Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 5

Agamemnon in the Later “Iliad”

In the Third Book, Agamemnon receives the compliments due to his supremacy, aspect, and valour from the lips of Helen and Priam. There are other warriors taller by a head, and Odysseus was shorter than he by a head, so Agamemnon was a man of middle stature. He is “beautiful and royal” of aspect; “a good king and a mighty spearman,” says Helen.

The interrupted duel between Menelaus and Paris follows, and then the treacherous wounding of Menelaus by Pandarus. One of Agamemnon’s most sympathetic characteristics is his intense love of his brother, for whose sake he has made the war. He shudders on seeing the arrow wound, but consoles Menelaus by the certainty that Troy will fall, for the Trojans have broken the solemn oath of truce. Zeus “doth fulfil at last, and men make dear amends.” But with characteristic inconsistency he discourages Menelaus by a picture of many a proud Trojan leaping on his tomb, while the host will return home-an idea constantly present to Agamemnon’s mind. He is always the first to propose flight, though he will “return with shame” to Mycenae. Menelaus is of much better cheer: “Be of good courage, neither dismay all the host of the Achaeans,”— a thing which Agamemnon does habitually, though he is not a personal poltroon. As Menelaus has only a slight flesh wound after all, and as the Trojans are doomed men, Agamemnon is now “eager for glorious battle.” He encourages the princes, but, of all men, rebukes Odysseus as “last at a fray and first at a feast”: such is his insolence, for which men detest him.

This is highly characteristic in Agamemnon, who has just been redeemed from ruin by Odysseus. Rebuked by Odysseus, he “takes back his word” as usual, and goes on to chide Diomede as better at making speeches than at fighting! But Diomede made no answer, “having respect to the chiding of the revered King.” He even rebukes the son of Capaneus for answering Agamemnon haughtily. Diomede, however, does not forget; he bides his time. He now does the great deeds of his day of valour (Book V.). Agamemnon meanwhile encourages the host.

During Books V., VI. Agamemnon’s business is “to bid the rest keep fighting.” When Hector, in Book VII., challenges any Achaean, nobody volunteers except Menelaus, who has a strong sense of honour. Agamemnon restrains him, and lots are cast: the host pray that the lot may fall on Aias, Diomede, or Agamemnon (VII. 179–180). Thus the Over–Lord is acknowledged to be a man of his hands, especially good at hurling the spear, as we see again in Book XXIII.

A truce is proposed for the burial of the dead, and Paris offers to give up the wealth that he brought to Troy, and more, if the Achaeans will go home, but Helen he will not give up. We expect Agamemnon to answer as becomes him. But no! All are silent, till Diomede rises. They will not return, he says, even if Helen be restored, for even a fool knows that Troy is doomed, because of the broken oath. The rest shout acquiescence, and Agamemnon refuses the compromise. Apparently he would not have disdained it, but for Diomede’s reply.

On the following day the Trojans have the better in the battle, and Agamemnon “has no heart to stand,” nor have some of his peers. But Diomede has more courage, and finally Agamemnon begins to call to the host to fight, but breaks down, weeps, and prays to Zeus “that we ourselves at least flee and escape;” he is not an encouraging commander-inchief! Zeus, in pity, sends a favourable omen; Aias fights well; night falls, and the Trojans camp on the open plain.

Agamemnon, in floods of tears, calls an assembly, and proposes to “return to Argos with dishonour.” “Let us flee with our ships to our dear native land, for now shall we never take wide-wayed Troy,” All are silent, till Diomede rises and reminds Agamemnon that “thou saidst I was no man of war, but a coward.” (In Book V.; we are now in Book IX.) “Zeus gave thee the honour of the sceptre above all men, but valour he gave thee not. . . . Go thy way; thy way is before thee, and thy ships stand beside the sea. But all the other flowing-haired Achaeans will tarry here until we waste Troy.”

