5. The Traditional Characterization of Agamemnon

What has emerged from a consideration of Agamemnon’s appearances in person, name, or through retrospective narrative, is the tenor of his characterization in the Iliad and Odyssey. As I have noted throughout the foregoing chapters, Agamemnon’s involvement in other story patterns, such as that contained in the Odyssey, provides helpful background for understanding Agamemnon’s characterization in the Iliad. In this chapter, after a review of Agamemnon’s character traits, I will further argue that particular story patterns such as Agamemnon’s kakos nostos, but also the miasma and cursed family history of the House of Atreus (potentially alluded to in both epics), are influencing the presentation (and reception) of Agamemnon in the Iliad (and Odyssey).
The picture of Agamemnon embedded within the Homeric epics, is, on the whole, quite unfavorable. Certain descriptive traits have recurred in the foregoing chapters. As a leader and character, there appears a rather consistent portrayal of Agamemnon as: 1. impetuous, thoughtless, foolish, and rash; 2. arrogant, imperious, irreverent, and insulting; and 3. inept and unconvincing. A better character trait, albeit still somewhat ambivalent, is Agamemnon’s “stalwart” nature when a warrior in battle, an attribute we will deal with fourth, if only to conclude our summary on a better note. While some of my English word choices to describe Agamemnon are influenced by Greek, a taxonomy based solely upon individual Greek words would prove insufficient. [1] There is, necessarily, also overlap in taxonomy. Yet the foregoing terms, their division and arrangement, allow us to look over our findings from various story contexts as threads woven back together to display a tapestry of Agamemnon’s characterization. Further, as we have seen, the poet often portrays Agamemnon with only limited direct comment by himself or another character. Instead, the audience is left to draw conclusions based upon its traditional knowledge and the tenor of the words or actions of a particular character in a local narrative moment as it transpires.

5.1 Impetuous, Thoughtless, Foolish, and Rash

A consistent portrayal of Agamemnon as a leader and character is embedded in both the Odyssey and Iliad. He is impetuous, thoughtless, foolish, and rash. In our overview of Odyssey 3 we saw that Nestor’s narrative began with a quarrel between the sons of Atreus that effectively resulted in two separate departures and Agamemnon’s arrival home alone. [2] Significantly, the language of Nestor’s retrospective implied that Agamemnon’s stance in this quarrel with his brother was the plan of a “thoughtless child” (νήπιος), “for he did not know what he was about to suffer” (οὐδε τὸ ᾔδὴ, ὃ οὐ πείσθαι ἔμελλεν). The many appearances of the vocative νήπιος used of an adult, support “thoughtlessness” as part of its traditional meaning. The traditional cue, “thoughtless child,” insinuated, through ironic disdain, an element of thoughtless miscalculation, often by a character involved in a foolhardy action. The limited perspective of Agamemnon then was not the sole reason for the use of this descriptive word by Nestor of Agamemnon in a dispute between him and Menelaos. By using “thoughtless child,” Nestor became the spokesman for the tradition as a whole. The implications for Agamemnon were portentous, since it would be a lack of thoughtfulness that would bring about his own death.
A second example of thoughtlessness came in Odyssey 4. In reply to Telemachos’ admiration over his home’s apparent affinity to that of Olympian Zeus, Menelaos countered that his absence from Argos came at a cost: his brother’s death. [3] Agamemnon was portrayed in this section of the Odyssey as being killed “by stealth,” in circumstances where, outlining his thoughtlessness, he was not personally expecting—“unexpectedly” (ἀνωϊστί)—what came. At the base of this rare descriptive word, as we saw, is “expect” (οἴομαι), a verb that stresses a more personal and thoughtful reflection, which in Agamemnon’s case was clearly absent. Within the ongoing narrative of Menelaos, we heard too from Proteus details of Aigisthos’ ambush of Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s death was here represented by a traditional simile from Proteus’ mouth: he was killed like an ox slaughtered at feeding time. Agamemnon’s ignorance of the trap set for him is emphasized, a lack of awareness or reflective forethought that led to the success of the plot to take his life. [4] It was the sort of inattentiveness that had cost other characters dearly, including the youthful Lykaon, whom Achilles had captured while the lad was out cutting fig branches.
The rash impetuousness of Agamemnon seemed to be invoked by the poet within his tale in Odyssey 8. [5] We saw that the poet made reference to an earlier episode in the Trojan War story, when Agamemnon visited the oracle in Delphi and rejoiced in his spirit over the oracle’s response. Yet, what seemed a boon to Agamemnon (he rejoiced at what he believed to be the commencement of an oracle’s fulfillment), turned to grief and misery as the poet immediately told us. Agamemnon’s rejoicing, set immediately against such metonymic realities as a long war and sad homecoming, was full of irony for Homer’s core audience. Agamemnon was both naive and thoughtless in his comprehension of, and impetuous in his reaction to, the quarrel.
In our consideration of Odyssey 11, we noted a string of interrogatives that ensued, employing the rhetorical device of the “erroneous question,” which would have struck the audience, who knew how Agamemnon died, with the full force of metonymic irony. [6] No less an emphasis was discernible in the priamel with its twist (cardinal point) and expanded narrative that formed Agamemnon’s sorry reply. The tension created for the poet’s audience (not to mention Agamemnon himself) underscored Agamemnon’s utter thoughtlessness in regard to the potential danger for himself and his men. They all experienced complete surprise at the bloody turn of events upon their homecoming. The focus of this scene was on Odysseus taking Agamemnon as an example to avoid and to do this by careful forethought. Further, the traditional idiom used by Agamemnon to introduce this second advisement to Odysseus, “But this other matter to you I speak, but you cast [this] in your heart” (ἄλλο δέ τοι ἐρέω, σὺ δ’ ἐνὶ φρεσὶ βάλλεο σῇσιν), was, as we saw, a formula that yielded important implications in context. In its other occurrences the formula was used by a character to suggest the presence of extremely fervent emotion and personal participation in the information being shared. It also provided some form of imminent consequences (almost always menacing). The formula was most often followed by a very strong warning or plea. I suggested that the strong emotion of Agamemnon coupled with an injunction to Odysseus to act prudently formed a metonymic caution. Through the idiomatic cue of an emotional warning then, we saw the poet’s portrayal of Agamemnon as an example to be avoided. The same paradigmatic portrayal of Agamemnon was noted, moreover, in our discussion of Odyssey 3. [7] There, Odysseus’ retort sought to reinforce Agamemnon as a paradigm that portended imminent danger to be avoided at all costs by thoughtful planning.
