‘Vengeance is simply justice with bad pr’. So claimed melanie Phillips on The Moral Maze last night, in a programme that began as a discussion of the possibilities of penal redemption and ended as a debate on the role of vengeance in the judicial system. It was a great line (Phillips was defending another panelist Anne McElvoy who had argued for the importance of vengeance to justice). And it was, of course, partly tongue in cheek. But it also summed up much of what is wrong with the contemporary debate about justice.

Vengeance as an ethical principle emerges from primitive attempts to impose order in conditions in which order is constantly breaking own and can only be maintained through the brutal use of fear and retribution. It is central to a world in which social relations are built around a code of honour – the world of Homer’s Iliad for instance. ‘Let none make haste to go till he has first lain with the wife of some Trojan, and avenged the toil and sorrow that he has suffered for the sake of Helen’, as the old man Nestor tells the Achaean warriors to stiffen their resolve to continue the siege of Troy.

As society becomes more civilized, so it necessarily distinguishes between vengeance and punishment, and in so doing sublimates vengeance to justice. Aeschylus’ magnificent Oresteian trilogy, written in the fifth century BCE, some four hundred years after the Iliad, tells the story of the transformation of Homeric Greece, a community rooted in honour, blood and revenge, into the Athens of Pericles and Socrates, one in which justice was not expressed through the avenging Furies, as it had been in earlier times, but embodied in the wisdom of Athena.

Oresteia begins where the Iliad ends. Troy has fallen. The Greek warriors are returning home. The first play in the trilogy, Agamemnon, opens with Clytemnestra, wife of the eponymous Greek king and sister of Helen, whose kidnap had launched the Trojan war, brutally murdering her husband on his homecoming. It is an act of furious revenge for his having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia ten years previously on the eve of the war to placate the gods.

In The Choephoroi, the second of the plays, Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, is faced with a terrible dilemma: murder his mother or leave his father unavenged. He kills Clytemnestra.

In the final play, The Eumenides, Orestes is pursued by the Furies, ancient deities, whose role it was to exact vengeance for major sins: blasphemy, treachery and the shedding of kindred blood. He finds refuge in Athens where, on the Areopages in the Acropolis, the goddess Athena convenes a jury of twelve to try Orestes. The jury is split. Athena casts her vote in favour of acquittal.

Oresteia is an immensely complex work in which there are no clear heroes or villains. Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes are all faced with impossible choices and make tragic decisions. The human condition, for Aeschylus, is tragic. But humans are also, in his eyes, able to live with the tragedy of their condition by civilizing themselves. And part of the process of civilization is the recognition of the distinction between vengeance and justice, between the primeaval needs of the Furies and the hope planted by Athena.

Fifth century Athens was not, as we would understand it, a just society. It was, after all, a city built on slavery, inequality and conquest.  But the recognition by Athenians of the need to move beyond the ethical world of Achilles and Agamemnon, of Paris and Priam, and their understanding that at the heart of justice must lie a form of civic virtue not rooted in concepts of honour and vengeance, became of immense importance in the development of civilized societies. It was far more important, in many ways, than the Judeo-Christian tradition that we often see as the basis of the ‘Western’ moral tradition and which itself, at least in its New Testament form, drew heavily upon Greek thought.

That is why we should be wary of the growing chorus of voices demanding the restoration of vengeance as a principle of justice. Not because they suggest a return to a Homeric ethic. But because behind every call for vengeance to be turned into a judicial principle lie the ghosts of the Furies.