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The Armies of Agamemnon King of Kings

Bethany Williams 11-14 minutes 6/5/2022
agamemnon achille portrait combat diomedes painting

The events of the Iliad recount the story of the Trojan War, giving a snapshot of the experiences of men and women during wartime. A great section of the epic poem is dedicated to a description of all the armies and leaders who traveled to the plains of Troy to fight. Their supreme leader, uniting the forces, was King Agamemnon.

As with most legendary leaders in history, Agamemnon had supporters, sycophants, and rebellious underlings within his army. Some saw him as a pious and just leader, others saw him as a greedy leech. So, who were these captains and lords within Agamemnon’s army, and where did they hail from? Why did they fight for Agamemnon?

Agamemnon and the Right to Rule

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Detail of Agamemnon from The Anger of Achilles, by Jacques-Louis David, 1819, via Kimbell Art Museum

Agamemnon was given the right to rule by the king of the gods himself, Zeus. This ruling power was given in the form of a scepter. Zeus passed the scepter to whomever he thought was worthy to lead at different points in Greek mythology. At the time of the Trojan War, Agamemnon was given the scepter due to his prowess as a mighty warrior.

“All cannot play the king, and a host of leaders is no wise thing. Let us have but the one leader, the one true king, to whom Zeus, the son of Cronos of wily counsel, gave sceptre and command, to rule his people wisely.”
(Odysseus on Agamemnon’s Command, Iliad, Book 2, ll.188-210)

Agamemnon summoned the forces of Greece to fight for his brother, Menelaus, whose wife had been kidnapped by the Trojan Prince Paris. Together, they wished to get revenge on the Trojans for insulting the hospitality of the Greeks. It is commonly suggested that a great motive for Agamemnon to attack Troy was that with their defeat, Agamemnon would have control of the entire Aegean Sea. This would make his rule even more powerful, as he would have a monopoly over both land and sea trade.

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Agamemnon and the Catalogue of Ships

corte juan kidnapping of helen
The Kidnapping of Helen, by Juan de la Corte, first half of the 17th century, via Museo del Prado

Book II of the Iliad is often called “The Catalogue of Ships” as it names each and every commander and details how many ships they each brought with them to Troy. Within the catalogue, Agamemnon is presented as the High King who brought the troops together.

“[From] broad lands came the followers of King Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, in a hundred ships. And they were the largest and the best contingent. Clad in gleaming bronze, a king in glory, he reigned over the armies, as the noblest leader of the greatest force.”
(Homer, Iliad, Book 2 ll.484-580)

The Catalogue depicts a union — loose though it may be — between the city-states of ancient Greece, set around 1200 BCE. Each of these states was ruled by kings, and the rulership was passed down in a hereditary manner. Agamemnon was the High King who tied them together under his command.

There were altogether 29 contingents, under 49 captains, who followed Agamemnon to Greece. This amounted to around 1,186 ships, which is where the saying comes from that Helen, the kidnapped wife of Menelaus, had “a face that launched a thousand ships.” Agamemnon had around 150,000 warriors altogether. These men were called interchangeably Achaeans, Danaans, and Greeks.

“Tell me now, Muses … tell me who were the leaders and lords of the Danaans. For I could not count or name the multitude who came to Troy, though I had ten tongues and a tireless voice, and lungs of bronze as well, if you Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus, brought them not to mind. Here let me tell of the captains, and their ships.”
(Iliad, Book 2, ll.484-580)

Eastern Greek Contingents

jacques louis david combat diomedes
The Combat of Diomedes, by Jacques-Louis David, 1776, in the Albertina Museum (Austria), via Google Arts & Culture

The Eastern Greek Contingents under Agamemnon’s command were the Boeotians, the Aspledons, and the Minyan peoples, as well as the Phocians, the Locrians, and the Abantes of Euboea. Further contingents from Eastern Greece were the Athenians under Menestheus, the Salamineans under Ajax the Greater, and the Argives under Diomedes and his subordinates Sthenelus and Euryalus.

Great warriors came from these regions, and altogether they contributed 342 ships. King Agamemnon himself was from Eastern Greece, the Kingdom of Mycenae and he contributed the largest force of 100 ships.

A few key names from this region are worthy of mentioning in more detail. Ajax the Greater, leader of the Salamineans, was renowned for his great (brute) strength. He had a huge, even colossal, body and was often compared to Achilles in strength. However, Achilles, “best of the Achaeans,” always topped the charts. Ajax only brought 12 ships, which was considerably less than the others, but his prowess on the battlefield more than made up for his lack of numbers.

Ajax was known as “the Greater”, which set him apart from another Ajax: Ajax the Lesser. This Ajax, however, did live up to his name as he committed atrocities during the war, which diminished his honor. Ajax the Lesser committed the crime of dragging Princess Cassandra from the sacred temple of Athena and violating her.

Diomedes was also a great warrior from Eastern Greece. He brought 80 ships from Argos and the surrounding regions. He won many victories for the Greeks against the Trojans, and he often helped Odysseus with missions against their enemy. His name literally translates as “godlike” and he was blessed by them with craftiness and skill in warfare.

Western Greek Contingents

abbate odysseus chiding thersites
Odysseus Chiding Thersites, by Niccolò dell’Abbate, 1552-71, via the British Museum

From Western Greece, the following armies came: the Lacedaemonians under Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother; the armies of Nestor the wise; the Cephallenians under wily Odysseus; the Arcadians, the Epeans, the people from Dulichium, and the Aetolians. Altogether, they contributed another 342 ships.

