By Thomas Van Nortwick
We never see a warrior in the Iliad spared in return for ransom, though the possibility is always there, making its denial here all the more brutal. (We will hear in Book Twenty-One [34–41] about a Trojan whom Achilles once sold.) We are not meant to care particularly about Adrastus, but Menelaus and Agamemnon are central to the story, so Homer creates this opportunity to develop each man’s portrait and the relationship between the two brothers.
Menelaus we have seen in Book Three, dueling inconclusively with Paris. He is clearly the superior fighter there, and Paris only escapes when Aphrodite rescues him. In Book Four, Menelaus’s wounding by the sneaky archer Pandarus gives us a window into his relationship with his more illustrious brother, Agamemnon. Menelaus sustains a minor flesh wound, the occasion for a lovely simile comparing the blood on his leg to the red stain an artist applies to ivory (4.141–47). Agamemnon’s reaction is somewhat operatic in response to what is basically a big scratch, a long speech expressing his fears for his brother (4.155–182). What if he were to die? What would Agamemnon say to the people back in Argos? It turns out that what worries him is in part the specter of someone seeing him as an inadequate commander, but there is genuine alarm and brotherly affection there as well. Menelaus is a good fighter, but not, apparently, a great fighter, and must be handled with some care. When Menelaus comes forward to duel Hector in Book Seven, Agamemnon immediately steps in and dissuades him. The rest of the Greeks are relieved. Ajax, the eventual choice, not Menelaus, is clearly the right man for this assignment.
We note an interesting symmetry: both Menelaus and Paris, who ought to be the principal antagonists of the war, have more powerful brothers who take the lead. In each case, the less powerful sibling is a problem for his brother. Paris, as we learn in Book Three, brings shame on his family and in particular on Hector, whose sense of responsibility for his fellow Trojans contrasts starkly with Paris’s fecklessness. Menelaus, meanwhile, is an honorable man and a good fighter, who has been shamed by his wife’s betrayal (or at least her abduction: Homer never tips his hand about what her motives might have been for leaving her family). He is eager to do his part in cleaning up the mess, in contrast to Paris, who seems largely unconcerned about the terrible suffering he has brought on the Trojans. Agamemnon frets about his brother’s safety, apparently feeling the need to protect his brother from overreaching. Each pairing resonates with the other in Homer’s brief and economical characterizations.
By the time Agamemnon weighs in here, we know him well. His insecurity and arrogance in the poem’s opening scene paint an unattractive picture. He bullies the priest of Apollo, who has come to beg for the release of his daughter, now Agamemnon’s concubine, with disastrous results for the Greeks. Apollo, angered by the mistreatment of his priest, sends a plague through the Greek camp. Even Achilles, himself no slouch in the arrogance department, seems initially at least to have more solicitude for the Greek warriors than does Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition, suggesting that they consult a seer about the causes of the plague. The seer Calchas correctly identifies the source of Apollo’s anger, and it would seem that the wise thing for Agamemnon to do would be to return the priest’s daughter and choose another concubine. He eventually gets to that decision, but not before bullying Calchas for delivering bad news, and antagonizing Achilles, who storms out of the camp, insuring that many more Greeks will die. Agamemnon’s bungling of Zeus’s false dream at the beginning of Book Two (2.1–181) again shows him to be insecure about his position and out of touch with his troops, qualities on display yet again during his attempts, often clumsy, to rally his men when the battle resumes in Book Four (326–418). Taken together, the portrait of Agamemnon in the first four books of the poem shows us a man who often seems out of his depth, lacking a sure instinct for leading his troops. Faced with his inadequacy, he tends to resort to bravado and bullying, which further undermine his credibility as a leader. More humiliation awaits him in Book Nineteen when Achilles brushes aside his lame apology, which in the glare of the former’s rage can only appear petty and self-serving (19.74–153).
Agamemnon’s brutal injunction to Menelaus here, that no Trojan should be spared, even the unborn child in a mother’s womb, jars us yet further. Perhaps if it came in a moment of peril, when force was necessary for survival, we might see it as more understandable. But Adrastus poses no threat to either man, so killing him (let alone an unborn child) is hardly heroic. And yet, because Homer has been careful to shine a light on Agamemnon’s tender feelings for Menelaus, our revulsion is tempered to some degree by our recognition that he can be motivated by something other than his self-regard. Like Hector’s continuing concern about his impossible brother, crosscurrents of emotion here give the character depth and vulnerability, forestalling easy judgments.
Nestor appears at the end of the Adrastus episode, urging the Greeks not to let a desire for spoils divert them from their primary mission, killing Trojans and taking Troy. Nestor is one of three important old men in the poem, along with Phoenix and Priam, and each one is different. Phoenix was Achilles’ childhood tutor, having arrived as a fugitive at the home of Peleus (9.434–95). He is one of the three ambassadors who go to Achilles in Book Nine to ask him to relent and return to battle. He softens Achilles’ stance slightly there by playing on their long friendship. His history with Achilles’ family echoes that of Patroclus, another old friend who came to Peleus as a fugitive and took up the role of older adviser. Priam will form the most crucial relationship with Achilles, engaging his sympathy and moving him to release Hector’s body at the end of the poem. Like Phoenix, Priam exemplifies the softening effects of a long perspective colored by suffering, appealing to Achilles’ compassion.
Not so Nestor. Best known for his lengthy speeches, usually about himself and other glorious fighters from an earlier time, Nestor always calls on traditional heroic virtues, fighting strength and an unflagging thirst for victory, to motivate the Greek warriors. Though too old to fight himself, he is nevertheless always around the battle, modeling heroism, ready with a pep talk. His brief appearance here is part of Homer’s careful modulation of tone. After the disturbing speech of Agamemnon, Nestor’s call for self-restraint in the pursuit of victory returns the narrative to more familiar territory. At the same time, by having Nestor urge soldiers to resist self-aggrandizement in favor of the common goal of taking Troy, Homer invites us to think again about the more unsavory aspects of Agamemnon’s demands, which might reflect, like almost everything he does, his own insecurity.
These portraits, as we have said, point us toward the scene between Hector and Andromache: Agamemnon’s troubled leadership and personal weakness throw into relief Hector’s nobility and the terrible dilemma he faces; both Menelaus’s broken relationship to Helen and her toxic bond to Paris are the negative image of what we will see at the Skaian Gates.
Greenberg, N.A. 1993. “The Attitude of Agamemnon.” Classical World 86.3: 193–205.
Owen, E.T. 1946. The Story of the Iliad, 57. Toronto: Clark and Irwin.
Roisman, H.M. 2005. “Nestor the Good Counselor.” Classical Quarterly 55: 17–38.
Van Nortwick, T. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 123–28. Praeger.
Wilson, D. 2002. Ransom, Revenge, and Heroic Identity in the Iliad, 165–67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.