Chapter 2. The Best of the Achaeans

2§1. It is an overall Iliadic theme that Achilles is “best of the Achaeans,” as I will now try to show. [1] The title is hotly contested. The central grievance of Achilles in the Iliad is that Agamemnon has dishonored him, and in this context the hero of the Iliad is regularly called áristos Akhaiôn ‘best of the Achaeans’ (Iliad I 244, 412; XVI 271, 274). [2] During his quarrel with Achilles, Agamemnon, too, is specifically described as one who lays claim to the title áristos Akhaiôn:
ὃς νῦν πολλὸν ἄριστος Ἀχαιῶν εὔχεται εἶναι
who boasts that he is now by far the best of the Achaeans
Iliad I 91
ὃς μέγ᾽ ἄριστος Ἀχαιῶν εὔχεται εἶναι
who boasts that he is by far the best of the Achaeans
Iliad II 82
The first of these verses is spoken by Achilles himself, whose very actions in Iliad I had challenged Agamemnon's claim.
2§2. When the great Catalogue of Iliad II, recounting the resources of each major Achaean hero, reaches Agamemnon, the men who followed him to Troy are described as πολὺ πλεῖστοι καὶ ἄριστοι, ‘by far the most numerous and the best [áristos plural]’ (Iliad II 577). Later, Agamemnon himself is said to excel:
οὕνεκ᾽ ἄριστος ἔην, πολὺ δὲ πλείστους ἄγε λαούς
because he was the best [ áristos ], and he led the most numerous host
Iliad II 580
The tradition here grudgingly assigns him the title of “best” by virtue of his being the leader of the “best.” But the Catalogue comes to a close with the words:
οὗτοι ἄρ᾽ ἡγεμόνες Δαναῶν
So now, these were the leaders of the Danaans.
Iliad II 760
The poet then follows up with a question:
τίς τ᾽ ἂρ τῶν ὄχ᾽ ἄριστος ἔην, σύ μοι ἔννεπε Μοῦσα
Who, then, was by far the best [ áristos ]? Tell me, Muse!
Iliad II 761
The simple question is then expanded into a compound question: who was the best among the Achaeans and among their horses (Iliad II 762)? The Muse’s answer is an elaborate exercise in ring composition. First, let us look at the horses: those of Eumelos were best (Iliad II 763–767). Then the men: well, Ajax was best [áristos] (Iliad II 768)—that is, so long as Achilles persisted in his anger and refrained from fighting:
ὄφρ᾽ Ἀχιλεὺς μήνιεν· ὁ γὰρ πολὺ φέρτατος ἦεν
so long as Achilles was angry; for he was by far the best [ phértatos ]. [3]
Iliad II 769
Which brings us back to the horses: those of Achilles were actually the best after all (Iliad II 770). But since Achilles was out of sight when the first superlative came around, his horses were out of mind. Achilles, however, is never out of mind in the Iliad when it comes to asking who is best of the Achaeans. [4] The great Ajax, then, is here being demoted from the best to the second best of the Achaeans by what seems to be premeditated afterthought. He also gets the same sort of treatment from the epic tradition in Iliad VII, in a passage that deserves detailed attention.
2§3. Hektor is about to challenge Ἀχαιῶν ὅς τις ἄριστος, ‘whoever is best [áristos] of the Achaeans’ to a duel (Iliad VII 50). [5] He boasts that this unnamed Achaean will be killed and thus become part of an epic story glorifying the deeds of Hektor. The hapless unknown Achaean, by performing an aristeíā, [6] would become part of a kléos, but the kléos would belong to the winner, Hektor. Here is how Hektor says it:
καί ποτέ τις εἴπῃσι καὶ ὀψιγόνων ἀνθρώπων,
νηῒ πολυκλήϊδι πλέων ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον·
“ἀνδρὸς μὲν τόδε σῆμα πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος,
ὅν ποτ᾽ ἀριστεύοντα κατέκτανε φαίδιμος Ἕκτωρ.”
ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει· τὸ δ᾽ ἐμὸν κλέος οὔ ποτ᾽ ὀλεῖται.
And some day, someone from a future generation will say,
as he is sailing on a many-benched ship over the wine-dark sea:
“This is the tomb of a man who died a long time ago,
who was performing his aristeíā when illustrious Hektor killed him.”
That is what someone will say, and my kléos will never perish.
Iliad VII 87–91
The tomb of this unknown Achaean challenger would be at the Hellespont (Iliad VII 86), clearly visible to those who sail by. And it so happens that epic tradition assigns such a tomb to Achilles himself:
ἀκτῇ ἔπι προὐχούσῃ, ἐπὶ πλατεῖ Ἑλλησπόντῳ,
ὥς κεν τηλεφανής ἐκ ποντόφιν ἀνδράσιν εἴη
τοῖς οἳ νῦν γεγάασι καὶ οἳ μετόπισθεν ἔσονται.
