Conversations with Students: Causes of the Trojan War

In this series, “Conversations with Students”, we will list out the major questions from the daily seminar, and then we will report frequent and also exceptional answers from the conversation, with added depth as the medium provides.

The basic background comes from the story of the “Apple of Eris” which was conveyed to us by Pseudo-Hyginus in his Fabulae, Lucian, and Apollodorus in his Library. The basic story is as follows: The mortal hero Peleus (father of Achilleus) and Thetis, his immortal Nereid wife, were to have a grand wedding where all the gods and goddesses were to be invited. Eris, however, the goddess of discord and chaos, was noticeably excepted because of her naturally destructive nature. Being of a divine and therefore easily offended nature, Eris concocted a plan to throw one of the golden apples of the Hesperides into the wedding with the Greek superlative, Kallisti, on it, or, “to the fairest/most beautiful”. All the goddesses contended for this beautiful and vaunted apple, but in the end three were chosen as finalists: Aphrodite, Athene, and Hera.

Naturally, the three goddesses chose the king of the gods and principle of divine order as the natural judge of this high honor, but intelligently, Zeus recused himself due to his marriage to Hera, and his paternal relationship to both Aphrodite and Athene. There is, however, and perhaps even more perfidious, a theory that Zeus did this knowing all along that a war would ensue regardless of Paris’ choice, because he wished to cull the population of man and the heroes of the generation of Achilleus. In any case, the young shepherd son of Priam, Paris, was chosen to choose the fairest goddess. Poor boy.

At first, perhaps having some intuition into the nature of judging the gods as a mortal, Paris attempted to split the apple into three equal parts for the goddesses. Being goddesses, however, of course they did not accept this “cop-out” decision, and each attempted, knowing the nature of the others, to bribe the young mortal man. Athene offered Paris victory in any battle or war–a fine gift from the war-goddess always accompanied by Nike, goddess of victory. Hera offered the young man the power to rule on high. But it was Aphrodite’s offer of “the most beautiful woman in the world” which tantalized Paris most. He, not being as sharp as he was passionate, wrongly assumed that he would be receiving Aphrodite as bride. She however reminded him after his choice that she was a goddess, and no mere mortal woman, so a certain married Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaos would have to do.* From there, it is all mythological-history: Paris visits Sparta and Menelaos’ court; Menelaos leaves to attend the funeral of Catreus, his maternal grandfather in Crete, and Paris absconds with Helen.

With that brief summary of the story so far presented, we will continue on to the questions of the seminar.

We talked first about the causes of the Trojan War and who was at fault: was it Eris, goddess of Discord’s, fault for throwing the apple marked kallisti in the first place? Or was it perhaps Peleus and Thetis’ fault for not inviting Eris. Surely she would have caused some sort of disturbance, but likely not one so large. Was the blame in fact on Zeus for delegating the task of choosing the which goddess received the kallisti apple to a mere mortal, Paris, or was it Paris for not choosing Athene or Hera in the first place?

We then considered which goddess and which bribe should have been accepted: Athene’s war-victories, Hera’s political power, or Aphrodite’s most beautiful woman in the world. At first, the students mostly thought that Athene’s gift was best, but slowly they started to see the consequences of each decision with each goddess. For instance, with the capacity to win all battles, they then started to consider what their day to day lives would be like–battling over and over. Watching friends, family members, and enemies die over and over again. Their every day would be filled with suffering and misery of all those around them, and they themselves might be turned cruel by the endeavor.

Hera’s gift is potentially not much better: to gain political power one must take that power from another, and as Paris is not the eldest son of his father Priam, he would supplant both Hektor and his father, and it is highly unlikely that he would attain his power without many deaths–and that after attaining it in such a way that he would not maintain it similarly. His life would be one conspiracy after another to maintain and garner power, never trusting another.

And of course Paris’ decision to go with Aphrodite led to him being awarded the chance to woo and win Helen away from her powerful husband, Menelaos of Sparta, and from this the Trojan War erupted which would eventually destroy his people. Choosing who the fairest (kallisti) goddess is is a rough deal indeed.

