Homer’s Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts

  Barker, Elton T. E., and Joel P. Christensen. 2019. Homer's Thebes: Epic Rivalries and the Appropriation of Mythical Pasts. Hellenic Studies Series 84. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BarkerE_ChristensenJ.Homers_Thebes.2019.

5. Theban Palimpsests [1]

Strife that gives birth to strife prosmnatai (‘wins over’) reason.
Ἔρις ἔριν τίκτουσα προσμνᾶται λόγον.

Suda s.v. Eris; Mantissa Proverbiorum 1.60

This proverb on strife, preserved in both the Suda and the Mantissa Proverbiorum, is unusually cryptic for a maxim. The verb προσμνᾶται is not attested anywhere else but clearly relies on a metaphor of wooing; [2] logos can be translated in any number of ways, but here probably means something along the lines of “reason”; [3] both texts gloss the proverb as applying “to those who chatter on because of friendship” (ἐπὶ τῶν ἐκ φιλίας ἀδολεσχούντων). The language, if we understand it correctly, is deeply ambiguous, implying, it seems, that strife pursues or tries to win over reason, like a persistent suitor. The difficult point may just be that conflict in multiple forms is always in the process of inviting or courting argumentation and reason to challenge or support it, or otherwise reflect upon it in some way.

Indeed, we find in this proverb a useful reflection on the story of strife that we set out in the last chapter. First, the opening three words (“strife that gives birth to strife,” Ἔρις ἔριν τίκτουσα) represents, in a pithy axiomatic form, the interpoetic resonance of eris that we discussed above, where one type or manifestation of conflict has the thematic tendency to lead to or be sublimated in another. Second, there is a progressive development in the valence of eris over the course of the proverb itself. Where the first three elements appear to denote an escalation of conflict and recalls Hesiod’s negative representation of strife as destructive, the verb and its object offer a somewhat a different moral. No matter what προσμνᾶται means precisely or how logos is to be translated—to disambiguate and render it in English as, say, either “reason” or “conversation” detracts (and distracts) from the overlapping meanings available in the Greek—the violence anticipated fails to materialize and we are left with something more productive. In this subtle transformation, we come closer to Hesiod’s second, more positive kind of strife. Significantly, further comment provided by both encyclopedia entries performs this verbal domestication of strife. The gloss interposes friendship (philia) as an essential state or motivation to generate and direct the productive kind of eris—an attempt to explain (and control) strife that recalls the desired actions of Hesiod’s king.
The previous chapter laid out the fragmentary remains of the Theban tradition and the thematic framework of Eris. While it is clear that we have no way of knowing how the epics about Thebes told their story, there is enough evidence from the extant fragments and later summaries to suggest that their main focus was on internecine and interfamilial strife over rule and honor. In particular we have identified a nexus of associations with the idea of strife—distribution, judgment, more conflict—whose thematic resonances are broadly shared with Hesiod’s representations both of strife and of the settlement between gods and mortals more specifically.
In this chapter, we pick up the story of Homer’s engagement with these same themes, motifs, and larger story-patterns. Our aim is not to argue that our Theban epic fragments or cognate poems necessarily influenced the plot and shape of our Homeric epics, as a neoanalytical approach might. Rather, we believe that the resonances of the eris theme in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in particular its “secondariness,” supports the claim that these epics are responding in part to the kind of thematics implied by the fragments of the Theban epics. That response, as we have already anticipated, is a political one. [4]
As we observed at the end of the last chapter, the Iliad starts with a plague caused when Agamemnon refuses a ransom. This plot-device is integral to the Theban story, where personal transgressions on the part of the king (Laios or Oedipus) lead to a plague being cast on the city. In this chapter we explore how the Iliad doubles down on the thematic trope by transforming a communal conflict (the war) motivated by personal enmity (the abduction of Helen) into a personal conflict (the quarrel) over public concerns (common distribution of spoils). As such, we will see that the Iliad engages and competes with and through what we might call “Theban themes.” Where the Iliad marks a distinct, and in its terms superior, contribution is through its representation of the political consequences of strife—namely, the series of institutional forms that emerge in direct response to the cosmic problem of strife and man’s attempt to manage it: the institutions of the assembly, law court, oath, and burial.
In pursuing the theme of Eris in the homecoming narrative of the Odyssey, we draw upon our conclusions in Chapter 3, which suggested the importance of Oedipus as a countermodel to Odysseus, acting in much the same way as the more commonly observed (faulty) paradigm of the triad Agamemnon-Clytemnestra-Orestes in relation to Odysseus-Penelope-Telemachus: the Odyssey is at pains to avoid the tangled familial history of the Thebes of Oedipus, another returning hero of sorts. Arguably the Odyssey is even more insistent on the need to regulate strife, by largely sidelining it from its narrative and relegating it to a heroic past, in the epic-like stories that are sung. The reason is in part the Odyssey’s post-Iliad, post-war position in cosmic history: its rivalry is with both Thebes and Troy, and as much with the Iliad as a foundational narrative as with the thematic fragments belonging to the nebulous Theban poems. Nevertheless, the extent of its obsession with the failure of institutions like the assembly to manage strife adequately may also be due to the specter of Thebes haunting the narrative. We explore the Odyssey’s thematic resonances with Thebes in its many scenes of feasting, the poem’s notoriously difficult final lurch towards a Theban-style civil strife, and the prophecy from a figure of Theban myth who heralds no end to the theme of Odysseus’ wanderings. With the sudden outbreak of potentially catastrophic strife averted, just as suddenly, through direct divine intervention, the Odyssey leaves its audiences to ponder questions relating to the extent to which, and how, strife has been (or can be) mediated by and transformed into some kind of good for the community.
All of these thematic strands interweave within the conceptual history that we have discussed several times in this book. Within this framework, the strife of both the Theban and Trojan wars is part of a broader cosmic plan—the plan of Zeus—to rid the world of heroes and bring the age of heroes to an end. Picking up on this end point, we conclude the chapter by returning to Hesiod’s Works and Days and his conflict with Perses, which marks—and to a certain extent ushers into existence—a putative end to that cosmic history. Even though both Homeric epics look forward to institutions and futures outside the race of heroes, in Hesiod’s post-heroic poem these institutions emerge as a disappointment, ultimately frustrating attempts to resolve human conflict to the satisfaction of all those involved in it, poet included. Strife, though somewhat transformed and domesticated, persists nevertheless and continues to demand a whole range of differing responses.

Enabling Strife, Founding Politics

The elements marshaled together at the beginning of the Iliad contribute to what we imagine to be a thoroughly conventional epic framework for the latest telling of the war at Troy (Iliad 1.1–8):

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρίʼ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγεʼ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δʼ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δʼ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
τίς τʼ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι;

Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
The ruinous rage which made endless griefs for the Achaeans
And sent many stout souls of heroes to Hades
As it made their bodies into food for the dogs
And all the birds. And Zeus’ plan was being accomplished.
Start from when those two men first stood apart in strife
Atreus’ son, lord of men, and shining Achilles.
Which god sent them together to fight in strife?

The notes of this proem chime with themes that we have heard in Hesiod and were likely activated by poems of the Theban tradition. The reference to heroes immediately locates the Iliad in a heroic epic cosmos, tasked with addressing (at its core) the death of the race of the demi-gods; the formulaic half-hexameter line, “and the will of Zeus was being accomplished,” provides an assurance that the plot will unfold according to the plan of Zeus which, along with the invocation to the Muse, gives an authoritative backing to this version of events. [5] Within this frame, the narrator traces a direct line from the first word “wrath” to the headline of strife at the proem’s end, from which point the tale will begin (“from when those two men first stood apart in strife,” ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε, 6) and the question of divine agency which marks the beginning of the narrative proper (τίς τάρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι, 8). It is in the unveiling of what this strife entails that the Iliad immediately issues a challenge to its own tradition: Achilles’ wrath sends the spirits of his own people to Hades; it is his strife with Agamemnon, “lord of men,” that is under scrutiny, not (so much) the conflict with the Trojans. This provocative turn inwards, a Theban kind of strife, questions and threatens the very constitution of Achaean epic society.

