The Bucket List Book Adventure - Agamemnon - Aeschylus

Dear Henry,

Book Three, Aeschylus's Agamemnon, of the Bucket List Book Adventure (read about that here) is done! Let me tell you all about it.

About 200 years after Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, in 525 BC, Aeschylus was born in Greece. The son of minor nobility, he worked at a vineyard until a dream of the god Dionysus told him to write tragic plays. Aeschylus's first play was written in 499 BC, and in 484 BC, he won the victory (aka first place) at a yearly festival of plays called the City of Dionysia. In addition to writing, Aeschylus also fought for the Greek army during The Battle of Marathon (490 BC), The Battle of Salamis (480 BC), and the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). He was a fairly prolific writer, producing 70 to 90 plays during his lifetime. Unfortunately, only seven remain. He died in 456 or 455 BC, supposedly in a unique manner. Aeschylus was given the prophecy that he would die from a falling object, so he began to sleep outside to avoid that fate. While staying in Sicily, an eagle dropped a turtle on his head, mistaking the top of his head as a rock. A part of me believes this story in a 2,500-year-old joke about Aeschylus being bald. 

The play Agamemnon picks up the story of the Trojan War right before Agamemnon returns home to Mycenea. His wife and queen, Clymtenestra, is incredibly unhappy with Agamemnon and is plotting to kill him for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to have favorable winds for the trip to Troy. Clytemnestra was also looking to rule Mycenea as queen, with her lover Aegisthus as consort.  

Aegisthus had his own beef with Agamemnon. Aegisthus was the cousin of Agamemnon. His father, Thyestes, and Agamemnon's father, Atreus, argued for years, and in quite a poor manner (Thyestes having an affair with Atreus's wife Aerope and Atreus killing Thyestes sons and feeding them to Thyestes in a stew, etc., etc.) Finally, an oracle told Thyestes he could defeat Atreus, but only if he had a son by his daughter Pelopia. That son was Aegisthus. Pelopia would ultimately kills herself after this ordeal with her father, and Aegisthus fulfills the prophecy made by the oracle and kills Atreus. Briefly, father and son ruled Mycenea until Menelaus ascended to the throne of Sparta and utilized the Spartan army to install Agamemnon to the throne of Mycenea. Unfortunately, Aegisthus didn't give up his desire for the Mycenean throne, and during Agamemnon's absence in the Trojan War, he took advantage of the grieving and angry mother, Clymtensestra.

After Agamemnon returned home from Troy, dragging Cassandra (the Trojan Prophetess, Priestess, and Princess) with him as a concubine, Clytemnestra killed him in the bathtub. Unfortunately, she also killed Cassandra, which was, I feel, completely unnecessary, as Cassandra was just as much a victim here as Iphigenia or Pelopia.

The story ends with Clytemnestra ascending the throne with Aegisthus, who didn't do anything but watch the whole brouhaha, at least as far as I can tell.

I'm not very sympathetic toward Agamemnon. During the Iliad, he behaved badly, stealing the woman Briseis, from Achilles (never mind that Achilles stole her from someone else) and had no problem sacrificing his daughter so that his brother Menelaus could get his wife Helen back because Paris had stolen her from Sparta. This circle of women stealing is one of the best indications of how poorly treated women were during this time. Women were more of a currency than a partner, and Agamemnon is nothing but stereotypical. 

Aegisthus is just a placeholder in this story. He contributes nothing, although I imagine his backstory helped fuel Clytemnestra's rage.

Clytemnestra, on the other hand, garners a great deal of sympathy from me. I can see how she would desire to chop the man who killed her daughter into little pieces. Some would say Agamemnon deserved it. She would probably have more historical sympathy had she not taken up with Aegisthus.

Cassandra's story is just sad. She didn't want her brother Paris to steal Helen (I daresay most of Troy was unhappy with that), and she didn't choose to be taken prisoner by Agamemnon and made his concubine. It is too bad that Clytemnestra couldn't have just let her go. (side note - in Marion Zimmer Bradley's book Firebrand, Clytemnestra does, in fact, let Cassandra go)

One of the literary tools Aeschylus used when he wrote Agamemnon was to employ a chorus, which acted a bit like a narrator and provided much of the backstory. This made it a bit easier to keep track of the different characters and why they were all angry with Agamemnon, but it made the play a little hard to read at some points. This disconnect would be alleviated during a live performance.

The play was a significant lead-up to the next piece of the story - The Libation Bearers.

xoxo a.d. elliott


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

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