Achilles and Agamemnon
Greek mythology evolved over several centuries and passed from generation to generation. Nowadays, people can find elements of the myths in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, as well as the works of the Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and others. The works of these authors still conceal many mysteries. They reflect the legendary past – a time when the public good was above personal interests and protected by glorious descendants of the gods. The one reading these works should view the characters from historical and artistic standpoints. The most prominent and well-known heroes of Greek mythology depicted in Iliad by Homer are Achilles and Agamemnon. Despite fighting in the Achaean army, they possess distinct features, leading to a significant quarrel between them. Thus, the aim of the paper is to give a comparative characterization of two characters – Achilles and Agamemnon.
Iliad is an epic poem that depicts the events of the Trojan during the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. Iliad rests on the myths that provide background for the events depicted. The Greeks besieged Troy for nine years. They captured many of the surrounding towns and villages and occasionally clashed with the Trojans, who appeared behind their powerful fortifications. The Greeks were exhausted and irritated by their failure to win a decisive victory over Troy. Moreover, warrior Achilles also quarreled with king Agamemnon. As a trophy, Greeks promised Agamemnon beautiful Chryseis, daughter of Chryses – the priest of the temple of Apollo. Chryses offered a king a large ransom for the freedom of his daughter. Nevertheless, Agamemnon refused. In response, the priest began to pray fervently to Apollo to avenge his daughter. Consequently, the god sent pestilence on the Greek army. The prophet announced that it would rage as long as Agamemnon returned Chryseis to her father. Achilles persuaded the king to fulfill this condition.
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However, Agamemnon refused. They argued for a long time. Finally, Agamemnon agreed to return the daughter to her father. However, to show his power in the most offensive way, he took Achilles’ young slave Briseis, which make the warrior terribly angry. “Achilles then became sad and would not leave his tent” (Glaser and Bowman 15). It was an insult to his honor. Moreover, it was also utterly unfair, mainly because trophies obtained in battle were Achilles’ merit. The outraged warrior kept himself aloof from the participation in the battles and the war councils. Taking advantage of discord among the Greeks, the Trojans began to gain victories. Such turnaround of events forced Agamemnon to beg Achilles forgiveness, offering him all taken. However, the latter rejected his proposal, saying that despite all the gifts, Agamemnon would never win. Nevertheless, despite the promises not to join the battle, Achilles was engaged in the battle to take revenge over the death of his friend – Patroclus. “Achilles is eager to fight and refuses to eat; all he craves is killing and blood” (Thompson 43).
Achilles is a hero of the supernatural origin on both lines as his mother is the sea goddess Thetis and his father Peleus is a demigod. Achilles was predicted the death from an arrow shot by his enemy. In an effort to make her son invulnerable and thus give him immortality, Thetis tempered him with fire at night and rubbed ambrosia in the daytime. One night, Peleus saw his infant son in the fire and tore him from the hands of the mother. According to another version, Thetis bathed Achilles in the waters of the underground river Styx. In such a way, she wanted to make her son invulnerable. “The only place not touched by the sacred waters was where she held him by the heel – his weak spot” (Jeffrey 4). In particular, the arrow shooting in the heel became the cause of Achilles’ death. Offended by the intervention of Peleus, Thetis left her husband. Peleus gave his son to the wise centaur Chiron on education, who reared Achilles with the entrails of lions, bears, and wild boars and taught to play the cittern.
The soothsayer Calchas predicted that the Greeks would win the war with Troy only if Achilles participated in the battles. When Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon began to gather an army, Thetis hid Achilles in the palace of the king Lycomedes on the island of Skyros. After learning about the upcoming campaign against Troy, Achilles and his friend Patroclus happily agreed to participate in it.
