In Greek mythology, Agamemnon (//; Greek: Ἀγαμέμνων Agamémnōn) was a king of Mycenae, the son, or grandson, of King Atreus and Queen Aerope, the brother of Menelaus, the husband of Clytemnestra and the father of Iphigenia, Electra or Laodike (Λαοδίκη), Orestes and Chrysothemis. Legends make him the king of Mycenae or Argos, thought to be different names for the same area. When Menelaus's wife, Helen, was taken to Troy by Paris, Agamemnon commanded the united Greek armed forces in the ensuing Trojan War.
Upon Agamemnon's return from Troy, he was killed (according to the oldest surviving account, Odyssey 11.409–11) by Aegisthus, the lover of his wife Clytemnestra. In old versions of the story, the scene of the murder, when it is specified, is usually the house of Aegisthus, who has not taken up residence in Agamemnon's palace, and it involves an ambush and the deaths of Agamemnon's followers as well (or it seems to be an ancestral home of both Agamemnon and Aegisthus since Agamemnon's wife is stated to be there as well and Agamemnon was said to have wept and kissed the land of his birth). In some later versions Clytemnestra herself does the killing, or she and Aegisthus act together, killing Agamemnon in his own home.
Ancestry and early life
Agamemnon was a descendant of Pelops son of Tantalus. According to the usual version of the story, followed by the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, Agamemnon and his younger brother Menelaus were the sons of Atreus, king of Mycenae and Aerope daughter of the Cretan king Catreus. However, according to another tradition, Agamemnon and Menelaus were the sons of Atreus' son Pleisthenes, with their mother being Aerope, Cleolla, or Eriphyle. According to this tradition Pleisthenes died young, with Agamemnon and Menelaus being raised by Atreus. Agamemnon had a sister Anaxibia (or Astyoche) who married Strophius, the son of Crisus.
Agamemnon's father, Atreus, murdered the sons of his twin brother Thyestes and fed them to Thyestes after discovering Thyestes' adultery with his wife Aerope. Thyestes fathered Aegisthus with his own daughter, Pelopia, and this son vowed gruesome revenge on Atreus' children. Aegisthus murdered Atreus, restored Thyestes to the throne and took possession of the throne of Mycenae and jointly ruled with his father. During this period, Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, took refuge with Tyndareus, King of Sparta.
There they respectively married Tyndareus' daughters Clytemnestra and Helen. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had four children: one son, Orestes, and three daughters, Iphigenia, Electra and Chrysothemis. Menelaus succeeded Tyndareus in Sparta, while Agamemnon, with his brother's assistance, drove out Aegisthus and Thyestes to recover his father's kingdom. He extended his dominion by conquest and became the most powerful prince in Greece.
Agamemnon's family history had been tarnished by murder, incest, and treachery, consequences of the heinous crime perpetrated by his ancestor, Tantalus, and then of a curse placed upon Pelops, son of Tantalus, by Myrtilus, whom he had murdered. Thus misfortune hounded successive generations of the House of Atreus, until atoned by Orestes in a court of justice held jointly by humans and gods.
Sailing for Troy
Agamemnon gathered the reluctant Greek forces to sail for Troy. In order to recruit Odysseus, who was feigning madness so as to not have to go to war, Agamemnon sent Palamedes, who threatened to kill Odysseus infant son Telemachus. Odysseus was forced to stop acting mad in order to save his son and joined the assembled Greek forces. Preparing to depart from Aulis, a port in Boeotia, Agamemnon's army incurred the wrath of the goddess Artemis. There are several reasons throughout myth for such wrath: in Aeschylus' play Agamemnon, Artemis is angry for the young men who will die at Troy, whereas in Sophocles' Electra, Agamemnon has slain an animal sacred to Artemis, and subsequently boasted that he was Artemis' equal in hunting. Misfortunes, including a plague and a lack of wind, prevented the army from sailing. Finally, the prophet Calchas announced that the wrath of the goddess could only be propitiated by the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigenia.
Classical dramatizations differ on how willing either father or daughter was to this fate; some include such trickery as claiming she was to be married to Achilles, but Agamemnon did eventually sacrifice Iphigenia. Her death appeased Artemis, and the Greek army set out for Troy. Several alternatives to the human sacrifice have been presented in Greek mythology. Other sources, such as Iphigenia at Aulis, say that Agamemnon was prepared to kill his daughter, but that Artemis accepted a deer in her place, and whisked her away to Tauris in the Crimean Peninsula. Hesiod said she became the goddess Hecate.
