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The so-called 'Mask of Agamemnon'. Discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 at Mycenae. Whether it represents an individual, and who, remain unknown.
The so-called ' Mask of Agamemnon'. Discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 at Mycenae. Whether it represents an individual, and who, remain unknown.

Agamemnon ( Greek: Ἀγαμέμνων) ("very resolute") is one of the most distinguished of the Greek heroes. He is the son of King Atreus of Mycenae and Queen Aerope,and brother of Menelaus. Because of the antiquity of the sources, it is not clear whether Agamemnon is a historical figure.

In alternative traditions Agamemnon is said to be the son of Pleisthenes (son of Atreus) and Aerope, or of Pleisthenes and Cleolla, daughter of Dias, making him the grandson, rather than the son, of Atreus.

Early life

Agamemnon's father Atreus was murdered by Aegisthus, who took possession of the throne of Mycenae and ruled jointly with his father Thyestes. During this period Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, took refuge with Tyndareus, king of Sparta. There they respectively married Tyndareus' daughters Clytemnestra and Helen. Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had five children: four daughters, Iphigeneia, Electra, Chrysothemis, and Iphianissa and one son, Orestes.

Menelaus succeeded Tyndareus in Sparta, while Agamemnon, with his brother's assistance, drove out Aegisthus and Thyestes to recover his father's kingdom. He extended his dominion by conquest and became the most powerful prince in Greece.

Agamemnon's family history, dating back to legendary king Pelops, had been marred by pederastic rape, murder, incest, and treachery. The Greeks believed this violent past brought misfortune upon the entire House of Atreus.

The Trojan War

The sacrifice of Iphigenia.
The sacrifice of Iphigenia.

Agamemnon gathered the reluctant Greek forces to sail for Troy. Preparing to depart from Aulis, which was a port in Boeotia, Agamemnon's army incurred the wrath of the goddess Artemis. There are several reasons throughout myth for such wrath: in Aeschylus' play Agamemnon, Artemis is angry for the young men who will die at Troy, whereas in Sophocles' Electra, Agamemnon has slain an animal sacred to Artemis, and subsequently boasted that he was Artemis' equal in hunting. Misfortunes, including a plague and a lack of wind, prevented the army from sailing. Finally, the prophet Calchas announced that the wrath of the goddess could only be propitiated by the sacrifice of Agamemnon's daughter Iphigeneia. Classical dramatizations differ on how willing either father or daughter were to this fate, some including such trickery as claiming she was to be married to Achilles, but Agamemnon did eventually sacrifice Iphigeneia. Her death appeased Artemis, and the Greek army set out for Troy. Several alternatives to the human sacrifice have been presented in Greek mythology. Other sources claim that Agamemnon was prepared to kill his daughter, but that Artemis accepted a deer in her place, and whisked her to Taurus in Crimea. Hesiod said she became the goddess Hecate.

Agamemnon was the commander-in-chief of the Greeks during the Trojan War. During the fighting, Agamemnon killed Antiphus. Agamemnon's teamster, Halaesus, later fought with Aeneas in Italy. The Iliad tells the story of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles in the final year of the war. Agamemnon took an attractive slave and spoil of war Briseis from Achilles. Achilles, the greatest warrior of the age, withdrew from battle in revenge and nearly cost the Greek armies the war.

Although not the equal of Achilles in bravery, Agamemnon was a dignified representative of kingly authority. As commander-in-chief, he summoned the princes to the council and led the army in battle. He took the field himself, and performed many heroic deeds until he was wounded and forced to withdraw to his tent. His chief fault was his overweening haughtiness. An over-exalted opinion of his position led him to insult Chryses and Achilles, thereby bringing great disaster upon the Greeks.

After the capture of Troy, Cassandra, doomed prophetess and daughter of Priam, fell to his lot in the distribution of the prizes of war.

Return to Greece

The return of Agamemnon, from an 1879 illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church.
The return of Agamemnon, from an 1879 illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church.

