The world depicted In Homers Odyssey and Aeschylus Agamemnon was one quite remote from the modern concept. The society of archaic Greece was one based on communities of local landowners who joined together and accepted the rule of a chief landowner. Under this ruler, or basileus, the large landowners held aristocratic power and formed the head council (boule) while the families of lesser wealth were represented in the assembly, comprised of all male citizens.
The purpose of this hierarchy of power was to unify the territory as well as offer representation for all its inhabitants, while allowing the reigning basileus to maintain power by giving him the final say in social, judicial, and military matters. Thus, the necessary qualifications for a basileus were with regard to this social and political system. The premier determinant was a basileus skill in warfare. Because archaic Greek cities were in constant battle over territory and control of power, a basileus ability to defend territory from outs ide assault or resolve civil dispute within the poleis was of great importance.
Along with his martial expertise, however, a basileus also had to be fair administrator, and a generous suppliant to his people. Therefore, the extent to which Odysseus and Agamemnon, the basilei in the Odyssey and Agamemnon respectively, are virtuous characters is in reference to their capability, or lack of it, as rulers. While Odysseus emerges as a generally good ruler, Agamemnon exemplifies the opposite in his shortcomings as an archaic basileus. Leadership always carries with it the dependence of followers, but also the risks of disappointment and possible disaster.
In Homers Odyssey, Odysseus certainly faces misfortune associated with these risks in his attempts to return home with his men after their triumphant efforts in the Trojan War. From these disasters, however, Odysseus actions and their implications offer insight into his personality and the values that he embodies. As an appropriate hero should, Odysseus displays bravery, intelligence, astuteness and competency as well as the diplomatic skills, familiarity with his male subjects, discipline, and compassion that make him an appropriate ruler of Ithaka.
Nevertheless, Odysseus is not without his faults. A lack of trust and excessive pride tend to supersede his intellectual ability and land him in many of the misfortunate situations he encounters. And it is this varying amount of positive and negative attributes in Odysseus that keep him on the edge of being an entirely model leader. In his first appearance in the Odyssey, Odysseus exhibits both his determination to return home to Ithaka and the strategic mastery in achieving such ends.
Having been marooned on Calypsos island for seven years, enticed and provided for by the sea nymph, he nevertheless has spent his days sitting on the rocky shorehis own heart groaning, with eyes wet scanning the bare horizon of the sea. (Odyssey, Bk. V, 164-166) Therefore, when Odysseus is presented with the opportunity to leave in Book 5, he takes it without a moments hesitation. The catch, however, is that leaving Kalypso means giving up the opportunity to stayand guard this house, and be immortal. (215-216) Even so, Odysseus is not swayed by this enticement.
However, he cunningly perceives the delicate situation of dealing with Kalypsos feelings and accordingly, he utilizes eloquent flattery to rectify the situation and remain in the goddess favor. My lady goddess, here is no cause for angerPenelopewould seems a shade before your Thus, the image of Odysseus as a driven but insightful hero is aptly illustrated. However, as the story progresses, it becomes readily apparent in the retelling of his adventures to the Phaiakians in Books 9 through 12, that this careful dynamic has been accomplished gradually through the tribulations Odysseus has faced on his trek back from Troy.
In Book 9, Odysseus displays his shrewdness but also the consequences of his overzealous pride in his recounting of the episode on the Kyklopes island. When Odysseus and his men become trapped by the Kyklops Polyphemos, Odysseus cleverly tells him that My name is Nohbdy: mother, father, and friends, everyone calls me Nohbdy. (Bk. IX, 396-397) So, when Polyphemos is stabbed in the eye by Odysseus and his men, he renounces assistance from his friends by stating that Nohbdys tricked me, Nohbdys ruined me! (l. 444), leading his companions to believe that no man has hurt him.
However, once the ruler and his men reach their ships and set sail, Odysseus take s the opportunity to taunt Polyphemos by declaring, if ever mortal man inquire how you were put to shametell him Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye. (551-553) The result of Odysseus boast, however, has further repercussions: Polyphemos implores his father Poseidon to never allow Odysseus to return home. Thus, not only does his excessive pride degrade his character, but the inability to let his ingenious actions go unrecognized dooms Odysseus and his crew to an extended and more perilous journey home–courtesy of Poseidon.
To his credit, Odysseus learns from this encounter and upon arrival on the island of the Phaiakians, he chooses not to openly boast of his journeys. Before this time, however, he learns another lesson on the island of Aiolos. When Odysseus and his crew depart from Aiolia Island in Book 10, Aiolos gives Odysseus a mighty bag, bottling storm windsto rouse or calm at will (Bk. X, 22-24) that would aid his ships in their return to Ithaka. However, trusting no one but himself, Odysseus withholds this information from his troops, hides the bag under the ship deck, and sets sail for home.