During the war, but before the events of the Iliad, Odysseus contrived a plan to get revenge on Palamedes for threatening his sons life. By forging a letter from Priam, king of the Trojans, and caching some gold in Palamedes tent, Odysseus had Palamedes accused of treason, and Agamemnon ordered him stoned to death.
The Iliad tells the story about the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in the final year of the war. In book 1, following one of the Achaean Army's raids, Chryseis, daughter of Chryses, one of Apollo's priests, was taken as a war prize by Agamemnon. Chryses pleaded with Agamemnon to free his daughter but was met with little success. Chryses then prayed to Apollo for the safe return of his daughter, which Apollo responded to by unleashing a plague over the Achaean Army. After learning from the Prophet Calchas that the plague could be dispelled by returning Chryseis to her father, Agamemnon reluctantly agreed (but first berated Calchas for previously forcing Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia) and released his prize. However, as compensation for his lost prize, Agamemnon demanded a new prize. He stole an attractive slave called Briseis, one of the spoils of war, from Achilles. This creates a rift between Achilles and Agamemnon, causing Achilles to withdraw from battle and refuse to fight for now.
Agamemnon then receives a dream from Zeus telling him to rally his forces and attack the Trojans in book 2. After several days of fighting, including duels between Menelaus and Paris, and between Ajax and Hector, the Achaean's are pushed back to the fortifications around their ships. In book 9, Agamemnon, having realized Achilles's importance in winning the war against the Trojan Army, sends ambassadors begging for Achilles to return, offering him riches and the hand of his daughter in marriage. Achilles refuses, only being spurred back into action when Patroclus was killed in battle by Hector, eldest son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. In book 19 Agamemnon reconciles with Achilles, giving him the offered rewards for returning to the war, before Achilles goes out to turn back the Trojans and duel Hector. After Hector's death, Agamemnon assists Achilles in performing Patroclus' funeral in book 23. Agamemnon volunteers for the javelin throwing contest, one of the games being held in Patroclus honor, but his skill with the javelin is so well known that Achilles awards him the prize without contest.
Although not the equal of Achilles in bravery, Agamemnon was a representative of "kingly authority". As commander-in-chief, he summoned the princes to the council and led the army in battle. His chief fault was his overwhelming haughtiness; an over-exalted opinion of his position that led him to insult Chryses and Achilles, thereby bringing great disaster upon the Greeks.
Agamemnon was the commander-in-chief of the Greeks during the Trojan War. During the fighting, Agamemnon killed Antiphus and fifteen other Trojan soldiers, according to one source. In the Iliad itself, he's shown to slaughter hundreds more in Book 11 during his aristea loosely translated to "day of glory" which is the most similar to Achilles' aristea in Book 21. They both are compared to lions and destructive fires in battle, their hands are described as "splattered with gore" and "invincible," the Trojans flee to the walls, they both are appealed to by one of their victims, they are both avoided by Hector, they both get wounded in the arm or hand, and they both kill the one who wounded them. Even before his aristea, Agamemnon was considered to be one of the three best warriors on the Greek side as proven when Hector challenges any champion of the Greek side to fight him in Book 7, and Agamemnon (along with Diomedes and Ajax the Greater) is one of the three Hector most wishes to fight out of the nine strongest Greek warriors who volunteered.
End of the war
According to Sophocles's Ajax after Achilles had fallen in battle, Agamemnon and Menelaus awarded Achilles armor to Odysseus. This angers Ajax, who feels he is the now the strongest among the Achaean warriors and so deserves the armor. Ajax considers killing them, but is driven to madness by Athena and instead slaughters the herdsmen and cattle that had not yet been divided as spoils of war. He then commits suicide in shame for his actions. As Ajax dies he curses the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaus) along with the entire Achaean army. Agamemnon and Menelaus consider leaving Ajax body to rot, denying him a proper burial, but are convinced otherwise by Odysseus and Ajax's half-brother Teucer. After the capture of Troy, Cassandra, the doomed prophetess and daughter of Priam, fell to Agamemnon's lot in the distribution of the prizes of war.
Return to Greece and death
After a stormy voyage, Agamemnon and Cassandra landed in Argolis, or, in another version, were blown off course and landed in Aegisthus' country. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife, had taken Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, as a lover. When Agamemnon came home he was slain by Aegisthus (in the oldest versions of the story) or by Clytemnestra. According to the accounts given by Pindar and the tragedians, Agamemnon was slain in a bath by his wife alone, after being ensnared by a blanket or a net thrown over him to prevent resistance.
