The Possibility of Natural Justice: Aeschylus, “The Suppliant Maidens”

Line numbers below are not exact: apologies in advance.

It is possible to say justice is the end (telos) of the city. Considerations of utility either claim to be prerequisite to justice or are thought justice itself simply. Considerations of freedom define themselves as right.

Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens ends with the beautiful daughters of Danaus praying thus:

Lord Zeus may he deprive us
Of an ill marriage
And a bad husband,
As Io was released from ill,
Protected by a healing hand,
Kind might did cure her.

And strength may he assign us.
I am content if ill
Is one-third my lot,
And justly, with my prayers,
Beside the saving arts of god,
To follow justice. (ll. 1063 – end)

“Healing hand,” “might,” “strength,” dealing with “ill” all speak to me of utility. A release from ill and contentment with one’s course imply freedom. But the last words belong to justice.

The Danaids, the 50 daughters of Danaus, were pursued by their Egyptian cousins whom they did not want to marry. Descended from Io of Argos (in Greece), they flee to Argos and ask the king, Pelasgus, for protection. In two sequels to “The Suppliant Maidens” we have lost, the rest of the myth plays out, dramatized by Aeschylus. The Danaids, who receive protection in this play, are forced to marry their cousins in the second. They swear an oath to kill each of their husbands on their wedding night. All fulfill the oath, save one, and the third play concerns her trial. Now it is the case two plays of this trilogy are lost, so all of this is conjecture, but the conjecture can bring some themes into sharp relief:

Since the maidens insist upon the rights of the will alone, Pelasgus allows in turn the people’s will to sanction it and make it law. In the second play the oath of the Danaids becomes law, and Hypermnestra, in violating it, repeats her sisters’ original defiance of Egyptian law, but as on this occasion it is not a human law she has betrayed [she broke an oath], a goddess [part of Aphrodite’s speech in the third play is extant] must justify her conduct. (Introduction 3)

Oaths and laws we recognize immediately as binding, but not will. Leo Paul de Alvarez has said the question of the play is whether there is a natural justice; freedom may be more a distraction than a theme. Dr. de Alvarez also said to look at Pelasgus’ speeches: he discovers what is naturally just. Before we do that, however, it would not hurt to examine a bit more summary:

The Suppliant Maidens is an international play. The Danaids are refugees, Greeks by descent, Egyptians in appearance (ll. 234-37, 277-90, 496 ff), and according to Egyptian law they have no legal right to refuse to marry their cousins. For when Pelasgus wishes to know what right they have, the maidens in reply only declare their hatred of their cousins, implying by their evasion of the question the absence of any legal claim to his protection (ll. 387-91). Thus both by nature and by law they are defenseless. If they really looked like Greeks, as well as were Greeks by an obscure genealogy, and if they had some legal justification, Pelasgus might have  been willing to take up their defense without the consent of the people; but once it becomes a case of pure or natural justice independent of all legality, with the maidens’ arbitrary dislike of their cousins their only motive, Pelasgus must defer to the will of the people. (Introduction 3)

King Pelasgus’ very first words do not recognize the maidens as Greek –

Whence come these barbarians?
What shall we call you?
So outlandishly
Arrayed in the barbaric luxury
Of robes and crowns, and not in Argive fashion
Nor in Greek? (ll. 234 – 240)

– and the story he tells of his descent and where he rules is right to the point, unlike the Danaids’ story. His family “reap[s] the fruit of the earth” (252)

…called Apia, after a surgeon
Of ancient times, the prophet Apis, son
To Apollo, who from Naupactus once did come,
And cleansed this land of deadly, monstrous
Serpents, that the earth, soaked in old
Curses of blood, had sprung and smeared in wrath.
His remedies and herbs did work a cure
For Argos, where his pay’s remembrance found
In litanies. (ll. 260 – 270)

In Plato, there is the strong suggestion in some dialogues that one can liken a lawmaker to a physician. Just as a physician’s cures are not always pleasant, so also is the punitive nature of law. For Aeschylus, such a consideration may have even greater weight, as “serpents” and “curses of blood” imply a monstrous, pre-legal world. What is presumably prior to politics: keeping oaths, treating guests well, avenging one’s family. Each of these is a “trigger” where if, say, a family member is killed or an oath is broken, someone has to pay, and even then nothing is settled because the (human) instrument of the gods’ vengeance will have, at the least, hurt someone who had a family member. Hence, “serpents” – a never-ending cycle of violence.

Pelasgus therefore shows he understands something critical to being Greek, and his distrust of Oriental splendor is probably warranted. He tells the Danaids to recite their ancestry, and warns them not to give the city a long speech. His own ancestry took about 25 lines; a discussion of the Danaids’ which follows consumes 50. It is true Io was from Argos, but her descendants seem to comprise a good portion of not-Greece (ll. 310-324). Still, Pelasgus acknowledges their claim somewhat: “you seem to share of old this land” (ll. 326). He wants to act piously, but does not want war if it can be helped (ll. 338-343).

We learn in the discussion between Pelasgus and the Danaids why he is concerned with pious action. After telling the daughters they want nothing less than a new war (ll. 341-2), he is exhorted to justice. He rejects the reasoning as the battle joined him, not the other way around (ll. 345). He is told he is not pious enough before the true state of the gods; he says he is trembling at the moment, in the sacred grove where the discussion occurs (340 – 350). The Danaids make an appeal to him being no less than Zeus the Protector (349 – 352); he wonders about the extent of his power, hoping that “this friendship conceal no doom / Nor strife for us arise in unexpected / And unpremeditated ways” (356 – 358). The text is incomplete, but it looks like they plead for sanctuary because of their father (359 – 365); Pelasgus says they are not supplicating him, but the city, and so “if the city stains the commonweal, / In common let the people work a cure” (360 – 370). The daughters of Danaus seem to be the inverse of the city. They were generated by Danaus, but the body politic, in a sense, generates the king. The daughters do not take the King’s speech about the commonweal seriously. They insist on his godlike, paternal power and warn him against pollution. But Pelasgus checks the impiety argument appropriately: “without harm I cannot aid you.”