Nevertheless, curious about the bags contents and voicing their assumption that Odysseus is hoarding gifts for himself, the crew decides to open the bag while their leader is asleep. It never fails. Hes [Odysseus] welcome everywhereHow about ourselveshis shipmatesnigh home we are with empty hands. And who has gifts from Aiolos? He has. I say we ought to crack that bag. (Bk. X, 43-49) The consequence of their a ctions is the ships, within sight of Ithaka, are blow off course back to Aiolia where Aiolos banishes them from his island maintaining that Your voyagewas cursed by heaven! l. 85) The fault though can not be placed solely on the crew. While it is their greed that causes the setback, it is spawned from Odysseus belief that only he can handle matters. And by placing his crews aptitude so far below his own, he alienates himself while breeding unrest among his men which in the end comes full circle to reflect poorly upon his leadership ability. Nevertheless, Odysseus redeems himself in the encounter of Book 12, with Skylla and Kharybdis.
Forced to sail directly between Skylla, the man-eating serpent with six heads, and Kharybdis, the ship-drowning whirlpool, Odysseus is presented with a difficult decision: Should he sail closer to Skylla or Kharybdis? He chooses to face Skylla, which reflects his ability to apply astute rationale under great pressure. If they had gone near Kharybdis, all the men would mostly likely have drowned. But because they were going toward Skylla, it was almost a certainty that six of the men on the ship would be killed. So Odysseus realizes that it would be better to risk this peril than risk the death of everyone on board.
Furthermore, his choice to withhold the risks from his crew is not a reflection of his distrust but of the awareness that they would have dropped their oarsin panic, (Bk. XII, 289-290) and all been sucked into the whirlpool. Thus, even though it appears at first deceitful on Odysseus part, his actions are for the good of the majority of his men, not for his own gain. And the difficult decision to sacrifice a few to save the rest demonstrates his more laudable qualities of bravery, intelligence and leadership. This sequence of adventures and perils that Odysseus faces in Books 9 through 12 parallels his transformation as a leader.
So, by the time he finally leaves Kalypsos Island in Book 6, and returns to Ithaka in Book 13, Odysseus is not only able to utilize the lessons learned from his mistakes to reassert his power, but also to display his proper sovereignty. Before announcing his return, Odysseus, with the help of goddess Athena, cunningly disguises himself as a beggar to learn of life in Ithaka during his long absence. His patience pays off as he is able to cleverly plan and carry out the demise of the evil and wasteful in Book 22. However, his lust for revenge does not blind his good judgement.
Odysseus, while slaying the suitors, is confronted by Phemios, the minstrel suitor, who pleads for forgiveness. Mercy, mercy on a suppliant, Odysseus! I am fit to make verse in your companynever by my own will or for love did I feast here or sing amid the suitors. They were too strong, too many; they comp elled me. (Bk. 22, 386-397) Odysseus, recognizing the minstrels virtue and taking his son Telemachus word, acknowledges Phemios goodness and the ensuing necessity of justice, Courage Take it to heart, and pass the word along: fair dealing brings more profit in the end. (ll. 18-420) So, in an instant, Odysseus regains his power and also reasserts the legitimacy of his rule as basileus of Ithaka. In conclusion, Odysseus wisdom and courage, though both traits of a superior leader, are at times hindered by an occasional excess of pride. Even so, along the way he learns from his mistakes and compensates for them by becoming a wiser, more humble man. Therefore, while not the perfect ruler from the onset, Odysseus redeems himself by the end of the Odyssey. Out of the great tragedy in the story, he becomes a more capable leader to regain his kingdom and live a long and happy life.
Conversely, the chief basileus, Agamemnon, does not emerge a praiseworthy character in Aeschylus Agamemnon. Rather, his credibility and status as an effective ruler digress from the start of the play until his death. In the opening scene, the Watchman voices his yearning for the return of Agamemnon and his army, and upon spotting the beacon, expresses his joy for their claimed victory in Troy. And I myself shall dance a prelude, for my masters throw has been luckyWell, may it come to pass that the lord of the house comes back, and that I clasp his well-loved hand in mine. Agamemnon, ll. 31-35) Agamemnons praise is further voiced by the Chorus who refers to him as a Kingmighty in honor (l. 44) and the Herald who refers to the ruler as one who brings light in darkness. (l. 522) Thus, it would appear that Agamemnon is both a skilled ruler and one loved by his subjects. However, as the play advances, it becomes readily apparent, that these virtues, once a befitting reflection of Agamemnons ch aracter, have lost distinction during his ten years in Troy.