on a jutting headland, by the broad Hellespont,
so that it may be bright from afar for men coming from the sea,
those who are now and those who will be in the future. [7]
Odyssey xxiv 82–84
It is Achilles who should have answered Hektor's challenge to the one who is best of the Achaeans. This is the hero whose father had taught him ‘to be best [áristos] always’ (αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν: Iliad XI 784). Achilles will die, yes, and his ashes will indeed be enshrined at the Hellespont. But, ironically, it is Hektor who will be killed by Achilles. [8] It is Hektor who will become part of an epic story glorifying the deeds of Achilles. By performing his fatal aristeíā, Hektor will become part of a kléos, as he says it at VII 91, but the kléos will belong to the winner, Achilles. [9] The Iliad belongs to Achilles. It is to Achilles that the Iliadic tradition assigns the kléos that will never perish. Achilles himself says it:
ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται
I have lost a safe return home [ nóstos ], but I will have unfailing glory [ kléos ]. [10]
Iliad IX 413
We may have lost countless other epic compositions, but the Iliad has survived and endured. The confidence of the Iliad in its eternal survival is the confidence of the master singer. For Achilles, the kléos of the Iliad tradition should be an eternal consolation for losing a safe return home, a nóstos. There is also irony here for Achilles. Hektor's insulting boast hits the mark in that Achilles will be killed and will be buried where Hektor's words predict. But the greatest irony is reserved for Ajax, the second best of the Achaeans. Before we can get to him, however, other things have yet to happen in Iliad VII.
2§4. After Hektor issues his challenge, no one dares to respond but Menelaos. If no one takes up the challenge, he says in the form of a public reproach, [11] it will be a subject of future public reproach as well for the Achaeans (Iliad VII 96–97), [12] and that will be a ‘thing without kléos’ (ἀκλεές: Iliad VII 100). [13] The Achaeans had better behave as heroes, for Epos is keeping them under observation. As Menelaos prepares to fight Hektor, the poet of the Iliad turns away from the audience of his performance and addresses directly the persona in his composition:
ἔνθα κέ τοι, Μενέλαε, φάνη βιότοιο τελευτή
Ἕκτορος ἐν παλάμῃσιν, ἐπεὶ πολὺ φέρτερος ἦεν
At that point, Menelaos, the end of your life would have appeared,
in the clutches of Hektor, since he was better by far.
Iliad VII 104–105
What prevented the death of Menelaos from appearing here in the narrative was the intervention of his fellow Achaeans. In particular, his brother Agamemnon is holding Menelaos back, urging him not to fight ‘a better man’ (ἀμείνονι φωτί: Iliad VII 111). Menelaos is told that even Achilles would not fight, ‘and he is far better than you’ (ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων: Iliad VII 114).
2§5. At this point, Nestor too reproaches the Achaeans (Iliad VII 123–161). [14] His words are in fact so compelling that all nine of the ‘pan-Achaean champions’ (ἀριστῆες Παναχαιῶν: Iliad VII 159) volunteer straightway to face Hektor. They are Agamemnon, Diomedes, the Ajaxes, Idomeneus, Meriones, Eurypylos, Thoas, and finally, Odysseus (Iliad VII 162–168). Lots are drawn to narrow the list down to one. The Achaeans are meanwhile praying that the winner of the lottery should be Ajax or Diomedes or Agamemnon (Iliad VII 177–180). The effect of the prayer on the narrative is that our attention is narrowed down to three out of nine. Of these three, we have already seen Agamemnon claiming the title “best of the Achaeans.” Diomedes, too, gets this title, but only in Book V of the Iliad. Book V is his finest hour, his aristeíā, and this is where he is twice called áristos Akhaiôn ‘best of the Achaeans’. Both times, however, the specific moment is sinister. In one passage, the archer Pandaros has just shot Diomedes with an arrow, and he is boasting that he has wounded the ‘best of the Achaeans’ (ἄριστος Ἀχαιῶν: Iliad V 103). [15] For an audience brought up on the tradition that Achilles himself was killed by the arrow of another archer, [16] the superlative of this boast has an ominous ring in the Iliad. In the other passage, the goddess Dione is consoling her daughter Aphrodite, who has just been wounded by Diomedes (Iliad V 406–415). He should beware, she says, lest a man stronger than her daughter should fight him (Iliad V 411); then Diomedes would be killed and his wife would have to mourn him, the ‘best of the Achaeans’ (ἄριστον Ἀχαιῶν: Iliad V 414). Elsewhere in his aristeíā, Diomedes is described only one other time as ‘best’ (ἄριστον: Iliad V 839), but not specifically as the best of the Achaeans. So much for Diomedes, whose heroic momentum is finally thwarted by Zeus himself at VIII 130–171. [17] As for Agamemnon, he, too, gets the general epithet ‘best’ one other time besides the instances already discussed. This time, the setting is Book XI, the setting for his own aristeíā. And here, too, the specific moment is sinister. Hektor has just wounded Agamemnon, and he is exulting that his enemy, ‘the best man’, has withdrawn from the fighting (ὤριστος: Iliad XI 288). [18] So much, then, for Agamemnon.