The short first episode establishes the terms and wide-ranging scope of this focus. A Trojan priest by the name of Chryses arrives in camp and appeals to the Achaeans and the twin sons of Atreus for his daughter, in return for whom he offers a boundless ransom. [6] His offer is hailed by the Achaeans en masse only to be immediately, and forcefully, countered by Agamemnon, who sends the priest away “with a mighty word” (κρατερὸς μῦθος, 1.25). Not only does the king’s rejection of consensus bode ill for his relations with his people; as David Elmer points out, the very expression of communal judgment is problematic. The verb used to denote the Achaeans’ reaction, ἐπευφήμησαν (Iliad 1.22), which apparently means “they expressed approval,” is, in Elmer’s words, “ungrammatical” (Elmer 2013:74). Ιt only occurs once more, when Achilles narrates this episode to his mother (Iliad 1.376), and jars, even if its sense can be deduced. The combination of the group’s singular reaction and the king’s willful assertion of his own desire critically divides the judgment and violates the most fundamental principle of the poem’s grammar of reception—the principle that “collective will should be decisive in scenes of collective decision making” (Elmer 2013:66). [7] The fallout from this “state of exception” (Elmer 2013:68–69) anticipates in form and content the ensuing quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, as strife begets more strife. This next episode, out of which the rest of the poem is moulded, reveals two important indicators of the Iliad’s own striving within its tradition: the (foundational) idea of assembly and the (communal) issue of distribution.
If the first scene of judgment seems to take place within an institutional vacuum (Chryses simply arrives in the Achaean camp and makes his appeal), the next scene is more conspicuously introduced (Iliad 1.53–58):

ἐννῆμαρ μὲν ἀνὰ στρατὸν ᾤχετο κῆλα θεοῖο
τῇ δεκάτῃ δ᾽ ἀγορὴν δὲ καλέσσατο λαὸν Ἀχιλλεύς.
τῷ γὰρ ἐπὶ φρεσὶ θῆκε θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη.
κήδετο γὰρ Δαναῶν, ὅτι ῥα θνήσκοντας ὁρᾶτο.
οἳ δ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὖν ἤγερθεν ὁμηγερέες τε γένοντο,
τοῖσι δ᾽ ἀνιστάμενος μετέφη πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς.

For nine days the deadly barbs of the god rained down on the army,
And on the tenth Achilles called the people to assembly.
For the white-armed goddess Hera put it into his mind:
Her heart went out to the Danaans, as she saw them dying.
When they had gathered and were all gathered together,
Then swift-footed Achilles stood up and spoke to them.

In our Introduction we analyzed the resonance of the phrase “swift-footed Achilles” and argued that this first example sets the tone for the rest of the epic in that the Iliad depicts an Achilles who, for the most part, is paradoxically motionless (literally) and immovable (figuratively). Here, the “misuse” of the epithet, applied to his act of having risen to his feet to speak, places emphasis on the precise nature of his immobility: that is to say, his gathering of the people to assembly. As Johannes Haubold (2000:33) has argued, “One of the basic facts of social life in early Greek hexameter poetry is that the people [laoi] need to be ‘gathered’. They do not assemble regularly or of their own accord.” This event is further emphasized by the doublet ἤγερθεν ὁμηγερέες τε γένοντο. (To bring out the redundancy we ungracefully translate this as “they had gathered and were all gathered together.”)

We see a far more elaborate description of the people gathering in the next book, when “Agamemnon ordered the clear-voiced heralds / to gather the long-haired Achaeans to assembly. / They gave the order, the people gathered quickly.” [8] The formularity of these lines (repeated almost verbatim at Odyssey 2.6–8) implies that the idea of the assembly as a gathering of the people for debate—that is to say, as a socio-political institution—was well known in early Greek hexameter epic; the idea is embedded in the language itself. In addition, these lines delineate the agents and their roles: the instituting figure (the shepherd), the heralds who deliver the instructions, and the group who are (to be) gathered, “the long-haired Achaeans”—itself a resonant phrase representing the epic group of Greeks who fought at Troy. Indeed, the event of assembly seems to be so familiar that it can be exploited for effect. In this later episode, Agamemnon interrupts the process of gathering by first calling a council meeting (βουλὴν δὲ πρῶτον, Iliad 2.53). The effects of this intervention not only disrupt the institutional formation but are felt on the language itself, as the formulaic expression of civic coordination under the authority of the king unravels to present laoi now “hurrying on by their own accord,” urged on by the new instituting agent, Rumor; as “the kings’ heralds try to wrest back control,” the “agora was in turmoil.” Haubold regards this episode as “a beginning of communal action”, a “[replay of] the ‘original’ assembly at the beginning of the Trojan War.” [9] Yet it seems more likely that Agamemnon has (again) willfully trumped the expression of communal will (here, the apparatus of assembly) in pursuit of his own ends, as he will do (again) in his subsequent speech. [10]
In fact, the change “from unstructured to structured social life” (Haubold 2000:55), we argue, comes before, in the assembly that “swift-footed Achilles” calls. [11] We have just seen that the very presence of a formula for assembling shows that there is prior knowledge of the institution of the agora in early Greek hexameter poetry. However, through its careful framing of this first assembly in the poem, the Iliad creates the fiction of its foundation, that this is the first moment of assembly among the Achaeans. This framing has several components. First, Achilles is the instituting figure, not Agamemnon, the “shepherd of the people” and “lord of men.” This makes the event not only unusual but potentially untraditional, in the sense that such an act of social formation isn’t what “swift-footed Achilles” is famous for—and the use of that epithet to introduce the hero’s speech in this assembly underlines the disjunction. At the same time, convoking the assembly seems to be beyond the scope of the king whose very status is defined by his relationship to the people (as their shepherd or lord); instead, it requires the hero with a special connection to the gods (“godlike Achilles,” δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς 1.7) to make the decisive intervention in the crisis. This brings us to our second observation: the gods are involved in the establishment of this assembly. Hera puts the idea into Achilles’ mind, as if calling an assembly to resolve a community’s crisis is not (yet) the course of action that would occur “naturally” to the hero. Hera’s mediation marks the moment as significant, extraordinary in some way.
Lastly, Homer uses the resonant term laos as the group whom Achilles calls to assemble. [12] This is the only instance of laos being used in the convocation of the assembly, though it is again they who are assembled when Achilles later establishes the agon; “long-haired Achaeans” is more usual in the context of debate. The laoi, Haubold argues, are the people of epic, importantly—when thinking about moments that establish a precedent—a group undifferentiated by social distinction. They are the group before institutions, reliant solely on an individual for protection and salvation. Yet here they are being gathered into an institution. The unique, founding moment is set off by a further manipulation of traditional meter, as Achilles steps “into the protected metrical space of ‘the people of the Achaeans’ (λαὸν Ἀχιλλεύς)” at the end of the line. [13]
After gathering the people together (in response, lest it be forgotten, to a crisis that is putting their very existence at risk), Achilles not only speaks on their behalf but creates the conditions for speech on the public good to take place. He first invites whoever knows what crisis is inflicting the people to speak; [14] then, when the response comes back from Calchas that he fears to reveal his knowledge, Achilles steps in to guarantee his safety and valorize his speech. In essence he establishes the parameters for debate to take place in the assembly by enabling dissent from (the king’s) authority to happen. [15] Therefore, while Haubold is right to say that “none of the major figures in the Iliad—Agamemnon and Achilles among them—can in fact provide the institutional continuity that would rescue the people permanently,” Achilles does establish the parameters and sets the precedent in which the people can gain salvation themselves. His primeval gathering of the people makes possible the moment of institutional transformation and establishes the assembly as an institution that will offer the people protection once the race of heroes is dead and gone. [16]
In addition to the assembly that he establishes, Achilles—initially at least—pointedly frames his strife as socially constructed in a way that recalls Hesiod’s other strife and the Theban concern with proper division which we saw in the previous chapter. Even if it is his godlike status that gives him the license to strive (with words) with the lord of men, [17] he emphasizes that the community as a whole have been involved in the division of booty. “All the things we sacked from the cities, all that has been distributed” (ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν πολίων ἐξεπράθομεν, τὰ δέδασται, 1.124), he asserts; “it is not proper that the people gather these things together again” (λαοὺς δ’ οὐκ ἐπέοικε παλίλλογα ταῦτ’ ἐπαγείρειν, 1.125). This is not the language one might have expected from an exceptional hero, nor the manner in which we might have imagined the subject of distribution would be central to an epic about the attempt to reclaim Helen. [18] This political refocusing on events at Troy is enabled through the repurposing of the nexus of themes around eris—primarily dasmos and krisis, as well as the good kind of strife—that we have seen operate in the Hesiodic and Theban traditions.
How to read the strife between the two Achaean heroes is particularly at issue. By the end of the assembly, Achilles has hurled to the ground the scepter—the symbol of the right to speak before the community on behalf of the community [19] —and sworn an oath that would see his people destroyed. The oath institution, established by the Theogonic Zeus to contain strife, here becomes the means of expressing it and devastatingly extending its destructive potential, as the plague sent by Apollo gives way to huge (Achilles-less) Achaean losses in the war as promised by Zeus. Significantly, immediately after Achilles swears this oath, Homer introduces Nestor, the voice of the tradition, in terms that strikingly recall Hesiod’s description of the Zeus-blessed king. Where Hesiod’s ideal king has honey poured on his tongue by the Muses so that from his mouth gentle words flow (τῷ μὲν ἐπὶ γλώσσῃ γλυκερὴν χείουσιν ἐέρσην, / τοῦ δ’ ἔπε’ ἐκ στόματος ῥεῖ μείλιχα, Theogony 83–84), Nestor is the “sweet-spoken, clear-voiced orator whose words flow more sweetly than honey from his tongue” (ἡδυεπὴς ἀνόρουσε λιγὺς Πυλίων ἀγορητής / τοῦ καὶ ἀπὸ γλώσσης μέλιτος γλυκίων ῥέεν αὐδή, Iliad 1.248–249). [20] Nestor sounds like the ideal king, intervening in strife to resolve the crisis with his judgment. Yet the situation differs markedly, as does the outcome. His is just another (albeit a particularly authorized) voice attempting to resolve the striving of other kings, equal or superior to him; and he fails. Nestor cannot restrain Agamemnon from continuing his affronted criticism of Achilles’ insubordination; because of this, we never learn whether Nestor’s words had achieved their desired effect on Achilles, but, given the furiousness of his own parting shot, we may doubt it. In this interformular and intertraditional moment, the Iliad resonates dissonantly, marking the Theogonic presentation of a sweet-talking all-powerful (and ideal) king as insufficient for dealing with strife in this new political world, where there is not one single authoritative figure but many, each with competing claims. [21]
And it does so with a further redeployment of a Theban theme. For Agamemnon, Achilles’ dissent equates to the antisocial kind of strife seen before in Hesiod’s genealogy of strife, the kind that promises “Battles, Wars, Murders, and Man-killings” (Ὑσμίνας τε Μάχας τε Φόνους τʼ Ἀνδροκτασίας τε, Theogony 228). According to Agamemnon, “strife, war, and battle are always dear [to Achilles]” (αἰεὶ γάρ τοι ἔρις τε φίλη πόλεμοί τε μάχαι τε, 1.177). This phrase and the sentiment expressed by it resonate strongly with a fragment of the so-called Thebais, which we discussed in the last chapter. Oedipus, feeling cheated of his prize (geras, 6), utters a curse that his children “would not divide their inheritance in kind friendship / but both always have wars and battles” (ὡς οὔ οἱ πατρώϊ’ ἐνηέι <ἐν> φιλότητι / δάσσαιντ’, ἀμφοτέροισι δ’ ἀεὶ πόλεμοί τε μάχαι τε, fr. 2 B/D, 9–10). [22] In the Iliad, Achilles similarly swears an oath, but its scope encompasses the entire community, not just one family. Even if at various points the Iliad invites us to see Agamemnon and Achilles as a warring father and son, clearly their striving raises broader, political issues. [23]
Indeed, the Iliad’s interest in the broader political settlement align it more with the concerns of distribution that we saw operating in Hesiod’s Theogony, but inflected to address the world of men and the founding of communal institutions. Achilles’ oath not only condemns his people to further (and greater) suffering, but critically also leaves unresolved what to make of his intervention. On the one hand, Achilles is both responsible for calling the assembly in the first place, and subsequently establishing it as an institution that can and must accommodate dissent—essentially striving with the king—for the well-being of the community, as if dissent here is equated with Hesiod’s second kind of strife. [24] On the other hand, his own striving with the king in the end merely replaces one crisis (the plague) with another (war without him). Far from being safely domesticated, this strife—Hesiod’s primary destructive kind—transforms assembly debate into a raging war of words. [25]
This critical open-endedness in judging strife is the fundamental means by which the Iliad not only represents Hesiod’s positive strife, but reproduces it, engaging the audience in realizing its narrative of institutional foundation. When at the beginning of Book 9 a tearful Agamemnon announces to the assembled people that he intends to give up on Troy, it is the Theban hero Diomedes who this time contests his authority. Significantly, he frames his rejoinder with the words (9.32–33):

