This painting, by the French artist Jacques Louis David (c. 1748 – 1825), was inspired by one of several arguments between the ancient mythical figures, Achilles and Agamemnon. In particular, this scene occurred in one of the earliest stages in their saga, set before the Greek forces set out for the Trojan War. As the story goes, when Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, was pulling together the Greek forces and their ships for the upcoming long campaign across the Aegean, the gods—especially Artemis—refused to grant the Greeks favorable sailing weather conditions until a sacrifice was performed. Artemis wanted no mere offering of wine, grain, or livestock. She, instead, requested a human sacrifice, and Agamemnon’s seer, Calchas, prophesied that the goddess would only be appeased by the sacrifice of King Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia. Agamemnon’s commitment to his mission of the Trojan War was such that he agreed to fulfill the prophecy. Yet, others were not so gung-ho about sacrificing the young princess, and that leads us to the other characters seen in the painting.
Agamemnon, dressed in red, is displayed in front of two women—his wife, Clytemnestra, and their daughter, Iphigeneia. Facing the troubled royal family is the great warrior, Achilles, who is shown with his back to the viewers of the artwork. As told in the play, Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides (c. 485-406 BCE), these additional characters were pawns in a scheme hatched by Agamemnon to achieve his sacrificial goal. Knowing that Clytemnestra would not consent to allowing her daughter to be killed, Agamemnon lured his wife and daughter to the site of the sacrifice by deceitfully telling them that he had arranged for a marriage to occur between Iphigeneia and Achilles. Euripides, in his play, had Agamemnon confess, “I wrote in a folded scroll and sent to my wife, bidding her dispatch our daughter to me on the pretense of wedding Achilles” (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis, approximately line 100). The ruse worked, but Clytemnestra quickly realized something was amiss when she began to speak to the guests at the supposed wedding venue. She eventually found Achilles and asked him about the wedding, but the alleged groom was none the wiser about the arranged match. As written by Euripides, Achilles said, “What wedding do you speak of? Words fail me, lady; can your wits have gone astray and are you inventing this?” as well as, “Lady, I have never courted your daughter, nor have the sons of Atreus ever mentioned marriage to me” (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis, approximately between lines 835-845). After this shocking discovery, Clytemnestra soon ferreted out information about Agamemnon’s true intentions for Iphigeneia. With the truth in hand, she went back to Achilles and recruited the hero as her ally in the fight to save her daughter’s life. Achilles, hearing about the plot, launched into a speech about the rage he felt at the news, as well as his desire to keep Iphigeneia safe. Euripides, in the voice of Achilles, wrote:
“My proud spirit is stirred to range aloft…I will, by every effort in a young man’s power, set right, investing you with that amount of pity and never shall your daughter, after being once called my bride, die by her father’s hand; for I will not lend myself to your husband’s subtle tricks; no! for it will be my name that kills your child, although it does not wield the sword. Your own husband is the actual cause, but I shall no longer be guiltless, if, because of me and my marriage, this maiden perishes, she that has suffered past endurance and been the victim of affronts most strangely undeserved” (Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis, approximately between lines 920-945).
Despite this emotional vow, Achilles and Clytemnestra were not able to avert Agamemnon from carrying out his horrific ploy. Interestingly, it was Iphigeneia, herself, who eventually stepped in and prevented Achilles from fully going on the warpath against Agamemnon and the sacrificial plan. In the end, the sacrifice of Iphigeneia to Artemis was completed, giving Agamemnon the favorable winds that he needed for his campaign against the Trojans. The move, however, left some bitterness in Achilles, and an even more deadly grudge began to fester in Clytemnestra, who would eventually have her revenge on her murderous husband.
Achilles’ stance in the artwork, with him shown with his hand on his sword, recalls a later time when Achilles and Agamemnon erupted into a different feud over a woman. That instance occurred after the Greeks reached the Trojan lands and captured two local women named Chryseis and Briseis. The first of the two was taken by Agamemnon, and Achilles claimed the second woman. Chryseis, it turned out, was the daughter of a priest of Apollo, and the god avenged the girl’s capture by ravaging the Greek army with a terrible plague. In order to end the plague, King Agamemnon needed only return Chryseis to her father, yet the king loathed to lose his spoils of war. The plague eventually forced Agamemnon to let the girl go, but he decided to make up his losses by taking a prisoner from the other leaders in his army—in particular, he wanted Briseis, who was with 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. Achilles became so angry that he seriously considered 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, but the incident 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. Homer’s scene of Achilles being tempted to draw his sword against Agamemnon is similar to the way Jacques Louis David envisioned Achilles enraged response to Agamemnon’s decision to sacrifice Iphigeneia.
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.
- Aeschylus, The Orestia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides), translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.