2§6. We can finally turn to Ajax, second best to Achilles among all the Achaeans. Here is a man destined by epic tradition to lose the most important contest of his heroic existence, a contest of aristeíā with Odysseus. [19] But the Iliad allows him to win a lottery this time. His winning changes nothing in the course of oncoming events, since Ajax and Hektor then proceed to fight to a draw. At the end of their inconclusive duel, Hektor even compliments Ajax by calling him ‘best of the Achaeans’ (Ἀχαιῶν φέρτατος: Iliad VII 289), on the grounds that he excels in both might and artifice (Iliad VII 288–289). Ajax himself had boasted of his excellence in these very qualities (Iliad VII 197–198). [20] Since the audience has already been made aware that Ajax is second best, Hektor's words and the outcome of a draw have the effect of presaging the outcome of a fatal defeat for Hektor when he comes to confront Achilles himself. As for Ajax, he will fight on, even as the situation of the Achaeans keeps getting worse and worse in the face of Hektor's onslaught. But finally even Ajax is turned back by Zeus himself (Iliad XI 544; XVI 102, 119–121). [21] The stage is now set for Hektor's confrontation with Achilles—or with whoever must stand in for Achilles. [22]
2§7. Besides Diomedes, Agamemnon, Ajax, and Achilles, no other Achaean in the Iliad gets the epithet “best of the Achaeans.” [23] Others also may be best, but only in categories that are restricted as subdivisions of the Achaeans. Thus Periphas may be “best of the Aetolians” (Iliad V 843), Kalkhas may be “best of the bird-watching seers” (Iliad I 69), and Teukros may be “best of the Achaeans in archery” (Iliad XIII 313–314). Similarly, in the Games of Book XXIII, different Achaeans turn out to be best in different athletic events. Thus Diomedes is best at driving the chariot (Iliad XXIII 357), Epeios is best at boxing (Iliad XXIII 669), and Agamemnon is best at spear throwing, as Achilles himself acknowledges (Iliad XXIII 891). Such a restricted acknowledgment, however, is all that Agamemnon will ever get from Achilles in the Iliad.
2§8. There are two isolated instances that at first seem like exceptions to the proposition that only four Achaean heroes vie for the epithet “best of the Achaeans” in the Iliad. In one passage, Menelaos is telling Antilokhos the ghastly news of Patroklos' death:
ἤδη μέν σε καὶ αὐτὸν ὀΐομαι εἰσορόωντα
γιγνώσκειν ὅτι πῆμα θεὸς Δαναοῖσι κυλίνδει,
νίκη δὲ Τρώων· πέφαται δ᾽ ὤριστος Ἀχαιῶν,
Πάτροκλος, μεγάλη δὲ ποθή Δαναοῖσι τέτυκται.
I think that you already see, and that you realize,
that a god is letting roll a pain upon the Danaans,
and that victory belongs to the Trojans: the best [ áristos ] of the Achaeans has been killed,
Patroklos, that is; and a great loss has been inflicted on the Danaans.
Iliad XVII 687–690
Patroklos, however, had not vied overtly with Achilles for the title “best of the Achaeans.” Rather, he became the actual surrogate of Achilles, his alter ego. [24] The death of Patroklos is a function of his being the therápōn of Achilles: this word therápōn is a prehistoric Greek borrowing from the Anatolian languages (most likely sometime in the second millennium B.C.), where it had meant ‘ritual substitute’. [25] In death, the role of Patroklos becomes identified with that of Achilles, as Cedric Whitman has eloquently reasoned. [26] The death of Patroklos inside the Iliad foreshadows the death of Achilles outside the Iliad. [27] At the very beginning of his fatal involvement, the Patroklos figure had immediately attracted an epithet otherwise appropriate to the prime antagonists of the Iliad. It is Achilles and Hektor who are appropriately ‘equal to Ares’ in the Iliad, [28] except for the one time when Patroklos leaves the tent of Achilles and comes out of seclusion:
ἔκμολεν ἶσος Ἄρηϊ, κακοῦ δ᾽ ἄρα οἱ πέλεν ἀρχή
He [Patroklos] came out, equal to Ares, and that was the beginning of his doom. [29]
Iliad XI 604
When Achilles recalls the prophecy that the “best [áristos] of the Myrmidons” will die while he is still alive (Iliad XVIII 9–11), he is under the spell of a premonition that Patroklos has just been killed. Within the Iliad, however, the “best of the Achaeans” is surely also the “best of the Myrmidons,” in that the Myrmidons of Achilles are a subcategory in relation to the Achaeans. By dying, Patroklos gets the titles “best of the Myrmidons” and “best of the Achaeans” because he has taken upon himself not only the armor but also the heroic identity of Achilles. [30] The death of Achilles is postponed beyond the Iliad by the death of Patroklos.
2§9. The other isolated instance that seems at first to be out of step with the rest of the Iliad occurs in Book X, the Doloneia. The Achaeans are deliberating about who should accompany Diomedes on a special expedition against the Trojans; both Ajaxes volunteer, as well as Meriones, Antilokhos, Menelaos, and, finally, Odysseus (Iliad X 228–232). Agamemnon at this point tells Diomedes to choose the ‘best’ hero out of the group (ἄριστον: Iliad X 236) and not to pick someone inferior for reasons of etiquette, not even if the inferior one should be ‘more kinglike’ (βασιλεύτερος: Iliad X 239). Agamemnon's motive is made clear by the narrative: “he feared for blond Menelaos” (Iliad X 240). For the second time now, we see Menelaos being spared from death. Without hesitation, Diomedes then names Odysseus, with whom he is sure to return in safety and who ‘excels at thinking’ (περίοιδε νοῆσαι: Iliad X 247). [31] If that were all that there was to it, Odysseus might seem to be eligible for the title “best of the Achaeans.” But at this point the words of Odysseus himself break in:
Τυδεΐδη, μήτ᾽ ἄρ με μάλ᾽ αἴνεε μήτε τι νείκει·
εἰδόσι γάρ τοι ταῦτα μετ᾽ Ἀργείοις ἀγορεύεις
Son of Tydeus! Give me neither too much praise nor too much blame; [32]
you are saying these things in the presence of Argives who know.