The Iliad, too, provided numerous instances of Agamemnon’s impetuously thoughtless or foolish words and deeds. The Iliad opens with our first example. [8] Athena had come to Achilles and urged him not to draw his sword and kill Agamemnon, but to employ a verbal scourge instead. Agamemnon, however, was not content to leave things at a rhetorical level. Instead, he pressed Achilles with a vexatious threat: as Chryseïs was taken from him by Phoibos Apollo, so he would lead away Briseïs, Achilles’ geras. It was a threat he soon carried out. He wanted Achilles to recognize “how much superior” (ὅσσον φέρτατος) he was so that no one would again presume to speak on equal terms with him. At that moment, Achilles’ restraint and refusal to take action to avenge his being wronged stood out in marked contrast to Agamemnon’s own quick, thoughtless, and despotic decision to take what he saw as his royal due.
We saw in Iliad 2 that Agamemnon was tricked by a destructive dream into thinking he could take Priam’s city. [9] As in the Odyssey, so here he was characterized by the poet as a “thoughtless child” (νήπιος). How so? First, Agamemnon believed the dream, and, second—and this was the greater mistake—he chose to test the troops as he did. Only Agamemnon, of all the Iliadic examples, ever suggests that the Achaians both retreat and also engage in a nostos. The choice of Agamemnon to include a call for a nostos displays the pathetic character of Agamemnon as paramount basileus. We observed that Agamemnon’s address to the troops was exceptional in its lack of thoughtful consideration and nearly disastrous in its outcome. The core audience was not surprised by such action, however. It highlighted the foolishness of both Agamemnon’s comprehension of reality and his plan of action. It displayed the ambivalent character of Agamemnon as a paramount basileus: Agamemnon was both deceiver and deceived; both a knowing perpetrator and an unaware recipient of “evil deception” (ἀπάτη). His actions undercut the Achaians’ political stability. Only the intervention and speech of Odysseus and the voice of Nestor saved the day, indeed the whole military enterprise at Troy, for Agamemnon.
In Iliad 4, we observed an Agamemnon who was impetuous and rash toward Odysseus and Diomedes. [10] In Odysseus’ case, however, we saw that Agamemnon’s comments, when heard against the larger tradition surrounding dolos and kerdos, demonstrate a significant misrepresentation of this intelligent and communitarian hero. This is especially so, considering the positive use of these terms in Homer’s traditional register. [11] Agamemnon’s misapprehension and caustic vilification of Odysseus would have struck Homer’s audience as unfair, to say the least. In Iliad 9, moreover, Agamemnon was made painfully aware of his earlier castigation of Diomedes, a character who we saw was known by Homer’s audience for his “inexorable courage.” [12] We noted that the formula “Thus he spoke, but they in fact all were stricken to silence” (ὣς ἔφαθ’, οἱ δ’ ἄρα πάντες ἀκὴν ἐγένοντο σιωπῇ) cued for the audience that a “representative” reply would come, one that was in concert with the feelings of the group. [13] Diomedes stepped forward to offer such a response when he expressed his “repressed” grievance in Iliad 9, one of minimally five indictments of Agamemnon’s character brought about by Agamemnon’s past words and deeds. [14]
Next, in Iliad 11, even the otherwise stalwart nature of Agamemnon as a warrior in that book’s action is tainted somewhat with a rash impetuousness. [15] I remarked that the whole assault by the Achaians, led without preamble by Agamemnon, lacked many traditional elements of an anticipatory battle sequence: the sacrifice, the meal, the gathering of the army, the review of the troops, and the exhortation to battle. All that the troops ever got was a quick yell. There appeared a suggestive peculiarity in the brevity of the whole scene, in the dearth of traditional cues or expectable elements—hardly what we might expect from the poet in a scene involving such a central character. It is ironic that the longest of the arming scenes in the Iliad should be accompanied by so little else, other than the Achaian leader fervently rushing ahead of his forces. Ironic too, was the placement of this scene in the Iliad poet’s song. After all, as I suggested, one could hardly credit the tradition with the minute ordering of aristeia within the poet’s story as a whole. The poet perhaps meant to show, not Agamemnon’s lack of fighting prowess (which is never really in doubt), but rather, his impetuous leadership style. The rash leadership style of Agamemnon comes to the fore again in book 14, when Agamemnon, however much he wished to deny the import of his authoritarian call for a nostos, does a poor job in his attempt to revise the past. [16] Despite Agamemnon’s plea and assurance that he had not in fact issued an authoritative command for a general nostos but just an open-ended offer and non-coercive invitation, he was plainly backtracking. He had acted rashly, and from a leadership perspective, foolishly and thoughtlessly. He miscalculated the reaction of his philoi, and he was doing all he could afterwards simply to save face.

5.2 Arrogant, Imperious, Irreverent, and Insulting

References to the arrogant, imperious, irreverent, and insulting attributes of Agamemnon’s character do not usually appear as aspects of the Odyssey poet’s portrait of Agamemnon’s words and deeds. This is no surprise, since Agamemnon is no longer alive and hegemon of the Achaians. These traits have informed the Iliad poet’s portrait in a number of passages, however. All of these aspects of Agamemnon’s character are already present and assumed by the poet in the opening quarrel of Iliad 1. Agamemnon would not be swayed by the priest Chryses or his own troops, but rather gave way to anger. [17] As we observed, the vehemence of Agamemnon’s reply was a brutal rejoinder that made Chryses immediately leave and pray to Apollo who responded by sending a plague. The priest was also old, making Agamemnon’s response all the more irreverent and callous. Yet in his rejoinder, Agamemnon insisted arrogantly upon his preference for Chryses’ daughter Chryseïs over his own wife. He wanted to take her home, a response that possibly cued another story for Homer’s core audience.
Further, we noted that Agamemnon was also excessively harsh as the implications of one idiom suggested. It was not good enough for Agamemnon to send the priest away with a stern warning, but there was also a threatening boast in his tone. The priest’s daughter was to be taken “far from [her] fatherland” (τηλόθι πάτρης). We saw that this expression is always associated with the misery of permanent separation experienced by an individual because of the loss of one’s fatherland, but also the effect that this loss has on another. It assumes Chryseïs’ loss of a homeland, but also a significant disruption of the oikos and its normal function for Chryses himself. The priest’s daughter would not be married off, but taken as booty, and Chryses would be left at a loss. Yet, none of this concerned Agamemnon. He instead taunted Chryes with the future repeated rape of his daughter (ἐμὸν λέχος ἀντιόωσαν). His brash and irreverent response had unfortunate consequences, however, in the ensuing narrative, not just for himself but also for the whole Greek expedition. They too would experience loss. Apollo’s plague ensued, resulting in the burning of continual pyres (αἰεὶ δὲ πυραὶ νεκύων καίοντο θαμειαί), a penalty prayed for by the priest.
