BMCR 2020.09.46

Agamemnon, the pathetic despot: reading characterization in Homer

, Agamemnon, the pathetic despot: reading characterization in Homer. Hellenic studies series, 78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. 264 p.. ISBN 9780674984455 $24.95 (pb).

This book has two broad aims, neatly encapsulated in its title and subtitle: firstly, to set out how Agamemnon is characterised in the Iliad and the Odyssey; secondly, to set out how characterisation works in the Homeric epics in general.

Porter has structured the book into three parts. The first (‘Introduction’ and ‘Characterization in Homer and Agamemnon’s Appeal in Iliad 4’) sets out some preliminary concerns and Porter’s general methodological approach. The second (‘The Characterization of Agamemnon in the Odyssey’ and ‘The Characterization of Agamemnon in the Iliad’) is the main body of the book (118 pages) and provides a series of close readings of the main passages where Agamemnon features. The third (‘The Traditional Characterization of Agamemnon’) concludes with a summary of the main findings, built around Agamemnon’s most prominent traits. Overall, the book is successful in its aim of setting out Agamemnon’s characterisation in the Homeric poems, but, in my opinion at least, is less successful in establishing how Homeric characterisation works, since there is a lack of methodological caution.

Students and scholars will find a lot of value in the close readings of the texts at the end of Chapter 2 and throughout Chapters 3 and 4. The result of Porter’s extended close readings is that, across both poems, Agamemnon appears as rash, inept, unconvincing, arrogant, and prone to insult. When used together with the Index Locorum and the Index of Greek Words and Phrases, these sections give a detailed account of Agamemnon’s presentation in both poems which explains how his personality comes across even in passages where one might miss it. To take an example, Porter observes (pp. 136-9) that, in his prayer in Iliad 3.267-302 before the duel between Paris and Menelaus, Agamemnon displays the same excess in contemplating a large poine (compensation) after the death of Paris, and in imagining himself remaining at Troy fighting almost single-handedly until he gets what he wants (3.288-91), as we have seen in his treatment in the initial books of the poem. This core of the book is, in my opinion, its best and most useful part.

There are, however, some difficulties that I see in the book’s argument about the method of reading characterisation in Homer. In the introductory chapters, Porter establishes that characterisation in the orally derived poems of Homer works by presenting individuals against the backdrop of their ‘traditional character’, as established in the tradition more broadly. The main evidence that Porter adduces for establishing the traditional characters of individuals seems to consist in epithets (‘wily Odysseus’, for example); ‘[These] epithets carry meaning from the longer traditional story from which they came, meaning that lies beyond the temporal moment where they occur in a particular memorialized text’ (34). Porter is not systematic in his use of other methods, but he does employ some in a brief discussion about Achilles, whose traditional character he alludes to via some textual references without comment and the work done by other scholars on the Epic Cycle (p.25 n.6).

The use of epithets to establish traditional character makes sense and would probably be accepted by everyone, but it can only take us so far. When Porter turns to a test case of Iliad 4, his analysis shows that Agamemnon is characterised not according to the use of epithets attached to him, but rather, how he treats other heroes, in a way which the audience recognises as inappropriate given these heroes’ traditional characterisation. To give an example, Agamemnon’s treatment of Odysseus is analysed as ignorant of the wider tradition, since Agamemnon characterises Odysseus’ craftiness as a bad thing, whereas elsewhere in Homer it is typically seen as good; this treatment ‘resonates discordantly against the tradition known to both singer and audience’ (55). This is a surprising turn in the argument, since one expects an extended analysis of Agamemnon’s traditional character, and how his presentation in the text shapes up to this. Instead, throughout the core of the book, we get a relatively conventional literary analysis of Agamemnon’s words and deeds (although sometimes the traditional characterization of other individuals is relevant, when Agamemnon disrespects them).

How, then, do we know what Agamemnon’s traditional character is? Porter never systematically answers the question, more often stating that what we get in the Iliad and Odyssey is his traditional characterisation rather than arguing for it (see, e.g., p.54). It is not clear in each instance why we could not see this characterisation as coming from the poet rather than the tradition; indeed, this is the view of other scholars, which Porter does not address.[1] Occasionally Porter makes particular arguments which link these traits to a traditional depiction. For example, in his treatment of Nestor in the Odyssey (see pp. 64-71, and p. 182), Porter argues that Nestor in telling his story becomes ‘the spokesman for the tradition as a whole’ (71). This argument goes as follows: in telling his story of the quarrel, Agamemnon is described as a nepios (‘thoughtless child’). Porter argues that, because this word employed in this fashion is traditional, it must be traditional that Agamemnon is characterised in this way. Such an argument, however, does not follow: while the term certainly does have this kind of traditional resonance, its very deployment does not mean that the context of that particular deployment is traditional. A poet, composing a completely new story with new characters, could use the term nepios to indicate that someone is thoughtless: in such a scenario, the extended meaning of the term comes from its traditional use, but would tell us nothing about the present story.

In his concluding section, Porter argues (196-7) that Agamemnon’s portrayal in the Iliad is shaped by the known story of his death; specifically, that Agamemnon’s thoughtlessness, as evidenced in the Odyssey, informs his depiction in the Iliad, and constitutes a sort of backstory to his death. By analogy, Porter suggests, Odysseus’ traditional character, as evidenced in the Odyssey, surely informs his depiction in the Iliad. The crucial difference between the two heroes, however, is that Odysseus’ characterisation is made clear not only from the Odyssey but also his epithets. Given that such an analysis is missing for Agamemnon, it is more difficult to maintain the same logic for him, because Porter is essentially relying on Agamemnon’s depiction in a text which many would hold to be chronologically later than the Iliad. Porter does not address the possibility that the relationship could be inverted: that is, that the depiction of Agamemnon in the Iliad was so influential that it informed later poetry, such as (potentially) the Odyssey. Such a view is plausible and might form an alternative explanation as to why the characterisation across both poems is so similar. Moreover, one need not rely on Agamemnon’s characterisation in the Odyssey to explain it in the Iliad. The primary emphasis in the Iliad is on Achilles, and one of the poet’s methods of characterisation is to use binary comparisons of individuals.[2] Thus, when “paired up” with Achilles, as opponents in the quarrel that introduces the poem, it becomes poetically effective (or even necessary) to make Agamemnon the sort of leader that he is; according to such a view, Agamemnon’s characterisation need not be so traditional. Such an approach would put less emphasis on the traditional aspect of the process of characterisation, and Porter’s analysis would have benefitted from addressing views of this sort.

These problems, however, do not detract from the considerable value that Porter’s book has in its extended literary treatment of Agamemnon across both poems. It has useful indices and an appendix on colometry.


[1] See, for example, Edwards (1987), Homer: Poet of the Iliad, Baltimore, 96: ‘That the mighty commander-in-chief of the greatest legendary exploit of the Greek race should be a weak leader, insecure and the first to give up hope; that the unfaithful wife who caused all the suffering should be a remorseful and grief-stricken woman, as well as one who yields too easily to her passion for a man she despises: this seems unlikely to be a traditional portrayal, and is very probably due to the imagination of the poet’.

[2] Other pairs include, for example, Hector and Achilles, Hector and Paris, etc. See Griffin (2011) “Characterization” in The Homer Encyclopedia, ed. M. Finkelberg, 158-59, Malden.