Agamemnon Took a Bribe for Good Reasons: Plutarch, How To Read Poetry (32e-33a)

“The bee, naturally, finds in the strongest smelling flowers–even among the roughest thorns–the smoothest, most edible honey; in the same way children, who are nourished on poems correctly, will learn somehow to extract something useful—even something profitable–from poems containing poor or contemptible behavior. For, as an example, Agamemnon stands at first glance as contemptible because he releases a man from the army for a bribe, that wealthy man who graced him with the gift of the mare Aithê (Il. 23.297)

““A gift so they he would not follow him to windy Troy
But would enjoy staying at home, since Zeus had given him / great wealth”  

But he did well, as Aristotle says, to prefer a good horse to a man of this type. For a coward and a man made weak by wealth and leisure isn’t worth a dog or an ass.”

῾Η μὲν οὖν μέλιττα φυσικῶς ἐν τοῖς δριμυτάτοις ἄνθεσι καὶ ταῖς τραχυτάταις ἀκάνθαις ἐξανευρίσκει τὸ λειότατον μέλι καὶ χρηστικώτατον, οἱ δὲ παῖδες, ἂν ὀρθῶς ἐντρέφωνται τοῖς ποιήμασιν, καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν φαύλους καὶ ἀτόπους ὑποψίας ἐχόντων ἕλκειν τι χρήσιμον ἁμωσγέπως μαθήσονται καὶ ὠφέλιμον. αὐτίκα γοῦν ὕποπτός ἐστιν ὁ ᾿Αγαμέμνων ὡς διὰ δωροδοκίαν ἀφεὶς τῆς στρατείας τὸν πλούσιον ἐκεῖνον τὸν τὴν Αἴθην χαρισάμενον αὐτῷ

δῶρ’, ἵνα μή οἱ ἕποιθ’ ὑπὸ ῎Ιλιον ἠνεμόεσσαν
ἀλλ’ αὐτοῦ τέρποιτο μένων· μέγα γάρ οἱ ἔδωκεν
Ζεὺς ἄφενος.

ὀρθῶς δέ γ’ ἐποίησεν, ὡς ᾿Αριστοτέλης φησίν, ἵππον ἀγαθὴν ἀνθρώπου τοιούτου προτιμήσας· οὐδὲ γὰρ κυνὸς ἀντάξιος οὐδ’ ὄνου μὰ Δία δειλὸς ἀνὴρ καὶ ἄναλκις, ὑπὸ πλούτου καὶ μαλακίας διερρυηκώς.


The Latin title of this poem is quomodo adulescens poetas audire debeat for the Greek title ΠΩΣ ΔΕΙ ΤΟΝ ΝΕΟΝ ΠΟΙΗΜΑΤΩΝ ΑΚΟΥΕΙΝ. The emphasis on how the young should read poetry is usually lost and probably for good enough reasons since the basic reflections on reading are not only for the young. But, caveat lector, this is not a textbook for children!

Leave a Reply