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Tales of gods and their encounters with humans abound in ancient literature. There is no way of knowing whether these myths and legends are real, or whether the names actually existed at all. What analysts can deduce from the sound and vocabulary of these tales is the writers' perspective on the bond between the gods and humans. Both Aeschylus' Oresteia and Livy's account of The History of Rome are literary works that support both writers' ideas regarding the relationship of man and god. The overriding theme in both their works is the inextricable link between the desires of the gods and the fate of humankind. The argument presented here is that Aeschylus and Livy both believed that gods played a significant role in dictating the destiny of humanity.
In Agamemnon, the first of Aeschylus' trilogy, the protagonist is on his way back from a Trojan War that he has waged victoriously. Though everyone else seems to be in a happy mood about the victory, his wife, Clytemnestra, is not only unhappy with his success but also spiteful of him. She vows not even to weep for her husband’s death.
“At our hands he collapsed in death
We’ll bury him. But this house will not weep.
No. Iphigeneia will meet him down there, as is fitting…”(Ag. 1830-1833)
He is the subject of his wife's hatred because he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, at the start of the war. “So Agamemnon steeled his heart to make his own daughter the sacrifice, an offering for the Achaean fleet, so he could prosecute the war waged to avenge that woman Helen” (Ag. 261-265) Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia so that he would appease the god Artemis.
The sacrifice of Iphigenia was occasioned by an unfortunate event during Agamemnon's advance towards Troy. His ships were becalmed en route to the war at a place called Aurelius. The becalming of his ships would have undesirable implications for the war. Aeschylus' first hint to his view about the indispensability of the gods is Agamemnon's first reaction to the becalming of his ships. He seeks the Oracle. Because Agamemnon believes that the destiny and fate of humankind are determined by higher powers, he does not find a social solution to his quagmire, but rather consults with a link to the gods.
The outcome of the Oracle is that the winds that are required for his advance to the Trojan War can only return if he sacrifices his daughter. The implications for sacrificing his daughter are far reaching. Even more distressing is the process he has to go through before he can make the sacrifice. His wife would never agree to such a proposition, so he has to deceive her. The thought of sacrificing one’s daughter for a higher cause, in and of itself, is a testament to Aeschylus’ belief that the gods control human actions. Eventually, the winds return, and Agamemnon’s ships can set sail once again. Once more, this is a manifestation of Aeschylus’ belief that the gods control human destiny.
The Libation Bearers, which is the second story in Aeschylus’ trilogy, is, by its very title, a remark that acknowledges Aeschylus’ high opinion of the gods. Years after murdering his husband, Clytemnestra’s guilt is brought back by a dream. To appease the gods, whom she believes she angered by her action, she orders her slave-girls to pour libation to the gods.
“What should I say as I pour out these cups,
my offering to grief? How frame my words
to make my prayer a tribute to my father?” (LB. 112-115)
Aeschylus makes it plain that he believes the gods to be the controllers of destiny, and that men ought to live on peaceful terms with them. This depiction of gods by Aeschylus is testimony that he believes that humankind cannot extricate its destiny from the wishes of the gods.
The Eumenides is Aeschylus’ third play in the trilogy. Here, once more, he depicts his belief of the supreme hand of deity in the destiny of humankind. In this play, Orestes is so tormented by Erinyes for killing her mother that she seeks the help of her Athena, the goddess of justice. The Goddess intervenes to bring Orestes to justice. One more time, Aeschylus shows that the gods are the most important determinants of the course of the lives of human beings. When things come to a head, humans turn to a deity to help them solve their problems. In this instance, Orestes is faced with an extremely tough situation. The clarity between right and wrong is blurred since it would appear that Orestes did the right thing to avenge his father. The solution to this problem is to seek justice from Athena, the goddess of justice, whom Orestes believes, will offer a fair and wise verdict.
“I don’t see why in one case you’re so harsh
when you don’t really care about the other.
However, goddess Athena will take charge -she’ll organize a trial.” (Eum. 268-271)
It is an exemplification of how Aeschylus believes that human beings are dependent not only on the provisions but also on the wisdom of the gods.
Livy, too, believes that the gods control every sphere of the existence of humankind. He makes several mentions of the gods and their interaction with humanity, and in every instance, his firm belief in their hand is evident. For example, Livy depicts Lucius Tarquinius Superbus as a bellicose ruler who would not be intimidated by anyone.
Lucius Tarquinius now began his reign. His conduct procured for him the nickname of "Superbus," for he deprived his father-in-law of burial, on the plea that Romulus was not buried, and he slew the leading nobles whom he suspected of being partisans of Servius. (Livy, 1.49)
However, even Lucius built a temple for the god Jupiter, in reverence of him.
He then sketched out the design of a temple to Jupiter, which in its extent should be worthy of the king of gods and men, worthy of the Roman Empire, worthy of the majesty of the City itself. (Livy, 1.53)
Livy’s belief that even a great human who had nothing to fear from people should appease the gods by building them temples is a testament to his opinion that the gods dictate the course of humankind.
Livy’s account of Servius Tullius states that he conquered and divided people, and yet built a temple to Diana is yet another example of his view of the superiority of the gods. Livy asserts that he spoke very highly of Diana and that he convinced even the Latins, whom he had assimilated, that there was a dire need to build a temple for the deity. He asserted that people not only needed to pay tribute to Diana but that they also needed to make sacrifices to her every so often. He made sure to decorate the temple of Diana with horns that were fastened to the vestibule of this temple. “...he marvel was attested in after ages by the horns which were fastened up in the vestibule of the temple of Diana (Livy, 1.45) Servius made the temple of Diana famous in his time. The fact that the people who build temples to the gods are conquerors is a compelling reason to believe that Livy believes that even the most powerful people respect the gods. In this regard, Livy’s assertions are slightly different from those of Aeschylus because they mostly show that humans believed in the existence of gods even when they had no reason to. Aeschylus, on the other hand, almost consistently narrates that gods came in only when human beings could not find answers by themselves.
Lily also gives an account of the victory that Ancus had great difficulty. He managed to assimilate many Latins, but that he also dedicated a holy city to Aventine with the Palatine. This account gives Livy’s impression of the importance of deity in the lives of human beings. Livy believes that deity has a hand in all of the happenings of people and that they need to be appeased so that they may not punish human beings.
Besides giving accounts of how people of the ancient days interacted with the gods, Livy gives his opinion about the gods and their significance in human life. He claims that, “This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states,” (Livy, 1). In this short statement, Livy makes plain his belief that human destiny cannot run apart from the will of the gods. He believes that no matter how certain human beings are, their actions can be made more meaningful still if the hand of deity is incorporated into them. Livy undergirds this statement by praising Rome and saying that it owes its origins to divinity. Further, he claims that the nation of Rome represents Mars as her own and her founder father. Livy’s unconcealed praise for Rome lends credence to his belief that the gods can make anything great if they choose to do so. Moreover, Livy makes reference to criticisms that are directed towards the traditions that link human beings to deity. He underplays such criticisms, terming them of little significance.
Historical writers always brought out the link between the gods and human beings. Each of them had a different depiction of the role that deity played in the lives of human beings. Most of the ancient writers, however, made clear their belief that the destiny of people was always linked inextricably to the wishes and whims of higher beings. In fact, they believed that human destiny was dictated by the gods. Both Livy and Aeschylus thought that human beings were unable to dictate their fate separate from the wishes of the gods.
Goldhill, Simon. Aeschylus: The Oresteia. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Livy, Titus. Livy’s history of Rome: Livy's History of Rome, vol. 1. J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905.
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