Iliad X 249–250
It is as if he were saying: “the Achaeans are aware of the tradition, so please do not exaggerate.” [33] With the words of Odysseus himself, the epic tradition of the Iliad has pointedly taken Odysseus out of contention. [34] And the contention is here expressed by neikéō (νείκει: Iliad X 249), a verb derived from the same noun neîkos that was used to designate the quarrel of Achilles and Odysseus in the first song of Demodokos (νεῖκος: Odyssey viii 75). [35]
2§10. In contrast to the Iliad, it is an overall theme of the Odyssey that Odysseus is indeed áristos Akhaiôn ‘best of the Achaeans’. In its elaboration of this theme, as I will try to show, the Odyssey deploys subtle references not only to a Doloneia tradition in particular [36] but also to an Iliadic tradition in general.
2§11. In the First Nekuia of Odyssey xi, when Odysseus meets the shade of Achilles, he addresses Achilles as ‘best of the Achaeans’ (φέρτατ᾽ Ἀχαιῶν: Odyssey xi 478). But the Odyssey then has Achilles saying that he would rather be alive and the lowliest of serfs than to be dead and the kingliest of shades (Odyssey xi 489–491). As Klaus Rüter sees it, [37] Achilles seems ready to trade places with Odysseus, whose safe homecoming will be marked by a painful transitional phase at the very lowest levels of the social order. The words of Achilles in the First Nekuia are ironically conjuring up the glorious days of the Iliad when he had said:
ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται
I have lost a safe return home [ nóstos ], but I will have unfailing glory [ kléos ].
Iliad IX 413
The destiny of the Odyssey is that Odysseus shall have a nóstos ‘safe return home’. [38] From the retrospective vantage point of the Odyssey, Achilles would trade his kléos for a nóstos. It is as if he were now ready to trade an Iliad for an Odyssey. By contrast, at a moment when Odysseus is sure that he will perish in the stormy sea, he wishes that he had died at Troy (Odyssey v 308–311):
... καί μευ κλέος ἦγον Ἀχαιοί
... and then the Achaeans would have carried on my kléos .
Odyssey v 311
2§12. If Achilles has no nóstos in the Iliad, does it follow that Odysseus has no kléos in the Odyssey? How can someone have the kléos of the Achaeans if he calls someone else the “best of the Achaeans”? As in the Doloneia, Odysseus again seems to be taking himself out of contention—this time by giving the title to Achilles, at xi 478. Also at xi 550–551, he calls Ajax the most heroic Achaean ‘next to Achilles’ (μετ᾽ ἀμύμονα Πηλείωνα: Odyssey xi 551). But Odysseus can afford to be generous in spirit to the two most heroic Achaeans of the Iliad tradition; the Odyssey will make him the most heroic Achaean in the Odyssey.
2§13. In the Second Nekuia of Odyssey xxiv (15–202), the narrative again looks back to an Iliad tradition and beyond. We find here the shades of Achilles, Patroklos, Antilokhos, Ajax, and Agamemnon. Achilles himself concedes that Agamemnon too has left behind a kléos for the future (Odyssey xxiv 33). Agamemnon in turn says that Achilles will have kléos for all time (Odyssey xxiv 93–94); he adds that his own nóstos was sinister, that it resulted in an unheroic death (Odyssey xxiv 95–97). At this point, the retrospective preoccupation switches from Iliad to Odyssey. The shades of Amphimedon and the other suitors arrive in the underworld, and Amphimedon retells the Revenge of Odysseus (Odyssey xxiv 121–190). The story covers the heroic deeds of Odysseus, what amounts to his kléos, in the second half of the Odyssey. When the retrospective tale is done, the Agamemnon figure speaks again, and his effusive words function as a song of praise not only for Odysseus, to whom they are addressed, but also for Penelope: [39]
ὄλβιε Λαέρταο πάϊ, πολυμήχαν᾽ Ὀδυσσεῦ,
ἦ ἄρα σὺν μεγάλῃ ἀρετῇ ἐκτήσω ἄκοιτιν·
ὡς ἀγαθαὶ φρένες ἦσαν ἀμύμονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
κούρῃ Ἰκαρίου· ὡς εὖ μέμνητ᾽ Ὀδυσῆος,
ἀνδρὸς κουριδίου. τῷ οἱ κλέος οὔ ποτ᾽ ὀλεῖται
ἧς ἀρετῆς, τεύξουσι δ᾽ ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἀοιδήν
ἀθάνατοι χαρίεσσαν ἐχέφρονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
οὐχ ὡς Τυνδαρέου κούρη κακὰ μήσατο ἔργα,
κουρίδιον κτείνασα πόσιν, στυγερή δέ τ᾽ ἀοιδή
ἔσσετ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀνθρώπους, χαλεπήν δέ τε φῆμιν ὀπάσσει
θηλυτέρῃσι γυναιξί, καὶ ἥ κ᾽ εὐεργὸς ἔῃσιν.
O fortunate son of Laertes, Odysseus of many wiles!
It is truly with great merit [aretḗ] that you got a wife.
For the mind of blameless Penelope, daughter of Ikarios, was sound.
She kept her lawful husband, Odysseus, well in mind.