Nestor advises Agamemnon to set an advanced guard, which that martialist had never thought of doing, and to discuss matters over supper. A force of 700 men, under Meriones and the son of Nestor, was posted between the foss and the wall round the camp; the council met, and Nestor advised Agamemnon to approach Achilles with gentle words and gifts of atonement. Agamemnon, full of repentance, acknowledges his folly and offers enormous atonement. Heralds and three ambassadors are sent; and how Achilles received them, with perfect courtesy, but with absolute distrust of Agamemnon and refusal of his gifts, sending the message that he will fight only when fire comes to his own ships, we know.

Achilles is now entirely in the wrong, and the Over–Lord is once more within his right. He has done all, or more than all, that customary law demands. In Book IX. Phoenix states the case plainly. “If Agamemnon brought thee not gifts, and promised thee more hereafter, . . . then were I not he that should bid thee cast aside thine anger, and save the Argives. . . . ” (IX. 515–517). The case so stands that, if Achilles later relents and fights, the gifts of atonement will no longer be due to him, and he “will not be held in like honour” (IX. 604).

The poet knows intimately, and, like his audience, is keenly interested in the details of the customary law. We cannot easily suppose this frame of mind and this knowledge in a late poet addressing a late Ionian audience.

The ambassadors return to Agamemnon; their evil tidings are received in despairing silence. But Diomede bids Agamemnon take heart and fight next day, with his host arrayed “before the ships” (IX. 708). This appears to counsel defensive war; but, in fact, and for reasons, when it comes to fighting they do battle in the open.

The next Book (X.) is almost universally thought a late interpolation; an opinion elsewhere discussed (see The Doloneia). Let us, then, say with Mr. Leaf that the Book begins with “exaggerated despondency” and ends with “hasty exultation,” in consequence of a brilliant camisade, wherein Odysseus and Diomede massacre a Thracian contingent. Our point is that the poet carefully (see The Doloneia) continues the study of Agamemnon in despondency, and later, by his “hasty exultation,” preludes to the valour which the Over–Lord displays in Book XI.

The poet knows that something in the way of personal valour is due to Agamemnon’s position; he fights brilliantly, receives a flesh wound, retires, and is soon proposing a general flight in his accustomed way. When the Trojans, in Book XIV., are attacking the ships, Agamemnon remarks that he fears the disaffection of his whole army (XIV. 49, 51), and, as for the coming defeat, that he “knew it,” even when Zeus helped the Greeks. They are all to perish far from Argos. Let them drag the ships to the sea, moor them with stones, and fly, “For there is no shame in fleeing from ruin, even in the night. Better doth he fare who flees from trouble than he that is overtaken.” It is now the turn of Odysseus again to save the honour of the army. “Be silent, lest some other of the Achaeans hear this word, that no man should so much as suffer to pass through his mouth. . . . And now I wholly scorn thy thoughts, such a word hast thou uttered.” On this Agamemnon instantly repents. “Right sharply hast thou touched my heart with thy stern reproof:” he has not even the courage of his nervousness.

The combat is now in the hands of Aias and Patroclus, who is slain. Agamemnon, who is wounded, does not reappear till Book XIX., when Achilles, anxious to fight and avenge Patroclus at once, without formalities of reconciliation, professes his desire to let bygones be bygones. Agamemnon excuses his insolence to Achilles as an inspiration of Ate: a predestined fault —“Not I am the cause, but Zeus and Destiny.”

Odysseus, to clinch the reunion and fulfil customary law, advises Agamemnon to bring out the gifts of atonement (the gifts prepared in Book IX.), after which the right thing is for him to give a feast of reconciliation, “that Achilles may have nothing lacking of his right.” 59 The case is one which has been provided for by customary law in every detail. Mr. Leaf argues that all this part must be late, because of the allusion to the gifts offered in Book IX. But we reply, with Mr. Monro, that the Ninth Book is “almost necessary to any Achilleis.” The question is, would a late editor or poet know all the details of customary law in such a case as a quarrel between Over–Lord and peer? would a feudal audience have been satisfied with a poem which did not wind the quarrel up in accordance with usage? and would a late poet, in a society no longer feudal, know how to wind it up? Would he find any demand on the part of his audience for a long series of statements, which to a modern seem to interrupt the story? To ourselves it appears that a feudal audience desired the customary details; to such an audience they were most interesting.

