latter has preserved some details which A has lost. The scene represented by the archetype was probably as follows:—Orestes, in full armour, slays Aegisthus, who falls from his throne; Clytaemnestra rushes up behind Orestes, with an axe; Electra, standing at the back of Aegisthus, cries out to warn her brother; but already the aged herald has seized Clytaemnestra, and defeated her intent. Who is this old man, the herald, who interposes so opportunely? He appears along with Orestes in another work of art, earlier than these vases,—viz., a marble relief, in the developed archaic style, found at Melos3. The scene there is as follows:—Electra sits in deep dejection at her father's tomb; the aged Nurse stands behind her. Three travellers have just arrived together; the foremost is the old man with the herald's hat and stave, who is accosting the Nurse; behind him a youth of noble mien (Orestes) stands beside a horse, his left hand resting on its back; a third person (Pylades, or a servant?) follows. The question is answered when it is observed that, according to a widelyspread legend, the person who saved Orestes from the murderers, by carrying him away from Mycenae, was Talthybius, the faithful herald of Agamemnon4. Talthybius is here returning to Mycenae with the rightful heir, and preparing the way for the recognition by speaking to the old Nurse, who will remember him. He is the original of the Paedagogus in the Electra of Sophocles, and of the Old Man (“πρέσβυς”) in the Electra of Euripides; he also accounts for the prominence given to the herald in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus.

1 Found at Cervetri (Caere), and now in the Museum at Vienna: published in Monumenti dell' Inst., vol. VIII. pl. xv, and described by Benndorf, Annal. dell' Inst. (1865) pp. 212—216. Reproduced in O. Jahn's Electra, p. 175 (cp. the note by Michaelis, ib. p. vii). The vase has been designated as a “πελίκη”.

2 A stamnos found on the site of Volci in Etruria, and now in the Berlin Museum (no. 1007). Published by Gerhard, Etrusk. und Campanische Vasenbilder, pl. xxiv. It may be seen in Baumeister's Denkmäler, p. 1113; and in Jahn's Electra, p. 148.

3 Published by Conze in Monum. dell' Instit. vol. VI. pl. 57. Reproduced in Roscher's Lexikon der gr. und rom. Mythologie, art. Elektra, p. 1238.

4 Nicolaüs Damascenus (flor. circ. 20 B.C.) fr. 34 (Müller, Frag. Hist. vol. III. p. 374) “τοῦτον δὲ” (Orestes) “ἐρρύσατο Ταλθύβιος ἐξαρπάσας, καὶ ἐκθέμενος εἰς τὴν Φωκίδα παρὰ Στρόφιον”. The legend appears also in the so-called ‘Dictys Cretensis,’ bk. 6, c. 2, “Talthybius Oresten Agamemnonis filium manibus Aegisthi ereptum Idomeneo, qui apud Corinthum agebat, tradidit.” This work, written probably in the fourth cent. A. D. by one Septimius, purports to be translated from a history of the Trojan war by a Cretan contemporary with that war, named Dictys. See Teuffel, Hist. Rom. Lit., vol. II. § 416.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: