A Fresh View of an Old Crux:
Iliad 19.76-77 and the Conventions of Assembly

Deborah Beck

The behavior of Agamemnon at Iliad 19.76-77, where he remains seated while speaking in the assembly at which Achilles rejoins the Greek forces, has puzzled commentators since antiquity.  Neither textual emendation nor strenuous interpretive exertions are required to understand why Agamemnon speaks from a sitting position.  The passage makes sense if we evaluate it within the broader context of the typical conventions and formulas for assemblies throughout the Homeric epics.  It is playing against typical patterns in order to create a specific effect:  Agamemnon’s seated position shows his lack of respect for Achilles and the assembly.

In the assembly in book 19, Agamemnon departs from the norms of assembly and the expected reciprocity of any kind of conversation.  First, he speaks from a sitting position (76-77).  Although Agamemnon is wounded, he is able both to walk to the assembly and to conduct a sacrifice.  Thus, he must choose to remain seated here rather than being prevented from standing by his physical condition.  Nor does the evidence support the interpretation identified as the “commonly accepted” view by Edwards 1991 (ad loc.), that Agamemnon stands but does not move into the middle of the place of assembly.  The action of standing to speak is typical and formulaic in the context of an assembly, while the action of moving into the middle of the place of assembly is not.  If Agamemnon were described as failing to do something the audience had no reason to expect him to do, this fact would be unlikely to mean anything to them and would not contribute to their understanding of the scene.  Since the formulaic language of assembly does convey a strong expectation that a speaker will stand up, the most reasonable assumption about 19.76-77 is that it means that Agamemnon fails to stand up.  This makes sense as a representation of violating the norms of proper behavior in assembly, just as on a linguistic level it violates the formulaic norms of assembly.

If we view Agamemnon’s behavior in Il. 19.76-77 within the broader context of the norms of assembly formulas and behavior, we can see that the verses need neither emendation nor complex interpretation in order to make sense.  The passage assumes a knowledge of typical behavior in assembly, and must be understood in light of these conventions.  It plays off the norms of assembly in order to show Agamemnon’s lack of respect for the assembly and for the man it is called for, Achilles.  Once we see the passage in this light, it highlights the pervasive tension between common, repeated patterns and variation from these patterns and points out the importance of this tension in the composition and understanding of the Homeric poems.

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