Thus the kléos of his aretḗ shall never perish,
and the immortals shall fashion for humans a song that is pleasing [40]
for sensible Penelope,
unlike the daughter of Tyndareos, who devised evil deeds, [41]
killing her lawful husband; and among humans, [42]
she will be a hateful song
She will make for women an evil reputation,
females that they are—even for the kind of woman who does noble things.
Odyssey xxiv 192–202 [43]
As my translation shows, I find myself interpreting this passage to mean that Penelope is the key not only to the nóstos but also to the kléos of Odysseus. I understand kléos at verse 196 as belonging primarily to Odysseus himself and that it is his aretḗ ‘merit’ to have won a Penelope (rather than a Clytemnestra). [44] If this interpretation is correct, then we see in the Second Nekuia a triadic assignment of kléos to Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus. Odysseus gets the best kléos, through his wife. Through Penelope, he has a genuine nóstos, while Agamemnon gets a false one and Achilles, none at all.
2§14. Such an interpretation is not ad hoc; rather, it takes into account the overall structure of the Odyssey. The Revenge of Odysseus is treated throughout the Odyssey as a genuinely heroic theme, worthy of kléos. And the prime stimulus for revenge is Penelope herself. Already in the First Nekuia, Odysseus is asking his mother in the underworld whatever happened to Penelope: is she steadfast ...
ἦ ἤδη μιν ἔγημεν Ἀχαιῶν ὅς τις ἄριστος
or has whoever is the best [ áristos ] of the Achaeans already married her?
Odyssey xi 179
The Odyssey can afford to let Odysseus put the question in this form, if indeed the narrative is confident of his heroic destiny in the Odyssey. Since his prime heroic act in the Odyssey is the killing of Achaeans who are pursuing his wife, Penelope is truly the key to his kléos. Penelope defines the heroic identity of Odysseus. Significantly, the expression Ἀχαιῶν ὅς τις ἄριστος ‘whoever is best [áristos] of the Achaeans’ is restricted in the Odyssey to the single question: “who will marry Penelope?” (Odyssey xvi 76, xviii 289, xix 528; cf. xx 335). The Homeric audience is being conditioned for the aristeíā of Odysseus.
2§15. In particular, there are two passages that accentuate the inevitable outcome, the incontrovertible conclusion, that Odysseus is the “best of the Achaeans.” At xv 521, Telemachus is telling the seer Theoklymenos that the suitor Eurymakhos, ‘by far the best man’ (πολλὸν ἄριστος ἀνήρ), wants to marry Penelope. At this point in the narrative, a hawk appears, with a dove in its talons. The seer is quick to interpret: the omen is good, for it shows that no family in Ithaca is ‘more kingly’, βασιλεύτερον, than that of Odysseus (Odyssey xv 525–534). The omen has corrected the misuse, the misapplication, of the epithet “by far the best man.” [45] There is an even more drastic correction in the case of the obnoxious Antinoos, another prominent suitor. The stage is set when Odysseus, in the guise of a beggar, is asking for alms from Antinoos:
δός, φίλος· οὐ μέν μοι δοκέεις ὁ κάκιστος Ἀχαιῶν
ἔμμεναι, ἀλλ᾽ ὤριστος, ἐπεὶ βασιλῆϊ ἔοικας
Give, friend! For you seem to be not the worst of the Achaeans,
but the best [ áristos ], since you seem like a king.
Odyssey xvii 415–416
Noblesse oblige, but Antinoos crudely refuses. Later on in the Odyssey, he is the very first suitor to be shot dead by the arrows of an angry Odysseus (Odyssey xxii 8–21). At this point, the other suitors are not yet aware that the archer is Odysseus himself; thinking that the shooting was accidental, they rail at Odysseus, exclaiming that he has just killed ‘the very best’ of the Ithacan fighting men (ὃς μέγ᾽ ἄριστος / κούρων εἰν Ἰθάκῃ: Odyssey xxii 29–30). In view of the previous action, the characterization “best” seems ironically misapplied. Antinoos may have looked like a king, but he did not behave like one. [46]
2§16. To sum up: unlike Achilles, who won kléos but lost nóstos (Iliad IX 413), Odysseus is a double winner. He has won both kléos and nóstos. Accordingly, in his quest for his own heroic identity, Telemachus is confronted with a double frame of reference in the figure of his father:
νόστον πευσόμενος πατρὸς φίλου, ἤν που ἀκούσω
I am going to find out about the nóstos of my father, if I should hear.
Odyssey ii 360
πατρὸς ἐμοῦ κλέος εὐρὺ μετέρχομαι, ἤν που ἀκούσω
I am going after the widespread kléos of my father, if I should hear.
