Historicity of Agamemnon

Historicity of Agamemnon

Is there discussion among scholars about whether the Agamemnon of the Iliad was was closely based on a real person, probably with some embellishments and inaccuracies? What books, if any, could I read that explicity discuss Agamemnon's historicity?

There is no good evidence as of now whether Agamemnon was a real person or not. It's possible that his name existed and was later attached to the leader of the Greek army at Troy, but this is all just conjecture. There have been some promising finds in the past century that lends itself to that idea, chiefly the Pylos tablets, among which the names Orestes, Atreus, Tantalus, and Thyestes all occur. There was also an Attarissyas who was "trouble" to the Hittites, and some have posited that that was Agamemnon, though it's mere speculation and, in fact, unlikely to be the case.

For an older but still solid introduction, check out Webster's 1958 monograph From Mycenae to Homer. You can find the reprint on Google Books.

I don't know what your access to scholarship is like, but a number of interesting papers that came out of an AIA session in 1981 published in AJA 87.2 (1983). You can also check out Snodgrass' Archaeology and the Emergence of Greece, which has some updated sections to point you towards more recent literature. For a more pop account, check out Eric Cline's Trojan War: Very Short Introduction.

Scions of Agamemnon: Who Were the Mycenaeans?

Mycenae in the northeast Peloponnese was the main fortified site of contemporary Greek civilisation at the end of the Bronze Age (around 1500-1150 BC), from which the era now takes its name.

By the classical era this was a remote and insignificant hilltop overlooking the plain of Argos, the major local urban centre and state.

But its correct identification in Greek legend and Homer’s epics as the fortified and palatial headquarters of the main state of Greece in the Bronze Age showed that oral memories (after the art of writing was lost) were correct.


The facts about Aeschylus's life are not considered verifiable because he lived centuries ago, and they have been pieced together from existing information. He is believed to have been born in 525 bce at Eleusis, near Athens, the capital of modern-day Greece. His father, Euphorion, was from a noble family. When Aeschylus was young, he worked in a vineyard, and it is said that it was his devotion to Dionysus, the god of wine, that led him to become a playwright. (The earliest Greek dramas were written and performed for feasts in celebration of Dionysus.) Aeschylus fought in the Persian War, in battles at Marathon, Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea. He earned distinction as a soldier. In his epitaph, which Aeschylus wrote for himself, he talked about his accomplishments in battle but not the awards he won in playwriting competitions, indicating that he treasured his life as a soldier more than his life as a writer.

Aeschylus was writing dramas for competitions before he served in the army. His first competitive piece was produced in 499 bce for the dramatic competition at the City Dionysian Festival in Athens, and his first victory in competition came in 484. After that, he became a regular if not constant winner, receiving first place about twelve more times. In all, he is thought to have written between fifty and ninety plays, of which only seven remain. The earliest remaining play is Persians, from 472 bce, when he was fifty-three years old.

Aeschylus is known to have spent two distinctive periods of his life on the island of Sicily, then a center of wealth and power among the Greece states and now an autonomous region of Italy. It was in Athens, however, that he produced The Oresteia, a trilogy that includes Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.

Aeschylus died in the city of Gela in Sicily in 455 or 456 bce, at the age of sixty-nine. Two of his sons became dramatists: Euphorion (who also restaged many of his father's plays) and Euaeon.

"Start With the Impossible"

The impetus for the show began in 2010, when National Geographic representatives raised the idea of a museum show with the Greek government. The country's General Secretary of Culture and exhibition co-curator Maria Vlazaki was in charge of sourcing potential artifacts from dozens of national museums.

By his own account, National Geographic's Archaeology Fellow and co-curator Fredrik Hiebert handed her an outrageous wish list. "You start with the impossible and unobtainable and work down from there," explains Hiebert. "That's usually the way exhibitions are done."

