10 November 2010

Book Review: Agamemnon

Title: The Oresteia - Agamemnon
Author: Aeschylus
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Release Date: 458 BCE
Date Finished: 30 October 2010

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges: 100+ Reading, Hogwarts Reading Challenge, Reading ResolutionsReally Old Classics Challenge,

The Short and Sweet of It
The Oresteia is the only trilogy of Greek drama to survive today. Included are Agaememnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides, three plays which reveal "the bloody chain of murder and revenge within the royal family of Argos." Sounds interesting right?

The first in the trilogy, Agamemnon, recounts the return of its titular character to his home following the Trojan War. Starring alongside Agamemnon are his wife Clytemnestra, a spoil of war with a gift of sight named Cassandra, a returned exile with his eye on the thrown Aegisthus, and a chorus of old men.

A Bit of a Ramble
Reading this for the first time was not like reading contemporary novels for the first time. The characters were already familiar to me. I knew that Agamemnon agreed to fight in the Trojan war after Menelaus asked for his help getting Helen back. I knew Helen had run off to Troy with Paris, starting the whole snafu. And I knew that Agamemnon was killed by his wife and her lover upon his return. This sort of familiarity did not make my reading of this play boring in any way however. Aeschylus puts enough of a spin on things to keep me interested, and even surprised me with some his choices.

For one, in Agamemnon, the murderer is not Aegisthus; instead it is Clytemnestra who runs the king through in part based on Aegisthus's plan, but not solely because of him. The motivations for Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to kill Agamemnon were the most interesting part of the play. From other readings, I was under the impression they just wanted him dead so that they could be together: a relatively selfish gesture. But in Aeschylus's version, the two sneaky murderers have quite the inspiration for wanting Agamemnon dead.

Clytemnestra is acting out of maternal anguish. Before Agamemnon et. al. went off to war, they made a sacrifice to the gods for favorable winds. What did they sacrifice you might ask? Ag and Cly's DAUGHTER. He killed his own daughter on an altar in the hopes that the gods would give him smooth sailing to Troy. How effed up is that?!?! Cly is seriously pissed. And rightly so I might add.

Aegisthus's motivation is no less horrifying. Atreus, Agamemnon's father, and Thyestes, Aegisthus's father, were brothers. When the two fought for the crown, Atreus won and banished Thyestes and his family from Argos. Nope, we aren't to the motivation yet... One day Thyestes returned to Argos, a suppliant (a guest), and Atreus treated him to a lavish meal. Of course, he sprinkled pieces of human flesh (children's) over the whole thing:
...made my father a feast that seemed a feast for gods,
a love feast of his children's flesh.

He cuts
the extremeties, feet and delicate hands
into small pieces, scatters them over the dish
and serves it to Thyestes throned on high.
He picks at the flesh he cannot recognize,
the soul of innocence eating the food of ruin -
When Thyestes realized what he was eating, he freaked out. Now Aegisthus wants revenge. Again, I can totally see his point.

Relationship to The Odyssey:
I picked up The Oresteia when I realized that it revolved around the same story being told by Menelaus and Nestor in The Odyssey.  Both kings recount the story of Agamemnon to Telemachus, primarily I think to get to the part about Orestes avenging his father's murder. This part of The Oresteia is not recounted in Agamemnon but must be part of the last two plays in the trilogy.

Odysseus is lauded in The Odyssey as a great hero of the Trojan war, a master strategist and brave fighter. His reputation holds up in this play as Agamemnon says: "My comrades...they're shadows, I tell you, ghosts of men who swore they'd die for me. Only Odysseus: I dragged that man to the wars but once in harness he was a trace-horse, he gave his all for me. Dead or alive, no matter, I can praise him." Apparently, Agamemnon forced Odysseus to join the fight. I really should have read The Iliad first, but what can you do? :)

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!


Echoes of Man is my month-long sojourn into antiquity. I plan on entering the ancient world and basking in its glory for the entire month of November.

