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17. Agamemnon's Turn, Second Essay, I. 109-120
And now you prophesy to the Danaan assembly,
claiming the far-striker troubles them because
I refused fine ransom for a girl, Chryses' daughter,
and would rather take her home.
Well I prefer her to my wife, Clytemnestra,
since she’s no less than her
in form or stature, mind or skill.
Yet, even so, I’d look to give her up, if that seems best;
I’d rather you were safe, and free of plague.
So ready a prize at once, for me, I’ll not be the only one
with empty hands: that would be wrong:
you see for yourselves, my prize now goes elsewhere.’
Denigrating His Wife (109-15)
I use the word “denigrating” to describe Agamemnon’s actions in both this and the previous section because of its Latin root. Denigrare means the action of blackening or the process of becoming black. This literal meaning goes back to the seventeenth century while the figurative use of the term, to signify defamation or “blackening” of the character, first emerged only late in the nineteenth century. The word is appropriate because of the nature of Agamemnon’s heart. Recall that it was a heart wrapped around by blackness (amphimelas--103). A depraved heart can only
speak depravity. A “black” heart can only speak dark words.
The lord of men continues to address Calchas even as he changes subject. The transitional lines are 109-110, where he makes an incredible admission, not often noted by readers. Agamemnon speaks about the prophecy concerning the Danaans, literally,
“to the effect that on account of these things the sharp-shooter brings woes on them”
The last words mirror the language of the prologue, but what is striking to me is that Agamemnon describes his troops, the Danaans, as “them,” rather than “us.” He really isn’t thinking about this war effort as a united effort of people who might live scattered throughout Greece. It is “they” who are
afflicted and not “we.” To show that he knows the precise reason being posited for the disaster, he repeats, in 111 and the first part of 112, the “charge” against him.
Then, rather than dealing with the seer’s allegations, the ruler retreats into a private world of self-pity and petty preference. The Iliad is great because it never separates the valorous deeds of the heroes from the realization that they are, and can be, the most small-minded people. We hear people all the time in our day say something like, ‘You would have thought that academics
(change the word--ministers, doctors, lawyers, etc.) would have risen above their trivial concerns and pursued the high road.’ But, why should we have thought this? From the beginning of
Western literature we are treated to stories of great people who are enormously small in their dealings with each other.
Agamemnon dives into the pool of self-pity in the rest of his speech, but he begins right away with a shocking statement (112-113):
“Since I greatly desire to have her (Chryseis) at home"
His reason quickly follows (113-114):
“For I much prefer her to Clytemnestra, my long-married wife"
I translate kouridies as “long-married” rather than simply as “wedded,” as most translators do, because the kour-root suggests a youthfulness or “girlishness” that I want to bring out. Indeed, Kirk says that the formulaic words describing his wife “ha[ve] an affectionate and pathetic ring,” Op. cit., p. 65. Since Chryseis is often called a koure or girl, it is almost as if we see an exchange going on, trading the current “girl” for the one he wed when she was a “girl.” One of the oldest arrows in the quiver, so to speak.
But it is the content of the thought that immediately offends and even repels. Agamemnon will go on to state at least three ways in which his prize of war is superior (“not inferior”-114) to his wife. She is neither inferior in “body and stature,” nor in “mind” nor in “works.” The first emphasizes her physical nature, her appearance, her beauty. Kirk thinks that it is a rather formal phrase designed to play down the sexual content of the preference, which has already been alluded to in line 31. The second refers to her intelligence or disposition, while the third relates to her accomplishments, perhaps in weaving or other domestic skills. We have to stop for a moment. How does Agamemnon really know this? Chryseis has been in tow for only a short time, we presume. Not too many opportunities among the hollow boats to see her at work with the loom. Agamemnon combines an unusual ability to specify things while, at the same time, doing so with such petty spite and anger. He, the big man, is the essence of small.
A Hypocritical Proposal (116-20)
After just specifying the ways that he prefers Chryseis to his wife, Agamemnon continues with a seeming display of magnanimity, a display which the reader immediately knows is specious. He does two things in these lines: (a) makes a proposal; and (b) declares what is “right” or “fitting” under the circumstances. His proposal is a simple one, and it is couched in the language of concern for the people. ‘In any case,’ he says, ‘I would be more than happy to give her back, if that is better. For I desire that the people be safe rather than perish.’ We want to leap out of our chairs and wring his neck at this point. ‘What do you mean by better?’ He has just finished stating that Chryseis “is
not worse” (i.e., is better) than his wife Clytemnestra; now he is saying that the better course may be to give up the one whom he much prefers. His reason for it, in line 117, also rings false. He
wants the people safe. But he has just said that the griefs fell on “them” and not “us.” Why is he all of a sudden “concerned” about the people? And, the way he says line 117 also is suspect. He
wants the people rather to “be safe” rather than perish? Be safe? They have been perishing for ten days, if you haven’t noticed. If safety was your first concern, you wouldn’t have allowed nine
days to go by and then listen while an underling, accomplished as he was (Achilles), called an assembly. If safety were his first concern, he would have been sedulous and gotten to the cause of the problem long ago.
To show that this is all a sham, we get to his final comments. He has to think about Number One in all of this, and so he quickly adds, in the imperative mood (a command), “However, make
ready (prepare) a prize immediately for me,” line 118. Why? Because it really isn’t fitting that “I am the only one of the Argives without a prize.” Really? Do we have 10,000 soldiers and 10,000 women cluttering the beaches? His extreme use of language again comes to the fore here. He has to have things be equal, right away, because otherwise he would be the “only one” without a prize.
Like Elijah on Mount Carmel, who said he was “the only one” who hadn’t bowed his knee to Baal, so Agamemnon luxuriates in his unique suffering. But it is false, of course, an excuse for
picking a fight, an occasion for him to try to demonstrate a kind of great-heartedness that never really touched his breast. Then, as if to try to stress the extreme pathos of the scene,
he says, “All of you look, my prize is going to another,” line 120. It is almost as if he gives a sweeping gesture of the hand, much like the advice later given by ancient rhetoricians in order to make one’s point powerfully, and sees before the event happens how his beloved prize will be given back to her father. Some things are just too hard to bear, aren’t they? We all shed a silent tear for Agamemnon. Where else in human history has someone had to endure the disgrace that he will have to face?
We have only read 120 lines of the Iliad, less than 1% of it, and already we aren’t very impressed by the people. Achilles is insubordinate, Agamemnon pities himself and is out of control, the priest Chryearns for revenge and even Calchas, who seemingly gave such clear advice, may be in cahoots with Achilles or have crossed swords with Agamemnon in the past. No one is “pure” but life goes on. No one is pure, and major decisions in war have to be made. But that is heroic life. Both then and now.