This drawing, by the Swedish artist Johan Tobias Sergel (c. 1740-1814), re-creates the dramatic argument that occurred between King Agamemnon and Achilles in the opening scenes of The Iliad. Achilles, seen on the left side of the artwork, was irate with King Agamemnon over an incident involving two captured Trojan women named Chryseis and Briseis. After the capture of the women, Agamemnon seized Chryseis for himself, while Briseis fell into Achilles’ hands. Agamemnon, as it turned out, made an unlucky choice. Chryseis happened to be the daughter of a prominent priest of Apollo, and her (or rather her father’s) connections to the divine resulted in her salvation. Apollo, in response to the imprisonment of his priest’s daughter, decided to ravage the Greek army with a terrible plague. To placate Apollo’s wrath, Agamemnon begrudgingly decided to return Chryseis to her father. This move ended the plague, but it also set up Agamemnon’s next great crisis, for the king subsequently decided that he wanted make up for the loss of Chryseis by commandeering a different captive from one of the leaders in the Greek army. Of all the choices, Agamemnon decided to seize Briseis, to whom Achilles had grown quite close.
In the ensuing argument over Briseis, Agamemnon pulled no punches, trumpeting his authority and status as commander-in-chief of the Greek forces to pressure Achilles to give up the captured woman. Achilles, however, balked at the demand, and the room’s atmosphere became increasingly threatening as egos flared and insults flew between the king and the army’s mightiest warrior. Johan Tobias Sergel’s drawing depicts a moment when 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.