Odysseus brought just 12 ships; he was King of a few islands on the Western coast of Greece. His people were primarily farmer folk, but they were loyal to their king when he was summoned to war. Odysseus “wiliest of men” was a famous trickster, blessed and guided by Athena the goddess of wisdom. His good advice was often sought; a clever plan from Odysseus could mean winning the war. Indeed, his ultimate plan of hiding warriors inside the Trojan Horse allowed the Greeks to decimate the Trojans. He placated lots of disgruntled warriors who chafed against Agamemnon’s rule. In particular, the warrior Thersites became angry with Agamemnon for making them fight, and Odysseus stepped in.

Nestor brought the most ships, 90, and he was a notable King to whom the other Kings of Greece looked to for advice. He was in Agamemnon’s inner group of advisors, and his age and experience lent him credibility and respect from the other captains.

One final notable captain from Western Greece was Menelaus, who brought 60 ships. He used his connection to his brother, and the loyalty oath that the other commanders had sworn to him, to force them all to fight for his cause at Troy. This oath was formed when the kings of Greece swore to come to the call of the future husband of Helen during a time of need. Since Menelaus won Helen as his wife, the other suitors were sworn to him. Menelaus chose her abduction as the moment to call on those who took the oath.

Crete and the Island Contingents

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Agamemnon musters the Greek troops at Aulis, tapestry attributed to Pieter Coecke van Aeist, via the MET Museum

Warriors came from Crete and the islands in the Aegean, too. The Cretans contributed the most with 80 ships, led by Idomeneus and Meriones. These armies included the Rhodians, who were led by a son of Hercules, named Tlepolemus. Other descendants of Hercules came to the war, bringing the Greek hero’s legacy to battle; Pheidippus and Antiphus, who brought 30 ships together.

The Symians brought just 3 ships, and there were people from the Calydonian Isles, and many others from other small islands, too. Altogether, 122 ships came from the islands.

Northern Greek Contingents

canova achilles delivers briseis agamemnon heralds
Achilles Delivering Briseis to Agamemnon’s Heralds, a relief by Antonio Canova, 1787-90, via Google Arts & Culture

The final areas that contributed to the Greek army were the regions of Northern Greece. There were many city-states in the North that gave brave men to the war. Of them, Protesilaus was the first to reach Troy when the fleet set sail. However, there was a prophecy that the first Greek to set foot on Troy would be the first to die. Protesilaus was excited to be the first man to jump off his ship, having beaten the rest of the fleet. He managed to make the first kills, and so make history, but he was soon cut down by Hector, the leader of the Trojans and a Prince of Troy. Hector’s only equal was Achilles.

Achilles and his Myrmidons came from Northern Greece, from a place called Phthia. He brought 50 ships, and his army was renowned for being the best fighters in the entire army. Achilles himself earned the title aristos achaion which translates as best of the Achaeans. The myth of Achilles was that he was invincible, with only one spot on his entire body that could be wounded: his heel.

Agamemnon and Achilles despised one another; Achilles believed Agamemnon to be a greedy king and Agamemnon thought Achilles to be a rash young prince, although it was perhaps Achilles’ prowess and fame that incited jealousy in the warrior king. The Iliad begins with the cataclysmic argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, in which Achilles is held back by the goddess Athena from attacking the King. Achilles was angered by Agamemnon’s greed when the King took Achilles’ own prize — a woman named Briseis — for his own. This was a great insult and Achilles refused to fight for the King for a long time. The Greeks suffered greatly from Achilles’ absence.

Agamemnon: The Great Warrior, the Selfish Ruler

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The Trojan Horse, by John of the Court, first half of the 17th century, via Museo del Prado

“Agamemnon, king of men, did not fail to follow his lead. At once, he ordered the clear-voiced heralds to summon the long-haired Greeks to battle. They cried their summons and the troops swiftly gathered. The heaven-born princes of the royal suite sped about, marshalling the army, and with them went bright-eyed Athene, wearing the priceless, ageless, deathless aegis, from which a hundred intricate golden tassels flutter, each worth a hundred head of oxen. Shining she passed through the ranks of the Greeks, urging them on; and every heart she inspired to fight and war on without cease. And suddenly battle was sweeter to them than sailing home in the hollow ships to their own native land.”
(Iliad, Book 2, 394-483)

Agamemnon led such a huge army that they were described as a roaring, moving, thundering ocean of men. He led the Greeks to toil and death, but also to ultimate victory. With the help of the Greeks, Agamemnon was able to overtake and destroy Troy. He burned it to the ground, taking the people as new slaves and treasure for his own.

Depending on your perspective, Agamemnon was a just ruler who defeated an enemy who had insulted Greece. Alternatively, he is often seen or characterized as a greedy loutish King, an expert in battle but terrible as a fair ruler.

“And as goatherds swiftly sort the mingled flocks, scattered about the pastures, so their leaders ordered the ranks before the battle, King Agamemnon there among them, with head and gaze like Zeus the Thunderer, with Ares’ waist and Poseidon’s chest. As a bull, pre-eminent among the grazing cattle, stands out as by far the finest, so Zeus made Agamemnon seem that day, first among many, chieftain among warriors.”
(Iliad, Book 2)