The final source of conversation was focusing on Agamemnon’s choice to sacrifice Iphigeneia at Aulis after Artemis turned the winds against the fleet there. On the one hand, why would Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter in order to save his sister-in-law? But the situation is more complex, because he is not only choosing to save his sister-in-law, but to honor his relation to his brother and increase his own personal honor. And to use an argument from Herodotus’ Histories and Sophocles’ Antigone many of the students decided that as Menelaos is the sole brother of Agamemnon, and their father Atreus is dead, and that Agamemnon both has two more daughters and the capacity for more–that his primary duty was to his brother, not his daughter, though she, and not his brother, was under his protection and tutelage.

On the other hand, with so many former suitors of Helen, had Agamemnon not allowed his daughter to be sacrificed, it is most likely that the men trapped at Aulis would still have been honor-bound to fight for Helen at Troy and that Artemis would stay un-appeased without blood spilled from the House of Atreus. Therefore, had Iphigeneia not been sacrificed, it is very possible that Agamemnon himself may have ended up on the chopping block. So, whether Agamemnon was acting to honor his brother, add to his own honor, or to save his own skin was subject to dispute.

Last but not least, we turned to the first book of Homer’s Iliad and considered the conditions under which Agamemnon took Achilleus’ concubine Briseis from him. It is true that Achilleus, out of turn, called an assembly of Achaians together and then rudely insisted that not even Agamemnon would lay a hand on the prophet Kalchas if he should give forth bad news (to Agamemnon that he must return his concubine Chryseis). So Agamemnon was likely already slightly irritated with the actions of his most powerful but also most overbearing warrior. Oh, and they had been fighting together for nine years during which time they had sacked 23 cities. So, tensions were riding fairly high. Agamemnon, fresh with the knowledge that he had to return his concubine Chryseis to her father, Chryses, was understandably annoyed and took it out on the person annoying him most: Achilleus. The question, however, was: was this an intelligent and strategic decision by Agamemnon as a leader? Clearly, he had to assert his authority in some way over the openly disrespectful Achilleus, but in taking his concubine, Achilleus retreats from the war and in fact–through his mother–turns the will of Zeus against the Achaians. So, in a way, the question of the rectitude of Agamemnon’s actions is self-answering.

This has been the first of weekly conversations with students. This year we will feature seminars on Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes and more!

*Even though Herodotus suggests that Paris perhaps wished to steal Helen to make up for some injury done to Troy by the Achaians in a past generation, this theory is given little light in our discussion.

Seminar on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: Sexual Equality Earned through Blood

In seminar on Thursday, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was the subject of a rich and vibrant discussion. In the article which follows, a potentially radical thesis on human nature, recognition, and Clytemnestra’s place in at all takes a new and unique form. Throughout the entirety of the play gender-stereotypes are suggested, considered, and upset.

The first major issue which we will focus on is the “masculine” nature of Clytemnestra, and the steps she took to take vengeance on Agamemnon. Three particular instances bring up Clytemnestra’s gender and how she upsets the general role: (1) her initial dialog with the chorus; (2) her argument with Agamemnon over the “painted fabric” above; (3) Aigisthos’ being called “womanly” and by proxy Clytemnestra manly by wielding the axe which called Agamemnon.

When Clytemnestra first tells the chorus that she knows that Agamemnon is coming home, the chorus is incredulous and intimates that Clytemnestra must in some way be out of her wits:

Chorus: Yet how can I be certain? Is there some evidence?

Clytemnestra: The is, there must be; unless a god has lied to me.

Chorus: Is it dream visions, easy to believe, you credit?

Clytemnestra: I accept nothing from a brain that is dull with sleep.

Chorus: The charm of some rumor, that made rich your hope?

Clytemnestra: Am I some young girl, that you find my thoughts so silly?

(Aeschylus Agamemnon 272-277, Lattimore tr.)