Further, while grudgingly agreeing to return his concubine Chryseïs to her father to save the warrior host, Agamemnon imperiously demanded that he receive a compensatory geras, even though as Achilles immediately observed, the distribution of the spoils had already been made. Agamemnon simply ignored Achilles’ response. The immediate effect of Agamemnon’s imperiousness was intense eris between the two that formed the backdrop for much of the Iliad. We noted that Agamemnon’s rejection of Achilles’ response (that it was not just for Agamemnon to take his geras) brought together words that denoted a complete rejection of any need for Achilles at all. The joining of “I do not care” (οὐκ ἀλεγίζω) and “I do not have regard” (οὐδ’ ὄθομαι) created an emphatic response by Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s arrogant imperiousness was resolute. Second, the proverbial comment of Achilles, that it is better for humans to obey the gods since this brings their active attention and response, stood in direct opposition to Agamemnon’s irreverent reaction to the priest of Apollo. Agamemnon’s irreverence also stands in opposition to the voices of his own army, which he ignored. [18] We need also to think, as I noted in Chapter 4, of the placement of this scene at the outset of the singer’s rendition. [19] Its placement is a function of the singer’s choice where to begin (“from which point” in the prooimion). The singer is in competition with his peers in producing the most impressive story, and where he begins suggests that he has an interest in displaying aspects of Agamemnon’s character.
While uttered in the heat of argument, nevertheless we considered how Achilles’ use of “dog-face” (κυνῶπα) in Iliad 1 was especially suggestive of Agamemnon’s hubristic actions and attitude. We saw that dogs are most strongly characterized as animals that act to scavenge the corpses of fallen heroes. The use of this term for humans carried connotations that suggested the basest of qualities and a very negative stigma. It placed Agamemnon in the adversary’s camp as one who was working against the Achaians’ best interests and was the object of disgust. Further, the traditional term “dog-face” (κυνῶπα) used in book 1 appeared to have affected the poet’s choice of words in book 9. There, the poet had Achilles say of Agamemnon: “He would not certainly / dare, dog though he is, to look upon my face” (οὐδ’ ἂν ἔμοιγε / τετλαίη κύνεός περ ἐὼν εἰς ὦπα ἰδέσθαι). Agamemnon’s “dog-likeness” was not the only point of resonance with book 1 that I noted. Rather, within two lines, Achilles described Agamemnon’s character as one of “constant shamelessness” (αἰὲν ἀναιδείην, 9.372), uttering the same charge he used eight books earlier (ἀναιδείην, 1.149; ἀναιδές, 1.158). It was no coincidence that the poet had Achilles yell “dog-face” and “shameless” in almost the same breath on two separate occasions. The association of these two terms, rare in Homer, but really quite apposite, suggests that the poet was attached to the sort of referential qualities these words bring forward for Agamemnon.
Agamemnon’s prayer in Iliad 3, moreover, which formed part of the ritual of oath taking preceding the duel between Menelaos and Paris, displayed an overly imperious quality. [20] What was interesting about Agamemnon’s prayer is that it seemed not only to fulfill the customary requirements of swearing to certain gods, but also excessively tipped the demands from any Achaian win far beyond what a Trojan victory would procure. What appeared to suggest excess was twofold: 1. the extent of what was “fitting”—the “honor” (τιμή) envisioned: “Which among people yet to be, will be known” (ἥ τε καὶ ἐσσομένοισι μετ’ ἀνθρώποισι πέληται); and 2. Agamemnon’s promise, should he be wronged, personally to find an end to the war. His earlier threat in book 1 to go personally to Achilles’ hut if need be paralleled the veiled threat in his prayer in book 3. [21] A notable arrogance imbued Agamemnon’s claim, perhaps comparable in kind, I suggested, to the arrogance of Achilles in his wish for only himself and Patroklos to take Troy. Such resonance indicates a pattern of behavior.
Two examples of Agamemnon’s overly imperious nature came also from Iliad 4 and 9. [22] In the case of book 4, I emphasized what has been alluded to already in this chapter, Agamemnon’s high-handed and arrogant abuse of Diomedes and his depiction of this stalwart warrior’s character in a way completely incongruent with the traditional portrayal. [23] In book 9, the embassy delivered Agamemnon’s offer to Achilles. As I noted there, however, Odysseus left off an offensive and arrogant bit about Agamemnon’s superior station that he had been told to deliver. He could not change what Agamemnon was like as a leader, his ingrained habits, but he could chose not to include remarks that would further offend Achilles. In Iliad 24, as a final example, we heard Achilles urge Priam to sleep in a secluded spot. [24] We saw there that, while Agamemnon is not really unusually brutal, he does have a proclivity for selfishly despotic action. At least this was the fear, should Priam be found out. After all, Agamemnon had earlier snatched Briseïs away from Achilles. In book 24, there is the possibility of his snatching away Priam who came with apoina, to increase his own apoina, jeering (ἐπικερτομέων) as he does so. The parallel of dishonoring aged suppliants and dispossessing his basileis should not be missed. Despotism breeds such abuses.

5.3 Inept and Unconvincing

Agamemnon is in Hades whenever he speaks in the Odyssey, so it is little wonder that virtually no examples of Agamemnon’s inept and unconvincing leadership style can be found there. The singular instance of these character traits may be indirect. [25] When Odysseus responds to the menacing Cyclops, he emphasizes his and his crew’s connection to “Atreus’ son Agamemnon,” “of whom indeed now greatest under heaven is his fame (kleos).” He emphatically informs the ogre, through synonymous parallelism no less, that Agamemnon even “destroyed a people,” and through enjambement adds “[so] numerous.” The metonym “under heaven is his fame” (ὑπουράνιον κλέος ἐστί), we saw, was known from a heroic context in the Trojan War story and so made reference to the heroic world of the Trojan War and Agamemnon as the paramount leader of that military expedition. Yet, such introductions have no effect on the gluttonous monster. The whole scene makes a boast using Agamemnon’s name sound rather impotent. There may also be something sardonic about the whole scene and the kleos referred to there may in fact include Agamemnon’s pathetic telos. It did, at least, for Homer’s core audience, even if the brute beast himself was not in touch with the singer’s traditional language.
The first sure indication of Agamemnon’s inept and unconvincing leadership style came in the first book of the Iliad. [26] Within the quarrel Agamemnon intends to move from argument to action with the “rhetorical fulcrum” “But now come!” (νῦν δ’ ἄγε, 141). His order will not be followed by Achilles or his army immediately as he envisions, and his directive fails to convince. He talks of appeasing the archer god, but he speaks as though his abusive behavior could suddenly be forgotten in the wake of his despotic command. Consequent upon this moment of Agamemnon’s imperious order and following the eventual breakdown of the assembly, Achilles was visited by Agamemnon’s embassy. In the hospitable address and conversation with Agamemnon’s emissaries, Achilles absolved them of blame, but complains that Agamemnon had chosen a thoughtless course of action that would spell destruction for the army. Achilles portrayed Agamemnon’s modus operandi as inept, since he seemed incapable of discerning “before and after” (πρόσσω καὶ ὀπίσσω). As we saw, this traditional language cue pointed not just to Agamemnon’s thoughtlessness (though it did do this), but also to an innate inability for carrying out his duties as hegemon over the Greek forces at Troy. The poet, familiar with the formula’s connotations and intent on foreshadowing the coming disaster originating from the eris of Iliad 1, placed it in the mouth of Achilles. It reminded the poet’s audience of the inherent nature of Agamemnon as a personality within the larger tradition.
