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9. Agamemnon's Insulting Response (I. 26-32)
"Old man, don’t let me catch you loitering by the hollow ships
today, and don’t be back later,
lest your staff and the god’s ribbons fail to protect you.
Her, I shall not free; old age will claim her first,
far from her own country, in Argos my home,
where she can tend the loom, and share my bed.
Away now; don’t provoke me if you’d leave safely."
Agamemnon’s First Words (26-28)
Agamemnon, lord of men, is the second person to speak in the Iliad, and his speech doesn’t much endear us to him. A seemingly reasonable request has been made and assented to unanimously by the Achaian troops. Not so Agamemnon. Rather than beginning with the customary phrases of good will or recognition of honor of the other party, Agamemnon plunges directly into a warning. Though the speech only is seven lines in length, it can conveniently be divided into two sections: a
warning of 26-28 and an insult of 29-32. The warning is really quite menacing and the insult quite extreme. Much too extreme, we think, in proportion to the words just uttered by the priest. But
we need to hold our judgment and learn why so much emotion is compressed in these seven lines.
Let’s first work through line 26 in detail. The first word is ominous—”me/may,” which means “not.” The second word is no less so—”se,” which means “you.” They rhyme; me/se. “Not you,” he begins. But rather than using an epithet and talking about an honored priest, we have the somewhat demeaning term “old man.” By itself the term may not carry a negative connotation, but we probably were expecting to hear a much more gentle, deferential and euphonious response. But we simply have “old man.” After one more word we run into the little word “ego,” which is at the root of most problems in the world. Because the verb, which appears at the end of the line, will be in the first
person singular, it already carries with it the notion of “I.” So, strictly speaking, the ego in the middle of the line is superfluous. Whenever it appears, then, we ought to take note of it and render
it “I myself,” as if the speaker is trying to bring attention to the fact that he (or she) is acting. Here it is best translated, “Let not me, Agamemnon, come upon you again, old man…” So much is happening
in lines 26-27. Agamemnon wants to say both “you” and “I” at the same time, and he ends up
running too many thoughts together in too few words. Though the “you” is prominently placed by Homer, the “I” is really the thing that moves the line. “Let me not come upon you along the hollow
ships. . .” Note the ships are “hollow” here and not “swift” as before (12). Maybe they are as hollow as the heart of Agamemnon.
But then Agamemnon becomes more precise. ‘Let me not come upon you...either hanging around now or later returning.’ It is almost as if the great man Agamemnon, seething in wrath (though a word for anger hasn’t yet been used to describe him), is now the lawyer. Like a lawyer he needs to cover all the bases when he speaks. The two occasions he might come upon Chryses by the ships are either now or later. So, he gives us words describing the now and the later. Instead of just saying, “Let me never see you again!,” he wants, as it were, coolly to calibrate the various permutations or modes of Calchas’ possible appearance. The first word, dethunein (“hanging around” or “delay”) appears in two principal contexts in later Greek but the chief one is the prolongation of a disease. It is as if Agamemnon is saying, ‘Don’t hang around like the disease that is already ravaging my troops.’ His tone is contemptuous. There is nothing worse than a sneering lawyer, one who has all the categories down pat but articulates them with a spirit of contempt or scorn. That is the spirit of
Agamemnon in lines 26 and 27. Then, he gives the consequences, “Lest your divine scepter and wreaths avail you not.” It is a weak and unsuccessful attempt at magnanimity, as if Agamemnon now
respects (but won’t in the future) the divine accoutrements that Chryses brings.
The Insult (29-32)
There follows an insult that is vicious as it is intense. Agamemnon, as one scholar remarks, is “at his nastiest” here. He states his position clearly. “Her I will not release.” The first word of line 29 is the feminine personal pronoun. Though we haven’t met her yet, she has taken the place at the head of a few lines of poetry already, as “child” (20) and as “her” in this line. Children do that; they bulk large, sometimes even before anyone really knows their names.
Agamemnon’s words here contain five demeaning expressions. He is so overcome by his emotion that he simply has to grind the face of the priest, so to speak, into the dust. His basic point is, “Over my dead body will you get her back. . .” But he says it with so much more spite. First, he says that old age will come upon her sooner (than her release). Second, Agamemnon tells the father that it will be in “our house” that she lives. That little word “our” is the first word in line 30, standing directly under the “her” of line 29. You won’t get “her” because she will be with “us.” Isn’t that nice? And, it isn’t simply with “me,” but “us.” We don’t know at this stage if the “us” is simply a sort of “royal we” or is
meant to suggest that Agamemnon is thinking about the girl’s life within an already-existing family (Agamemnon, as we will learn, is already married). Third, lest the father not fully understand
these things, Agamemnon says that her life will be “in Argos, far from her fatherland.” Dig in the knife. Oh, maybe the priest didn’t know quite where Argos was (on the Peloponnese). After
all, it isn’t Athens or Sparta. So Agamemnon “helpfully” tells dad that it is really quite a long way off from her homeland. In that word “homeland” is really the word “father” (patres), so of course the
father heard it as “away from you, dear old dad.” The crowd of Achaians might have used “euphemism” in shouting their approval, but there is no indication of that here. Can we coin a word?
Agamemnon is using a kakphemism or, better, kakphemia. We might define it as a word deliberately crafted to insult another.
Fourth, Agamemnon insults by suggesting a scene of domestic bliss and regularity that will characterize the girl’s life. She will be “going up and down by the loom” or “plying the loom."
lWomen in ancient Greece did that. We can’t say that it is necessarily an image of oppression or subjection. It simply describes the regularity of a style of life. Not only is she far off from dad, but she will also be engaged in the normal life of a woman. She isn’t coming home, therefore, any time soon.
Finally, as if to remove any doubt that we are in the realm of major insult here, he finishes with “sharing my bed.” Yep. She not only works for me by day but also by night. The verb antiao here can mean “to enjoy” as well as “to share.” Normally it takes the genitive (possessive) case and is called a “partitive genitive,” but here is a rare use of antiao with the accusative, or direct object, case. It is almost as if Agamemnon doesn’t want to use the verb with the “accepted” case because it might suggest “distance” or “parting.” Use an accusative--that brings me much closer to her!
After the five-fold insult there is little to do but to dismiss the old man. Since the greeting was brusque, we can expect the dismissal to be the same. And, we aren’t disappointed. He simply
tells the father to “go” and not “anger” Agamemnon (32). What a crock! Don’t anger (yet a third word-this one is erethizein--to provoke or irritate) me! As if Agamemnon is giving him friendly advice-better leave now or I will become mad.’ As if we could understand his words from 26-31 as flowing from anything other than the most egregious and bitter anger. Indeed, so “unseemly” are lines 29-31
that one of the earliest and most famous textual critics of Homer, the 3rd century BCE Alexandrian librarian Aristarchus, excised these lines. Better, and more technically said, he athetized them by placing his characteristic symbol, the obelus, at the beginning and end of them. So many things to learn, aren’t there? But if you go patiently, trying to learn each word and thing as it comes up, you will discover that you will have such a store of brilliant and useful knowledge that, in a few years time, you may be able to write your own epic. . .
Well, back to the words of Agamemnon. He sends Chryses away, warning him of his wrath. The last four words in Greek reiterate an earlier thought: “so you will go safer.” Agamemnon wants to leave the priest, and us, with the impression that his anger could be so much worse than it is now and that he is, in a perverted sort of way, acting graciously by letting him return home unscathed. So great is the pride of the ruler of men. Of course, this reaction will call forth an equal and opposite reaction
from the priest, to which we now turn.