- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- Ancient History»
- Greek & Roman History
King Agamemnon in Greek Mythology
In Greek mythology Agamemnon was a king of Mycenae, and a central character in Homer’s Iliad. Agamemnon’s fictional fame has been overshadowed by that of Achilles and Odysseus, and whilst the British Royal Navy occasionally makes use of the king’s name for one of their vessels, most people will have no knowledge of the Mycenaean king.
The Mask of Agamemnon
Sources that tell of the life and death of Agamemnon
It is of course not certain whether the ancient writers, including Homer, were writing about a real king, or whether Agamemnon was purely a fictional character. The Hittites made mention of a Greek king with a similar name to Agamemnon, but in Greece itself there is no physical evidence; and of course the “Mask of Agamemnon”, as discovered by the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, has absolutely no connection with the king of Mycenae.
Ancient writers though wrote of the Mycenaean king. The most famous writer of the period, Homer, wrote of Agamemnon in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but also Aeschylus wrote a play called “Agamemnon” and Sophocles wrote of the king in “Electra”.
Genealogy of Agamemnon
Doomed from Birth
Many of the ancient writers would focus on the fact that Agamemnon was doomed from birth because of his ancestry. Agamemnon was born to King Atreus of Mycenae and his wife Queen Aerope, this made him a descendent of Tantalus and Pelops; Tantalus of course ended up in Tartarus because of his misdemeanours.
Tantalus had of course served up Pelops as a meal for the gods, and something similar also occurred with Agamemnon’s father. King Atreus discovered that his own brother, Thyestes, had slept with Queen Aerope, and in revenge, Atreus killed Thyestes’ own children and served them up as a meal for his brother. A blood feud now existed, and Aegisthus, another of Thyestes’ sons, would kill King Atreus and place Thyestes on the throne of Mycenae.
Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, were forced to flee Mycenae.
Things Look More Positive
Agamemnon and Menelaus eventually arrived in the Spartan court of King Tyndareus, and there, the two were offered sanctuary. Whilst in the court of Tyndareus, Agamemnon would start to plan the retaking of his father’s thrown, but the Mycenaean prince would also find a partner, as he was wed to Tyndareus’ daughter Clytemnestra.
Menelaus would also find a partner, as he was the successful suitor for the hand of Helen. Menelaus was chosen over a whole host of eligible kings and princes, but to avoid bloodshed and bad feeling over the choice, all of the Suitors of Helen took the Oath of Tyndareus; an oath which called for all to defend the chosen suitor.
With the assistance of the forces of Sparta Agamemnon would retake the throne of Mycenae, whilst Menelaus was made heir to the throne of Sparta.
As king of Mycenae, Agamemnon increased the size and power of the kingdom through conquest, and soon Agamemnon was recognised as the most powerful king in Ancient Greece. At the same time as his kingdom was growing, so was his household, and with Clytemnestra, became father to three daughters, Chrysothemis, Electra, and Iphigenia, and also one son, Orestes.
A Spanner in the Works
Just as everything was looking positive for Agamemnon, problems started to occur in Menelaus’ Sparta kingdom. Helen, Menelaus’ wife, was abducted by Paris, a prince of Troy; Paris having effectively been promised Helen by the goddess of Aphrodite, when he had undertaken the “Judgement of Paris”.
A call to arms went out, and the Oath of Tyndareus was invoked, with all of the suitors of Helen called upon. Agamemnon was not one of the suitors but he had a fraternal bond that required him to also take up arms; thus Agamemnon gathered up a Mycenaean army to aide in the retrieval of Helen.
A gathering of vessels took place at Aulis, and it was calculated that there were 1186 ships assembled. Agamemnon was said to have brought 100 ships making the Mycenaean contingent the largest single part. This was one factor which saw Agamemnon made commander-in-chief of the Greek forces.
Eventually the fleet was ready to depart; in some versions several years actually elapsed between two gatherings of the fleet.
The Sacrifice of Agamemnon
The fleet was ready to set sail for Troy, but the wind refused to blow. It was said that Agamemnon had managed to anger the goddess Artemis, when during a hunt he had proclaimed that even the goddess herself could not have bested his efforts.
The Greek seer Calchas proclaimed that the winds would only blow favourably once again when Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia.
Agamemnon eventually agreed to the sacrifice being made, although the ancient sources are divided about how willing the Mycenaean king was to undertake the act. Some state that Agamemnon would have called off the expedition to Troy rather than the sacrifice being made, whilst others say Agamemnon did the deed willingly because of his position as commander.
Of course, not matter how willing Agamemnon was to sacrifice Iphigenia, the fact was that his wife would not, and so Clytemnestra was tricked into believing that her daughter was to marry the young Achilles.
Whether Iphigenia was actually sacrificed is not definitively stated, and it was common to suggest that Artemis rescued the girl before she died; but the apparent sacrifice did enough to allow the winds to blow towards Troy again.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia
The Rage of Achilles
Agamemnon at Troy
During the battle for Troy, Agamemnon, especially in the Iliad, is not described in a glowing light. Although the Mycenaean king was said to have killed 16 heroes from the Trojan side, most of the commentary about the king related to the divisive nature of his command. In particular an argument that Agamemnon had with Achilles almost caused the Achaean forces to be defeated.
Achilles sacked the city of Lyrnessus, and took the beautiful Briseis as a prize, but when Agamemnon was forced to give up one of his own prizes, the king took Briseis for himself. The resulting argument saw Achilles refuse to fight for the Achaean forces again; although of course he eventually did, and died doing so.
The Iliad finishes before the city of Troy is taken by the subterfuge of the Wooden Horse, and although the story is told in the Little Iliad and also the Sack of Troy, neither of these works survive in their entirety.
It is of course known that Troy was sacked by the Greek forces; and acts of sacrilege during this sacking resulted in many of the Greek heroes facing long and perilous journeys home. Whilst Agamemnon was not blamed directly for any of the crimes committed, many of the gods blamed him as he was the commander of the attacking force.
To try and appease the gods, Agamemnon made a number of animal sacrifices.
Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon
Arguably Agamemnon is better known for events after the fall of Troy, than for events that had gone before; and in particular the Mycenaean king is famous for the manner of his death. The death of Agamemnon being mentioned briefly in Homer’s Odyssey, but also recounted in far more detail in the Oresteia by Aeschylus and in Electra by Sophocles.
The sacrifices made by Agamemnon after the fall of Troy worked to a large degree, and unlike many of his comrades, the vessels of Agamemnon had a relatively quick and easy journey home.
Agamemnon arrived in Mycenae with his war prizes, including his new concubine, Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. Cassandra warned Agamemnon of the dangers that were ahead, but Cassandra was cursed to never be believed.
In his absence, Clytemnestra had taken a lover, Aegisthus, a son of Thyestes, and upon his return, Agamemnon was killed, along with all of his companions. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus justified their actions, as Agamemnon’s father had killed his half-siblings, also Agamemnon had sacrificed Iphigenia.
Agamemnon is subsequently encountered in the Underworld by Odysseus during the Odyssey, but several years later when Aegisthus and Clytemnestra meet their comeuppance when Agamemnon’s son Orestes kills both.