Blaming Odysseus

Why did Agamemnon set aside right and agree to the sacrifice of his daughter?

Aeschylus. Agamemnon. 224-227.

Chorus:
He let himself become
the sacrificer of his daughter
for a war to help avenge a woman,
and as the first rite in launching the ships.

ἔτλα δ οὖν θυτὴρ γενέ-
σθαι θυγατρός, γυναικοποί-
νων πολέμων ἀρωγὰν
καὶ προτέλεια ναῶν.

Jean Racine (1639-1699), in his adaptation of Iphigenia at Aulis, placed the blame for Agamemnon’s moral waywardness squarely on Odysseus. In other words, Odysseus made him do it:

Racine. Iphigenia.

Agamemnon to attendant (70-78):

I wanted to disband the army.
Odysseus seemed to support my wishes;
He let that first rush of words go unchecked.
But soon he marshaled his cruel techniques:
He conjured for me honor and country;
All the people, the kings, who obey my commands;
The Asian empire promised to Greece;
And how, sacrificing the state for my daughter,
A fameless king, I’d grow old in my household.

Je voulais sur-le-champ congédier l’armée.
Ulysse en apparence approuvant mes discours,
De ce premier torrent laissa passer le cours.
Mais bientôt rappelant sa cruelle industrie,
Il me représenta l’honneur et la patrie,
Tout ce peuple, ces rois à mes ordres soumis,
Et l’empire d’Asie à la Grèce promis.
De quel front immolant tout l’État à ma fille,
Roi sans gloire, j’irais vieillir dans ma famille!

Odysseus to Agamemnon (285-296):

Think! You owe your daughter to Greece:
You’ve promised her to us, and on that promise,
Calchas, whom the Greeks consult daily,
Has foretold the return of unfailing winds.
If what comes contradicts his predictions,
Do you think Calchas will stay silent?
That you can blunt his accusations?
That Greeks will say the gods lied, and not blame you?
Deprived of their sacrifice, who knows what Greeks,
Rightly angry, in their view, might do?
Beware of forcing an enraged people,
My lord, to choose between you and the gods.

Songez-y: Vous devez votre fille à la Grèce:
Vous nous l’avez promise; et, sur cette promesse,
Calchas, par tous les Grecs consulté chaque jour,
Leur a prédit des vents l’infaillible retour.
À ses prédictions si l’effet est contraire,
Pensez-vous que Calchas continue à se taire;
Que ses plaintes, qu’en vain vous voudrez apaiser,
Laissent mentir les Dieux, sans vous en accuser?
Et qui sait ce qu’aux Grecs, frustrés de leur victime,
Peut permettre un courroux qu’ils croiront légitime?
Gardez-vous de réduire un peuple furieux,
Seigneur, à prononcer entre vous, et les Dieux.

Roland Barthes characterizes Racine’s representation of Odysseus this way:

Roland Barthes. On Racine (Editions du Seuil. 1963.105).

“He possesses the traits of what Votaire calls with admiration ‘the great politician’: the sense of collective interest, the objective appreciation of facts and their consequences, the lack of self respect; and he shrouds all his pragmatism in windbag rhetoric and continual blackmail styled as high morals [honor and country].”

“Il possède les traits de ce que Voltaire appelait avec admiration le grand politique: le sens de l’intérêt collectif, l’appréciation objective des faits et de leurs conséquences, l’absence d’amour-propre, enveloppant tout ce pragmatisme d’une rhétorique phraseuse et d’un chantage continu à la grande morale.”

black and white photograph of a line drawing or etching of the philosopher and poet Jean Racine.

19th-century portrait of Racine.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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