To his surprise, nearly all of his requests were granted. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens agreed to loan the Mask of Agamemnon and other remarkable artifacts excavated from royal burials in Mycenae, a powerful city of the Greek Bronze Age (1600-1100 B.C.). Then the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai, a collection built around the fourth-century B.C. tomb of Macedonian King Phillip II, offered priceless artifacts that, until then, had never even left their display cases.

According to Hiebert, when other national museums around Greece learned that the burial treasures of Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great, were headed to North America, the floodgates opened up. "All of a sudden it was like, 'Well, aren't you going to take our Homeric burials?' 'Aren't you going to take our golden helmets?'" Hiebert recalls with a laugh. "Absolutely!"

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"The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great" opens at the National Geographic Museum on June 1 and runs until October 10, 2016. Click here for details and to purchase tickets for the exhibition and associated events.

Watch the three-part National Geographic series "The Greeks" on PBS on June 21.

Explore Greece with National Geographic Expeditions. Trace 5,000 years of Greek history while exploring the country's incomparable archaeological treasures during an 11-day odyssey.

The golden death mask

The mask was a death mask, and made of a thick sheet of gold hammered against a wooden background. A sharp tool was used later to chisel the finer details. The mask is said to depict the face of a man with “an oblong face, wide forehead, long fine nose and tightly closed thin lips.” The details of the eyebrows, moustache and beard were indicated with repousse. Near the ears, two holes were made so that the mask could be held over the deceased’s face with twine. Of the five gold masks, this was the only mask showing a bearded man, hence Schliemann’s conclusion that it had belonged to Agamemnon.

Agamemnon sitting on a rock holding his scepter, Fragment of the lid of an Attic red-figure lekanis by the circle of the Meidias Painter (410–400 BC) ( Wikimedia Commons )

Although Schliemann’s discovery was indeed remarkable, it would later come into question. The strongest evidence against his claim is that it would later be shown that the graves discovered by the German archaeologist predated the Trojan War by at least 300 years. Thus, it would have been impossible that the owner of the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ was the legendary Greek ruler. Nevertheless, it is still possible that the graves belonged to the Mycenaean elite.

Top image: The ‘Mask of Agamemnon,' Mycenae, 16th Century BC death mask, Source: Xuan Che / Flickr

You've only scratched the surface of Agamemnon family history.

Between 1977 and 1982, in the United States, Agamemnon life expectancy was at its lowest point in 1982, and highest in 1977. The average life expectancy for Agamemnon in 1977 was 90, and 66 in 1982.

An unusually short lifespan might indicate that your Agamemnon ancestors lived in harsh conditions. A short lifespan might also indicate health problems that were once prevalent in your family. The SSDI is a searchable database of more than 70 million names. You can find birthdates, death dates, addresses and more.

Mask of Agamemnon

The “Mask of Agamemnon” is one of the most famous gold artifacts from the ancient Greek Bronze Age. The Mask was discovered in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann during excavations at Mycenae in Greece.

This remarkable historical object is a gold leaf funeral mask that was found over the face of a body in a burial shaft in the Mycenaean Citadel.

Archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann after he discovered the Mask exclaimed:

“I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.”

The Mask was one of five masks found, and due to its nobility and level of preservation, Schliemann claimed it to be that of the famous ancient king.

Modern archaeological research suggests that the Mask is from 1550–1500 BCE, which is earlier than tradition regards Agamemnon to have lived.

Thus scholars no longer consider it as the real Mask of Agamemnon but of a former King of Mycenae. However, the name “Mask of Agamemnon” stuck because of its early publicity and notoriety.

Agamemnon is one of the most famous characters in Classical Greek literature. According to the Greek legends, Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae, which was the most potent Greek town at that time.

He was the leader of the Greeks during the Trojan War, and he was the brother of Menelaus, who was married to “Helen of Troy.”

Agamemnon’s wife was Clytemnestra, and they had three daughters and one son. One of his daughters, Iphigenia, was sacrificed to goddess Artemis so that the winds would starting blowing and aid the Greek ships to set sail for Troy.