A number of arguments have failed, and the Danaids turn to Zeus the Suppliant (380 – 390). They do not understand Zeus the Supplicant, saying that he can become angry, and will be charmed by no pity. They only see pre-legal justice, which is not justice in a sense and therefore not entirely natural. It should not surprise that their conversation turns only to divinity and justice until the Danaids threaten suicide upon the holy grounds (387 – 470). Pelasgus appeals to prudence before the threat is made (397 – 401, 404 – 417); immediately before it, he outlines the qualitative differences between government as an agent of utility and as an agent of peace. Government as agent of utility depends on Fortune: “When wealth is sacked and homes / Are pillaged, Zeus yet another fortune may bestow; / Or when the tongue has failed, a healing word / May spread a counter-balm” (445 – 448). But as an agent of peace – “if consanguine / Blood is to stay unshed” – there is control, but at the cost of perpetual sacrifice. “We must sacrifice / to slaughter many kine to many gods, / a cure of grief” (448-50). It is this insight, perhaps underlying prudence itself, that allows the threat of the Danaids’ suicide to be successful.

The basis of natural justice, then, is not simply pity or the avoidance of shedding innocent blood. It is both, because both are framed by a larger issue: What can one do? After Pelasgus declares “the wrath of Zeus the Suppliant – / the height of mortal fear – must be respected” (478 – 480), acknowledging he will protect the maidens, he tells them and their father to be pious so as to inspire pity (480 – 490). He promises to “make the commons well disposed, and teach / Your father all that he must say” (518 – 520). Most importantly, he wants “Persuasion” and “Fortune” to attend him (522 – 523). When he is yelling at the Egyptian herald later, he accuses him of insolence and standing for nothing upright, for the herald is a Barbarian (910 – 916). But he also says:

Though, were these [maidens] willing, with good will of heart,
You could lead them away, if pious speech
Persuaded them: thus unanimous the vote
Decreed, never to surrender them to force.
Joined, doweled and bolted stays this law,
That neither scratched on tablets, nor book-sealed,
You hear announced by the tongue of freedom’s voice. (938 – 948)

The Argives, persuaded by the king, unanimously voted to protect the Danaids. I take the unanimity to be a sign the king found what is naturally just, what has power over nearly all. Persuasion and Fortune frame justice. Sometimes necessity forces us to act unjustly. Sometimes it is not possible to persuade. But if the gods give the opportunities one needs, justice emerges: pity is stirred, leading to its end, the recognition of innocence. From innocence one sees a moral purity come about that unites the city and its gods truly. If the story seems a bit complicated, it is because Aeschylus does not take the possibility of justice outside what is political too seriously. Here, an appeal to purely transpolitical justice would be an oversimplification and dismiss what the city does right. It would also fail to recognize that despite natural justice, serious conflicts cannot go away. The Egyptians have bad law. Are they therefore unjust, so unjust that all need to be killed on their wedding night? One can attempt to answer “yes,” but one’s rationale is more important than a conclusion.

One last note. Danaus, the father of the Danaids, reports the speech of Pelasgus to the citizens indirectly:

The king persuaded, prophesying Zeus
The Suppliant would fatten rich his wrath
To feed insatiate suffering,
And show itself as twin defilements,
In and outside the city. (617 – 621)

This is something that we’ve lost sight of today in our materialism and extreme individualism: the gods of the city are connected with the honor of a city, and what is “outside” matters. A city that does not try to act justly is tarring its citizens eternally, and asking for bad Fortune to occur. Honor comes from justice, not claims to merit or the strict application of the law. The Greek concern with piety was always one of politics: the gods of the city were just that. I don’t know how much declaring “separation of church and state,” as useful as it is practically, is workable on a theoretical level. The Texas school board and their cultish conservative nonsense need to go, of course. But if one wonders why politics today seems to lack dignity, the briefest of glances at other ages should provide ample for reflection.


Benardete, Seth. “Introduction to The Suppliant Maidens” in The Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus II, ed. Grene and Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. pp. 2-4

Aeschylus, “The Suppliant Maidens.” tr. Seth Benardete. The Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus II, ed. Grene and Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.


  1. Justice is such a weird concept. Maybe I should leave my comment at that before I start babbling like a lunatic.

    Nice post, btw. Kinda makes me want to (re)read the original text. I probably have at some point in the past and made no sense of it.

  2. This was very interesting. Justice, then, is the foam that rises to the top when the deep waters churn…

    I love studying the old Greek drama’s. It takes discipline to sit and read them and think about what they are saying…and compare and consider their ideals, what is noble? and why? etc.

    The points are valid, and somehow applicable to the western culture of today perhaps because they are tied to a democratic viewpoint. I do like the conservative Texas style though. : ) (A bit stubborn, a bit “in your face,” with the well-worn dignity of common sense mixed with swaggering confidence.)

    This caught my eye particularly because of the daughters’ word choice–“deprive” is currently used concerning the loss of basic needs, but then here, their independence is more valued than a marriage. And so they take justice into their own hands.

    I was not aware of the sequels. Thanks, Ashok.

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