One immediately notices during this exchange that the chorus of Argive elders disbelieves that a woman would be capable of observing that which they have failed to. The elders–and this is to their queen–suggest first that Clytemnestra either heard what she did in a dream and then second, they have the gall to suggest that her feeble female mind must have been swayed by some rumor. Clytemnestra quickly disabuses them of these notions in the lines just after. After being belittled by the questions of the elders, she explains that “some god, Hephaistos” came to her in the form of signal beacons–present for all to see–and therefore dismisses the questions set against her capacity to perceive and to reason. This theme is recurrent and pervasive throughout the play: what is the nature and function of women and are they capable of the same thoughts, feelings, and actions as men? The opinion of the men in the play (the Chorus and Agamemnon in particular) seems to be that women are in some way sub-human as evidenced through their language and presuppositions. In the end, both pay for their ignorance of human nature, Agamemnon with his life, and the chorus through subjugation to a tyrant king. Let us see where Agamemnon shows his perception of both Clytemnestra and human nature

We must then focus a fair bit on Clytemnestra insisting that Agamemnon walk across the “painted fabric” (red carpet) in order to enter his home. We then discussed the debate the two had wherein Agamemnon suggests that he will be like a more feminine Asian lord, and then he suggested that this would be an honor only suitable for the gods–along the way suggesting that Clytemnestra is acting in a profoundly “unwomanly” way*. Two unique moments take form during this argument: (1) Clytemnestra essentially pushes Agamemnon into a feminine and passive role, and (2) Agamemnon recognizes Clytemnestra as acting in a “manly” or “mannish” manner. Their dialog truly is a spectacle to behold.

Clytemnestra: Yet tell me this one thing, and do not cross my will.

Agamemnon: My will is mine. I shall not make it soft for you.

Clytemnestra: It was in fear surely that you vowed this course to God.

Agamemnon: No man has spoken knowing better what he said.

Clytemnestra: If Priam had won as you have, what would he have done?

Agamemnon: I well believe he might have walked on tapestries.

Clytemnestra: He is not ashamed before the bitterness of men.

Agamemnon: The people murmur, and their voice is great in strength.

Clytemnestra: Yet he who goes unenvied shall not be admired.

Agamemnon: Surely this lust for conflict is not womanlike? (my italics)

Clytemnestra: Yet for the mighty even to give way is grace.

Agamemnon: Does such a victory as this mean so much to you?

Clytemnestra: Oh yield! The power is yours. Give way of your free will.

(Ibid 931-943)

What an incredible welcome home. Their first time seeing each other in ten years and a contest of wills commences in which Agamemnon is made to “freely” choose, like a woman* or an idolater, to walk across a stained red carpet. During this exchange, Clytemnestra effectively “acts the man” or takes on the masculine role of (1) arguing, (2) bending Agamemnon’s will, and (3) feminizing Agamemnon while also symbolically making him trail along a path of blood prepared by his actions before. In so reversing their roles, effectively bending Agamemnon to her will, and setting him up for her plot, Clytemnestra has already turned Agamemnon passive, receptive, and feminine in comparison to her “masculine” and gender re-defining actions.

We now turn to Aigisthos and the Chorus of men berating him for his “passive” or “feminine” role in the murder of Agamemnon:

Chorus: How shall you be lord of the men of Argos, you who planned the murder of this man, yet could not dare to act it out, and cut him down with your own hand?

Aigisthos: No, clearly the deception was the woman’s part (my italics), and I was suspect, that had hated him so long. Still with his money I shall endeavor to control the citizens. The mutinous man shall feel the yoke drag at his neck, no cornfed racing colt that runs free traced; but hunger, grim companion of the dark dungeon shall see him broken to the hand at last.

Chorus: But why, the then, you coward, could you have not slain the man yourself? Why must it be his wife who killed, to curse the country and the gods within the ground?