The first of Agamemnons evident faults is his uncompromising and selfish ambition, which is exemplified in the Chorus retelling of his sacrifice of Iphigeneia. The story unfolds that on the day the Greek fleet was to set sail for Troy, they were met with extremely unfavorable winds and were forced to remain in port Morale dropped quickly and supplies began to rot. A prophet informed Agamemnon that if he sacrificed his daughter to Artemis, he would appease the goddess and the winds would calm. Agamemnon, anguished over this dilemma, perceived disaster in both choices.
A grievous doom is disobedience, and a grievous doom it is if I massacre my daughter. (ll. 206-208) Ultimately, ambition won the day: Iphigeneia was sacrificed; the winds were abated; and the fleet sailed. The true grievance, however, is Agamemnons choice of his expedition of Troy over his own daughter. While his high regard for the troops and dedication to the cause are admirable, How am I to become a deserter of my ships, lo sing my allies? (ll. 211-212), Agamemnons justification only four lines later, that a sacrifice [of] maidens blood[is] for the best! l. 215) shows that his own lust for glory and power in war is his immediate concern and the determining factor in his decision. This acute insensitivity to the feelings of others, is further illustrated when Agamemnon returns to Argos. He enters in a chariot accompanied by Cassandra, Priams (King of Troy) daughter. The Chorus, seeking to honor and welcome their long-estranged king, burst out in flustered praise. Come, king, sacker of TroyHow am I to revere you, neither overshooting nor falling short of the right measure of my gratitude? (ll. 83-787) However, Agamemnon callously brushes them aside in order to give thanks to the gods and assess the state of Argos, as he intends to amputate the degenerate parts of the kingdom.
His austere disregard surfaces again in his treatment of Clytemnestra upon their first encounter. In her greeting, Clytemnestra recounts her anguish over his absence and the joy she feels for his return. But Agamemnon, rather than greet his wife with similar oration, chides her for the length of her speech, which matches my absence, you have drawn it out. (ll. 915-916) He then proceeds to furthe insult her by introducing Cassandra as the woman who came with me as the chosen flower, (l. 954) and commands his wife to treat his concubine in kindly fashion and never force her to bow to the yoke of slavery. (ll. 951-954) Thus, because Agamemnon is preoccupied with his own immediate needs rather than those of his wife and friends, he succeeds in further tarnishing his claim as a suitable basileus. The tarnishing, however, does not cease there. Agamemnons narrative of his conquests in Troy reveals an appalling magnitude of personal savagery.
As he recounts the succession of events that led to the sacking of Troy, he continuously returns to the image of bloody revenge, describing the ruin of Illium as deaths justly added to the urn of blood and the victorious troops as a ravening lion [who] leaped over the wall, and licked his fill of blood of kings. (ll 827-828) He also retells the fall of the city with brutally descriptive clarity: And even now the smoke marks out the conquered city, Destructions storms have life; and dying with the city, the embers waft forth. (ll. 18-820) So the question arises: Why does Agamemnon talk about the total destruction of Troy with such grim pleasure? Agamemnons own defense for his actions is in the name of justice: their arrogant rapine has been avengedfor a womans [Helen] sake their city was ground to dust. (ll822-823) However, the vulgar lang uage Agamemnon uses to describe the retribution, belies his appeals to divine justice. These justifications can not conceal his obsession with death and blood and thus his motivations are revealed to be of a much less noble condition– the lust for bloodshed.
This distorted view of justice is a theme that repeats itself throughout the Oresteia and is the cause for the death of Agamemnon, himself, at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra at the close of Agamemnon. However, Clytemnestra cannot be held solely responsible for the downfall of her husband. The man of the play embodies his own breed of violence-callousness, relentless ambition and overweening sense of self, which not only render him a poor ruler but are also contributing factors in his eventual demise.
So in analyzing the texts of Odyssey and Agamemnon, two versions of an archaic Greek basileus surface. Odysseus, for the most part, represents the positive attributes while Agamemnon offers an example of the unfavorable ruler. It cannot go without notice, however, that neither character wholly exemplifies an extreme; each man possesses some of his counterparts admirable or censure-worthy traits, but in lesser amounts. Thus, both Odysseus and Agamemnon are different blends of these qualities rather than molded archetypes.
And it is this balance that allows the characters to become three-dimensional and occupy roles beyond that of the epic hero and vengeful brute. This, though, is not to say that Odysseus and Agamemnon would be considered heroic by todays standards. Instead it seems more apropos to assume that an archaic Greek basileus would have had some difficulty in establishing his brute vitality and morale in modern society. Even so, their life-like personalities allow the audience to iden tify with the plights of Odysseus and Agamemnon, and allow the characters and texts to transgress time and place.