When Agamemnon returned to his kingdom after the end of the Trojan War, he was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra.

She killed him in revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Agamemnon featured in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, as well as being the favorite character among Greek writers of tragedy.

The Mask was created by hammering gold into a thin leaf over a wooden model. A sharp tool was used to chisel more delicate details.

The Mask depicts the face of a man with a broad forehead, long fine nose, and closed thin lips. It includes well-defined ears, detailed facial hair, and eyelids that can appear as both open and closed depending on your perspective.

It is a masterpiece from the Bronze Age of ancient Greece, predating the “Trojan War.”

Quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon, painted by William Page (c. 1811-1885)

This painting, created by the American artist William Page (c. 1811-1885) and housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, re-creates the dramatic argument that occurred between King Agamemnon and Achilles in the opening scenes of The Iliad. Agamemnon, shown sitting high above the crowd on his platform, and Achilles—the shirtless man with the white cloth around his waist—were arguing about women named Chryseis and Briseis, who were captured by the Greek army in a raid during the Trojan War. Fortunately for Chryseis, her father was a priest of Apollo who was greatly respected by the god that he served. Apollo, in response to the imprisonment of his priest’s daughter, decided to ravage the Greek army with a terrible plague.

In order to end the plague, King Agamemnon needed only return Chryseis to her father. The king, however, loathed to lose his spoils of war and decided to make up his losses by taking prisoners from other leaders in his army. Agamemnon agreed to let Chryseis go, but in return he wanted a captive woman named Briseis to be relinquished to him by the greatest warrior of the Greek army—Achilles.

Although Achilles balked at the demand, King Agamemnon, who was the leader of the Greek coalition, ultimately used his authority and status to force Achilles to give up Briseis. During the argument between the king and the hero, egos flared and insults were thrown in both directions. In the moment captured in paint above, Achilles had become so angry that he was seriously considering the option of killing the king. The poet, Homer, described this scene, writing, “These thoughts were racing through his mind, and he was just drawing his great sword from his sheath when Athene came down from the skies…Athene stood behind Achilles and seized him by his auburn hair. No one but Achilles was aware of her the rest saw nothing” (The Iliad, book 1, approximately lines 190-200). Through the goddess’ restraining hand, Agamemnon survived the argument and succeeded in forcing Achilles to relinquish Briseis. This move, however, infuriated Achilles to the extent that he refused to lead his troops into battle and even called upon his divine relatives to sabotage the Greek army’s good fortune. Achilles would remain absent from the war effort until the slaying of his friend, Patroclus, prompted him to once again fight.

Trojan War

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 Iphigenia. Classical dramatisations differ on how willing either father or daughter were to this fate, some include such trickery as claiming she was to be married to Achilles, but Agamemnon did eventually sacrifice Iphigenia. 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, such as Iphigenia at Aulis, claim that Agamemnon was prepared to kill his daughter, but that Artemis accepted a deer in her place, and whisked her away 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 and fifteen other Trojan soldiers. Β] 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, Briseis, one of the spoils of war, 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 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 overwhelming haughtiness an over-exalted opinion of his position that 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 Agamemnon's lot in the distribution of the prizes of war.

Agamemnon Marshals the Troops

Before Menelaus won out in the bid for Helen, all the leading princes and unmarried kings of Greece had sought to marry Helen. Before Menelaus married Helen, Helen's earthly father Tyndareus extracted an oath from these, the Achaean leaders, that should anyone try to kidnap Helen again, they would all bring their troops to win back Helen for her rightful husband. When Paris took Helen to Troy, Agamemnon gathered together these Achaean leaders and made them honor their promise. That was the beginning of the Trojan War.

Watch the video: Μυκήνες - Θησαυρός του Ατρέως Mycenae - Tomb of Agamemnon 1350-1250 BC.