Although Homer denies invulnerability of Achilles, the hero has a number of superhuman qualities – extraordinary courage, audacity, and extreme pride. No one can raise his spear. Achilles conquered twelve cities on the ships, and eleven –from the land. Therefore, his quarrel with Agamemnon is not just a conflict between the epic sovereign and the best of the heroes. It is a conflict of the leader of people with a non-human (Thornton 28).
Many researchers usually represent Achilles as extremely boring and monotonous. According to them, he is an epic ideal of the warrior hero. In fact, Homer’s Achilles is one of the most complex figures of the ancient literature. In the first stage of his tragedy, during the quarrel with Agamemnon, Achilles behaves rather passively. His primary emotion here is anger against the offender. Nevertheless, he reconciled and was ready to fight against the Trojans. All Achilles’ actions make his image surprisingly original. First, a military storm, a huge destructive force, bestial vengeance, and thirst for blood and cruelty explain his actions. Nevertheless, on the other hand, the whole meaning of blood and this atrocity consists in tender friendship with Patroclus. “Achilles portrays himself as an individual who failed to care for his comrades” (Bloom 161). The image of a beloved and gentle friend coexists in the soul of Achilles with animal ferocity and inhumanity. These two origins not only reinforce each other but also get their single meaning. For example, it is quite common for Achilles that after the appearance near the ditch in a wild and ferocious condition and after the panic caused by his terrible cry, he shed hot tears over the corpse of his faithful companion.
In addition, soft and delicate features, which in any case cannot be forgotten while analyzing the hero, are characteristic of Achilles. He is pious and often refers to the gods with the prayer, causing the appearance of the winds. Furthermore, Achilles is reserved. For example, when dealing with the messengers of Agamemnon, he is restrained considering them innocent. In addition, he is a loving son and often helplessly refers to his mother, for example, after the insults received from Agamemnon or after notification of the death of Patroclus.
This antithesis is the most characteristic feature of Achilles. On the one hand, he is angry, short-tempered, vindictive, and merciless in war. He is like an animal, not a person. Achilles is a heartless element, not a human heart. However, on the other hand, Achilles has a tender and loving heart. His anger produces a naive impression. The whole image of the hero and the giant weeping near his mother or the dead friend is even touching. This antithesis of a stern fighter and a tender heart is the very first and foremost that readers can find in Achilles. It shows that in Achilles, there is something spontaneous, irresponsible, and irrational. Brutality and a tender heart are mixed in him as the cloudy and clear weather is mixed in nature.
In the spiritual experience of Achilles, there is a call of the fate along with the extravagance of life. He knows that he will not return from Troy. Nevertheless, Achilles makes a difficult and dangerous campaign. “Homer’s Iliad concludes not with a martial triumph but with Achilles’ heartbroken acceptance that he will, in fact, lose his life in this wholly pointless campaign” (Alexander 5). Before the decisive battle, horses predict him the imminent demise assigned by the fate. However, it does not stop Achilles. He turns love to the fate in his philosophy of life. In an inexorable military heart, there is a warm and soft sense of humanity and common destiny of all people.
In the deep and complex image of Achilles, there is certain sadness. The voluptuousness of the battle, tender friendship, love, devotion to the will of fate, absolute personal courage, and an intimate sense of humanity are merged into one vital impulse and social instinct. Achilles is a complex and rich nature in a truly ancient and Homeric sense.
Overall, Achilles is one of the most popular characters of ancient arts. One can find his depiction in Pompeian frescoes, works of vase painting, reliefs of Roman sarcophagi, and other works. In medieval art, mainly the illustrations to the Trojan War embodied the image of Achilles. Only in the XVI century, scenes from the life of Achilles became widespread in painting.
Agamemnon is a character of Greek mythology and “one of the principle characters in Homer’s Iliad” (Daly and Rengel 6). He is a son of Atreus and Aerope, Mycenaean king, and a leader of the United Achaean troops in the Trojan War. In the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, as well as in novels and plays by contemporary authors, Agamemnon appears as proud, powerful, mighty, and courageous. At the same time, he is a suspiciously selfish person lost in difficult situations. His character attracts and repels at the same time. Agamemnon’s tragic fate invokes compassion.
