(Lack of) Sympathy for Agamemnon

3 Mar

Agamemnon is one of the least sympathetic characters in the Iliad. The actions of the antihero Achilles don’t endear him to Homer’s audience; the poet overcomes this obstacle by creating an even more unsympathetic character foil in Agamemnon.  The Argive leader comes off poorly in every contrast that’s made between the two men: the influence the gods exert over them, the truth or falseness of the insults they exchange and, most particularly, their behavior towards their social inferiors.

Homer’s famous opening, “Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles,” might seem to single out Achilles as blameworthy in the deaths the poet describes, but before the ending of the first stanza this is mitigated by the line, “all in fulfilment of the will of Zeus.” Apollo is then said to be the god who incited the two men to fight, however the reason given for his anger is Agamemnon’s dishonour of the god’s priest Chryses. Thus within two stanzas the cause of Achaeans’ “countless agonies” has been transmuted from Achilles’s rage to Agamemnon’s insult. Later in the first book Athena comes personally to Achilles to stop him from killing Agamemnon when they are fighting over a ‘prize’ (the female captive, Briseis), by comparison Agamemnon’s first ‘visitation’ from a god is a false dream sent by Zeus in Book Two that urges him to attack the Trojans. Given that Homer lets his readers actually see and hear both these scenes along with Achilles and Agamemnon, it casts doubt on Agamemnon’s claim in Book Nineteen that he was led astray by the gods, and Zeus and Ate “cast a savage blindness on my heart” the day he took Briseis from Achilles.

In the quarrel over Briseis, Achilles and Agamemnon hurl insulting language at one another in a back-and-forth exchange. However, while Achilles’s most insulting remarks to Agamemnon prove to be true, and truly insults, Homer merely allows Agamemnon to denigrate Achilles’s evident good qualities. Achilles calls Agamemnon greedy, which is clearly how the king’s acting at that moment, and later accuses him of being scared to fight and only hanging back in the rear of the army. This is proved out in Book Four when we are told again and again of Agamemnon alternately rousing and rebuking his troops – urging them to fight – but he’s not depicted battling anyone himself. In contrast, Agamemnon can’t seem to find anything about Achilles to put down, “So what if you’re strong? Some god gave you that,” is about as offensive as his language gets.

Agamemnon’s sending his two heralds, Talthybius and Eurybates, to collect Briseis from Achilles might also serve as an example of the king’s cowardice – Agamemnon perhaps being unwilling to face Achilles – although this is easily interpreted as simply being an act too menial for the king to do himself, but I believe Homer is using this incident to highlight Achilles’s treatment of the heralds. When they’re too nervous to approach him, Achilles sets their minds at ease and reassures Talthybius and Eurybates that he doesn’t blame them, but Agamemnon. This is the most distinctive passage showing Achilles kindness to his inferiors, as opposed to Agamemnon, who’s repeatedly shown as rude or dismissive to those people he has power over. This is apparent at the beginning of Book One when he threatens Apollo’s priest, Chryses, and ignores the Argive troops, who want him to keep the ransom Chryses offers for his daughter. Later when Apollo strikes the army with a plague, Achilles promises the prophet, Calchis, his protection if he’ll tell them what has offended the god, “even if you name Agamemnon, who claims he’s by far the best Achaean.” As it turns out Calchis’s caution is warranted, as Agamemnon immediately attacks the soothsayer:

Then, Atreus’ son,
wide-ruling, mighty Agamemnon, stood up before them,
incensed, spirit filled with huge black rage.
Eyes blazing fire, he rounded first on Calchas:

“Prophet of evil, when have you ever said
good things to me? You love to predict the worst,
always the worst! You never show good news.

A more subtle incident occurs when Nestor, an elder and respected warrior, tries to intervene in the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon. Though both men are unwilling to leave off their quarrel, at the end of Nestor’s speech Achilles concedes he will give up Briseis to the king. On the other hand, Agamemnon, even though he says that Nestor’s right, immediately dismisses his advice and refers to him contemptuously as, “Old Man.” Rude to priests, prophets, and old men; possibly a coward; easily deceived and himself deceptive – the way Homer has portrayed him, it’s no wonder the doomed king of Argos can’t garner more of our sympathy.


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