Another instance of Agamemnon’s ineptness came from a character that, as we noted, was from a lower class, yet, nevertheless, was used by the poet to emphasize a particular theme. Thersites’ remarks in book 2 were, in essence, very much in accord with Achilles’ complaint. [27] The man, I argued, not his argument, was rejected (something I showed to be the case elsewhere in the Iliad with Sthenelos). Rather, Thersites’ words brought forth issues from Agamemnon’s conflict with Achilles once again, with all the ineptness that the remarks evoked for Agamemnon as paramount basileus.
In book 9, moreover, in the midst of the Achaian host’s “panic” (φύζα) and “fear” (φόβος), Agamemnon encouraged flight and a nostos. Unlike in Iliad 2, however, this time it was not a test, but the response of a commander incapable of controlling his own fear. Agamemnon is overwhelmed by the immediate crisis. The poet commented that Agamemnon was struck with a great grief in his heart (ἄχεϊ μεγάλῳ βεβολημένος ἦτορ) and painted a vivid picture of a hegemon who was as terrified as the common soldier. Agamemnon’s grief was accompanied by tears and a formulaic description “deeply groaning” (βαρὺ στενάχων) indicating deep distress. The response of the troops was the thematic silence that we saw represents both their collective grievance over the last enticement to flee (when their acceptance was met with stern rebuke) and the fact that a representative reply would follow. In this case, the spokesperson for the common angst was Diomedes, who gave voice to his own repressed grievance. We saw that he turned the tables on the paramount basileus, indicting him for his inability to help provide assistance and protection (alkē) for his warrior community. Diomedes was immediately followed by Nestor who reprimanded Agamemnon for not following his earlier authoritative muthos.
Agamemnon’s portrait is further painted for us as later readers by the opening lines of book 10. Agamemnon, sleepless, was struck as he lay there by what he saw. The Trojans were making merry while the Achaians waited in virtual paralysis. His response was sorrowful lamentation. He pulled out his hair in distress, an act that clearly signified his helplessness. It was an action that had both a mythic and possibly a cultic parallel, as I noted. It suggested a fear of imminent death. The poet followed up this vignette portraying the royal aporia with Agamemnon’s decision to go to Nestor to seek someone to assist him with a “plan” (μῆτις), one that would ward off evil for the Danaäns in their dilemma. Agamemnon headed off to Nestor, utterly distraught. His whole being was “thus shaken by fear” (σαλευόμενος οὕτως ὑπὸ τοῦ φόβου), as ancient commentators noted. His heart was jumping out of his chest and his knees were knocking. His was in a condition comparable to that of Andromache who feared Achilles had killed her husband, or better yet, Patroklοs who had been placed in a vulnerable position by Apollo and Delusion; or even to Hera and Athena in Zeus’ menacing description (albeit imagined) of their fearful response should he serve them up a thunderbolt. While one accepts that going to Nestor for a conference with the senior warrior is a wise decision, Agamemnon’s condition upon arriving suggested incompetence. He was wholly distraught. Fortunately, sensing his fear, the aged hero rose to the occasion, and after this, we heard no more from Agamemnon in book 10 despite the significant events that ensued (the night raid). His leadership added little that was productive to the action that followed. Yet, as I noted, at least he didn’t ruin things, something we have seen to be quite within his capacity as a leader.
The next picture of Agamemnon’s ineptness was uttered in strained tones in book 14. Nestor came to Agamemnon for advice and leadership and got none. [28] Rather, Agamemnon urged a nostos. Within our consideration of this narrative moment we saw the implications of the idiom “O my, my” (ὢ πόποι). As an exclamation it certainly highlighted the level of personal anxiety and concern that Agamemnon was experiencing. He was considering the possibility that the troops would not obey him out of anger for his past actions towards Achilles. Agamemnon was certain that Zeus was portending destruction and consequently urged for the third time that they flee on their ships. Odysseus’ retort began with “looking darkly” (ὑπόδρα ἰδών), a formula that highlighted a significant breach in social convention as we noted in Chapter 2. [29] This traditional cue was followed by another Homeric formula that reinforced this sentiment: “what sort of word has escaped the barrier of your teeth!” (ποῖόν σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων). As I noted at this juncture, Odysseus (and the troops) clearly expected superior things from Agamemnon, whom they felt should know better. While Agamemnon’s response was arguably his peevish attempt to revise the past, the foundation of the need for such a revision was his own ineptness in word and deed. It was he who had brought about this problematic impasse in the first place.
The last instance of Agamemnon’s inept and unconvincing leadership style appeared in Iliad 19, where Achilles had just ended his isolation and publicly revoked his anger. [30] In his response, Agamemnon blamed atē. In considering this term, however, we noted that the audience was used to hearing of human causes for atē that paralleled divine agency. Further, an individual was held accountable for his state of atē and suffered consequences. Additionally, I argued that however much such an appeal may have been a traditional response in Homer, the need for Agamemnon to recognize that he was accountable and I also suggested in this case responsible (the poet’s narrative assumed that action can be changed through advisement), was something Odysseus made clear to him. Agamemnon stood in contrast to other heroes who took more responsibility for their actions. Further, when Agamemnon came face to face with Achilles in book 19, it was unsurprising that he added, not merely a conventional comment about atē, but also an extra-long “explanation” about why he himself was not to blame. While usual, Agamemnon’s plea that he was not to blame, I concluded, was really not heard by the audience as exculpatory, when heard traditionally. The appeal was instead symptomatic of the general ineptness of an unconvincing leader. Agamemnon sought to hide behind the harmful delusion of Zeus to shelter his own faltering ego. The claim was characteristic of his personality.

5.4 Stalwart

After the tenor of the preceding characterization of Agamemnon, it seems necessary to mention Agamemnon’s singularly more excellent quality, his stalwart nature as a warrior. In short, he was “a good fighter” (Griffin 1980:70). We saw this character trait first in Iliad 2, [31] albeit following a large personal fiasco. [32] Under the encouragement of the basileis and Athena, the Achaians had compacted about Agamemnon who led them into battle. At this point, the poet wished to stress the sheer grandeur of Agamemnon and his role as foremost leader of the Achaians. We noted key terms in the comparison, such as “standing out” (ἔξοχος), “conspicuous” (μεταπρέπει), and “remarkable” (ἐκπρεπέα). These qualities drew attention to what had already become clear in the preceding comparison of Agamemnon to various gods, his preeminence as the paramount basileus heading into battle. On the battlefield, he was no coward (Cf. Collins 1988:97).