(Ibid 1633-1645)

Here we see the completion of the transformation of Clytemnestra from a “passively” feminine role to a completely active and masculine one. Not only has she planned the murder of Agamemnon, but she acts as the direct agent of his destruction as well. It is not so much Agamemnon’s death that the chorus finds so appalling as is the fact that a woman carried it out. They cannot believe that Aigisthos, who now claims to be king, would passively sit by and let Clytemnestra enact the revenge. One now sees that Clytemnestra made Agamemnon passive and receptive to her will and plot to kill him (literally), and she also made Aigisthos complicit but somewhat unnecessary to the plot as he did not plan nor kill Agamemnon himself. The chorus is the last group of men to be subjugated to her in their disbelief that a man, Aigisthos, would let her take the reins as she did, but now they, full of their incredulity, will be subjugated by Aigisthos and ruled by Clytemnestra, who separates the the chorus and Aigisthos in a final grand sweep–effectively asserting herself as queen-regent and a character far more dynamic than the naively emotional, passive, or submitting woman she is at first portrayed and treated as.

The next point considered in seminar was the poverty of living one’s life, or justifying one’s actions, by platitudes. For example, if one wished to live one’s life according to the maxim: “honor one’s family at all costs,” as noble and as good as the maxim in itself seems, it is not up to the task of life even in the play the Agamemnon. For example, Clytemnestra wishes to avenge the death of her daughter (honor one’s family), but she does so by killing her absentee husband (honor one’s family?). So, how exactly would this maxim help her make her choice, since on the one hand, she wishes to avenge a family member, her daughter, but the “murderer” of her daughter is her husband? How can she faithfully live out this maxim? She cannot. She will be betraying one of her family members in her mind regardless of her choice, so she must do some real thinking in order to determine what is right. Now, let us consider whether what Clytemnestra did was right or not.

The situation as perceived by Clytemnestra was this: her husband tricked her into sending her daughter to Aulis under the pretense of being married to Achilleus. Her husband, Agamemnon, then betrayed both Iphigeneia and Clytemnestra by sacrificing Iphigeneia to placate Artemis. Therefore, Clytemnestra, full of rage, took the lover Aigisthos during the ten years Agamemnon was gone and according to Aigisthos himself set the plan in motion to kill Agamemnon and killed (executed) him by her own hand. Simply looking at the situation from Clytemnestra’s perspective, her actions look as if they may be just. But let us add a more global perspective and see whether our perception remains the same.

Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphigeneia in order to move forward with the assault on Troy. Though he himself may have been at fault for Artemis’ rage. So, Agamemon’s choice was essentially him taking fault, as a war-chief, for his own actions and doing what was necessary to keep the military force together and moving forward. This makes his choice almost heartlessly utilitarian except for the fact that it was Odysseus who convinced Agamemnon to make this choice. This shows that Agamemnon’s heart first ruled and only second his mind. There is, however, one further consideration, though. In choosing to keep the military force together, Agamemnon does implicitly choose to honor the relationship to his brother over the relationship to his daughter and by proxy his wife.

And Clytemnestra (with the help of the chorus) does not fail to notice the potential hypocrisy in the fact that Agamemnon sacrifices his blood daughter simply to save the non-blood wife of his brother (who happens to be the sister of Clytemnestra, Helen).* Perhaps simply Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are operating under differing theories of justice, or the point is far more subtle: Agamemnon, like all the men in the play, believes women’s lives to be of less account than the pride of men–and the war itself is about Menelaos and the pride of Achaian men–and both Helen and Iphigeneia are simply by-products of this fight between men. Clytemnestra here is then less the image of the spurned wife and rage-filled mother (subject to her emotions), and more an impersonal force of justice forcing the ancient consciousness to recognize the fullness and richness of women as humans completely partaking of human nature in both its passive and active elements.

*Agamemnon: “do not try in woman’s ways to make me delicate, nor, as if I were some Asiastic bow down to earth and with wide mouth cry out to me…” (Ibid 918-920)

**”But when necessity’s yoke was put upon him he changed, and from the heart the breath came bitter and sacrilegious, utterly infidel, to warp a will now to be stopped at nothing. The sickening in men’s minds, tough, reckless in fresh cruelty brings daring.  He endured then to sacrifice his daughter to stay the strength of the war waged for a woman, first offering for the ships’ sake.” (My italics; Ibid 218-226)

Fatherhood in the Great Books I: Fathers of The Trojan War

There is little doubt that there are few roles as important to society today as is fatherhood. And as a testament to this thought, even in the Great Books from the “Homeric” period was fatherhood described and pictured as both complex and difficult. In honor of today, we will take a look at some of the major characters from Greek mythology and their profiles as fathers: whether it be the tricky and deceitful character of Odysseus attempting to escape the Trojan War or Agamemnon who sacrificed his own daughter to earn favorable winds, or even the dubious position of soft-hearted Priam of Troy, there is a fundamental tension in the role of fatherhood: where is one’s first allegiance owed–to one’s people, one’s self, or to one’s family.

