Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: On Hubris

Penguin Classics edition of The Oresteia, by Aeschylus, laying in a bowl of fruit.
Agamemnon is book #10 from The Literary Project.

“…they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices.” (Proverbs 1:31-32)

Never has this been more true within literature than in the tragic story of the immortal blood curse shadowing the House of Atreus. The curse began with Agamemnon’s great-grandfather, Tantalus, who killed his own son and had him cooked up and fed to the unsuspecting gods when they feasted in his palace. The curse rippled through generations to claim the innocent lives of the family’s children, including Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. When Agamemnon was to set sail with his men for Troy to join in the war, the Goddess Artemis was angry (for some unrelated reason), and raised such winds as to not allow them to sail until a virgin sacrifice to her had been made. And so Agamemnon killed his own daughter, so that they could sail on to war. Hence Queen Clytemnestra’s blood thirst for her husband’s death upon his return from Troy, to avenge her murdered child. And that revenge is what the play Agamemnon is about.

But within the story’s complexities of curses, revenge, child murder, war, and grief, I’d like to hone in on…hubris.

Hubris in Agamemnon

Hubris is a Greek-origin word for foolish arrogance and excessive self-confidence that eventually leads an ambitious person to their downfall.

As the men of the Chorus narrate the tale, they make Agamemnon’s priorities clear:

“and 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.’

Yes, he had the heart to sacrifice his daughter,
to bless the war that avenged a woman’s loss, …”

His ego cared more about satisfying masculine ideals of war glory. His hubris meant that he had more pride in his reputation with the army, than love for his own daughter.

So, he chooses to sacrifice Iphigenia, and the winds stop pinning down their hulls at bay. He leads his army to Troy, fights for 10 years (as Homer accounts in The Iliad), and finally returns home victorious.

But in the face of victory, the Chorus goes on to warn about the dangers of high ambition:

“the swarthy Furies stalk the man
gone rich beyond all rights–with a twist
of fortune grind him down, dissolve him
into the blurring dead–there is no help.
The reach for power can recoil,
the bolt of god can strike you at a glance.”

Then, Clytemnestra convinces Agamemnon to walk on red tapestries as he exits his chariot upon his arrival. The dark red tapestries represent Iphigenia’s blood, and Agamemnon very willingly tramples all over them as he walks into the palace towards his throne, his seat of power. Although he hesitates to walk on such fine tapestries at first, Clytemnestra is a strong psychological warrior, playing on his hubris by:

  • …convincing him that Priam would have walked on them! So why can’t he?

    C: “But Priam–can you see him if he had your success?”
    A: “Striding on the tapestries of god, I see him now.”
    C: “And you fear the reproach of common men?”

  • …convincing him that submitting to her request makes him powerful:

    C: “O give way! The power is yours if you surrender, all of your own free will, to me!”

  • …assuring him that their lives are full of wealth for the taking:

    C: “Our lives are based on wealth, my king, the gods have seen to that.”

And with that, “Encouraged, Agamemnon strides to the entrance.”

He strides. His hubris has tamped down any humility he may have had left.

In the end, after Clytemnestra quenches her thirst for blood with “the murderous shower”–killing Agamemnon while he bathed–the men of the Chorus fly threats and insults at her and her partner Aegisthus. In the very last line of the play, Clytemnestra assures Aegisthus:

“Let them howl–they’re impotent. You and I have power now. We will set the house in order once for all.”

And so the hubris has passed from one person to the next. And coupled with the curse, her fate in the sequel, The Libation Bearers, is sealed.

Hubris: A Cautionary Tale

We could say that Agamemnon was doomed even before his birth, due to the curse on his house. As the Greek gods are themselves subservient to Fate, perhaps there was no way around Agamemnon killing his own daughter and then being killed by his wife as punishment.

But we can’t deny that his hubris only sped up matters. His return from having won the 10-year Trojan war has left him overconfident. It is true that, by surviving years of battles and also winning the war, he should feel that he’s done something right. But the Greeks remind us through so many of their myths, that it is one thing to have pride simultaneously tempered with humility, and quite another to be full of hubris.

That hubris is what allows Clytemnestra to compare him with Priam, to play on his desire for power, and to capitalize on his sense of entitlement to wealth. “The gods have seen to it,” after all.

The irony is that, after surviving 10 years of flying spears and swords on the fields of Troy, and of living a life of honor and glory in war, he is ultimately killed in a not-so-manly fashion: stabbed by a woman while taking a bath.

So was his ambition worth it? His hubris led to a decade of war, one day of pride, and a horrible death.

Perhaps he should have tempered his pride with a bit of humility.