Odyssey iii 83
2§17. Curiously, in all these instances where Odysseus is the “best of the Achaeans,” he earns the title not for doing what he did at Troy but for doing what he did within the Odyssey itself. This restriction is all the more remarkable in view of the tradition, displayed prominently within the Odyssey itself, that Odysseus, not Achilles, can take credit for the destruction of Troy; Demodokos himself tells how it all happened in his third performance, a composition about the Trojan Horse (Odyssey viii 499–520). [47] We too have already heard of it in verse 2 of Book i. Moreover, in the first song of Demodokos, “the kléos of which at that time reached the vast heavens” (Odyssey viii 74), Odysseus was characterized along with Achilles as “best of the Achaeans” because one of these two heroes was destined to be the destroyer of Troy. In the epic composition of Demodokos, Odysseus is implicitly “best of the Achaeans” because tradition upholds his claim to have destroyed Troy. The poet Demodokos lives up to the challenge of Odysseus that he recite the story of the Trojan Horse κατὰ μοῖραν ‘according to destiny’ (Odyssey viii 496). Within the conventions of epic composition, an incident that is untraditional would be ὑπὲρ μοῖραν ‘beyond destiny’. For example, it would violate tradition to let Achilles kill Aeneas in Iliad XX, although the immediate situation in the narrative seems to make it inevitable; accordingly, Poseidon intervenes and saves Aeneas, telling him that his death at this point would be ‘beyond destiny’ (ὑπὲρ μοῖραν: Iliad XX 336). [48] Demodokos, then, is hewing to tradition in giving Odysseus the credit that is his due for having destroyed Troy. The triumph of the Iliad, however, is that Achilles becomes explicitly the “best of the Achaeans” without having destroyed Troy. Because of the Iliad tradition, it seems that the kléos of Odysseus at Troy was preempted by the kléos of Achilles. Such a triumph, however, could have been achieved only through sustained artistic reaction to the predilections of audiences who listened generation after generation to the kléos of the Achaeans.
2§18. In this connection, it seems appropriate to reaffirm my general opinion about the Iliad and the Odyssey: the structural unity of such epics results, I think, not so much from the creative genius of whoever achieved a fixed composition but from the lengthy evolution of myriad previous compositions, era to era, into a final composition. [49] In other words, I think that the kléos of Achilles and the kléos of Odysseus, through generations of both shifting and abiding preferences in performer-audience interaction, have culminated in our Iliad and Odyssey. These epics are Panhellenic in the dimension of time as well as space. If, then, our Iliad and Odyssey are parallel products of parallel evolution, it becomes easier to imagine how the extraordinarily renowned kléos of Achilles could preempt the kléos of Odysseus at Troy. The audience will have to hear about the destruction of Troy by Odysseus not in the Iliad but in the Odyssey. This feat of Odysseus at Troy, which entitles him to be ranked with Achilles as “best of the Achaeans” in the first song of Demodokos, has been sidetracked in the Iliad—but not entirely.


[ back ] 1. In my discussion of the epithets designating the “best,” the reader will notice that I proceed without assuming that the placement of epithets is conditioned simply by metrical factors. Such an assumption would have failed to account for the fact that Homeric diction is traditional not only in form but also in content. For the theoretical underpinnings of my procedure, I cite Nagy 1974:140–149 and 229–261. See also Intro.§7.
[ back ] 2. Cf. also Iliad IX 110, where Agamemnon is said to have dishonored ἄνδρα φέριστον, ‘the best [phéristos] man’.
[ back ] 3. The word for ‘best’ here is phértatos, synonymous with áristos at lines 761 and 768. Although the first form has a separate heritage of social connotations (cf. Palmer 1955:11–12), it is clearly a synonym of the second form in the diction of Homeric poetry. Achilles (and he only) is twice in the Iliad addressed as φέρτατ᾽ Ἀχαιῶν ‘best [phértatos] of the Achaeans’ (Iliad XVI 21, XIX 216).
[ back ] 4. My general thinking on the aristeíā of Achilles has been much stimulated by the perceptive observations of Segal 1971b.
[ back ] 5. Hektor's challenge was formulated for him by the seer Helenos (Iliad VII 47–53), who himself thinks that Diomedes is κάρτιστον Ἀχαιῶν ‘best [kártistos] of the Achaeans’ (Iliad VI 98).
[ back ] 6. At Ch.1§11n31, I approximated this complex word with the notion of ‘grand heroic moments’.
[ back ] 7. For further discussion of this passage: Ch.20§22.
[ back ] 8. For other instances of Homeric irony where a hero's speech is partially validated but also partially invalidated by the events of the traditional narrative, see Iliad XVI 241–248 as discussed at Ch.17§4 (the valid and nonvalid aspects are made explicit at Iliad XVI 249–252). See also Iliad XX 179–183, as discussed at Ch.15§3.
[ back ] 9. When the moment of his death at the hands of Achilles approaches, Hektor expresses his wish to die ἐϋκλειῶς ‘with good kléos’ (Iliad XXII 110) and not ἀκλειῶς ‘with no kléos‘ (Iliad XXII 304). Cf. Ch.10§13n39.
[ back ] 10. On the semantics of áphthito- ‘unfailing’ as a mark of immortality, see Ch.10§§3, 5–19.
[ back ] 11. As Menelaos begins to speak, he νείκει ὀνειδίζων ‘made neîkos, making óneidos‘ (Iliad VII 95). Both neîkos and óneidos mean `blame, reproach' and indicate the language of blame poetry; the whole subject will be discussed at length in Ch.12.
[ back ] 12. The potential reproach that is in store for the Achaeans is called lṓbē by Menelaos (Iliad VII 97). Again, lṓbē means ‘blame, reproach’ and indicates the language of blame poetry: Ch.14§5(n8), §6.
[ back ] 13. On the antithesis between the kléos of epic poetry and the shame of blame poetry: Ch.14§10.
[ back ] 14. Iliad VII 161: ὣς νείκεσσ᾽ ‘thus he made neîkos [reproach]’.