“Ἀτρεΐδη σοὶ πρῶτα μαχήσομαι ἀφραδέοντι,
ἣ θέμις ἐστὶν ἄναξ ἀγορῇ: σὺ δὲ μή τι χολωθῇς.”

“Son of Atreus, with you I’ll fight first in your foolishness:
It’s the custom, lord, in the assembly. And you, don’t get angry.”

Applying the phrase “it is the custom” prescriptively to authorize his capacity to speak in opposition to Agamemnon, Diomedes institutionalizes the assembly as a place where disagreement is allowed. [26] Furthermore, by making the conflict with words in the assembly critical for its own narrative fulfillment, in the assembly of Book 9, the Iliad puts a political stamp on the epic theme of strife. Like the Theban epics discussed above, the action of the Iliad is motivated in part by a disagreement over distribution of common goods. Where the Theban epics turn a domestic (intrafamilial) conflict into an international one, the Iliad reversions the Trojan tale and reverses this movement, by transforming it from an international conflict into a domestic one that focuses on internal conflict, and promotes its own value as a foundational narrative for political institutions and action.

By Iliad 9, given Achilles’ absence from battle, the Achaeans have been in such dire straits that they have taken defensive measures and—at the behest of Nestor, the Iliad’s link to the heroic past and other traditions—have built a (Theban) wall around their ships. The besiegers have become the besieged, the Trojan War Achaeans Achaeans of Thebes. [27] Following another convention also reflected in Theban tradition, which we discussed in Chapter 1, the Achaeans now send to Achilles an embassy. [28] The change in setting (from the public assembly to a private audience in Achilles’ camp) has a similarly transformative effect on the theme of strife. Taking his cue from Odysseus’ appeal to him as the Achaeans’ foremost warrior, as if he were a hero from a bygone age, Achilles now describes the division of spoils rather differently than before. He attributes the act of the dasmos to Agamemnon alone, who “gives out a little but holds on to the most” (διὰ παῦρα δασάσκετο, πολλὰ δ’ ἔχεσκεν, 9.333); when other Achaeans are mentioned, it is as the beneficiaries of Agamemnon’s largesse (“he was giving the other gifts to the best men and the kings,” ἄλλα δ᾽ ἀριστήεσσι δίδου γέρα καὶ βασιλεῦσι, 9.334). Achilles even goes on to reframe the Trojan War as a conflict carried out for the benefit only of the sons of Atreus (9.337–341), casting into doubt the very value of this epic poem. [29]
Achilles’ rejection of Agamemnon’s catalogue of gifts (renumerated by Odysseus) is so shocking that it has been regarded as kind of a conceptual break in the valorization of heroic action itself. [30] However, thinking of this scene in terms of interformularity and intertraditionality can shed further light on the Iliad’s poetic agonistics. Achilles begins his rejection of Agamemnon’s offer—an offer that bypasses the communal distribution of goods and that would, if accepted, establish a personal contract with and dependency on the king [31] —by musing that the man who works hard and the one who does not both die alike (κάτθαν’ ὁμῶς ὅ τ’ ἀεργὸς ἀνὴρ ὅ τε πολλὰ ἐοργώς, 9.320). For Hilary Mackie, the odd-sounding emphasis on manual labor in a martial epic, as if Achilles were some laborer on the land, resonates with a Hesiodic tradition of hard agrarian work. She suggests that by adopting this “Hesiodic stance, and the language associated with it,” Achilles is criticizing “the system of distribution (dasmos) that is practiced among the Achaeans”—or, we would say, criticizes Agamemnon’s flouting of that distributive system. [32] In the manner of a Hesiod, Achilles anatomizes strife and locates its destructive origins in the unjust distribution of goods (gera) [33] by a bribe-swallowing king. [34] When he announces that he will go home where he will not lack for anything, it is no coincidence that he brings to mind the world of the Works and Days, of rightful patrimony, and of peace (9.401–403). In fact, to cap it all, the hero of war puts at stake his future fame by singing about his valorization of the good (long) life of honest toil and labor (410–416). [35] Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the existential threat to Achilles’ fame (and to this poem) finds articulation in the Hesiodic poem of peace, one of the many traditions in and against which this version of the Troy story is being composed. [36]
It takes Ajax to keep Achilles at Troy, and the death of his best friend, Patroklos, to finally stir him to action again. [37] Achilles’ (re)entry into battle is not only much anticipated (for having been much delayed); the intervention is marked as decisive for cosmic history. Because of the events that the Iliad has represented (namely, Achilles’ withdrawal from battle), Hektor believes that he fights with Zeus’ favor and refuses to retreat to Troy (Iliad 18.285–309). Thus he condemns his men—apparently for the first time in the war—to face Achilles head-on. The resulting carnage, particularly the bloodbath in Scamander’s choked waters, marks a critical stage in the instantiation of Zeus’ plan to destroy the age of heroes, which will leave Troy’s champion dead and Achilles doomed.
Before we witness this pivotal moment, Homer provides a reflection on strife in one of the scenes depicted on the shield that Hephaestus makes for Achilles (Iliad 18.497–508):

λαοὶ δ’ εἰν ἀγορῇ ἔσαν ἀθρόοι· ἔνθα δὲ νεῖκος
ὠρώρει, δύο δ’ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου· ὃ μὲν εὔχετο πάντ’ ἀποδοῦναι
δήμῳ πιφαύσκων, ὃ δ’ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι·
ἄμφω δ’ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
λαοὶ δ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί·
κήρυκες δ’ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον· οἳ δὲ γέροντες
εἵατ’ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῷ ἐνὶ κύκλῳ,
σκῆπτρα δὲ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ’ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων·
τοῖσιν ἔπειτ’ ἤϊσσον, ἀμοιβηδὶς δὲ δίκαζον.
κεῖτο δ’ ἄρ’ ἐν μέσσοισι δύω χρυσοῖο τάλαντα,
τῷ δόμεν ὃς μετὰ τοῖσι δίκην ἰθύντατα εἴποι.

