Agamemnon: Greek King, Trojan War Leader and Man of Power
Agamemnon is a major figure in Greek mythology. He was a king of Mycenae, and the supreme commander of the Greeks during the Trojan War. Therefore, he plays a significant role in Homer’s Iliad. As a matter of fact, Homer begins his epic with Achilles’ refusal to participate any further in the war, which was caused by a conflict between him and Agamemnon.
The story of Agamemnon is not limited to the events in the Iliad. He also appears in works dealing with his life and death after the Trojan War, such as Aeschylus’ play, Agamemnon, in which the king is killed after his return from Troy, and in Homer’s Odyssey, where he appears as one of the shades in the underworld. Beyond mythology, there is an ancient funerary mask called the “Mask of Agamemnon,” which was alleged to have belonged to this mythical king.
Thyestes and Atreus, father of Agamemnon. (Public domain)
Agamemnon Was Born Into the House of Atreus
Agamemnon belonged to the House of Atreus, which was named after his father. This dynasty traces its ancestry all the way back to Tantalus, a king of Lydia. Tantalus is most notorious for killing his son, Pelops, and serving him as a stew to the gods, just so that he could test their omniscience. All the gods, except Demeter, knew what they were being served. Demeter, due to her anxiety over the disappearance of Persephone, her daughter, did not take notice, and ended up eating Pelops’ shoulder.
Therefore, when the gods revived the boy, he was without a shoulder, and Hephaestus made an ivory one for him as a replacement. As for Tantalus, he was punished in Tartarus for his crimes.
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Chryses attempting to ransom his daughter Chryseis from Agamemnon, which was a kind of incident that seemed to happen to powerful Greek kings all the time. Source: Louvre Museum / Public domain
Tantalus was not the only evildoer in the House of Atreus. In fact, the subsequent generations of the dynasty continued to commit heinous crimes. Pelops, for instance, murdered Oenomaus, his future father-in-law, the king of Pisa (in the Peloponnesus), in order to marry his daughter, Hippodamia.
Pelops had a number of sons, including Atreus and Thyestes, and these two were no better than their father and grandfather. For instance, they are said to have murdered an illegitimate son of Pelops, so as to please their mother, Hippodamia.
As a result of this murder, the three were exiled, and went to Mycenae which was ruled by Eurystheus, the nephew of Atreus and Thyestes. When Eurystheus was killed in battle, an oracle declared that the next king should be chosen from amongst the sons of Pelops.
Therefore, Thyestes suggested that the new king should be the one who is able to produce a golden fleece. Atreus delighted in this, as he had this priceless object, and entrusted it to his wife for safekeeping. Little did he know, however, that his wife, Aerope, was having an affair with Thyestes, and that she had given the golden fleece to him. Consequently, Thyestes became king.
Atreus plotted revenge for the adultery between Thyestes and Aerope depicted in this painting by Nosadella. He killed Thyestes' sons and cooked them, save their hands and heads. Not surprisingly, Thyestes killed Atreus, who was already the father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. (Nosadella / Public domain)
Atreus, Agamemnon’s Father, Fights His Own Brother
Atreus, however, was adamant that Zeus wanted him to be king, and declared that as proof, the god would make the sun rise in the west and set in the east. Indeed, this happened, Atreus became king, and banished his brother.
Not long after this, Atreus learned of his wife’s infidelity, and plotted to exact revenge on his brother. Therefore, Atreus made Thyestes believe he was forgiven, and invited him for a meal. At the end of the meal, however, Atreus brought out the heads and limbs of Thyestes’ sons, revealing that the meal had been prepared with their bodies. This is eerily similar to what their grandfather had done to their father.
In any event, Thyestes himself was not harmed, fled from his brother, and ended up fathering a child, Aegisthus, with his own daughter, Pelopia. Aegisthus eventually killed Atreus, and Thyestes became the new king of Mycenae.
Atreus’ sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, fled to Sparta, and found refuge with their king, Tyndareus. The king had two daughters, Clytemnestra and Helen. The former married Agamemnon, whilst the latter was courted by many suitors, which put Tyndareus in a difficult position.
