27 JANUARY 2001, Page 16

Ancient & modern

IN cases of homicide, no punishment these days seems too severe in the eyes of the victim's family, and there are voices in government that seem willing not only to listen to these families' selfrighteous bleatings, but even to consider taking them into account when it comes to sentencing. It seems Aeschylus was wasting his time writing his Oresteia but, if government wants to suck up to these self-pitying victims, it can be done.

Aeschylus' trilogy Oresteia (458 Bc) tracks a blood-vendetta passing down through the generations. In Agamemnon, we learn that Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphigenia to raise the wind for Troy, and we witness his wife Clytaemnestra killing him in revenge on his return; in Choephoroe, their son Orestes perpetuates the vendetta by killing Clytaemnestra; and, in Eumenides, the vendetta is ended by the establishment of an objective court of law. In other words, the problem is solved by the introduction of an independent third party which does not seek revenge in a spirit of fury, but listens to arguments in a spirit of reasoned investigation, and, being no part of the vicious cycle of vendetta, cannot be punished in turn for its final decision. As Aeschylus saw, this was the proper way for a democratic legal system to operate.

But today's victim families do not see it this way. Their 'devastation', they feel, gives them the 'right' to make the decisions themselves about appropriate punishment. In other words, they want not justice, but vengeance. Even Jack Straw must see that this is wrong. But if he thinks the government ought at least to gesture to the victims' sense of injured merit, he must do what ancient Greeks did, and, before the case ever comes to a court of law, bring the parties together, under the control of a legal official, to make an agreement mutually satisfactory to both sides that will both resolve the issue and at the same time stop the vendetta in its tracks. If agreement cannot be reached, the case goes to law.

Even in Homeric epic, where the principle of an eye for an eye is taken for granted, a case of homicide could be settled by voluntary agreement between the parties. Banishment of the killer was the most common option; the taking of blood-money was another.

If this sounds too much like self-help, so be it. Self-help to prevent wrong is legal, and so, too, in certain cases, is self-help to establish a remedy.

Peter Jones