The people were gathered in a crowd in the assembly, where a conflict
had arisen: two men were in conflict over the penalty for
a man who had been killed; the first one was promising to repay everything
as he was testifying to the people; but the other was refusing to take anything;
and both men longed for a judge to make a decision.
The people, partisans on either side, applauded.
Then the heralds held the people in check; the elders
sat on smooth stones in a sacred circle
as they held in their hands the scepters of clear-voiced heralds;
each one was leaping to his feet, and they pronounced judgments in turn.
In the middle there were two talents of gold to give
to whoever among them uttered the straightest judgment.

Not only is strife headlined: a conflict had already arisen (νεῖκος / ὠρώρει) and was still unresolved (ἐνείκεον); the scene of two antagonists fighting with words in an assembly clearly recalls the opening neikos of the Iliad. Equally clearly, however, the scene on the shield depicts an institutional framework far more developed than anything represented in the story-world of the Iliad. [38] Two plaintiffs testify to the people (demos) in the assembly (agora); the people (laos) support either side; an arbitrator (histor) adjudicates; elders pass judgment; prizes are “in the middle,” [39] ready to be given to the elder who passes the “straightest judgment.” Given this picture of a community working together to resolve strife without a role for named individuals (far less for heroes), this seems to be a far cry from Homer’s world of warring heroes. In fact, the emphasis on communal performance, to the erasure of individual identities, amounts to something of an anti-heroic-epic aesthetic.