Much more was noted about the quality of Agamemnon as a warrior in his aristeia in Iliad 11.91–283. We observed there that Agamemnon’s hands were given the heroic epithet “redoubtable” (ἀάπτους), when he was “eagerly” (σφεδανόν) chasing the Trojans who were running, desiring to reach the safety of their city. The formulaic phrase used to portray Agamemnon in action—“but with gore he was bespattering [his] redoubtable hands” (λύθρῳ δὲ παλάσσετο χεῖρας ἀάπτους)—I remarked, was just the stuff of a proper aristeia and needs to be read as part of any heroic “snapshot” of a warrior at the peak of his glory. The same or similar formulaic collocations were used to describe the heroic moments of other central heroes in Homer. We saw that “gore” was a good thing for a foremost hero absorbed in his rush for glory through continual slaughter (even in the case of metonymic references to the brutality surrounding the fall of Troy). Further, in due course, the Trojan Koön wounded Agamemnon in the arm, yet still he fought on, hurling the traditional large stones that so amazed the poet as he described events of the epic past. All action points to Agamemnon as a stalwart warrior. Yet the placement of this scene, like the former, is problematic. His aristeia, consequently, is rendered less impressive, as we saw, especially considering its relative brevity.
The predicament of highlighting Agamemnon’s excellence actually exists at most every turn, as we have seen in Chapters 2 to 4, even in the matter of his otherwise stalwart qualities as a warrior. Of course, even in the case of his acting as any good field commander might, the sorts of virtues that are needed to head a charge into battle are not otherwise the same as those required to plan or lead. One finds, beyond the occasional positive comment (e.g. Iliad 7.321–322), difficulty in highlighting any consistently favorable attributes for Agamemnon as paramount basileus that are not offset in the same or immediately surrounding scenes by the overwhelming presence of negative, or at best, ambivalent character traits. Some narrative moments are neutral, but more often than not, Agamemnon seems to fall precipitously into a great many scenes and come out rather scathed, at least as regards his characterization. The picture we have of Agamemnon through word and deed, even from his few good moments, does not, for the most part, impel Homer’s audience to cheer. We are left asking why this is the case, a question we address in what follows.

5.5 The Pathetic Despot

The purpose of this section is to suggest further implications from our study of Agamemnon’s character for how we are to read Agamemnon’s character and characterization in the Homeric epics generally. As we have seen, the presentation of Agamemnon’s character in the Iliad is affected by the impinging tradition from his past and future, and the Iliad poet’s narrative (like the tradition behind his poetic rendition) has been molded by this awareness. Just as we saw in Chapters 1 and 2 that Odysseus could not leave behind his known, but chronologically later, “Odyssey” adventures when involved in the Iliad story, so Agamemnon could not leave behind his larger epic legacy. The poet of the Iliad is aware of much else and presents us with an Agamemnon after the development (rather than the commencement) of a mature and deep performance tradition. Imbedded references to this tradition, while difficult for us to tease out as later readers, inform the early audience’s experience as they hear the aoidos. This has implications for how Homer’s core audience heard epic poetry and how we should read the Iliad (and Odyssey). It may provide one answer for the query of why Agamemnon is presented with so many ignoble character attributes.
What is the background of the Iliad poet’s characterization of Agamemnon? Why is he such a pathetic leader who displays the sorts of negative character traits he does? The foundation for Agamemnon’s characterization may lie partly in character type, as Hainsworth argues. He proposes that we see Agamemnon’s actions (and so character) as a necessary product of the poet’s belief that “the brave vassal is a better protector of society’s values than his weak and ungrateful lord” (Hainsworth 1993:64; cf. 46–47). Agamemnon is, however, more than a character type, and the actual tradition connected with him, as I have been suggesting, is directly influencing the poet’s artistry. [33] Moreover, why is one king good and another bad? To use Minchin’s cognitive category, why doesn’t the poet have Agamemnon live up to his “role theme”? [34] What factors in the tradition are guiding the poetic presentation?
Haubold argues convincingly that the view of the shepherd’s role taken by Xenophon, Socrates, and Aristotle, that “the group is not there for the shepherd, but the shepherd for the group,” is also the expected norm for leadership within Homeric, Hesiodic, and other early epics. The role of the shepherd is synonymous with the role of the good king who, as Haubold remarks, “must act as to avoid blame (νεικεῖν)” (Haubold 2000:26). [35] He observes that:
As we would expect in a genre which has such clear ideas about the task of the shepherd but is relatively uninterested in his privileges, the leader’s obligation is viewed as being primary.
Haubold 2000:24
Agamemnon, it appears from what we have seen of him, fails in his task as a shepherd to his people. He fails as the premier leader, [36] and his failure stems in part from his unwillingness to be guided by the collective will, especially of his fellow basileis (cf. Elmer 2013:66). Whether or not Agamemnon had a right to act so imperiously, it is not really, as Allan and Cairns have shown, how, de facto, leaders were to lead (Allan and Cairns 2011).
Odysseus, as a contrast to Agamemnon and other “divine” kings, is portrayed as a benevolent and good basileus in need of no vassal as protector of his people, who are well treated. The good that the basileus is to be doing is even voiced by Odysseus in the guise of a beggar. He says to shameless Antinoos (who ought to offer him, like the others, a bit of bread and meat): “Give, friend! Certainly you do not look like the basest of Achaians / but the very best, since you have the look of a basileus” (δός, φίλος· οὐ μέν μοι δοκέεις ὁ κάκιστος Ἀχαιῶν / ἔμμεναι, ἀλλ’ ὤριστος, ἐπεὶ βασιλῆϊ ἔοικας, Odyssey 17.415–416). [37] Antinoos foolishly offers an insult and a hurled stool as his angry contribution (17.445–465). [38] By contrast, Odysseus is portrayed as a benevolent leader not given to outrage (e.g. Odyssey 4.691–695). Odysseus demonstrates in his role as king “del principio della regalità e di un retto esercizio del potere, del retto esercizio della sovranit, la formazione del consenso, and un principio etico che legittimasse l’intervento punitivo del detentore del potere,” among other things, which form the social contract that regularly escapes Agamemnon’s view (Di Benedetto 1999:220–221). Why does Agamemnon stand out as so soiled a despot who embodies a “political irrelevancy during the archaic period” (Stanley 1993:295)?