Let us take the example of Odysseus first. Before the Trojan War, Odysseus received an oracle saying that if he engaged in the Trojan War he would return twenty years later as a beggar. Odysseus, being an enterprising sort, decided that such a fate was not his best option, and fair as Helen was (who Paris had stolen, inciting the war), he would prefer to tend to his lands, family, and self without the added stress of twenty years abroad pursuing and fighting for the wife of another king. So, when an Achaian envoy came to recruit Odysseus, he acted as if he were crazy, and he plowed his fields while sowing salt on them. Palamedes, a clever Achaian in his own right, laid Odysseus’ infant son in front of him (or threatened him with a sword by another account), and Odysseus then broke character and allowed himself to be conscripted. He would later plant evidence in Palamedes’ tent (buried under it) and have Palamedes stoned for being a traitor (more on the story from Apollodorus’ Epitome here).

All this said, if one looks on either side of the war, Odysseus showed a remarkable level of care for his family and lands. In the first place, as written above, Odysseus did not want to leave his family at all. It may be objected, of course, that Odysseus, acquisitive as he is, simply did not want to lose his riches and place in Ithakan society–especially, if one considers the fact that the oracle is borne out, and that Odysseus comes home to meet 108 fine suitors eating up his substance in his stead. The lynch-pin of the argument, however, is that Odysseus chooses to save the life of his son, Telemachos, rather than maintain his charade, and he chooses war and poverty over giving up his own son. This shows a remarkable love for his family, and perhaps for the descent of his line, over even his own personal wealth and kleos (glory in Achaian time as measured by possessions and deeds of valor). This care and love for both home and family maintains itself through Odysseus’ entire odyssey home as he fights through Cyclopes, Laistrygones, and gives up the beds of two goddesses (Circe and Kalypso) in order to return to his lands, wife, son, and father. Though Odysseus is often thought of as the consummate cunning and amoral man (responsible for stealing the Paladium, ambushing King Rhesos and the Thracians with Diomedes, and the idea for the Trojan Horse), he shows himself as the perfect mixture of mastermind and family man, ever striving to be home and to fight alongside those he loves and cares for (so long as they are loyal to him).*

In one other way, too, Odysseus shows himself as an effective father. Because he allows (with the help of Athene and Mentor) his son to step out of his shadow by allowing his son, alongside his father, to have a place in the killing of the suitors as well as the fighting against the families of the suitors. Unlike in the case of say the Heraclids (the sons of Herakles), the greatness of the father does not stunt the development of the son, Telemachos.

This balance, however, of family life and place in society did not extend quite so elegantly to every Achaian hero, and from here, let us continue with Agamemnon as a father. When Helen was first taken from Menelaos by ignoble and “womanly” Paris, Agamemnon in support of his younger brother, called all the Achaian captains together who had once convened as suitors to Helen in the lands and court of Tyndareus, Helen’s putative father. Because, again, of Odysseus’ cleverness, all the former suitors of Helen had sworn an oath to forever protect the husband and person of Helen should any trouble befall them. The reason for this oath was that Tyndareus feared that with such a mass of suitors convened that whomever he chose would spark an attack or massacre, so Odysseus (vying for Penelope by suggesting this deal) suggested that all suitors swear an oath to protect whomever was chosen along with Helen herself.

In the first stages of having these captains and their men together ready to assault Paris and Troy for stolen Helen, tragedy struck. Either Agamemnon killed a sacred stag of Artemis, or he had foolishly boasted that he was a a greater hunter than she was; in any case, Artemis turned the winds at Aulis against the fleet and stranded the whole army there until expiation could be done. The prophet Calchas, who Agamemnon would come to hate, declared that nothing would appease Artemis besides a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia.