If this scene on the shield seems to depict a world beyond Homeric epic, it resonates strongly with Hesiod’s cosmos. In the Theogony, as we have seen, Hesiod articulates a similar interest in “straight judgments” being made, but from the perspective of the “divine born kings” who resolve disputes in the assembly and prevent their people from coming to harm (89–90). The Iliad scene is closer to the Works and Days, in which Hesiod documents and laments the extent to which this potential has not been fulfilled: the “divine-born kings” take bribes, issue crooked judgments, and generally fail to live up to Zeus’—and the poet’s—expectations (248–273). The whole poem is both an argument for institutionalizing justice in society and, to a certain extent, the very demonstration of that act (Hesiod addresses his poem to an addressee, his brother Perses, as if presenting a case: see the final section in this chapter). The shield scene is thus further evidence of the Iliad positioning itself in the cosmic evolution mapped out between Hesiod’s Theogony, in which the only humans to play a role in the world of gods are divine-born kings and heroes, and the Works and Days, in which only the gods that feature are Zeus and the abstract goddess “Justice.” Achilles’ shield offers a brief glimpse of a world in-between, a time beyond the age of heroes, where people rely instead on institutions for conflict resolution. [40] In its continued engagement with the Hesiodic tradition, the Iliad, we might suppose, is showing that such scenes owe a debt to Achilles (whose shield this is), for setting in motion the move towards a participatory form of politics, when he stood up to Agamemnon.
As Achilles re-enters the fray, plunging this peaceful scene of a community forever frozen in the process of coming to judgment back into the ferocity of war, [41] he carries on his shoulders a world known better to the audience than to himself, a world worth fighting for, a world which the Iliad can claim as its legacy. [42] It is, though, a precarious future. Balanced with this city at peace is a city at war, where strife is neither contained nor mediated, but violently escalating, a Thebes in bronze. [43] If the Iliad presents some way of managing strife within a community, extension of such institutions beyond the community remains an unattainable fantasy. For, when Achilles re-enters battle, he encapsulates the savagery of a man free of all institutions, a man whose distribution is that of human bodies to birds and dogs (ἀλλὰ κύνες τε καὶ οἰωνοὶ κατὰ πάντα δάσονται, 22.354), a disturbing realization of the proem’s promise that “the bodies of heroes [will be] food for dogs and birds” (αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν / οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, 1.4–5), and a man whose meat-sacrifice is Hektor’s body (“and after dragging Hektor here, I will give him to the dogs to split up raw,” Ἕκτορα δεῦρ’ ἐρύσας δώσειν κυσὶν ὠμὰ δάσασθαι, 23.21). Yet, by putting the emphasis on judgment, the carefully framed scene on the shield prepares the audience for the poem’s final movement towards achieving some kind of strife-resolution, to balance its opening focus on who started the conflict. This scene not only challenges the contents of the epic itself, but it also productively contests the theme of eris as it has been pursued within the tradition as a whole. By placing a potential resolution outside the heroic world’s actions, Homer also contests the notion that epic poetry can be a sufficient vessel for disarming strife’s violence. Such a move builds upon the destruction of both Thebes and Troy.
When these mythical cities have been destroyed, and the heroes associated with them are dead and buried, what should be built in their place? The Iliad has already offered its audience the assembly as a venue for dasmos, to which we may now add the related juridical scene on the shield as a model for krisis. As the Iliad draws to a close, Achilles offers a reflection on the poem’s exploration of eris within two kinds of institutional frame.
The first occurs at the beginning of Book 19, when Achilles, resolved now to re-enter the fray after the death of his best friend, again calls an assembly. The narrator marks the convocation of this assembly in the most elaborate terms yet. First, it conspicuously involves everyone, even those who before used to wait behind “in the contest (agon) of the ships”—a curious phrase which occurs only for the duration of Achilles’ absence from battle and seems to be used metaphorically to indicate the battle over or contest for the Achaean ships (νεῶν ἐν ἀγῶνι, 19.42). [44] Homer also creates the fiction that Achilles has been absent for a long time: [45] though in reality it has only been a mere three days, for an audience, now possibly into its third day of performance, it has been a test of almost epic endurance. [46] Moreover, the group Achilles gathers is neither the long-haired Achaeans, nor even the people (laoi), but the “Achaean heroes” (ἥρωας Ἀχαιούς, 19.41)—a kind of generic marker, we noted above, of epic poetry. The combined effect is to frame this assembly as having something to say about the Iliad’s performance within the epic world. Befitting such a broadly self-reflexive framework, Achilles’ opening assembly speech addresses the key theme of the poem and introduces his initial contemplation of it. The theme that Achilles identifies is his striving with Agamemnon. The Achaeans, Achilles ponders, will remember the strife between them for a long time (αὐτὰρ Ἀχαιοὺς / δηρὸν ἐμῆς καὶ σῆς ἔριδος μνήσεσθαι ὀΐω, 19.64–65). Here Achilles, the cause of that strife, acknowledges both his role in its generation and its destructive outcome: but, more importantly, he makes the claim that it will be this theme which will live on in the memory.
Achilles may be the one hero to reflect directly on the thematization of strife in the Iliad, but he is not alone in pondering its importance and finding ways to respond to it. This process began in the quarrel scene itself, as represented by the diverging interventions of Athena and Nestor; besides Diomedes’ studious repurposing and formalization of Achilles’ striving with the king to legitimize his own dissent, which we analyzed above, one might also consider Thersites’ less successful aping of Achilles’ complaints, which prompts his brutal suppression. It is in the games that Achilles puts on in honor of his fallen comrade, Patroklos, however, that the poem’s contemplation on strife comes to the fore. [47]
Achilles formally convokes the games in language that recalls his establishment of the assembly. Achilles held back the laos and sat them down in a wide contest space or agon (εὐρὺν ἀγῶνα, 23.258). We again see an instituting figure acting on the laos to bring them into an institutional process. [48] In addition, Achilles converts the agon—which before had been used as a metaphor for the existential threat to the Achaean people in the “contest” for their ships, into a safe space where individuals can show off their physical prowess and win honor without fear of death. More than ever the emphasis lies on group activity. It is a curious detail that, while the language of contest (agon) marks out the events in the games, [49] it is not restricted to denoting those contests. For the first and lengthiest contest, the chariot race, competition spills over the boundaries of the delineated contest space and breaks out among the spectators (448, 451, 495). Markedly, the contest among the spectators recalls the opening quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. [50] “Then there would have been further conflict between them” (καί νύ κε δὴ προτέρω ἔτ’ ἔρις γένετ’ ἀμφοτέροισιν, Iliad 23.490), Homer narrates, had not Achilles intervened. Significantly, he draws on the experience of his own strife with Agamemnon to recommend that they should defer judgment until one of them knows for sure what is happening among the charioteers. It is also significant for the Iliad’s metapoetic reflection that the conflict which Achilles successfully defers relates to who is best at reading the signs. [51]
Further strife threatens to break out when the prizes are awarded. It is Achilles who initially subverts his own newly minted meritocracy, when he judges that Eumelos, who comes last after suffering a crash while leading, should be awarded second because he was “the best man” (536). This judgment provokes the second-place Antilochus to angrily proclaim that he will be deprived of what is rightfully his. While his objection echoes Achilles’ very words to Agamemnon, [52] he is also careful both to frame his dissent [53] and to offer an alternative judgment: Achilles should reward Eumelos from his own store of booty, not from the common pool. [54] Achilles, as if hearing a younger version of himself, smiles and accepts the compromise. [55]
This is not quite the end of the matter either. (As tends to happen in conflict resolution, one issue gets resolved only for another to spring up.) Menelaos, so long the injured party in the Iliad, berates Antilochus for almost running into him and forcing him off the racing line. His concern that he is being cheated out of a prize recalls again the strife of Book 1 and in particular Agamemnon’s angry response to Achilles’ challenge; [56] again, however, his register strikes a radically different note. After voicing his anger with Antilochus, Menelaos turns to the assembled Achaeans and appeals to them for judgment “in the middle” (ἀλλ᾽ ἄγετ᾽ Ἀργείων ἡγήτορες ἠδὲ μέδοντες / ἐς μέσον ἀμφοτέροισι δικάσσατε, 23.573–574). In addition, keen to avoid the accusation of seeking to gain through deceit (576), Menelaos calls upon Antilochus to swear an oath that he used no guile. Important here is his gloss, “as is the custom” (ἣ θέμις ἐστί, 581)—like Diomedes, when making dissent institutional in the assembly, Menelaos lays down the principle of swearing an oath before the community to resolve conflict. This is a far cry from the oath that Achilles swore condemning his group to suffering; rather it is the thematic equivalent of Zeus’ establishment of the river Styx as the guarantee of divine oath in Hesiod’s Theogony. [57] Where the gods have some supernatural institution to enforce the faith of their pledge, men require a community and the institutional memory of the assembly. The communally witnessed oath thus emerges as a tool in the resolution of strife, to contrast pointedly with the oath used in Book 1 to divide and destroy the community.
