Book Club | March 2024: Aeschylus Agamemnon

Word cloud Agamemnon masks

Chorus of the Old Men of Argos:

I still can hear the older warlord saying,
‘Obey, obey, or a heavy doom will crush me –
Oh but doom will crush me
once I rend my child,
the glory of my house –
a father’s hands are stained,
blood of a young girl streaks the altar.
Pain both ways and what is worse?
Desert the fleets, fail the alliance?
No, but stop the winds with a virgin’s blood,
feed their lust, their fury? – feed their fury! –
Law is law!
Let all go well.’

And once he slipped his neck in the strap of Fate,
his spirit veering black, impure, unholy,
once he turned he stopped at nothing,
seized with the frenzy
blinding driving to outrage –
wretched frenzy, cause of all our grief!
Yes, he had the heart
to sacrifice his daughter,
to bless the war that avenged a woman’s loss,
A bridal rite that sped the men-of-war. (205–226)

from the Parados of Aeschylus Agamemnon, translated by Robert Fagles

This month’s Book Club selection is Agamemnon, the first of a trilogy of related Greek tragedies by Aeschylus. The trilogy, known as the Oresteia, was first performed in 458 BCE at the Great Dionysia in Athens where it won first prize. It is the only complete trilogy to come down to us from ancient times.[1]

Aeschylus was born at Eleusis c. 525/4 BCE which was then under the control of Athens. Aeschylus lived during tumultuous times. He was in his teens when the Pisistratid monarchy was overthrown and replaced by the first Athenian democracy (510–508). He helped defend Athens, and all of Greece, during both Persian invasions, fighting at Marathon (490) and at Salamis (480). The short epitaph on his tombstone in Gela, Syracuse, believed to be composed by him, recalls his valor at Marathon but does not mention his work as a playwright.[2]

In each Persian war, combined Greek forces resisted a foreign invasion, led by a Persian king, first Darius I and then Xerxes I. During the second invasion, the Persians laid waste to Athens and burned its Acropolis to the ground. It is interesting that this tragedy depicts the homecoming of Agamemnon, the mythical king of Argos, who led a Panhellenic army overseas where they laid waste to the city of Troy and its surroundings and burned its citadel to the ground. Although the Persians were successfully driven out of Greece, Agamemnon’s forces vanquished Troy.

Please read any translation you like. The versions below are available online for free:

Ian Johnston (2002)—online at JohnstonianTexts

George Theodoridis (2005) online at PoetryInTranslation

Herbert Weir Smyth (1926), Revised by Gregory Crane and Graeme Bird, Further Revised by Gregory Nagy online from the Kosmos Society Text Library

E. D. A. Moreshead (1881) online at Project Gutenberg Australia

Gilbert Murray (1920), English Rhyming Verse online at Project Gutenberg

Dual Language Translation online at Faenum Publishing

Since our Book Club selection this month is a play, in addition to our usual Zoom discussion, there will also be a read-through on Zoom. We have found that this activity helps us understand the play in terms of performance.

The read-through will be held via Zoom on Tuesday, March 12 at 11 a.m. EDT.
For our regular discussion, we will meet via Zoom on Tuesday, March 26 at 11 a.m. EDT.

As always, our discussion will start and continue in the Forum where the Zoom links will be posted on the dates above.

Happy readings!


1 The Complete Greek Tragedies Aeschylus II, 3rd ed. Edited by Mark Griffith & Glenn W. Most. Chicago&   London. University of Chicago Press. 2013. Introduction, page 1.

2 Ibid.

Image credit

Permission to use the underlying image granted by the mask creator, Cyndy Salisbury–The Art of the Mask. All Rights Reserved.