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Prisoners of War in Antiquity: The Iliad

Ancient World

Prisoners of War in Antiquity: The Iliad

“Achilles and Agamemnon” by Gottlieb Schick


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB


This is the second in a series of articles on the treatment of prisoners of war in antiquity. In this article I’ll discuss several mentions of POWs in Homer’s Iliad, analysing how the Greeks felt about POWs and the ethics behind each episode.

Chryseis: Agamemnon’s Captive

This passage is taken from the first book of the Iliad. The Greeks organized an expedition to sack cities around Troy, likely to capture supplies and slaves. After destroying Thebes, Agamemnon took prisoner a slave-girl named Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo. Her father then comes before the Greek assembly and begs Agamemnon to give him back his daughter in exchange for a rich ransom. Here’s Agamenon’s answer to the priest’s request:

μή σε γέρον κοίλῃσιν ἐγὼ παρὰ νηυσὶ κιχείω
ἢ νῦν δηθύνοντ᾽ ἢ ὕστερον αὖτις ἰόντα,
μή νύ τοι οὐ χραίσμῃ σκῆπτρον καὶ στέμμα θεοῖο:
τὴν δ᾽ ἐγὼ οὐ λύσω: πρίν μιν καὶ γῆρας ἔπεισιν
ἡμετέρῳ ἐνὶ οἴκῳ ἐν Ἄργεϊ τηλόθι πάτρης
ἱστὸν ἐποιχομένην καὶ ἐμὸν λέχος ἀντιόωσαν:
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι.

“Let me not find you tarrying about
our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your
scepter of the god and your wreath shall
profit you nothing. I will not free her. She
shall grow old in my house at Argos far
from her own home, busying herself with
her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and
do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

(Translation by Samuel Butler)

Since Agamemnon had denied his request, the priest prayed to Apollo, who then sent a dreadful plague onto the Greek army. The poor soldiers paid dearly for the fault of their commander!

The Death of Adrastus

The following episode is from the sixth book of the Iliad. The son of a rich Trojan nobleman is about to be taken prisoner by Menelaus. The young soldier begs the Spartan king for mercy by embracing his knees, a well-known Greek practice, but Agamemnon ends up convincing his brother Menealaus that the prisoner should not be spared. Agamemnon himself then executes him shortly afterward. Here are the exact words uttered by Adrastus:

‘ζώγρει Ἀτρέος υἱέ, σὺ δ᾽ ἄξια δέξαι ἄποινα:
πολλὰ δ᾽ ἐν ἀφνειοῦ πατρὸς κειμήλια κεῖται
χαλκός τε χρυσός τε πολύκμητός τε σίδηρος,
τῶν κέν τοι χαρίσαιτο πατὴρ ἀπερείσι᾽ ἄποινα
εἴ κεν ἐμὲ ζωὸν πεπύθοιτ᾽ ἐπὶ νηυσὶν

“Take me alive,” he cried, “son of Atreus,
and you shall have a full ransom for me:my
father is rich and has much treasure of gold,
bronze, and wrought iron laid by in his
house. From this store he will give you
a large ransom should he hear of my being
alive and at the ships of the Achaeans.”

(Translation by Samuel Butler)

We soon see another example of Agamemnon’s cruelty. After murdering Adrastus, he declares that even the unborn children of the Trojans must die in their mother’s wombs. Although Agamemnon was a brave warrior, he was also a wicked man who knew no pity.

Lycaon: Victim of Achilles’ Wrath

This episode is taken from book XXI and takes place after Achilles rejoins the war and is desperatelly seeking revenge for Patroclus’ death. Lycaon was the son of Pryam and Laothoe and had been taken as prisoner twice by Achilles. The first time Achilles chose not to kill him but to sell him as a slave instead. He was bought back by a friend of his family, who restored his status as a free man. The seconf time, however, that Lycaon faced Achilles, the son of Peleus showed him no mercy. Lycaon begs for his life. Here is Achilles’ answer:

νήπιε μή μοι ἄποινα πιφαύσκεο μηδ᾽ ἀγόρευε:
πρὶν μὲν γὰρ Πάτροκλον ἐπισπεῖν αἴσιμον ἦμαρ τόφρά τί μοι πεφιδέσθαι ἐνὶ φρεσὶ φίλτερον ἦενΤρώων, καὶ πολλοὺς ζωοὺς ἕλον ἠδ᾽ ἐπέρασσα:νῦν δ᾽ οὐκ ἔσθ᾽ ὅς τις θάνατον φύγῃ ὅν κε θεός γε
Ἰλίου προπάροιθεν ἐμῇς ἐν χερσὶ βάλῃσι
καὶ πάντων Τρώων, περὶ δ᾽ αὖ Πριάμοιό γε παίδων.

“Idiot,” said he, “talk not to me of ransom.
Until Patroklos fell I preferred to give the
Trojans quarter, and sold beyond the sea
many of those whom I had taken alive; but
now not a man shall live of those whom
heaven delivers into my hands before the
city of Ilion – and of all Trojans it shall fare
hardest with the sons of Priam. Therefore,
my friend, you too shall die.”

(Translation by Samuel Butler)


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.



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