Whereas the quarrel of the assembly in Book 1 escalates to a point at which the two greatest Achaeans take up polarized positions to the detriment of the community, in Book 23 conflict is re-imagined as a typical case of claim and counter-claim. The prevailing spirit is of mediation and negotiation rather than one of status-posturing and dominance, [58] a kind of political environment [59] born of and immersed in competing interests, none of which are easily resolvable, and in which the judge’s judgment also comes under constant consideration and scrutiny. Moreover, this new political settlement directly resonates with, and derives from, the strife of Book 1, which the characters seem to draw upon as a paradigm and invite the audience to do the same. Similar themes and issues are replayed, and words repeated, even as other elements show up the difference between the two situations. The characters—and the audience with them—engage in a process of recouping strife over the course of the narrative. Menelaos’ speech is the clearest example of the continuing progress that the Iliad makes towards the world of today. He addresses the man he has charged, appeals to the jury, and then recommends a formal solution, the oath. Not only does this again show how integral the Achaeans-at-large are to the assigning of prizes and rights; it is also proto-forensic in its anticipation of a legal settlement, such as we saw on Achilles’ shield. [60]
Arguably, it is not only important that this new kind of politics is realized under the jurisdiction of Achilles, the Iliad’s protagonist. Where it happens is also noteworthy: the games. We have already identified the extent to which Achilles formally establishes the games as an institutional form of contest (agon). It should also be observed that the foundation of the games in early Greek society is usually assigned to Herakles. That figure is conspicuous by his absence from this section of the poem; interestingly, however, the one figure whose funeral games are mentioned as a precedent is another Theban hero, Oedipus. In his only reference in the Iliad (23.679), it is the burial of Oedipus in Thebes at which a certain Mekisteos excelled, and “there defeated all the sons of Cadmus” (ἔνθα δὲ πάντας ἐνίκα Καδμείωνας, 23.680). Where the Iliad does not make the claim that it invents the games, in its formalization of the games as an agon and through its representations of adjudication and disagreement, it transforms this particular type of domesticated strife into something much more valuable—a political moment of debate, reflection, and negotiation. As for the hero whose father had defeated all comers at Thebes (like Tydeus)—Euryalos is knocked out cold by the boxer Epeios who receives no externally relevant genealogy. So much for the relevance of Thebes and the men of Tydeus’ ilk.
The final book of the Iliad further hints at the poem’s role in the epic cosmos and, in particular, at the shadow of Thebes that lies not far beneath the surface. It does so through the theme that later characterizes Theban myth: (the denial of) burial. As has been well documented, Book 24 begins in ways that strongly recall the opening of the epic. [61] Where the poem’s catalyst for strife was Apollo’s anger at Agamemnon for disrespecting his priest, Apollo intervenes again now, but this time neither directly nor unilaterally. Instead, reflecting the Iliad’s movement towards a new political settlement, he calls the gods to an assembly and puts his case to them (24.33–54). Equally significantly, he intervenes here not because of a personal tie (the insult suffered by his priest) but in defense of a general principle—the right to burial. [62]
In the Cypria, Zeus (apparently) “took pity on Earth” (Ζεὺς δὲ ἰδὼν ἐλέησε, Cypria fr. 1.4) and planned to relieve her burden by destroying the race of heroes; now, according to Apollo, “because Achilles has destroyed pity” (ὣς Ἀχιλεὺς ἔλεον μὲν ἀπώλεσεν, Iliad 24.44) by not allowing Hektor’s burial, “Achilles shames the dumb earth in his wrath” (κωφὴν γὰρ δὴ γαῖαν ἀεικίζει μενεαίνων, 24.54). [63] The implication that Achilles’ wrath, the catalyst of the poem, knows no bounds hints at the poem’s own borders and poses the question how this story of strife will, or can be, brought to a close. In opposing the motion Hera tries to maintain a critical distinction between the mortal Hektor and godlike Achilles, by invoking the pre-Iliadic marriage of Peleus and Thetis, at which Apollo too feasted as he held his lyre (24.62–63). Zeus’ arbitration confirms that the Iliad has moved on from this bygone era of gods and heroes: while Achilles will always be more honored, Hektor is “dearest” of all, because of the sacrifices he made—or, as Zeus puts it, his altar “was never lacking an equal cut” (οὐ γάρ μοί ποτε βωμὸς ἐδεύετο δαιτὸς ἐΐσης, 24.69). At the end of Iliad 1, strife on Olympos fails to break out because Zeus has already assigned each god his or her due: “they feasted and their spirits were not lacking an equal cut” (δαίνυντ᾿, οὐδέ τι θυμὸς ἐδεύετο δαιτὸς ἐΐσης, 1.602), nor indeed were they lacking the lyre that Apollo held (1.603). This portioning out of honor for the gods takes place in the Theogony and Homeric Hymns. Here, in Iliad 24, we receive an important gloss on that equal share. While the gods no longer dine at our table, we may gain their favor by making due sacrifice. With this intervention, the Iliad’s gods make it clear that the corpse, even that of an enemy, deserves to be buried: or, to put it in the language of epic, a proper burial is the “allotment” or “portion” due the dead. The refusal to grant burial results in an ongoing eris between mortals and threatens to escalate the strife to the world of the immortals. The theme of an unburied body as the locus for potentially yet more conflict recalls most famously the stories associated with Thebes and the (non-)burial of the seven.
It is with such a potential Theban story as both the backdrop to and threatening model for the Iliad’s last movement that we now come to the scene between Achilles and Priam, when Homer’s hero finally relinquishes his anger and returns Hektor’s body. His last act of redistribution is to share with Priam all the things that are his due (“I will [give him back] to you and in turn offer as much of these things as is proper,” σοὶ δ’ αὖ ἐγὼ καὶ τῶνδ’ ἀποδάσσομαι ὅσσ’ ἐπέοικεν, 24.595). This moment not only represents the resolution of the theme of ransom that was again a catalyst for strife at the poem’s beginning; it also operates within a storyworld of strife between fathers and sons, shared with some of our Theban tales. Throughout the Iliad, various characters have sought to influence Achilles either by assuming the mantle of his father, Peleus, or else by ventriloquizing his words. [64] Priam’s direct appeal to “remember your father” (μνῆσαι πατρὸς σοῖο, Iliad 24.486) resonates with those earlier, failed attempts. But, given the circumstances, where Achilles will offer Priam what he is due—his son’s body, goods, a meal—it also potentially resonates with and corrects the episode in the Thebais (as represented by the fragments discussed in the previous chapter) where a meal between a father and his sons leads to conflict and a curse. We say correct, because the scene between Achilles and Priam not only brings strife to an end (formally, if not substantively) in the Iliad; it also emphasizes appropriate distribution within the context of the feast—a significant and fraught moment in early Greek hexameter epic as we have seen, including for our Theban sources.
The Iliad ends in the burial of Hektor. Given heroic epic’s focus on the death of the race of heroes, it is no surprise that burial should play such a key role in the Iliad. Yet, its thematization may also be highly charged in the context of a Theban tradition. [65] Evidence from Athenian tragedy about Theban plots suggests a particular emphasis on burial, whether it is the denial of burial (Sophocles’ Antigone) or its acceptance (Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus). In fact there is a tradition that Herakles was the first to give back a body under truce (Plutarch Life of Theseus 29.4–5), in and against which Athenian tragedians may have been working when representing Theseus preserving the rites of the dead. [66] The Iliad reverses the association of burial with strife by not only ending its anatomization of the latter with the former, but pointedly also by disavowing strife through having Achilles promise Priam a truce for the days of the burial (Iliad 24.656–670; 779–781). And yet, even as the Iliad closes with the peaceful, if somber, image of burial, strong hints of the strife remain, as the Trojans post guards just in case the Achaeans attack (Iliad 24.798–801). [67]
The Iliad starts out as a tale of Eris set in a larger tradition about a particular famous strife: the conflict between Menelaos and Paris for Helen. This personal vendetta sets multiple communities into turmoil, results in a massive redistribution of humanity and wealth, and brings to an end the race of heroes. In all likelihood, the versions of poems about Thebes used the Eris theme to illustrate similar conflations of private conflicts and public costs—indeed, this is a clear dynamic that emerges from tragic versions of Oedipus’ family story. But the Iliad appropriates and deploys these themes in a monumental fashion, exploring multiple angles on the costs of eris, incomplete or problematic dasmos, and failed judgment over the course of its unfolding, only to anticipate and control its own reception at the end. Moreover, it resonates with Hesiod’s Theogony in its depiction of the assembly as an imperfect ground for resolution, anticipates the Works and Days with its objections over the use of public means for private ends during the embassy to Achilles, and produces variations on intra-familial wrongs and sinful banquets familiar to Theban tales throughout the poem. In its closing focus on the oath, the importance of burial, and the need for a leader like Achilles putting public good before his private interest, the Iliad appears to end the story of strife. How could a city like Thebes produce anything to compete with this?
Just as the Iliad complicates and tries to control its own reception, so too does the Homeric tradition contest its own resolutions. Not only are the ideals explored in the Iliad put firmly to the test in the Odyssey; the very construction of a narrative about managing strife is made the subject of the tale.

