The Rise and Fall of Ancient Greek Justice: Homer to the Sermon on the Mount

I begin with the murders of two daughters, from two different sets of parents, and ask: How did their mothers react to these crimes?

Our first story goes back to Homer—or more accurately, to a story that (if based in fact) took place during the Greek Bronze Age, in the 13th century BC. This is the story of Iphigenia­, at the outset of the Trojan War (part of which is described so poignantly by Homer).1

A Trojan prince named Paris ran off with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, who was the brother of Agamemnon, the mightiest of the Greek kings. Agamemnon responded by leading the Greeks against Troy, and he did so in the name of justice and with Zeus’s blessing. The Greek ships and troops—from all over the Greek mainland and islands—met at Aulis, from which they would together launch their attack on Troy. But the north winds pinned them down. A seer told the Greek leaders the reason for their misfortune: the goddess Artemis wants blood, and the only way to satisfy her is for Agamemnon to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia­.2 So Agamemnon is faced with a choice: Go home and spare his child, or sacrifice his child and go to war. He chooses the latter: the possibility of victory in war—with the honor, plunder, and revenge that entails—over his own daughter’s life and his own family’s happiness.

How did Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, take this?3

Back in Argos, she took a lover (Aegisthus, a cousin and enemy of Agamemnon) and patiently waited for the war to end, and for her husband to return. After ten years, she hears that the war is over, and is waiting for Agamemnon when he arrives. She acts like a dutiful wife, welcomes him with open arms, beckons him into the palace to take a bath, and when he does so, she kills him brutally. (She also kills the Trojan princess Cassandra, one of Agamemnon’s prizes.) In Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon, the killing occurs offstage. Clytemnestra appears afterward, covered in blood, and declares:

So long my mind has been preparing for this, this trial of ancient vendetta. Now the day has come, I stand here where I struck, and the deed is done. This was my work, I do not deny it; he could not have escaped his destiny. I cast my vast net, tangling around him, wrapping him in a robe rich in evil. I struck him twice and he screamed twice, his limbs buckled and his body came crashing down, and as he lay there, I struck him again, a third blow for Underworld Zeus, the savior of the dead. He collapsed, gasping out his last breath, his life ebbing away, spitting spurts of blood, which splattered down on me like dark sanguine dew. And I rejoiced just as the newly sown earth rejoices, when Zeus sends the nourishing rain on young crops (lines 1377–92).4

Clytemnestra believes justice is on her side—that Agamemnon got what he deserved.

Some ancient Greeks would have questioned Clytemnestra’s actions, saying, for example, that she should not have killed Cassandra, who was an innocent; and that, as a woman, she should not have taken it upon herself to decide the fate of a great king. But the Greeks would have understood her claim that, in killing Agamemnon, she acts from justice—that it was understandable and right for a parent to act this way in response to the murder of her child.

We now move more than three millennia into the future. The year is 1993. Amy Biehl, a 23-year-old Stanford University graduate student on a Fulbright scholarship, is working in South Africa, around the time apartheid is coming to an end, for what she considers “social justice.” She devotes most of her time to altruistic causes.

On the evening of August 25, she was driving through the Gugulethu township outside of Cape Town, when she encountered a Pan-African student organization, chanting—among other things—“One Settler, One Bullet” (i.e., they believed white farmers should be shot). When they saw this white woman, they stopped her, dragged her from the car, and proceeded to beat, kick, stone, and stab her to death.

Four of the men involved were found guilty and sentenced to eighteen years in prison.

In 1997—four years after the murder—they applied for amnesty under the terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995. How did the parents of Amy Biehl react? They flew to South Africa and spoke in favor of amnesty for the murderers of their daughter. They shook hands with these men, and spoke of the need for going into the future with arms linked.

The murderers of Amy Biehl, with the help of her parents, were released in July 1998. Two of them were later hired by the Biehls to work as employees of the Community Baking Trust in Cape Town, delivering loaves of Amy’s Bread: The Bread of Hope and Peace.

We know what Clytemnestra did a decade after the murder of Iphigenia. In contrast, approximately a decade after the murder of Amy Biehl, her mother stated in an interview: “They are not murderers, but they are amazing and beautiful young men.” Bishop Desmond Tutu commented: “What was so remarkable was not only that they forgave the killers of their daughter, but that they went so far as to rehabilitate them.”5

What accounts for these two radically different reactions to the death of one’s child? That is what I want to make clear, for the difference, fundamentally, is that one is the expression of ancient Greek justice, and the other of the Christian conception of justice. In what follows I show that on the issue of justice, the ancient Greeks eventually came admirably close to the truth—a truth that was then overturned by the triumph of Christianity, a fact that still haunts us today. . . .

To continue reading: Log in or Subscribe


1 The main sources for this story are Homer’s epics, Aeschylus’s Oresteia (the trilogy made up of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides), and Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians.

2 We need not concern ourselves with Artemis’s reasons, as they do not form part of the action of the play. According to the chorus of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, they involved Artemis being an ally of the Trojans and thus wanting to harm the Greeks (see lines 126–39).

3 She had been tricked into sending Iphigenia to Aulis with a supposed promise of marriage to Achilles. (See Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis.)

4 Peter Meineck, trans., Aeschylus: The Oresteia (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998).

5 The statement of Linda Biehl, Amy’s mother, was originally included in an article in the Cape Times, June 4, 2004, which can be found at (last checked October 30, 2006). The statement of Desmond Tutu is from Mike Anton, “Peter Biehl, 59; Forgave Killers of Daughter” [Obituary of Amy Biehl’s father], Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2002.

Return to Top
Comments are closed.