[ back ] 15. It is precisely this kind of boasting that a hero seeks to avoid hearing from his opponent, in order to protect his epic prestige. Thus when Glaukos is wounded by the arrow of Teukros, an archer on the Achaean side (Iliad XII 387–389), the Trojan ally tries to hide “lest one of the Achaeans see him wounded and boast [verb eukhetáomai] with words [épos plural]” (Iliad XII 390–391). The use of épos [plural] is of special interest here: this word can refer not only to the words of a figure in epic but also to the poetic form of the given words (see Ch.15§7 and n27).
[ back ] 16. On the killing of Achilles by Paris: Ch.4§4.
[ back ] 17. Diomedes himself admits defeat at Iliad XI 317–319 (on which see Ch.5§25). See also Whitman 1958:134.
[ back ] 18. Even the diction of Homeric poetry affirms that the wounding of a hero thwarts his aristeíā. For example, when Paris wounded Makhaon, he παῦσεν ἀριστεύοντα ‘stopped him from performing his aristeíā’ (Iliad XI 506).
[ back ] 19. Cf. Little Iliad/Proclus 106.20–23 Allen. For a review of the details, see Kullmann 1960:79–85.
[ back ] 20. The excellence of Ajax in both might and artifice is thus implicitly bested by the excellence of Achilles in might. It will also be bested by the excellence of Odysseus in artifice (n. 19).
[ back ] 21. The words of Ajax himself set the significance of his eventual withdrawal. Those who flee, he says, get no kléos (Iliad XV 564). All the same, the heroic status of Ajax as second best after Achilles is reaffirmed at Iliad XVII 279–280.
[ back ] 22. It is said more than once in Book XI that by now all the heroes who are áristoi ‘best’ have been incapacitated: lines 658–659, 825–826 (cf. also Iliad XVI 23–24). Achilles himself observes in particular that Diomedes and Agamemnon have been put out of commission (Iliad XVI 74–77). His words contrast the inability of Diomedes with the ability of Patroklos ‘to ward off the devastation’ at the Battle of the Ships (λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι/ἀμύνων at Iliad XVI 75/80). Ch.5§12(n23).
[ back ] 23. I do not count the sporadic instances of áristos in the plural, as at Iliad V 541 (Krethon and Orsilokhos are called Δαναῶν ἄνδρας ἀρίστους ‘men who are best [áristoi] among the Danaans)’.
[ back ] 24. See Ch.17§4.
[ back ] 25. See Van Brock 1959; cf. Householder/Nagy 1972:774–776 and Lowenstam 1975.
[ back ] 26. Whitman 1958:136–137, 200–202. Note that Achilles is acknowledged as áristos ‘best’ by Glaukos at Iliad XVII 164–165 on the basis of the feats performed by Patroklos, who is called the therápōn of Achilles in this very context.
[ back ] 27. See Pestalozzi 1945.
[ back ] 28. For a listing of attestations: Ch.17§5.
[ back ] 29. Cf. Nagy 1974:230–231; further discussion at Ch.17§5. Other than Hektor and Achilles/Patroklos, the only other Iliadic figure who is called îsos Árēï ‘equal to Ares’ is the hero Leonteus (Iliad XII 130). The evidence of Homeric diction indicates that the epic traditions about Leonteus were parallel to those about Patroklos, in that both figures are connected with the theme that the hero in death is a therápōn of Ares: Ch.17§5n32.
[ back ] 30. For more on the wearing of Achilles' armor by Patroklos: Ch.9§33n83.
[ back ] 31. On the semantics of noun nóos ‘thinking’ and verb noéō ‘think’ in Homeric poetry: Frame 1978. On the use of noéō to express the notion of taking the initiative: Ch.3§13n23.
[ back ] 32. The verbs ainéō ‘praise’ and neikéō ‘blame’ indicate the poetry of praise and blame: Ch.12§3.
[ back ] 33. It is an established theme of praise and blame poetry that the audience is well aware of the traditions with which it is presented: Ch.12§§18–19.
[ back ] 34. The figure of Diomedes himself is here directly pertinent to the epic reputation of Odysseus, since there are numerous epic traditions featuring these two heroes on joint expeditions (for a list: Fenik 1964:12–13). Significantly, different epic traditions give more or less credit to one or the other figure. In the Little Iliad, for example, it is Diomedes and not Odysseus who brings back Philoktetes (Proclus 106.24–25 Allen); see Fenik, pp. 13 n. 2 and Severyns 1938:365–369.
[ back ] 35. Besides meaning ‘quarrel, fight, contention’, the word neîkos also designates the poetry of blame: Ch.12§3.
[ back ] 36. Cf. Muellner 1976:96n43.
[ back ] 37. Rüter 1969:252–253.
[ back ] 38. On the semantics of nóstos in Homeric poetry: Frame 1978. On nóstos as not only ‘homecoming' but also ‘song about a homecoming': Ch.6§6n16.
[ back ] 39. In Ch.14§5n8 and n10, I propose that this passage reflects a formal tradition of praise poetry centering on the theme of Penelope, as distinguished by the contrasting blame poetry about Clytemnestra.
[ back ] 40. The adjective χαρίεσσαν that describes aoidḗ ‘song’ here at line 198 is derived from kháris, a noun that conveys simultaneously the social aspect of ‘reciprocity’ as well as the personal aspect of ‘pleasure’. Cf χαρίεσσαν ἀμοιβήν ‘compensation that has kháris’ at Odyssey iii 58; on the reciprocity between poet and patron, see Ch.12§21n78. In the Homeric Hymn to Hestia (Hymn 24), the poet prays that his aoidḗ ‘song’ have kháris (line 5); by implication, the pleasure that it gives is linked with the reward he will receive. See further at Ch.5§39.