Enduring Strife, Surviving Epic

Given that the Iliad reworks the Eris theme as the basis of a foundational narrative that dramatizes the establishment of institutions for managing conflict once heroes are no more, we may have expected to see a similar emphasis on political strife in the homecoming narrative. Far from it. Not only is the Odyssey relatively uninterested in institutions, it seems to show little interest in strife per se. In part its reticence is due to a far more complicated political picture, where it is not altogether clear that strife can be the relatively constructive force that the Iliad had seemed to suggest. [68] In part, too, it is because the potential for intrafamilial rivalry is so strongly denied, in the epic’s assertion that Laertes, Odysseus, and Telemachus are single sons (16.117–120), an unrivalled genealogy in Greek myth. [69] In that very insistence, however, one can detect a particular element of the Odyssey’s striving—a striving in poetic form (as we saw in Chapter 3). This is manifest in the poem’s representation of institutional strife as a binary opposition, between those fighting for Odysseus and his family, and those against. [70] Furthermore, where strife tends to be absent, the motif of distribution (as part of the thematic nexus around strife) is present as an urgent idea in both Odysseus’ speeches and Telemachus’ inquiries, both of which take place during scenes of feasting. These resonant strains, which lurk just beneath the surface of those episodes, explode on the scene at the end of the Odyssey in the form of civil conflict over the denial of burial and Odysseus’ leadership. If this sounds Theban, then it is all the more noteworthy that it is a Theban hero whose strange prophecy anticipates the problematic closure of the poem by prophesying still more wandering for Odysseus.
As the epic of homecoming, the Odyssey explores a post-Iliad, post-war world in which the difficult returns of the Trojan War heroes come into focus—the trauma faced by war veterans, the loss (imagined or real) of their loved ones waiting at home, the disruption to ordinary life experienced by their communities, the stories that they tell to make sense of their involvement of conflict. [71] Conflict itself, particularly as manifested by the Trojan War, is deceptively consigned to the world before. Demodokos sings of the “conflict of Achilles and Odysseus” (νεῖκος Ὀδυσσῆος καὶ Πηλεΐδεω Ἀχιλῆος, 8.75); Odysseus himself describes the Trojan War to Penelope as a “great conflict” (ἔκριναν μέγα νεῖκος ὁμοιΐου πτολέμοιο, 18.264). From the perspective of the Odyssey the Trojan War is as much in the past as the conflict between men and Centaurs (ἐξ οὗ Κενταύροισι καὶ ἀνδράσι νεῖκος ἐτύχθη, 21.303) from the poem’s ideological perspective. In place of armed conflict, strife is transformed into an attempt to win a woman in marriage (“they wanted to woo a good wife and the daughter of a rich man and were striving with one another,” οἵ τ’ ἀγαθήν τε γυναῖκα καὶ ἀφνειοῖο θύγατρα / μνηστεύειν ἐθέλωσι καὶ ἀλλήλοισ’ ἐρίσωσιν, 18.276-277). [72]
Yet destructive strife is never that far away, especially when the woman in question is already married; as the Trojan War has shown, the wrong kind of wooing can lead to a destructive conflict, fit for epic song. [73] Thus the Odyssey’s thematization of strife investigates what happens when the very fabric of society—institutions both social (hospitality, the household) and political (the assembly)—is torn asunder by men (or monsters). In many ways this poem’s contemplation of strife is even more radical than the Iliad’s, juxtaposing its own fantastic reimaginings of social order with the situation on the ground, so to speak. It both represents an unraveling of Achilles’ redistributive fantasy and re-evaluates from the ground up the causes and consequences of human striving. [74]
The idea of conflict in the assembly is explored in the scenes back on Ithaca, though not quite in the way that the Iliad had depicted. On the advice of a loyal retainer, Mentes (Athena in disguise), Telemachus calls an assembly of the Ithacans, in which he lays out to the people his case for the impropriety of the suitors’ behavior (2.40–79). [75] If in the Iliad we see the gradual institutionalization of the assembly (and the management of physical conflict in the form of debate), the Odyssey takes this as its premise: the gods Zeus and Themis—Law/Custom—“dissolve and establish the assemblies of men” (ἥ τ’ ἀνδρῶν ἀγορὰς ἠμὲν λύει ἠδὲ καθίζει, 2.69), as if now assemblies are fully institutionalized and overseen by the divine powers who ensure the proper workings of a society’s customs. [76]
Only here on Ithaca, such institutions have fallen into disuse. An assembly has not been called since Odysseus left for Troy (2.26–27). In spite of Telemachus’ appeal to the Ithacans, they remain silent, leaving the assembly to be hijacked by the suitors, who care only about forcing Penelope’s hand and nothing about the state of Ithaca. Two other speakers do speak up for Telemachus to the public, but their appeals and threats have little effect on the assembled group. What should be the occasion for an open exchange of views in the public management of strife becomes a demonstration of the futility of debate, as the suitors show no interest in constructive discussion (nor indeed any unity among themselves). [77] Arguably this assembly is not only a condemnation of Ithacan social practice; at times the assembly resembles, and sometimes sounds like, the opening assembly of the Iliad. [78] The institutional framework promised by the Iliad as a way of negotiating disputes is exposed as badly lacking, particularly when no figure emerges who is not already implicated in the struggle to make a fair judgment. The Odyssey’s prolonged rumination on the conditions necessary to obtain fair judgment insistently probes the limits of the positive Eris developed in the Iliad and interrogated in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Telemachus declares that he will pursue justice by other means—outside the assembly. [79]
Instead, the Odyssey approaches the theme of strife indirectly, through moments of distribution. Telemachus’ search for a solution to the crisis on Ithaca takes him on an Odyssean voyage to two of the Trojan War veterans who have survived and made it back home. When Telemachus first meets Nestor, he is in the process of dividing out the correct portions for an orderly feast in Pylos (“After they divided the portions, they dined on a luxurious feast,” μοίρας δασσάμενοι δαίνυντ’ ἐρικυδέα δαῖτα, 3.66). Similarly, when Odysseus arrives washed up on the shore of Skheria, the narrator informs us that King Nausithoos had equitably distributed its lands among men and gods (“he built the temples of the gods and distributed the farmlands,” καὶ νηοὺς ποίησε θεῶν καὶ ἐδάσσατ’ ἀρούρας, 6.10), the result of which seems to guarantee the Phaiakians a Hesiodic golden-age life of ease and plenty. [80] Seemingly conscious of the problem of distribution suffered by the Achaeans in the Iliad, Odysseus himself emphasizes that he and his men divided things up correctly after sacking the city of the Kikonians, “so that none in my power might be robbed of his fair share” (ἐκ πόλιος δ’ ἀλόχους καὶ κτήματα πολλὰ λαβόντες / δασσάμεθ’, ὡς μή τίς μοι ἀτεμβόμενος κίοι ἴσης, 9.41–42). Even after barely extricating his companions from the clutches of Polyphemos, Odysseus’ thoughts immediately turn again to the proper distribution of goods (“once we took the flocks from the Cyclops’ deep cave, we divided them up so that no one left without a share,” μῆλα δὲ Κύκλωπος γλαφυρῆς ἐκ νηὸς ἑλόντες / δασσάμεθ’, ὡς μή τίς μοι ἀτεμβόμενος κίοι ἴσης, 9.548–549). Similarly, too, in the troubled scenes of feasting on Ithaca, there remains the concern to distribute the portions all round (“they cooked the portions skillfully and divided them up,” ὤπτησάν τε περιφραδέως δάσσαντό τε μοίρας, 19.423).
This obsession with due allotment not only recalls the badly managed division of spoils that proved the catalyst for the Iliad—at which Odysseus’ distribution of spoils after sacking the city of the Kikonians seems pointedly aimed—but resonates also with Hesiodic and especially Theban anxieties about proper division. Beneath these expressions of ideals the situation turns out to be far more complex and troubling, and owes much to the kind of issues that we saw being explored in our remaining Theban fragments. Odysseus’ equitable sharing-out of goods after sacking the Kikonian city ironically leads to ruin, since his companions (against his advice) insist on enjoying their newly-won spoils there and then rather than fleeing—and soon find themselves embroiled in a second, even more destructive, battle.
It is Odysseus especially who articulates problems with epic dasmos. When he first interviews Eumaios, he laments (in his Cretan persona) that he loved raiding so much that he neglected the affairs of his home (13.222–223). [81] When embellishing his tale shortly afterwards, he identifies how his men “yield to hubris and are overcome by their strength” (οἱ δ’ ὕβρει εἴξαντες, ἐπισπόμενοι μένεϊ σφῷ, 14.262). [82] The language of excess is also projected onto the suitors whose transgressive behavior is thematized as a type of raiding. [83] Beyond the Odyssey’s flagrant fantastical presentation of idealized golden-age society, on the one hand, and its world of supernatural beings on the other, we find the emergent reality of life outside of war—or, more to the point, a step further on from the heroic age of the war at Troy. In Iliad 9, while Achilles pays lip-service to the Hesiodic ideal of hard work, the picture that he presents of his home, Phthia, is of a world of plenty. Moreover, though deprived of his home and unable to enjoy that patrimony, by virtue of his hard work in the field of battle at Troy he has gained many other possessions (even if Agamemnon failed to distribute that booty equitably). Thus, Achilles’ solution to eris in Iliad 23, in which he offers prizes in compensation for heroic effort, enables him to construct a political fantasy of equitable redistribution based on merit. In the Odyssey, however, Ithaca is not a land of endless resources. This is not only a post-conflict world, but also a post-heroic one. One problem with the endless feasting enjoyed by the suitors is the fact that it threatens to eat Telemachus out of house and home. There is a critical limit on what can be distributed. On meeting Nestor, Telemachus contrasts the scene of proper distribution by which he is greeted with the scene back on Ithaca, warning Nestor not ever to leave home “lest arrogant men eat up all your household / and divide all your possessions” (οὕτω ὑπερφιάλους, μή τοι κατὰ πάντα φάγωσι / κτήματα δασσάμενοι, 3.316–317; cf. 15.12–13 and 20.215–216). Far from enjoying an epic world of plenty, the characters are acutely aware of a Hesiodic precarity to their existence.
Such concerns are never far from Odysseus’ mind. On gaining access to the royal couple ruling Skheria, Odysseus prays that Arete’s guests may always keep their “possessions in their homes and the prize (geras) which the demos grants them” (κτήματ’ ἐνὶ μεγάροισι γέρας θ’, ὅ τι δῆμος ἔδωκεν, 7.150)—a rather curious aside that betrays an anxiety about the precarity of his own position. Later he asks his mother’s shade whether his father or son or some other person has his geras already (“does my geras still reside among them / or does some other man already have it while they claim I will not come home?” ἢ ἔτι πὰρ κείνοισιν ἐμὸν γέρας, ἦέ τις ἤδη / ἀνδρῶν ἄλλος ἔχει, ἐμὲ δ’ οὐκέτι φασὶ νέεσθαι, 11.175–176). Ever his father’s son, Telemachus reveals the same concern, worrying whether it will be Eurymachus who “marries [his] mother and receives the geras of Odysseus” (μητέρ’ ἐμὴν γαμέειν καὶ ᾿Οδυσσῆος γέρας ἕξειν, 15.522). In this tale of a world in flux, caught between the Iliadic Trojan conflict and an everyday Hesiodic existence, the characters are keenly aware that the objects of dasmos—goods, and social position—are not fixed in perpetuity. Strife remains latent in anxiety and speculation throughout the poem. Arguably the most striking, and certainly the most jarring, example occurs when Odysseus describes the moment he meets Charybdis for a second time as “late, when a man rises from the assembly to go to dinner, one who has been judging many conflicts while men were seeking judgments” (ὄψ’· ἦμος δ’ ἐπὶ δόρπον ἀνὴρ ἀγορῆθεν ἀνέστη / κρίνων νείκεα πολλὰ δικαζομένων αἰζηῶν, 12.439–440). The harsh juxtaposition between an incomprehensibly horrific encounter with an otherwordly monster and the drudgery of routine life does not merely suggest that Odysseus’ mind is returning to the everyday world back at home, as the fantastical part of his journey is about to end; the simile acts as a bridge between the two worlds, as if the ordinary life that Odysseus yearns for both depends on his action here and informs it. Judging conflict is like surviving a horrific monster. Survival in the Odyssey here strongly recalls the picture of everyday hard labor in Works and Days coupled with the Theogonic emphasis on the king who bestows judgment, but inflected: the emphasis lies on every man making judgments for himself, since judgment is too important to be left to some ideal king (when they’re usually not). Through such resonances Odysseus, the now lone survivor still making it back from the Trojan War, is represented as making the (necessary) transition from Achaean hero to everyman figure, a quintessential “middle” man. [84]
The absence of a political means of settlement for Telemachus is addressed directly when Nestor welcomes him in Pylos, and will be later repeated by Odysseus when he first meets his son back on Ithaca: could it be that he is so easily subdued, or that the people hate him, because of some divine word? [85] In a follow-up question to that later scene, Odysseus coyly asks whether the blame lies with Telemachus’ relatives, “in whom a man / can trust, when there are struggles and a great conflict arises?” (οἷσί περ ἀνὴρ / μαρναμένοισι πέποιθε, καὶ εἰ μέγα νεῖκος ὄρηται;, 16.97–98). [86] Placing the emphasis on family in negotiating strife, the disguised Odysseus marks his means of gaining redress to the unlawful redistribution that has occurred in his absence. [87] Initially conflict is direct; first when Iros threatens to fight Odysseus for the position of palace beggar (ἀλλ’ ἄνα, μὴ τάχα νῶϊν ἔρις καὶ χερσὶ γένηται, 18.10), and then when Odysseus declares that given the opportunity he would best the suitors in a competition of work (“If there could be a work-contest between us…,”εἰ γὰρ νῶϊν ἔρις ἔργοιο γένοιτο, 18.366). If the first example represents an instantiation of Achilles’ complaint about the treatment he has received at the hands of Agamemnon, the image of a farming competition strongly reverberates with echoes of Hesiod’s Works and Days. Both instances represent strife sublimated, through either a sporting or an agricultural contest, but the threat of real strife hangs over the suitors should they fail to restrain their physical or verbal abuse (“so that no conflict and strife might arise…” ἵνα μή τις ἔρις καὶ νεῖκος ὄρηται, 20.267). The warning is not heeded, and Odysseus’ halls soon echo instead to the sound of martial contest, in the form of an Iliadic battle where the flower of Ithaca is put to the bow and sword. [88] When an assembly is called in the wake of the slaughter, again the community ruptures on partisan lines (24.412–466), again any middle ground is erased. (You are either for us or against us.) Far from resolving the crisis, Odysseus’ actions threaten to unleash civil war on Ithaca. With kinsmen facing kinsmen, and the bodies of fallen Achaeans lying unburied, the shadow of Thebes looms ever larger.
It is worth reiterating that the conflict is represented by and perpetuated through feasting within a single household. When Odysseus comes in disguise to test the suitors, he dons another persona and declares: “I once lived in a house among men, a blessed man in a wealthy house, and I used to give much to a beggar” (καὶ γὰρ ἐγώ ποτε οἶκον ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἔναιον ὄλβιος ἀφνειὸν καὶ πολλάκι δόσκον ἀλήτῃ, 17.419–420). He promises that upon receiving similar care he will make Antinoos famous (418). The suitors, in a gesture perhaps echoing Oedipus’ recalcitrant sons, refuse to give the king-in-disguise a portion at their (his) feast. This is transgressive hospitality at its worst. But Odysseus’ veiled threat communicates that another type of distribution is in play and anticipates the epic’s final movement. When declaring that he could make “Antinoos” famous, Odysseus uses the verbalized form of kleos, κλείω. The Ithacan youth have found themselves barred from heroic life by circumstance. Too young to go to (the Trojan) war, they have turned back to a pre-(Trojan) war scenario of wooing a woman. But the war hero has returned: even as he declares that he has control over fame, so, by virtue of his return, his epic asserts its fame over other potential stories. In its engagement in strife with the epic tradition the Odyssey implies that the product of epic songs, kleos itself, is a limited resource over which it has control.
This is, in fact, part of the challenge offered by the false resolution of strife in Odyssey 24. For a brief moment, we find the story suspended as the families of the suitors bury their dead and gather in the assembly to contemplate their options. One of the suitors’ fathers, Eupeithes, openly condemns Odysseus’ failure as an epic leader of people, deploying epic poetry’s own care for the people against him: Odysseus lost all the people whom he had led to Troy; on his return he has killed the people at home. Eupeithes presents a calculus of Strife that reflects both on the zero-sum game and on epic poetics. First, he encapsulates the epic theme of revenge, which can only function by taking satisfaction or payment for another. This ethos countermands Ajax’s assertion from Iliad 9 (632–638) that men can live together after a murder once restitution has been made. The problem at the end of the Odyssey is eerily similar to that at the beginning of the Iliad: who is going to judge this eris and effect a new dasmos when the conflict is between the king and his people? Second, Eupeithes’ behavior is driven in part by shame, in part by a fear of infamy. His positive fame can emerge only from ending Odysseus’ story. The Odyssey here reflects the very issue of epic rivalry itself—to replace or contest another entity’s fame is in part to erase it.
Such competitive erasure is part of the experiment of the epic’s end. Eupeithes’ speech proves radically divisive: half of them go home, half gather to attack Odysseus’ supporters. When they are routed and Odysseus rampages after them in an Achillean (Heraklean) killing spree, Athena is forced to intervene directly and bring the poem to a shuddering halt (Odyssey 24.543–545):