After a stormy voyage, Agamemnon and Cassandra landed in Argolis or were blown off course and landed in Aegisthus' country. Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife, had taken a lover, Aegisthus, and they invited Agamemnon to a banquet at which he was treacherously slain. According to the account given by Pindar and the tragedians, Agamemnon was slain by his wife alone in a bath, a piece of cloth or a net having first been thrown over him to prevent resistance. Clytemnestra also killed Cassandra. Her wrath at the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and her jealousy of Cassandra, are said to have been the motives of her crime. Aegisthus and Clytemnestra then ruled Agamemnon's kingdom for a time, but the murder of Agamemnon was eventually avenged by his son Orestes with the help of Electra.

Other stories

Athenaeus tells a story of Argynnus, an eromenos of Agamemnon: "Agamemnon loved Argynnus, so the story goes, having seen him swimming in the Cephisus river; in which, in fact, he lost his life (for he constantly bathed in this river). Agamemnon was struck with great grief. He buried him, honored him with a tomb and a shrine, and founded there a temple of Aphrodite Argynnis." (The Deipnosophists of Athenaeus of Naucratis, Book XIII Concerning Women, p.3) This episode is also found in Clement of Alexandria (Protrepticus II.38.2), in Stephen of Byzantium (Kopai and Argunnos), and in Propertius, III with minor variations.

The fortunes of Agamemnon have formed the subject of numerous tragedies, ancient and modern, the most famous being the Oresteia of Aeschylus. In the legends of the Peloponnesus, Agamemnon was regarded as the highest type of a powerful monarch, and in Sparta he was worshipped under the title of Zeus Agamemnon. His tomb was pointed out among the ruins of Mycenae and at Amyclae.

Another account makes him the son of Pleisthenes (the son or father of Atreus), who is said to have been Aerope's first husband.

In works of art there is considerable resemblance between the representations of Zeus, king of the gods, and Agamemnon, king of men. He is generally characterized by the sceptre and diadem, the usual attributes of kings.

Agamemnon in fiction

Writers of time travel and historical novels often attempt to show the Trojan War "as it really happened", based on the archeological evidence of Mycenaean civilization. Such authors frequently use Agamemnon as the archetypical Mycenaean king, bringing life to old artifacts by dressing a familiar face in them. Of particular interest is S. M. Stirling's time-travel trilogy Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years and On the Oceans of Eternity, where the fate that befalls the House of Atreus is every bit as horrific as that traditionally portrayed. The horror is arranged by a time-travelling villain who is very well aware of the traditional accounts.

The noble Atreides family of the science fiction series Dune by Frank Herbert trace their lineage back to Agamemnon (note that the surname, Atreides, is derived from Agamemnon's father's name, Atreus). An important Atreides ancestor also adopts the name Agamemnon in the series' back-story.

Agamemnon is also mentioned in William Butler Yeats poem " Leda and the Swan".

Agamemnon makes an appearance in the film Time Bandits, played by Sean Connery, although his depiction in the film seems more reminiscent of Odysseus. Masks very similar to the famous Mask of Agamemnon are also used in the film.

He also appeared in the 2004 film Troy, played by Scottish actor Brian Cox. Troy departs from the traditional accounts in numerous places; in the case of Agamemnon, he is portrayed as power-mad, and is killed for his rapaciousness during the fall of Troy.

The phrase "Thus falls of the house of Agamemnon" was used in a delirious stupor by Steve Rhodes during an episode of Married with Children.

Agamemnon also appears in the Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida.

Agamemnon appears in Microsoft Game Studios' Age of Mythology. His role in the game broadly reflects his role in the Trojan War.

Agamemnon appears as a character in the novels Ilium and Olympos by Dan Simmons, in the future replaying of the Trojan War.

In his book Where Troy Once Stood, Dutch-born writer Iman Wilkens links Argos and Agamemnon with the Biblical Gog and Magog.

The folk band The Mountain Goats has a song titled "Against Agamemnon", although direct textual references to Agamemnon himself are rather vague.

Agamemnon was used as the name of the Earth Alliance Omega class destroyer, first captained by John Sheridan in Babylon 5, by J M Straczynski.

The name Agamemnon was also used to denote a class of space battleship used in the anime Gundam Seed and it's sequel Gundam Seed Destiny

In Christine Brooke-Rose's novel Amalgamemnon, she uses the world of Greek mythology to demonstrate a character oppressed by a male dominated society. As she feels confinied by many male conventions, the term "amalga" is added to the name, in order to signify an amalgamation of oppression.

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