The present picture only came to light earlier this year when it was included in the Reggio Emilia exhibition; it was consequently unknown to Pirondini who published a monograph on the artist in 1999. The composition was previously known from three versions which, as Benati remarks (loc. cit.), were all inspired by the success of the present picture, now accepted as the prime version.
The best of those other versions, that in the Palazzo Pisani-Moretta, Venice, which has hitherto been generally regarded as autograph, was included by Pirondini among the securely attributed works; she noted, however, that weaknesses in the face of Agamemnon may have been evidence of the participation of a studio hand. By comparison with the present work, Benati opines that this specific weakness is in fact characteristic of the whole version, which he considers to be typical of the hand of a copyist. The two other versions, in the Bossoni collection, Milan, and in the Museo Civico, Reggio, are both wholly attributable to the studio.
The subject is famous in literature as the catalyst with which the story recounted in Homer's Iliad begins. In the tenth and last year of the Trojan War, Achilles, in a raid on a nearby town, took as a slave a girl called Briseis; at the same time Agamemnon took another called Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo. When the latter asked to be able to ransom his daughter, Agamemnon refused; to punish the Greek King for his intransigence towards his priest, Apollo caused a plague in the Greek army. Because of this, the Greeks compelled Agamemnon to give up Chryseis, but he in turn demanded that Achilles give him Briseis. In great dudgeon, the latter refused and retired to his tent, abstaining from future battle. The subsequent disputes, deaths - beginning with that of Achilles' best friend, Patroclus - and revenges form, in essence, the fabric of Homer's epic, which famously begins: 'Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.'