In Homer's version of the story in the Odyssey, Aegisthus ambushes and kills Agamemnon in a feasting hall under the pretense of holding a feast in honor of Agamemnon's return home from Troy. Clytemnestra also killed Cassandra. Her jealousy of Cassandra, and her wrath at the sacrifice of Iphigenia and at Agamemnon's having gone to war over Helen of Troy, are said to have been the motives for her crime.
Aegisthus and Clytemnestra then ruled Agamemnon's kingdom for a time, Aegisthus claiming his right of revenge for Atreus's crimes against Thyestes (Thyestes then crying out "thus perish all the race of Pleisthenes!", thus explaining Aegisthus' action as justified by his father's curse). Agamemnon's son Orestes later avenged his father's murder, with the help or encouragement of his sister Electra, by murdering Aegisthus and Clytemnestra (his own mother), thereby inciting the wrath of the Erinyes (English: the Furies), winged goddesses who tracked down wrongdoers with their hounds' noses and drove them to insanity.
The Curse of the House of Atreus
Agamemnon's family history is rife with misfortune born from several curses contributing to the miasma around the family. The curse begins with Agamemnon's great-grandfather Tantalus, who was once in Zeus's favor until he tried to feed his son Pelops to the gods in order to test their omniscience, as well as stealing some ambrosia and nectar. Tantalus was then banished to the underworld where he stands in a pool of water that evaporates every time he reaches down to drink, above him is a fruit tree whose branches are blown just out of reach by the wind whenever he reaches for the fruit. This began the cursed house of Atreus, and his descendants would face similar or worse fates.
Later, using his relationship with Poseidon, Pelops convinced the god to grant him a chariot so he may beat Oenomaus, king of Pisa, in a race, and win the hand of his daughter Hippodamia. Myrtilus, who in some accounts helped Pelops win his chariot race, attempted to lie with Pelops' new bride Hippodamia. In anger, Pelops threw Myrtilus off a cliff, but not before Myrtilus cursed Pelops and his entire line. Pelops and Hippodamia had many children including Atreus and Thyetes, who are said to have murdered their half-brother Chrysippus. Pelops banished Atreus and Thyetes to Mycanae where Atreus became king. Thyetes later conspired with Atreus' wife, Aerope, to supplant Atreus but they were unsuccessful. Atreus then killed Thyetes son and cooked him into a meal which Thyetes ate, afterwards Atreus taunted him with the hands and feet of his now dead son. Thyetes, on the advice of an oracle, then had a son with his own daughter Pelopia. Pelopia tried to expose the infant Aegisthus, but he was found by a shepherd and raised in the house of Atreus. When Aegisthus reached adulthood Thyetes revealed the truth of his birth, and Aegithus then killed Atreus.
Atreus and Aerope had three children, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Anaxibia. The continued miasma surrounding the house of Atreus expresses itself in several events throughout their lives. Agamemnon is forced to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods and allow the Greek forces to sail for Troy. When Agamemnon refuses to return Chryseis to her father Chryses he brings plague upon the Greek camp. He is also later killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, who conspires with her new lover Aegithus in revenge for the death of Iphigenia. Menelaus' wife, Helen of Troy, runs away with Paris, ultimately leading to the Trojan War. According to book 4 of the Odyssey, after the war his fleet is scattered by the gods to Egypt and Crete. When Menelaus finally returns home, his marriage with Helen is now strained and they produce no sons. Both Agamemnon and Menelaus are cursed by Ajax for not granting him Achilles armor as he commits suicide.
Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had three remaining children, Electra, Orestes, and Chrysothemis. After growing to adulthood and being pressured by Electra, Orestes vows to avenge his father Agamemnon by killing his mother Clytemnestra and Aegithus. After successfully doing so, he wanders the Greek countryside for many years constantly plagued by the Erinyes (Furies) for his sins. Finally, with the help of Athena and Apollo he is absolved of his crimes, dispersing the miasma, and the curse on house Atreus comes to an end.
Athenaeus tells a tale of how Agamemnon mourned the loss of his friend or lover Argynnus, when he drowned in the Cephisus river. He buried him, honored with a tomb and a shrine to Aphrodite Argynnis. This episode is also found in Clement of Alexandria, in Stephen of Byzantium (Kopai and Argunnos), and in Propertius, III with minor variations.
The fortunes of Agamemnon have formed the subject of numerous tragedies, ancient and modern, the most famous being the Oresteia of Aeschylus. In the legends of the Peloponnesus, Agamemnon was regarded as the highest type of a powerful monarch, and in Sparta he was worshipped under the title of Zeus Agamemnon. His tomb was pointed out among the ruins of Mycenae and at Amyclae.