During this time, I will be reading and reviewing literature of the time and posting about related topics. If you have anything you would like to add - a review, an informative post, etc. - let me know. I would love to have you join in!

Echoes of Man Image from ~darkmatter257 at deviant art


  1. I read Agamemnon a very long time ago, but I don't remember that Hannibal Lector part at all! No wonder I've blocked out so many memories! :--) yuck!

  2. I think I read this one in college when we were studying ancient Greek literature, but I don't remember it very well at all.

  3. Scattering the bodies of his children into the meal? That is some seriously messed up stuff right there! I would love to read this and see all this madness for myself, so thanks for the little push that your wonderful review gave me!

  4. Sounds interesting. I might have to add the trilogy to my wish list :)

  5. No review here, but I wanted to tell you how much I'm enjoying all your posts! I'm reading each one even if I'm not commenting. They are fascinating!

  6. I read this one in college, and our professor made us watch a stage production of it. The masks have a single expression and so when people are talking you don't see any movement of the face. Oh, it was so boring, but I found it interesting when I read it.

  7. This one is on my list, but I haven't read it yet. I think I read a piece of it back in college and loved, but I have a thing for the Greeks.

    You'll see Agamemnon again in The Odyssey in one of my favorite books. He is such an interesting character.

  8. The House of Atreus was eating EVERYBODY'S kids up in here. Atreus' & Thyestes' father was Pelops, who killed his wife's father and whose OWN father chopped him up and fed him to the gods JUST TO SEE IF THEY COULD TELL! (The gods put Pelops back together afterwards.) That shit's messed up. Also, the Greeks? So melodramawesome.

  9. Jill - It's odd what stands out to different people. I think I read that section three times!

    Amanda - You should re-read it with me this month!

    Heather - It really was an interesting play. I still haven't read the other two. Maybe tomorrow...

    Amy - I'm -as of this moment- hoping to start the other two tomorrow.

    Heather - Thanks! I'm glad to know people are enjoying it. I did worry a bit - and have lost a few followers since starting the project. :)

    Anna - I can definitely see how that would be boring. Facial expressions are a huge part of the entertainment of plays.

    Allie - I have a thing for the Greeks too! They were just such a fascinating and important culture.

    Raych - That's awesome! I have to get into the mythology portion more, but so far I've been reading the "nonfiction" stuff.

  10. Oh my goodness, I am very thankful I came across your site. Being an ancient history buff I love reading these kinds of reviews. Can't remember when I last read it but it always seemed to me that Cly murdered Ag mostly for revenge over poor Iphy's sacrifice. But then again, I could have been projecting because I certainly woulda done the dude in for that outrage!

    If you're interested, I write about ancient history and have some book reviews on my blog as well: http://historywithatwist.blogpost.com.

    Off to start following your blog!

  11. Reading your review is like taking a walk down memory lane! I read The Oresteia in high school and almost wrote my term paper on it. I ended up writing about Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra instead, which is loosely based on The Oresteia. I'm looking forward to reading a refresher of the other two parts!

  12. I swear, those Ancient Greeks were crazy :P Seriously now, I so need to read this. I've read several retellings, but never the real thing.

  13. I feel an mythology kick coming on. I really want to read this, sounds wonderful.

  14. Good lord, it was dangerous to be a kid around that lot!

  15. Vicky - I'm so glad you found my blog! I love yours and am a new follower.

    Erin - I just read the second play in The Oresteia and was introduced to Electra; she is fascinating so far.

    Ana - Definitely crazy! I just finished the second play in the book and while it was a bit more boring than the first, it does whet my appetite for the third.

    Rebecca - You should indulge yourself and start binging; that's what I'm doing! :)

    Jill - Right?!?!? They keep killing them for some reason or another - and to top things off, they try feeding them to other people!

  16. I love you calling them Ag and Cly! I was thinking "What long names those are to type."

  17. Jenners - I also nicknamify characters in older works, even in my head. Ag, Cly, Telem (tell 'em), Monsieur Odd(Odysseus obviously, but I like Jill's The Big O better), etc. :)


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