I propose that the character of Agamemnon in the Iliad exudes the consequences known to the audience of the effects of both past bloodguilt and a future demise at his wife’s hand. The past bloodguilt is most clearly narrated in later poetry as a curse on the House of Atreus. [39] Homer was, I am arguing, aware of the violent and cursed history of the House of Atreus (noted in Chapters 3 and 4), although he does not explicitly refer to it and call it a “curse.” The first clear reference to a “curse” (ἀρά=Ionic ἀρή) infecting the House of Atreus comes in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and is most fully explicated by Aigisthos. Seeing his role as avenger of past wrongs (Agamemnon 1577–1582), he relates, in the vividness of historical presents, the former imprecation of Thyestes who had just been fed his own children by Atreus (1600–1602):
Then he imprecates an intolerable doom upon the descendants of Pelops,
kicking away the dinner with a curse,
“Thus may the whole race of Pleisthenes perish!” [40]

μόρον δ’ ἄφερτον Πελοπίδαις ἐπεύχεται,
λάκτισμα δείπνου ξυνδίκως τιθεὶς ἀρᾷ,
οὕτως ὀλέσθαι πᾶν τὸ Πλεισθένους γένος.
This “intolerable doom” (μόρος ἄφερτος) upon Pelops’ race, which embraces through dramatic irony Thyestes’ own house by Aigisthos’ eventual death as Aeschylus’ theatai know, includes a curse that is played out in the subsequent Oresteia. [41]
The Homeric epic tradition, I suggest, knew something of this family history and Homer seems to touch on it, however subtly, at key points. While it is not necessary to review all points, some of the more important metonyms deserve emphasis. In Chapter 4, I suggested the possibility of the House of Atreus story affecting the poetic choice of language in Iliad 2. [42] The feud between Atreus and his brother Thyestes is not actively spoken of in the Iliad, yet, in the rather lengthy pedigree attached to Agamemnon’s scepter of office, which speaks of the history of the scepter of Agamemnon given by Zeus himself, we hear of Thyestes. The choice of language may indicate knowledge of their discord. Further, the line ends with the noun-epithet formula “to Thyestes rich in sheep” (πολύαρνι Θυέστῃ) in the fourth colon, an epithet that may reach into the tradition about the golden ram that was at the center of a dispute between Atreus and Thyestes. Its owner was marked as the rightful king of Mycenae.
The curse of the House of Atreus is not actively spoken of in the Odyssey either, yet it is possibly alluded to there as well, as I argued in Chapter 3. [43] We considered that although the order, textual history, and geographical particularities of the passages in Odyssey 4 are problematic, yet, if not rearranged, they contain a very important narrative element. The poet seems to want us to see Aigisthos as living near Agamemnon within the kingdom of the son of Atreus. This heightens the portended danger that awaited Agamemnon through a “historic” vignette. I argued that the impending danger is further cued by formulae related to geographical locations and adverse winds and the poet’s use of the rhetorical device of correctio. Agamemnon was facing a dilemma, and the traditional language supported the intensity of what followed in Odyssey 4, his demise.
One instance of correctio proves particularly interesting. We saw that the Odyssey poet, within Proteus’ account of Agamemnon’s death, has Proteus say that Agamemnon had arrived “at the outskirts of the country” where Thyestes had been living; but then he noted, “before, but then Aigisthos son of Thyestes lived [there]” (τὸ πρίν, ἀτὰρ τότ’ ἔναιε θυεστιάδης Αἴγισθος). I suggested that the poet was acknowledging the dismal story of the House of Atreus well known in fuller form from later Greek sources. The allusion to Thyestes may have been the poet’s way of adducing a known, portentous story, which would likely have been distasteful to retell overtly and in full. [44] It served the poet’s needs by building suspense around Agamemnon’s arrival and portending his imminent death brought about by his wife, and, momentously, the very son of Thyestes himself.
The latter end of Agamemnon’s life (his kakos nostos), but also the events following his death, so the other events of the Oresteia, are recorded in some detail in the Odyssey text. As we saw in Chapter 3, Agamemnon’s death is said to have been “most pitiable” and “doomed,” indicating a terrible end. [45] It was presumably apprehended beforehand by the traditional audience of the Iliad from earlier poetic performances of the Odyssey song. As we noted in detail in Chapter 3, Agamemnon’s role in the Odyssey is that of an example to be avoided. Yet, there may even be a reference to the kakos nostos of Agamemnon in the Iliad. In Chapter 4, in the opening scene of the Iliad, we observed Agamemnon in a state of hubris. [46] He insisted upon his preference for Chryseïs over his own wife and was intending to take her home. This association of Chryseïs with Clytemnestra may have resonated with implications for Homer’s core audience well aware of Clytemnestra’s infidelity (so patently a theme in the Odyssey). For them, the admission must have resounded with metonymic irony and created a sardonic reaction. Not only was Agamemnon upsetting the stability of his (Iliadic) warrior culture through his insulting reaction to the priest and army’s requests, but he was also potentially upsetting the stability of his own oikos. Agamemnon’s attitude and actions were in some symbolic sense parallel to that of his wife. The significance of traditional background may be further inferred if we recall the observation that the singer may have been intending a link between Agamemnon’s callousness here and the seer’s earlier activity at Aulis, including his prophecy (an event of the epic cycle’s Cypria briefly outlined in Proclus’ epitome). Homer may be pointing to the sacrifice of Iphigenia (or as he would say, Iphianassa). The impact of the theme of the kakos nostos on the Odyssey outlined in detail in Chapter 3 needs no further amplification here.
A few additional comments are in order, however, about the influence of backstories from Agamemnon’s past and future on the Iliad, and how we should go about “reading” his character. I have already suggested that the thoughtless impetuousness of Agamemnon in the Iliad may be the consequence of his characterization in the larger tradition, now frozen in the Odyssey, where his lack of foresight ends up getting him killed at the end of his nostos. [47] If Agamemnon is not what we might expect in the Iliad, then perhaps it is because we expect a thoughtful, rather than a pathetic king. Would, however, a circumspect basileus come to such an end? The character of Agamemnon in the Iliad cannot be understood in isolation from the tradition of his nostos any more than we would read the picture or epithets of Odysseus in the Iliad without referencing the larger nostos tradition adhering to his character. [48]
Agamemnon in the Iliad is just the sort of character an audience, who knew of his ultimate shameful demise, would expect. And the shameful reversal of Agamemnon’s fortunes is emphasized by the poet when Odysseus addresses Agamemnon with an erroneous question in Odyssey 11. As we heard from Agamemnon in a pointed priamel, the normal sort of male heroic activities—stealing livestock, sacking cities, battling men and seizing women as captives—were replaced after the end of war with a homecoming in which he was himself the victim. Further, rather than heroic death, he came to an unheroic end (now in a domestic setting), killed in stealth by Aigisthos, but also by the very hand of his own wife, as we saw in Odyssey 24. [49] This was all part of the tradition known to poet and audience. Thus the poet would compose and the core audience consider and experience Agamemnon’s leadership style within a narrative context, metonymically. He was a character cursed in his family history, pathetic in his words and leadership during the Trojan War, and headed toward a shamefully pathetic end.
