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.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited/introduced by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.