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Odysseus, who was one of the suitors, though he was certain that he would not succeed, proposed a solution in exchange for the hand of Penelope, a niece of the king. Odysseus’ suggestion, which became known as the Oath of Tyndareus, was for the suitors to swear a solemn oath that none of the suitors would retaliate against Helen’s chosen husband. Instead, they had to defend the marriage from anyone seeking a quarrel over it.
It was only after the oath was sworn that Menelaus was chosen as Helen’s husband. The oath was meant to prevent the suitors from fighting against each other. As it turned out, however, when Paris, a prince of Troy, stole Helen, the oath was invoked, and the suitors entered the Trojan War on Menelaus’ side.
The sacrifice of Polyxena by Neuptolemos in front of the tomb of his father Achilles. (Dosseman / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Getting Ready For The Battle of Troy
As the Greeks were about to embark on their expedition against Troy, however, they realized that it was impossible for their ships to set sail, as the winds had been stilled. It was the prophet Calchas who revealed to the Greeks what had gone wrong for them. Agamemnon, through his hubris, or through a vow to the goddess that he had neglected, had offended Artemis, and the goddess therefore caused the winds to be stilled. Calchas also told the Greeks that in order to appease Artemis, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia.
Initially, Agamemnon refused to sacrifice his daughter, but eventually relented. The girl was prepared to be sacrificed, but was saved at the very last minute, either by Artemis herself, or by Achilles, whose aid was procured by Clytemnestra.
According to one version of the myth, Iphigenia became a priestess of Artemis, and served the goddess in Tauris. In another, she marries Achilles, and had son with him, Pyrrhus. The sacrifice of Iphigenia, and her subsequent life in Tauris, are the subjects of two tragedies by Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis, and Iphigenia in Tauris. The story is referred to in Agamemnon, a tragedy by Aeschylus, though only as part of the background to the main story.
Once Artemis is appeased, the Greeks are able to set sail for Troy, and Agamemnon’s story is picked up in the Iliad. Homer does not begin his epic at the beginning of the Trojan War, but rather, towards its end. One of the first characters introduced by Homer is Agamemnon himself. It was the conflict between him, the supreme commander of the Greek forces, and Achilles, the greatest warrior in his army that gave rise to the subsequent events in the Iliad.
Achilles' surrender of Briseis to Agamemnon. (Naples National Archaeological Museum / Public domain)
The Feuds Continue With Agamemnon In The Center
According to Homer, Agamemnon had incurred the wrath of Apollo, as he refused to return Chryseis, whom he had seized as a prize of war. Chryseis’ father, Chryses, had brought a rich ransom, and pleaded with the king, but Agamemnon refused to return his daughter to him.
It so happened that Chryses was a priest of Apollo, and the god came to his aid by unleashing a deadly plague upon the Greeks. When the Greeks finally learned the cause of the plague, once again through Calchas, Agamemnon, quite reluctantly, returned Chryseis to her father. As compensation, the king took Briseis, Achilles’ war booty, by force. The hero was furious at this and decided to withdraw himself and his men from the war.
Eventually, the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion, at the hands of Hector, a prince of Troy, caused the warrior to abandon his feud with Agamemnon, and re-join the war. Achilles slays Hector, and the Iliad ends with Priam, the King of Troy, reclaiming his son’s body from Achilles.
The end of this epic, however, is not the end of the Trojan War, nor the end of Agamemnon’s story. The Greeks, as many would have already known, eventually won the war through the use of the Trojan Horse, a ruse developed by Odysseus. Incidentally, the Trojan Horse is not mentioned in the Iliad, but part of the story is referred to in the Odyssey. Virgil’s Aeneid, however, is the main ancient source for the story of the Trojan Horse, and the most familiar version of the tale.