Agamemnon was born in Mycenae. He spent his childhood in an atmosphere of intrigue and power struggles between Atreus and his brother Thyestes. Later, Agamemnon became the king of Mycenae and was one of the most powerful and wealthy Achaean rulers. After the capture of Troy, Agamemnon received a huge booty and Cassandra. He returned to his homeland where he died in his house. According to the older version of the myth, Aegisthus killed Agamemnon during the feast.
The fabulous wealth of Agamemnon and his prominent position among the Greek leaders reflect the rise of historical Mycenae in the XIV-XII centuries BC and its dominant role among the early states of the Peloponnese. The preserved ritual epithet “Zeus – Agamemnon” shows that Agamemnon was probably originally one of those semi-divine patrons of his tribe, whose functions with the formation of the Olympic pantheon went to Zeus.
Agamemnon is more principled and less petty than Achilles. Taken the captive woman from Achilles, during the first military damage of Achaean army, Agamemnon returns her and indulges the warrior in every way. Homer depicts Agamemnon in all the grandeur of the Achaean leader. He compares him to the gods. “Although it would be unfair to suggest that Agamemnon is not a worthy warrior, such a role is not stressed in the poem, and, in fact, the overall characterization of his leadership is anything but positive” (Burgess 86). Homer supplies Agamemnon with weapons only slightly worse than Achilles’ ones. However, for Achilles, it was easy to get his famous shield because he is the son of sea princess, and she asked Hephaestus for the weapon.
Agamemnon does not have an extremely defiant and despotic character. On the contrary, his character is weak. If Agamemnon rashly and inappropriately orders something, he is immediately ready to apologize and cover everything with his peacefulness. His weakness of character explains his angry outbreaks. Agamemnon suddenly becomes wrought up but immediately calms. It explains his famous quarrel with Achilles. Agamemnon is forgiving, despite all the provocations on the part of Achilles. However, the warrior is extremely vindictive. Achilles strongly condemns and belittles the king. He calls Agamemnon a dog, a drunkard, shameless, a despot, and a coward.
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However, Agamemnon is cruel but not crueler than all the other characters. He prohibits Menelaus to spare the Trojan and is ready to kill even a baby in the womb from a hostile country. However, it can be considered a trifle compared with the cruelty that Achilles shows against his enemies, not excluding even helpless and young ones.
Agamemnon definitely does not appeal to Homer. The author does not like him in a role of a king and a supreme military leader who abuses his power. In the eyes of Homer, the tribal community leads to absolutism with all the attendant consequences. An emancipated poet does not admire this evolution. In this sense, Homer depicts Agamemnon worse than other warriors are because his power is stronger. The author presents the king as a robber, a predator, and a bold critic of Zeus. He is often a coward and a drunkard with a lyrically subtle, profoundly insulted, and infinitely suffering soul. However, taken alone, he is not much different from others. Moreover, he is criticized no more than others are. His image eventually is covered with some sad and tender lyrics. In such a way, Agamemnon is a powerful and glorious knight and king; however, unstable and weak-willed, greedy and voluptuous, modest and supple.
The conflict between the two Achaeans – Agamemnon and Achilles exhibits a contradiction between two powerful characters. The reader perceives Agamemnon as an irascible, cruel, greedy, brutal, and intransigent person. His main principles in life are power, strength, and glory. His whim is to receive an equal prize. It is a reaction of injured dignity and self-confidence of the king. In contrast, Achilles is tripping and divine. Courage, valor, and nobility distinguish him. He fought in defense of the heroic ideal of justice. The images of Achilles and Agamemnon are complex and controversial. They are not one-sided – either only positive or negative. Both Achilles and Agamemnon have positive and negative traits of character, which make them extremely outstanding characters in Greek mythology.