The legendary leader of the Greek forces during the Trojan War, Agamemnon was one of the principal characters of the epic conflict. The story of his murder after he returned home was also one of the most famous episodes in Greek literature.
According to the Iliad by Homer (c. ninth-eighth century BCE) and the Oresteia by Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae, an ancient city-state in the Peloponnese in southern Greece. His father, King Atreus, had feuded with his brother, Thyestes. Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, killed Atreus, and Thyestes took over the throne of Mycenae, banishing Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus. Eventually, with the help of Tyndareos, king of Sparta, they returned and drove Thyestes out. Agamemnon became king, while Menelaus married Tyndareos's daughter Helen and succeeded to the throne of Sparta when Tyndareos died.
Agamemnon married Clytemnestra against her will. In some versions, he even killed her first husband and baby so that he could marry her. This set the tone for their marriage: Clytemnestra always hated Agamemnon. They had at least three daughters: Iphigeneia, Electa, and Chrysothemis, and a son: Orestes. Agamemnon also had children with other women, including Cassandra and Chryseis.
Many modern historians believe that Agamemnon really did exist, although they accept that most of the stories about him are probably fiction. In 1876, famous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered the remains of a great civilization at Mycenae, including royal tombs containing bodies with finely detailed gold masks laid over their faces. Although there is no evidence that any of the tombs belonged to Agamemnon, the discovery suggested that the mythical hero was almost certainly based on a real Mycenaean king.
As with so many other Greek heroes, Agamemnon's story revolves around the Trojan War. The conflict started when Paris, a prince of Troy, in what is now Turkey, ran away with Menelaus's wife, Helen. Menelaus asked his brother Agamemnon to help him win Helen back. Many of the Greek kings and princes who had wanted to marry Helen themselves had sworn an oath to her father, Tyndareos, that they would fight anyone who threatened her marriage to Menelaus. Agamemnon rounded up these former suitors, who included Odysseus, Patroclus, and Diomedes, and gathered them and their armies at Aulis, ready to sail for Troy under his command.
The adventure did not start well, however, because the goddess Artemis was angry with Agamemnon: he had boasted that he was better than her at archery, and she refused to give the Greeks a fair wind. Calchas, a prophet, told Agamemnon that, to appease Artemis, he would have to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia. Menelaus persuaded the reluctant Agamemnon to do this, and he sent for Iphigeneia, pretending that he wanted her to marry Achilles. When she arrived with her mother, Agamemnon killed her on the sacrificial altar. According to some versions, Artemis saved Iphigeneia's life by spiriting her away from the altar and replacing her with a deer. Either way, however, Clytemnestra lost her daughter and was heartbroken and furious. Clytemnestra returned to Mycenae, while Agamemnon and the Greek forces sailed for Troy.
At Troy, Agamemnon commanded the Greek forces throughout the war, which lasted 10 years. He was a forceful and experienced leader, but he sometimes lacked the ability to make firm decisions, and some of the other Greeks resented his luxurious lifestyle.
In the final year of the war, Agamemnon was forced to give up Chryseis, a slave girl he had captured, to the god Apollo. To replace her, he took Briseis, a girl belonging to Achilles, the Greeks' finest and strongest warrior. Achilles was very upset and angry. He sulked and refused to fight, and because of this the Greeks were almost defeated. They won the war only after Achilles rejoined the fighting following the death of his closest friend, Patroclus. Odysseus's plan for getting past the impenetrable walls of Troy also helped. Odysseus's idea was that a small group of warriors would hide inside a wooden horse made to appear like a gift to the Trojans. Once inside the city, the warriors would emerge from hiding and open the gates to the city, allowing the rest of the Greeks to enter.
Odysseus's plan worked and the Greeks overran Troy and captured many prisoners. Agamemnon himself took Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, as his mistress, and sailed home. However, during his absence from Mycenae, his wife, Clytemnestra, had taken a lover, Aegisthus, the cousin who had killed Agamemnon's father. Aegisthus was living as king of Mycenae, and he and Clytemnestra were plotting against Agamemnon—to the horror of Agamemnon's devoted daughter Electra. After Agamemnon returned to his palace with Cassandra, Aegisthus (and in some versions, Clytemnestra) murdered them both.
After Agamemnon's death, his son, Orestes, who until then had been in exile, came home to avenge his father. Urged on by Apollo and with Electra's help, Orestes killed Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, despite his mother's plea for mercy. Orestes was himself punished for these crimes. He was tormented by the Furies, who were encouraged by Clytemnestra's ghost, until he was absolved of further punishment by the goddess Athena and a panel of Athenian citizens who sat in judgment of his vengeful deeds.
Agamemnon's soul lived on in Hades, land of the dead. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus visits Hades and meets the hero. Agamemnon explains how he died, and warns Odysseus to take care when returning to his own palace.
The story of Agamemnon is a classic case of a revenge feud. One person is killed; in revenge, another person is murdered, and this second murder inspires yet another killing, and so on. In some ancient societies, such as the Viking culture, people had a legal right to commit revenge killings, but the problem remained of how to break the cycle of violence. The Greeks viewed revenge killings with some sympathy, but they placed a higher value on peace, justice, and harmony. In Greek mythology, revenge tragedies usually ended when the gods intervened to stop them.
Agamemnon's adventures during the Trojan War are retold in Homer's epic poem the Iliad. The story of his murder is recounted in several ancient Greek plays, particularly the Oresteia by Aeschylus. Agamemnon, the first play in this trilogy, tells of the king's death, while the other two—Choephoroe (Libation Bearers) and Eumenides (The Furies)—focus on the tribulations of Orestes. Agamemnon and his family also appear in works by many other ancient writers, including Pindar, Euripides, and Sophocles.
As both a great leader and a tragic figure, Agamemnon has inspired many works of art and literature since ancient times. For example, in the 20th century, novelist Barry Unsworth retold Agamemnon's story in his book The Songs of the Kings; British playwright Steven Berkoff wrote a modern version of Aeschylus's Agamemnon; and Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) mentioned Agamemnon in his poem "Leda and the Swan."
See also: ACHILLES; CASSANDRA; CLYTEMNESTRA; ELECTRA; ORESTES.
- The Greek Myths. New York: Penguin, 1993. .
- The Iliad and The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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