The assassination of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and possibly also her lover Aegisthus. (Public domain)
The Death of Agamemnon and the Discovery of His Tomb
In any case, the Greeks win the war, and they return home, including Agamemnon, who sails back to his home in Mycenae. It is here that the king would meet his tragic end. Whilst Agamemnon was away, his wife, Clytemnestra, was seduced by Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, and therefore, Agamemnon’s cousin.
The king’s return was bad news for the lovers, and they plotted to get rid of Agamemnon. According to Aeschylus, Agamemnon’s death would not only allow Clytemnestra to make her relationship with Aegisthus public, but also allow her to avenge the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigenia. According to some accounts, it was Clytemnestra who killed Agamemnon, whilst in others, Aegisthus joined her is the king’s murder. In Homer’s Odyssey, Agamemnon makes an appearance as a shade in the underworld, where he tells Odysseus the story of his death, and warns him of the dangers of trusting a woman.
More than two millennia after it was composed, the Iliad continued to capture the imagination of its readers. One of these was Heinrich Schliemann, a German amateur archaeologist who made his fortune as a businessman. Although the way he carried out his archaeological work is often criticized today, he is most notable for the excavation of Hisarlik, which is now presumed to be the site of Troy.
Apart from Troy, Schliemann also excavated at Mycenae, Agamemnon’s kingdom. As Schliemann was convinced that Homer’s Iliad was based on historical, events, and that its characters were real, he was determined to find Agamemnon’s final resting place.
Tomb of Agamemnon at ancient Mycenae, which was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann. (ollirg / Adobe Stock)
In 1876, Schliemann was excavating at Mycenae, on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Society. His excavations were based on the writings of the ancient geographer Pausanias, where the location of Agamemnon’s grave was mentioned. Prior to Schliemann, it was thought that the grave of Agamemnon and his contemporaries were to be found outside the walls of the Late Bronze Age citadel. Schliemann, however, interpreted the text differently, and suggested that the graves were in fact inside the citadel. In 1874, he dug some test trenches inside the citadel, which yielded archaeological materials indicating the presence of graves.
Two years after digging the test trenches, Schliemann was able to carry out excavations, and by the end of August that year, had discovered the first shaft grave. Subsequently, four more shaft graves were discovered, and these were grouped together as “Grave Circle A.” Without hesitation, Schliemann declared that the graves dated to the Homeric period, and that they included the tomb of Agamemnon. Grave V yielded the most iconic artefact of that excavation, the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon.”
The gold death mask known as the "Mask of Agamemnon," Found in Tomb V in Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876. (National Archaeological Museum of Athens / CC BY 2.0)
The Mask of Agamemnon Is A Priceless Artifact
The Mask of Agamemnon is made of gold leaf and was produced by hammering the precious metal onto a wooden form. The mask is in fact one of five that were discovered in Grave Circle A but became associated with Agamemnon simply because it was the finest of the five.
Schliemann is alleged to have referred to this mask in a telegraph, saying that “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon.” Schliemann was notorious for making many fantastic claims, though it has been pointed out that he never made the connection between this mask and the mythical Mycenaean king.
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Whilst Schliemann was convinced that the Mask of Agamemnon, along with the shaft graves, dated to the Homeric period, modern scholars are of the opinion that they actually pre-date the Trojan War by at least three centuries. Still, the mask may be admired as a work of art, and an example of the level of craftmanship achieved by the goldsmiths of that period in Greek history. Despite the opinion of modern scholars that the mask predates the Homeric period, it retains its name, and its association with Agamemnon. Today, the Mask of Agamemnon is displayed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
To conclude, Agamemnon is an important figure in Greek mythology, in particular with regards to the Trojan War. The myths revolving around his family, i.e., the House of Atreus, are equally interesting, and provide explanations to some of the events that occurred prior to the Trojan War.
This theme of continuity can also be detected in the stories about Agamemnon following his return from Troy. Agamemnon still fascinates people even in the modern age, not only as a character in classical literature, but also as a person who may have actually existed, as evident in Schliemann’s excavations at Mycenae, and in the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon.”
Top image: Ancient Greek warrior. Source: breakermaximus / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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