Home > Achilles, Iliad, The > Agamemnon, lord of men

Agamemnon, lord of men

The Iliad is a poem about the rage of Achilles and his degeneration into inhumanity (more on this later). It’s interesting to note then, that what sets Achilles down this path is a classic struggle between the ruled (Achilles) and the ruler (Agamemnon).

To set the stage, the Achaeans, led by Agamemnon, have sacked a city near Troy. One of the places in that city was a shrine to the god Apollo. After the battle, the Achaeans took the loot from the city and divided it up between them. The most prized possession from the attack was the daughter of the temple priest, Chryseis. And since Agamemnon was the ruler, he took her as his own.

Shortly after, Chryseis’ father begs Agamemnon to return her, but Agamemnon refuses. Being a priest of Apollo, Chryseis’ father implores the god for revenge. Apollo obliges, and afflicts the Achaeans with plague, forcing Agamemnon to return her.

Okay, fine. Agamemnon had to give her back. He lost out, but it was for the good of his people (they were dying of plague). Agamemnon lord of men doesn’t stop there, however. He thinks it’s not fair that he lost his prize, so he makes Achilles give up his own prize so that Agamemnon won’t be empty-handed (as it turns out, Achilles prize was a woman named Briseis). Understandably, Achilles feels this is a bit unfair. That’s actually an understatement. Achilles thinks it’s an outrage.

This, though, is how all ‘lords of men’ tend to think. Agamemnon shouldn’t have to pay. Why? Because he’s Agamemnon, of course! There is huge difference between the way in which kings and commoners each view themselves. Though I once thought this was a more recent phenomenon attributed to ‘entitlement’, apparently it’s a universal that’s always been here.

The rich and powerful see themselves as the real power that moves the world. If it weren’t for them, they think, the poor stupid common folk would be lost without any idea of what to do with themselves. They feel like they really do deserve all of the things they have – up to and including taking whatever they want from the yokels. Why? Because they’re taking care of us and they know better. Who are us poor folk to complain, anyway? We should just trust them to take care of us instead.

Nowadays, this is done by the passing of laws by the bureaucrats, the sneaky trading of the stock brokers, the layoffs, cutbacks and loopholes of the big business owners, or the back-door dealing of the lobbyists. Although the settings have changed, their circular argument hasn’t: The powerful deserve more than the poor. They deserve more because they’re powerful and they deserve it.

In the Iliad, the very reason Agamemnon is fighting the Trojans is because the Trojan prince, Paris, stole Helen away from Agamemnon’s brother. But now, look: Agamemnon perpetrates the same exact crime to one of his own men, but is so blinded by his status that he doesn’t even see anything wrong with it. He thinks that he is allowed to do whatever he did, because he is the lord of men.

Achilles’ hate filled speech to Agamemnon perfectly illustrates the distinction between the ruler and the ruled. First he tells Agamemnon that he’s not even there fighting for his own personal reasons:

The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least,

they never stole my cattle or my horses… How could they?

Look at the endless miles that lie between us…

No, you colossal, shameless – we all followed you,

to please you, to fight for you, to win your honor

And yet even though it’s not even his fight:

My arms bear the brunt of the raw, savage fighting,

but when it comes to dividing up the plunder

the lion’s share is yours, and I go back to my ships,

clutching some scrap, some pittance that I love,

when I have fought to exhaustion.

  1. June 26, 2014 at 2:34 pm

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