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A Skillful and Guarded Rhetoric: Interpreting Agamemnon in the Homeric Scholia

Benjamin Sammons

Study of the Homeric scholia has recently shifted from purely textual matters to their use in reconstructing lost chapters in the history of ancient literary criticism (Dickie 19-20).  My paper addresses one area in which the scholia reveal a more nuanced criticism than their abbreviated form at first suggests, that of character (ethos) and characterization (cf. Richardson 272-75, Nünlist 2009: 246-54).  I take Agamemnon as my example and consider the scholia that discuss his notorious “test” (πεῖρα) of the Achaean army in Iliad Book 2 (110-41), and the subsequent scenes in Books 4 (155-81), 9 (13-30), and 14 (65-81) where Agamemnon waxes despondent or recommends retreat – passages that evidently presented difficulties for a generally philhellenic criticism.  The scholia preserve a tradition according to which Agamemnon uses calculated insincerity to test the Achaeans in all of these passages, and they posit a characteristic rhetoric for the king quite unlike that of any other hero.  In my discussion I will focus on the following four points: 

1) Agamemnon uses unusual gestures of dubious sincerity, e.g. crocodile tears in Book 9 calculated to stir pity and ensure the success of his test of the leaders (ἵνα ἐλεεινὸς γεγονὼς μὴ καταλειφθῇ παρ' αὐτῶν, sch. bT on 9.14; cf. sch. A and bT on 19.77). 

2) Agamemnon is aware not only of his audience but of the presence or absence of bystanders who may overhear his words:  Agamemnon’s despondent speech in Book 9 is shown to be yet another test because it is delivered to his inner circle rather than the whole army, i.e. Agamemnon is careful not to risk a general flight like that in Book 2 (sch. bT on 9.17).  Conversely in Book 4 Agamemnon’s speech of despair, while formally addressed to the wounded Menelaus, is actually intended to inspire the Achaean bystanders with fighting spirit (sch. bT 4.156, 171; cf. Sammons 167-68). 

3) Agamemnon doubts his own power and uses indirect methods to obtain obedience where an outright show of authority may fail:  The test of Book 2 is devised to avoid a repeat of Achilles’ rebellion by actually inviting insubordination and hence creating a “win/win” for Agamemnon (sch. AT on 2.73); in Book 14, Agamemnon knows his authority has collapsed and seeks to manipulate the army through his generals (sch. bT on 14.75-81). 

4) Agamemnon’s speeches show a pervasive and thematic ambiguity:  It is hard to tell whether Agamemnon means what he says, for example in his proposal for flight in Book 14 (ἢ νοσῶν οὐχ ὁρᾷ τὸ χρειῶδες ἢ τῶν ἀριστέων πειρᾶται, sch. bT on 14.75-81) where a careful choice of words undercuts his apparent meaning (bT on 14.80).  In Book 9 the silence of the Achaeans after Agamemnon’s speech reveals that “they doubt the speaker’s intention” in light of his earlier test (ἅμα δὲ καὶ τὴν προτέραν πεῖραν εἰδότες ὑποπτεύουσι, τίς ὁ νοῦς τοῦ λέγοντος, bT on 9.30); the poet himself seems to doubt who should respond to Agamemnon’s “skillful and guarded rhetoric” (ἔοικε δὲ αὐτὸς ὁ ποιητὴς διστάζειν, τίνα ἀντιτάξει τῇ ῥητορείᾳ Ἀγαμέμνονος εὖ ἐχούσῃ καὶ κηδεμονικῶς, bT on 9.30). 

To some extent these explanations may reflect a strained effort to put a positive spin on an essentially negative depiction (cf. Taplin 65-66).  Yet whatever the motive, the interpretations adduced imply an ethos of Agamemnon that goes beyond mere rhetorical self-presentation and delineates the attributes of a vividly imagined personality:  Mercurial, evasive, and underhanded, diffident yet determined, Agamemnon is preternaturally aware of the impression he makes on others, yet remains fundamentally hard to interpret.  This suggests a development in the idea of literary “character”, from the mainly rhetorical sense first formally outlined by Aristotle (Frobish, cf. Dale) towards a sense of “characterization” as literary device per se.

Session/Panel Title

Metageneric Excursions in Early Greek Epic

Session/Paper Number

20.5

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