In works of art, there is considerable resemblance between the representations of Zeus, king of the gods, and Agamemnon, king of men. He is generally depicted with a sceptre and diadem, conventional attributes of kings.
In Homer's Odyssey Agamemnon made an appearance in the kingdom of Hades after his death. There, the former king met Odysseus and explained just how he was murdered before he offered Odysseus a warning about the dangers of trusting a woman.
In media and art
- The Mask of Agamemnon, discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876, on display at National Archeological Museum of Athens, Athens
- The Tomb of Agamemnon, by Louis Desprez, 1787, on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1817, on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Orléans, Orléans
- Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon, by Frederic Leighton, 1868, on display at Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull
- Agamemnon Killing Odios, anonymous, 1545, on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Arnold Houbraken, 1690-1700, on display at the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam
- The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Charles de la Fosse, 1680, on display at the Palace of Versailles, Versailles
- The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Gaetano Gandolfi, 1789, on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Sacrificio di Ifigenia, by Pietro Testa, 1640
- The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1757, on display at the Villa Varmarana, Vicenza
- Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Jan Steen, 1671, on display at the Leiden Collection, New York
- The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Sebastian Bourdon, 1653, on display at the Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Orléans, Orléans
- The Quarrel Between Agamemnon and Achilles, by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, 1695, on display at the Museé de l’Oise, Beauvais
- The Anger of Achilles, by Jacques-Louis David, 1819, on display at Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth
- The Wrath of Achilles, by Michel-Martin Drolling, 1810, on display at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris
- Quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon, by William Page, on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
Portrayal in film and television
- The 1924 film Helena by Karl Wüstenhagen
- The 1956 film Helen of Troy by Robert Douglas
- The 1961 film The Trojan Horse by Nerio Bernardi
- The 1962 film The Fury of Achilles by Mario Petri
- The 1962 film Electra by Theodoros Dimitriou
- The 1968 TV miniseries The Odyssey by Rolf Boysen
- The 1977 film Iphigenia by Kostas Kazakos
- The 1981 film Time Bandits by Sean Connery
- The 1997 TV miniseries The Odyssey by Yorgo Voyagis
- The 2003 TV miniseries Helen of Troy by Rufus Sewell
- The 2004 film Troy by Brian Cox
- The 2018 TV miniseries Troy: Fall of a City by Johnny Harris
- Homer, Iliad 9.145.
- Leeming, David (2005). Argos. Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199916481.
- Aeschylus (1986), Choephori; introduction by A. F. Garvie, Oxford University Press, p. x
- R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 8.
- For a discussion of the house of Tantalus see Gantz, pp. 531–556. For Agamemnon's genealogy see, Grimal, p. 526, Table 2, and p. 534, Table 13.
- Grimal, s.v. Menelaus; Hard, pp. 355, 507, 508; Collard and Cropp 2008a, p. 517; Gantz, p. 552; Parada, s.v. Agamemnon; Euripides, Helen 390–392, Orestes 16; Hyginus, Fabulae 97; Apollodorus, E.3.12; Scholia on Iliad 1.7 (citing "Homer" = Hesiod Catalogue of Women fr. 137a Most) and Scholia on Tzetzes' Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (citing "Homer" = Hesiod Catalogue of Women fr. 137c Most). They are also the sons of Atreus, in the Iliad and Odyssey, see for example Iliad 11.131, Odyssey 4.462, although Aerope is not mentioned (see Gantz, p. 522). See also Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 4–5, (Atreus as father, no mention of mother); Hesiod Catalogue of Women fr. 138 Most [= fr. 195 MW], and Sophocles, Ajax 1295–1297 (Aerope as mother, no mention of father).
- Hard, pp. 355, 508; Collard and Cropp 2008a, p. 517; Collard and Cropp 2008b, p. 79; Gantz, pp. 552–553; Parada, s.v. Agamemnon. For Aerope as mother see: Apollodorus, 3.2.2; Dictys Cretensis, 1.1; Scholia on Iliad 1.7 (citing "Hesiod" = Hesiod Catalogue of Women fr. 137a Most) and Scholia on Tzetzes' Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (citing "Hesiod" = Hesiod Catalogue of Women fr. 137c Most). For Cleolla, see Tzetzes, Exegesis in Iliadem 1.122 (citing "Hesiod, Aeschylus, and some others" = Hesiod Catalogue of Women fr. 137b Most). For Eriphyle see Gantz, p. 553 (citing Scholia on Euripides Orestes 4).
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