There are also, consequently, implications in what we have been arguing for an accurate way to read the oral-derived Homeric epics, although these implications are no doubt clear by now. Put simply, it is normal to approach the Odyssey with the Iliad as assumed tradition, something that is logical from a linear point of view that emphasizes the sequel tale to the Trojan War. Indeed, this is self-evident, since there can be no “return” (nostos) without a “journey” (keleuthos). We have seen in our consideration of Agamemnon, however, that we must also read the Iliad with the events of some earlier form of our Odyssey in mind. It is impossible of course to diagram the interplay and influence of one part of the tradition upon another or to show absolute cause and effect for the evolution of Agamemnon’s character as it is presented in the Homeric epics as performed songs, memorialized after successive epic performances in written form. We cannot expect the Iliad poet to make overt temporal connections to the events of Agamemnon’s kakos nostos, creating a temporal confound; nor do we usually expect epic characters within the story being told to have knowledge of particular activities beyond their purview. Any references of this sort must be made obliquely, as we noted first in Chapter 1. [50] Yet, as I have argued, those connections seemed to have existed in the poet’s and audience’s mind and to have affected character presentation and audience reception.
It is possible, then, to see the character of Agamemnon memorialized in the Iliad as a prequel to the story of Agamemnon in an oral Odyssey. He will soon be destroyed shamefully by his own wife, and his character in the Iliad confirms this eventuality. In this sense, Agamemnon is a pathetic despot, in that he experiences extreme pathos on his homecoming and it is a pathos that is seen everywhere in the history known to Homer and his core audience familiar with the Odyssey. [51] Agamemnon is destined, so the Iliad poet is well aware, to experience suffering. [52] Far from merely being a typical king, then, Agamemnon was a doomed king in a bad homecoming. The Iliad gives us a character appropriate for meeting such a dismal end. In good Greek fashion, the Iliad shows that the seeds of Agamemnon’s own destruction lie partially in events beyond his control (his family history and the scheme of Aigisthos and Clytemnestra), but, at least partly too, in his own errant actions and innate character. Agamemnon is a character who is pathetic as a leader in the Iliad: he causes pathos through his own words and deeds and experiences pathos in his role as hegemon of the Greek forces. As we noted in Chapter 4, for Homer, divine will or fate and human choice are usually inextricably linked in a co-terminus telos, a veritable “double motivation,” no less. [53] The human causes for Agamemnon’s bad end are embodied in Agamemnon’s negative character attributes that have become part of Homer’s tradition. This is, I propose, the reason we receive such a dismal picture of Agamemnon in the Iliad.
Foley’s comments are apropos here:
When we “read” any traditional performance or text with attention to the inherent meaning it necessarily summons, we are, in effect, recontextualizing that work, reaffirming contiguity with other performances or texts, or, better, with the ever-immanent ... immensely larger canvas of the tradition as a whole. [54]
Foley 1991:9–10
That the larger canvas known to the traditional singer and audience of Homer’s Iliad included other stories strategic to Agamemnon’s character—the House of Atreus and the kakos nostos (the second of which is central to the story of the Odyssey) among them—is implied in the evidence we have presented in the foregoing chapters.
Our study, then, reinforces what we began saying in Chapters 1 and 2. Characters have a life outside of their present place in one epic rendition, a life known to the poet and too expansive to be contained in any singular epic memorialization. As we have observed since Chapter 1, Homer’s core audience had the advantage of knowing an intricate web of traditional stories, but also traditional characters. Audience members listened with their minds already predisposed to the sort of character they were hearing vividly presented at a particular narrative moment. A singer could take advantage of this by his choice of language, his use of rhetorical devices, his handling of type scenes, and his own creative presentation against the backdrop of traditional stories. Tradition-based components carried idiomatic meaning that provided cues for the audience’s reception of character. We have seen that this is unquestionably the case for a great number of traditional characters in Homer, including Agamemnon.

Footnotes

[ back ] 1. The ancients did not always have a single term for everything, as for example the phenomenon of the “priamel” (Race 1982:10), nor is it usual in any case to find complete correspondence between any one Homeric term and an English “equivalent.” Further, in Homer’s lexicon, traditional elements are often greater than any singular adjective in Greek or English.
[ back ] 2. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.3 Nestor’s Stories of Quarrel, Nostoi, and Oresteia: 3.136–310.
[ back ] 3. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.4 Menelaos’ Delay and Agamemnon’s Death: 4.90–92.
[ back ] 4. It is also possible also to see Agamemnon’s thoughtlessness in the act of his being taken by a “ruse strategist” (something we considered under this heading in Chapter 3, in our discussion of Odyssey 1.299–300).
[ back ] 5. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.6 Agamemnon’s Joy: 8.75–82.
[ back ] 6. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.8 The Nekuia: 11.380–466.
[ back ] 7. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.9 Avoiding Agamemnon’s Nostos: 13.383–385.
[ back ] 8. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.1 Agamemnon’s Dishonoring and Hubristic Actions: 1.6–344.
[ back ] 9. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.2 Agamemnon’s Dream and the Testing of the Troops: 2.16–440.
[ back ] 10. See Chapter 2, s.v. Impetuous Agamemnon; and Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.5 Agamemnon’s Address to the Troops: 4.231–418.
[ back ] 11. See especially 2.2.4 Menestheus and Odysseus: 4.327–364.
[ back ] 12. See Chapter 2, s.v. Impetuous Agamemnon, for Diomedes’ “inexorable courage.”
[ back ] 13. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.6 Grievances against Agamemnon—Revisiting His Past Wrongs: Book 9.
[ back ] 14. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.6 Grievances against Agamemnon—Revisiting His Past Wrongs: Book 9.
[ back ] 15. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.8 Agamemnon’s Aristeia: 11.91–283.
[ back ] 16. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.9 Agamemnon’s Third Call for a Nostos: 14.41–134.
[ back ] 17. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.1 Agamemnon’s Dishonoring and Hubristic Actions: 1.6–344.
[ back ] 18. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.1 Agamemnon’s Dishonoring and Hubristic Actions: 1.6–344.
[ back ] 19. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.1 Agamemnon’s Dishonoring and Hubristic Actions: 1.6–344.
[ back ] 20. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.4. Agamemnon’s Prayer, Oath, and Sacrifice: 3.267–302.
[ back ] 21. Cf. the related discussion earlier in Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.1 Agamemnon’s Dishonoring and Hubristic Actions: 1.6–344.
[ back ] 22. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.5 Agamemnon’s Address to the Troops: 4.231–418 and 4.2.6 Grievances against Agamemnon—Revisiting His Past Wrongs: Book 9, respectively.
[ back ] 23. This is a comment that festers and reemerges as we observed, in Diomedes’ grievance in book 9.