[ back ] 41. These themes correspond to the actual name Klutaimḗstrē, a form indicating that the wife of Agamemnon is ‘famed’ (Klutai-, from the same root *kleu̯- as in kléos) on account of what she ‘devised’ (-mḗstrē, from verb mḗdomai). The element -mḗstrē, from mḗdomai ‘devise’, corresponds to the theme of κακὰ μήσατο ἔργα ‘she devised [mḗdomai] evil deeds’ at line 199. As for the element Klutai- ‘famed', it corresponds to the theme of στυγερή ... ἀοιδή ‘hateful song’ at line 200. This hateful song will be not simply about the wife of Agamemnon. Rather, the song is being presented as the very essence of Klutaimḗstrē. (On the formal variant Klutai-mnḗstrē as in the latinized Clytemnestra, see Nagy 1974:260; for more on the semantics of mḗdomai, see Nagy, pp. 258–261.)
[ back ] 42. To my knowledge, instances of epì + accusative in the sense of ‘among’ are restricted in Homeric diction to anthrṓpous ‘humans’ as the object of the preposition. This syntactical idiosyncrasy can be correlated with an interesting thematic association: the expression ep’ anthrṓpous ‘among humans’ is conventionally linked with kléos (Iliad X 213, Odyssey i 299, xix 334, xxiv 94) and its derivatives (Iliad XXIV 202, Odyssey xiv 403). It is also linked with aoidḗ ‘song’ at Odyssey xxiv 201. Because of this parallelism between kléos and aoidḗ, and because kléos designates the glory conferred by poetry (Ch.1§2), I infer that ep’ anthrṓpous ‘among humans’ in these contexts indicates an audience in general listening to poetry in general. Calvert Watkins suggests to me that the original force of epí in this collocation may indeed be directional.
[ back ] 43. To continue with the inference that the collocation of aoidḗ ‘song’ at line 200 with ep’ anthrṓpous ‘among humans’ at line 201 implies a sort of universal audience listening to the song about Clytemnestra: what men will hear about Klutai -mḗstrē is of course not the positive kléos of praise poetry (on which see Ch.12§3). Rather, it is blame poetry (see Ch.14§5n8). Ironically, when he had set out for Troy, Agamemnon had left behind an aoidós ‘singer, poet’ to guard Clytemnestra (Odyssey iii 267–268). When Aigisthos persuaded her to betray Agamemnon by way of adultery, he took the aoidós to a deserted island (Odyssey iii 270–271). In this way, the aoidós could not have seen the adultery, but the shameful behavior is nevertheless heard by the audience, which listens to the hateful aoidḗ ‘song’ about Clytemnestra. We see here a striking Homeric attestation of two traditional themes concerning the generic poet. One, he does not need to be an eyewitness and thus actually to see deeds in order to tell about them, since he can hear about them from the Muses (Ch.1§3). Two, he can regulate social behavior with his power to blame evil deeds (cf. Ch.14§12n40, Ch.15§8n43, Ch.16§10n44). On Odyssey iii 267–268, see also Svenbro 1976:31 and n. 88.
[ back ] 44. Compare the maxim told by Penelope to the disguised Odysseus at Odyssey xix 329–334 (on which see further at Ch.14§6), where the good host gets the kléos of praise while the bad host gets the ridicule of blame. In being hospitable to the would-be beggar, Penelope is striving to match the former hospitality of Odysseus himself, who is described as the ultimate good host (Odyssey xix 309–316). By implication, the kléos of being a good host belongs primarily to Odysseus. But Penelope herself is part of this kléos: at Odyssey xix 325–328, she says that her own excellence will be recognized only if she is a good host to the would-be beggar. So also at Odyssey xxiv 197–198: the aoidḗ ‘song’ about her is part of the overall kléos of Odysseus. A similar interpretation is possible at Odyssey xix 107–114. See now Foreword §16n17.
[ back ] 45. Cf. Whitman 1958:341n13 on the traditional device of misstating for the purpose of soliciting an omen to correct the misstatement.
[ back ] 46. There is more irony when the psūkhaí of the suitors reach Hades. Agamemnon wonders whether they had all been “chosen” as the áristoi ‘best men’ in a community (Odyssey xxiv 107–108).
[ back ] 47. More on this composition at Ch.6§9.
[ back ] 48. For a stimulating discussion, see Pestalozzi 1945:40. On destiny and epic plot, see Kullmann 1956; cf. also Fränkel 1962:62–64. For a recent synthesis, I cite Mathews 1976. My translation of moîra as ‘destiny' in the contexts of Iliad XX 336 and Odyssey viii 496 does not reveal the full semantic range of the word, which will be discussed further at Ch.7§21. The context of Odyssey viii 496 is pertinent to that discussion, in that Odysseus rewards Demodokos for his songs by giving him a choice cut of meat (Odyssey viii 474–483). The poet receives this award at a feast, where the portions of food are actually designated as moîrai (Odyssey viii 470). To repeat, Odysseus challenges Demodokos to recite the story of the Trojan Horse κατὰ μοῖραν ‘according to moîra’ (Odyssey viii 496).
[ back ] 49. Cf. Intro.§9.