Explain Agamemnon's participation in Homer's the Iliad.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Homer’s Iliad begins with the kidnapping of Helen, the beautiful wife of Menelaus. The King of the Achaians happens to be Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus. Loyalty to his brother forces Agamemnon to commit to help his brother in his fight to return Helen to her rightful home.  Unfortunately for everyone, Agamemnon’s position outweighs his ability to rule. However, by the end of the Iliad Agamemnon does become a better leader, though as a hero he does not always follow through.

One of Agamemnon's faults lies in his poor decision-making. Agamemnon’s refusal to return a slave girl Chryseis brings a plague on his people. To save his men he returns the girl, but there is a caveat: he will return his girl, but he wants Briseis, Achilles’ girl. This is poorly received by Achilles; consequently, Achilles refuses to fight in the war.

Agamemnon:
Still I am willing to give her back, if such is the best way.
I myself desire that my people be safe, not perish.
Find me then some prize that shall be my own, lest I only
among the Argives go without, since that was unfitting.

Over and over, Agamemnon proves to be a less than stellar commander. He tests his army by telling them that they can go home. Thinking that his army will vow to stay and fight on [after nine years of pointless fighting], the army turns and heads for the ships. Only a god and Odysseus are able to stop the army from going. Agamemnon suggests going home two more times. This deflates the army because the soldiers have fought for Menelaus and his brother for the last nine years. Often, Agamemnon also bullies those whom he loves and needs.

Finally, Agamemnon claims that he was not in his right mind when he took Achilles' lover and so returns her to him. He also offers his daughter up to Achilles so that the latter may enter the fight again. Agamemnon knows that his side of the fight cannot win without the participation of Achilles.

Achilles feels that Agamemnon lusts for power and treasure.  The gods often intervene in the human battles and Agamemnon usually makes one of them mad, which leads to immense problems for his army. 

How does Agamemnon handle the war? It's a mixture of good and bad:

  • He allows the fight between Paris and Menelaus, who is shot by a Trojan soldier
  • He begins to motivate his soldiers
  • He personally enters the battle and kills opposing soldiers
  • Ajax fights Hector which does nothing to facilitate the ending of the war
  • He lures Achilles back into the fighting

In summary, Agamemnon’s greatest error is that he does not understand that a king must think of his people before himself. He puts his personal needs above all else.

As the fighting continues, Agamemnon continues to waffle back and forth between heroic actions and foolish decisions. He is a great warrior, but as a king he often misuses his authority. His love for his brother and concern for his well-being involve him in a battle for which he fights to the bitter end.

Eventually, Agamemnon learns to listen to the experience and wisdom of Nestor and Odysseus. This helps him to become a more dynamic character. His growth throughout the long battle elevates him to great warrior and sometimes hero.

Sources:

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