This is a taste which, as has been said, we find in all early poetry and in the sagas; hence the long “runs” of the Celtic sagas, minutely repeated descriptions of customary things. The Icelandic saga-men never weary, though modern readers do, of legal details. For these reasons we reckon the passages in Book XIX. about the reconciliation as original, and think they can be nothing else. It is quite natural that, in a feudal society of men who were sticklers for custom, the hearers should insist on having all things done duly and in order — the giving of the gifts and the feast of reconciliation — though the passionate Achilles himself desires to fight at once. Odysseus insists that what we may call the regular routine shall be gone through. It is tedious to the modern reader, but it is surely much more probable that a feudal poet thus gratified his peculiar audience (he looked for no other) than that a late poet, with a different kind of audience, thrust the Reconciliation in as an “after-thought.” 60 The right thing must be done, Odysseus assures Achilles, “for I was born first, and know more things.” It is not the right thing to fight at once, unfed, and before the solemn sacrifice by the Over–Lord, the prayer, the Oath of Agamemnon, and the reception of the gifts by Achilles; only after these formalities, and after the army has fed, can the host go forth. “I know more than you do; you are a younger man,” says Odysseus, speaking in accordance with feudal character, at the risk of wearying later unforeseen generations.

This is not criticism inspired by mere “literary feeling,” for “literary feeling” is on the side of Achilles, and wishes the story to hurry to his revenge. But ours is historical criticism; we must think of the poet in relation to his audience and of their demands, which we can estimate by similar demands, vouched for by the supply, in the early national poetry of other peoples and in the Icelandic sagas.

We hear no more of Agamemnon till, in Book XXIII, 35–38, after the slaying of Hector, Achilles “was brought to noble Agamemnon” (for that, as Odysseus said, was the regular procedure) “by the Achaean chiefs, hardly persuading him thereto, for his heart was wroth for his comrade.” Here they feast, Achilles still full of grief and resentment. He merely goes through the set forms, much against his will. It does appear to us that the later the poet the less he would have known or cared about the forms. An early society is always much interested in forms and in funerals and funeral games, so the poet indulges their taste with the last rites of Patroclus. The last view of Agamemnon is given when, at the end of the games, Achilles courteously presents him with the flowered lebes, the prize for hurling the spear, without asking him to compete, since his superior skill is notorious. This act of courtesy is the real reconciliation; previously Achilles had but gone reluctantly through the set forms in such cases provided. Even when Agamemnon offered the gifts of atonement, Achilles said, “Give them, as is customary, or keep them, as you please” (XIX. 146, 148). Achilles, young and passionate, cares nothing for the feudal procedure.

This rapid survey seems to justify the conclusion that the poet presents an uniform and historically correct picture of the Over–Lord and of his relations with his peers, a picture which no late editor could have pieced together out of the widely varying repertoires of late strolling reciters. Such reciters would gladly have forgotten, and such an editor would gladly have “cut” the “business” of the reconciliation. They would also, in a democratic spirit, have degraded the Over–Lord into the tyrant, but throughout, however low Agamemnon may fall, the poet is guided by the knowledge that his right to rule is jure divino, that he has qualities, that his responsibilities are crushing, “I, whom among all men Zeus hath planted for ever among labours, while my breath abides within me, and my limbs move,” says the Over–Lord (X. 89, 90). In short, the poet’s conception of the Over–Lord is throughout harmonious, is a contemporary conception entertained by a singer who lives among peers that own, and are jealous of, and obey an Over–Lord. The character and situation of Agamemnon are a poetic work of one age, one moment of culture.

59 Book XIX. 179, 180.

60 Leaf, Iliad, vol. ii. p. 317.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03