[ back ] 24. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.8 Agamemnon’s Aristeia: 11.91–283.
[ back ] 25. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.7 The People of Agamemnon of the Greatest Fame: 9.263–266.
[ back ] 26. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.1 Agamemnon’s Dishonoring and Hubristic Actions: 1.6–344.
[ back ] 27. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.2 Agamemnon’s Dream and the Testing of the Troops: 2.16–440.
[ back ] 28. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.9 Agamemnon’s Third Call for a Nostos: 14.41–134.
[ back ] 29. See Chapter 2, s.v. 2.2.4 Menestheus and Odysseus: 4.327–364.
[ back ] 30. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.10 Agamemnon and Atē: 19.76–144.
[ back ] 31. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.3 Agamemnon, the Preeminent Leader in Battle: 2.477–483.
[ back ] 32. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.2 Agamemnon’s Dream and the Testing of the Troops: 2.16–440.
[ back ] 33. Agamemnon is also portrayed as a basileus-type, but his family history makes him a specific basileus with a particular story. For the basileus typology, see e.g. Iliad 1.80, 165, 231, 2.196–197, 204–206, etc., but also the discussion of typical versus specific characterization in Chapter 2.
[ back ] 34. Minchin 2011a.
[ back ] 35. Haubold (2000:28) comments: “Throughout the surviving texts of early Greek hexameter, single agents are assigned the task of guaranteeing the well-being of the people.” His list of examples includes (see 28n59): Iliad 1.117, 4.184 (negative), 5.643 (negative), 8.246, 9.98–99, 424, 681, 10.14–16, 13.47, Odyssey 11.136–137, 22.54, 23.283–284, Hesiod Theogony 84–87, Panyassis fr. 12.7–8 (Davies 1988), Callinus fr. 1.18 (West), Tyrtaeusfr. 11.13 (West 1989–1992).
[ back ] 36. I disagree with Taplin (1990) that Agamemnon is not the supreme leader of the expedition against Troy. There does, against Taplin’s view, appear to be a hierarchy in the Iliad, although I agree that there are mutual obligations that are expected in his relationship with the basileis who are following him (cf. the role envisioned by Elmer 2013:63–85). Each basileus is of course supreme in his own “communauté politique,” as Carlier (1984:145) notes (although I do hold to the overly authoritarian position proposed for Agamemnon in Carlier 2006:106). The problem is not the hierarchy in any case, but rather, Agamemnon’s abuse of his position and inability to be an effective leader. Van Wees’s (1988:19) position, essentially that Agamemnon inherited the leading position but did not prove “deserving” of it, is more likely. For further discussion, see Schadewaldt 1966:37–39, Carlier 1984:135–230 (esp. 136–139), and Morris 1986:98–99.
[ back ] 37. Patera (2012:79) notes this verse in the specific context of the greater expectation for basileis offering sacrifice, but also in other contexts, such as the present one, when Basileis are to be “plus généreux que les autres,” something Patera notes Nestor had to remind Agamemnon about in Iliad 9.69–70.
[ back ] 38. Nb. the hemistich χολώσατο κηρόθι μᾶλλον at Odyssey 17.457.
[ back ] 39. For a general overview of the House of Atreus myth, see Gantz 1993:489, 540, 544–556.
[ back ] 40. The actual place of Pleisthenes in the family tree of Pelops is in dispute. What is not in dispute is that his descendants (his “race”) represent here for Thyestes the object of his cursing, whether, depending on the tradition, that is as the father to Atreus, or as a son of Atreus whom Thyestes raised as his own and sends to seek revenge (in this version of the story, Pleisthenes is unaware of just who his real father is). Thyestes, like Achilles (who gains honor at the cost of Patroklos’ death), does not realize that his curse will include the death of his own son through Orestes.
[ back ] 41. It is not necessary to state that the curse of Thyestes was the only curse on the House of Atreus, since Atreus’ ancestry includes a grandfather, Pelops, served up by his father Tantalos in order to test the gods. On this see Pindar Olympian 1, Pausanias 5.13.1–17, Apollodorus Epitome 2.2–9, and Burkert 1983:99. This earlier curse, however, is not mentioned in Homer even indirectly, as far as I can discover.
[ back ] 42. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.2 Agamemnon’s Dream and the Testing of the Troops: 2.16–440.
[ back ] 43. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.5 Proteus’ Account of Agamemnon’s Death: 4.512–537.
[ back ] 44. The name “Thyestes” (cf. θύος) also suggests a link between myth and ritual, although in contrast to Pelops and the Olympic games, there is no clear historical evidence of such a connection (Burkert 1983:93–109).
[ back ] 45. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.8 The Nekuia: 11.380–466.
[ back ] 46. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.1 Agamemnon’s Dishonoring and Hubristic Actions: 1.6–344.
[ back ] 47. See Chapter 3, but especially s.v. 3.2.8 The Nekuia: 11.380–466.
[ back ] 48. This is something we considered in some detail in Chapters 1 (s.v. 1.4 The Relation of the Iliad and Odyssey) and 2 (s.v. 2.2 Typical and Specific Appeals—in particular 2.2.4 Menestheus and Odysseus: 4.327–364).
[ back ] 49. See Chapter 3, s.v. 3.2.11 Nekuia Deutera: Odyssey 24.19–97.
[ back ] 50. See Chapter 1, s.v. 1.4 The Relation of the Iliad and Odyssey, where I made reference to the Iliad poet’s mention of a nostos beyond what was fated, in Iliad 2.155.
[ back ] 51. Cf. e.g. inter alia, from Chapter 3 on the Odyssey, the metonym of “death and baleful fate” (θάνατον καὶ κῆρα μέλαιναν), discussed s.v. 3.2.3 Nestor’s Stories of Quarrel, Nostoi, and Oresteia: 3.136–310; the pathetic simile of Proteus noted s.v. 3.2.5 Proteus’ Account of Agamemnon’s Death: 4.512–537; the pathetic priamel, s.v. 3.2.8 The Nekuia: 11.380–466; the kakos nostos, s.v. 3.2.9 Avoiding Agamemnon’s Nostos: 13.383–385; and the pathos of Agamemnon, s.v. 3.2.11 Nekuia Deutera: 24.19–97.
[ back ] 52. Cf. the insightful comments of Scodel (2002:24) about Telamonian Ajax and Locrian Ajax at the funeral games for Patroklos: “Telamonian Ajax, doomed to kill himself after Achilles’ armor is awarded to Odysseus, is wounded, fighting against Diomedes; Locrian Ajax, who will die miserably at sea, falls into a pile of manure.”
[ back ] 53. See Chapter 4, s.v. 4.2.10 Agamemnon and Atē: 19.76–144 and Porter (2017).
[ back ] 54. Cf. Chapter 1.
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