Agamemnon, thus, was caught between his duty as a brother, as a field-marshal, and as a father. Which duty of his should come first? In the end, he was convinced by Odysseus to sacrifice his daughter due to the fact that Iphigeneia was not his only daughter (he still had two other daughters, Elektra and Chrysothemis, and a son, Orestes) and that he had but one brother, and as a a leader of people, his duty was to his men, not simply to his family. Was Agamemnon therefore a better leader and brother than he was a father? Is one’s highest duty to one’s people and army as a general and king, or is one’s duty to one’s own daughter? What a choice.

In any case, after the war, during the Returns, Oeax, brother of executed and disgraced Palamedes, effectively convinced Klytaimestra ( Clytemnestra, Fabulae 117) to conspire to kill Agamemnon because of his outrageous choice to sacrifice their shared daughter, and because Oeax claimed that Agamemnon would be bringing a daughter of Priam, Kassandra, as a concubine to replace Klytaimestra. Klytaimestra was convinced, and with her new lover Aigisthos, cousin (and raised brother of Agamemnon), they slaughtered Agamemnon while he was sacrificing just after he arrived home.

All this tragedy behind him, Orestes, son of Agamemnon, as much as he would have preferred a living and healthy family, did have the opportunity to avenge his father and win eternal fame because of his murder. So highly regarded was he that when Athene first appears to Telemachos in Homer’s Odyssey “to start him on his journey to being a man”, Bk I lines 299-303 (Lattimore tr.), she says, “Or have you not heard what glory was won by great Orestes among all mankind, when he killed the murderer of his father, the treacherous Aigisthos, who had slain his famous father?” She passes over in silence his murdering of his mother, Klytaimestra, as well, and seemingly maintains that as tragic as Agamemnon’s death is, the glory of his son is very great.

Standing in stark contrast and as foil to Agamemnon, too, is soft-hearted Priam, the king of Troy. Rather than making the difficult choice Agamemnon did, to value his people above his family when Paris returned home from Sparta with his stolen bride, it was Priam that promised that he would never give Helen back up to Menelaos and the Achaians. Even nine years into the war, with several of his sons slain, countless of his allies and his citizens fallen, when Antenor, his esteemed advisor spoke against Paris, and suggested, wisely, that Helen finally be returned with reparations to the Achaians, Priam again listened to his son (Iliad, Bk VII 365-379), and ignored counsel.

So, because Priam was incapable of choosing against one of his family members, during the course of the Iliad, he watches his favorite son, champion of Troy–Hektor–fall before his very eyes and get dragged and desecrated behind Achilleus’ chariot around the Trojan city three times. Then Priam must finally, in Bk XXIV, kiss the hands of his son’s killer in order to receive his body back. Oh, and then, after Homer’s Iliad, his city is destroyed alongside most of his fifty sons, and his wife is enslaved by Odysseus. Difficult choices a father faces–even more difficult in sight of his own destiny and with concern for the destinies of those about (and under) him. Did Priam fail, perhaps, the stoic ideal, or was being generous to a strange woman and to his own son the kind of man and king he wished to be known and remembered as, regardless of the cost? Did he choose wisely, or was he out of his wits?

Beyond these figures there are countless other fathers who were heroes, leaders, and complicated characters in the Homeric times and beyond. One has the image of pious father Aeneas as something of the perfect political and family father–dutiful beyond all reason, and then one has Achilleus as the image of the absentee father who only cares for how his son represents him in the world after he has died–almost as an extension of his own kleos or glory. There are many more fathers in the Great Books to choose from, and the theme of considering the relationship of one’s own destiny against providing for the destiny of those under one’s care is one of the fundamental moral and political questions in the life of a man. On today, father’s day, such a question is honored here, and it will continue to be honored in future installments of this series.

*For those of you, however, who do not care for Odysseus, check the Telegony here for his ultimate fate according to the Epic Cycle for some serious irony.