“διογενὲς Λαερτιάδη, πολυμήχαν’ Ὀδυσσεῦ,
ἴσχεο, παῦε δὲ νεῖκος ὁμοιΐου πτολέμοιο,
μή πώς τοι Κρονίδης κεχολώσεται εὐρύοπα Ζεύς.”

“Divine-born son of Laertes, many-wiles Odysseus,
Hold back, stop the conflict of a like war,
Lest Zeus, the wide-browed son of Kronos, get angry in some way.”

Little more than 60 lines before, Zeus ordained such an ending (24.482–486):

ἐπεὶ δὴ μνηστῆρας ἐτείσατο δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς,
ὅρκια πιστὰ ταμόντες ὁ μὲν βασιλευέτω αἰεί,
ἡμεῖς δ’ αὖ παίδων τε κασιγνήτων τε φόνοιο
ἔκλησιν θέωμεν· τοὶ δ’ ἀλλήλους φιλεόντων
ὡς τὸ πάρος, πλοῦτος δὲ καὶ εἰρήνη ἅλις ἔστω.”

“Since Odysseus has paid back the suitors,
let him be king again for good after they all take faithful oaths.
Let us force a forgetting of that slaughter of children and relatives.
Let all the people be friendly towards each other as they were.
Let wealth and peace be abundant.”

In the very formalization of its closure, [89] the Odyssey suggests there is never any simple, easy or even final resolution to strife; any judgment to resolve strife inevitably implicates the act of the judgment. At one level this final word on strife (or, more particularly, on the “strife of a like war”) signifies the threat of a conflict that respects no distinctions, a war with one’s own kind, a civil war. It is as if the poem were threatening to take something like a Theban turn, where the very likeness of its combatants—brothers who are sons—is the catalyst for strife. [90] At this metapoetic level, it also directly recalls Odysseus’ description of the war between the Trojans and Achaeans, which he designates as a “great conflict of a like war” (18.264)—a war that by respecting no age or status distinctions has effectively killed off the race of heroes. Through such an abrupt and explicitly marked endgame, the Odyssey implies that no other Troy story like it should be told, lest, we should not forget, the gods disapprove. By ending strife with a divinely imposed krisis amid the chaos of transgressed institutions, the Odyssey uses the divine judgment as a kind of placeholder for the krisis to come as audiences absorb and respond to the epics’ attempted domestication of eris.

At the same time, the artificiality of the ending demands reflection not only because of its form but also its content. In Zeus’ final declaration, the promise of peace and wealth is possible only by forgetting—or, rather, through “forcing a forgetting” (ἔκλησιν θέωμεν). This conceit is the very opposite of the promise of fame which epic poetry usually holds out. And, although this noun comes from lanthanô, the same root as the river of forgetfulness Lêthê, the sound e-klê-sis might make audiences think of that which is being generated by this loss: kleos.
The end of the Odyssey’s political narrative thus brings an abrupt, and not altogether satisfactory, resolution to issues of the distribution of life, public and private goods, and fame. The final dasmos to forestall future eris limits the political power of the people in exchange for the promise of mutual benefit: it is a solution which encourages audiences to value stability and common prosperity over and against all else. Or, to put that in the terms of Hesiod’s Works and Days, hard work and just behavior.
This is not, however, the end of Odysseus’ odyssey (even if it is the end of ours). During his underworld adventure, Odysseus receives a prophecy about his return. In fact, it was for this reason that he undertook this labor in the first place. And yet the prophecy that he receives reveals very little about how he will return home and what he needs to do, even if that had been the aim. [91] Instead, in addition to learning that his nostos will not be complete when he sets foot back on his island, Odysseus also discovers that his journeying will not be at an end even then (11.119–137). [92] Once home, he must depart again for a final odyssey, carrying with him an oar, until he comes upon a people who know nothing about the sea or ships: there, when a passing wayfarer confuses his oar for a winnowing fan, he is to plant the oar in the ground and sacrifice to Poseidon, before (finally) returning home.
A number of features framing this strange prophecy make it suggestive for our argument. The figure of the seer has some pedigree in heroic epic as well as in later tragedy. Early in the Iliad, Homer introduces the key testimony of the Achaian seer Calchas, with the momentous line: “who knew the things that already are, and that will be, and that had been before” (ὃς ᾔδη τά τ᾽ ἐόντα τά τ᾽ ἐσσόμενα πρό τ᾽ ἐόντα, Iliad 1.70). Shortly afterwards, Odysseus appeals to Calchas’ prophecy that Priam’s city would fall only in the tenth year, in order to keep the host at Troy (Iliad 2.301-335). A seer’s words, however challenging for a king or difficult to interpret, are the very definition of efficacious: they are always borne out. In this case, the seer Teiresias looms large in the testimonia and later tragedies associated with Thebes and its ruling family. It seems significant, then, that “Odysseus” is careful to denote Teiresias as “the Theban,” [93] exclusively associating him with the city, Thebes, not with its ruling house. [94] The identification of Teiresias as the Theban seems designed to bring to mind the rival tradition at more or less the center point of Odysseus’ tale (and the poem itself). If this is suggestive of interpoetic rivalry, the fact that Teiresias delivers his prophecy standing on the “borders” (11.13) of the world next to the great sea “Oceanus” makes it appear as though we are on the edge of epic poetry itself. [95]
Within this metapoetic framework, Teiresias’ prophecy is particularly striking. As Alex Purves has argued, the prophecy does not merely map out Odysseus’ continued journeying beyond the limits of this poem; “to travel inland in such a way is to travel ‘off the map’ of archaic poetics” and “toward a new literary landscape.” [96] When Odysseus later recounts this prophecy to his wife, he describes his continued toil as “unmeasured” (ἀμέτρητος, Odyssey 23.249). In Works and Days, Hesiod announces that he will show the measure (metra) of the resounding sea, although he is not skilled in sailing and ships (648–649), in what recent critics have taken to be a metapoetic distancing of his kind of epic from Homer’s. [97] “Unmeasured” or, better, “unmetrical,” then, suggests a kind of poetry without meter (or at least not the steady beats of hexameter of epic). Moreover, when Teiresias glosses a key signifier in the prophecy, “the well-fitted oar” (121, 129), as the “wings of a ship” (οὐδ᾽ εὐήρε᾽ ἐρετμά, τά τε πτερὰ νηυσὶ πέλονται, 11.125; cf. 23.272)—using a typical poetic figure from Homeric epic—the passing wayfarer gets the wrong end of the stick. This wanderer in a world far from the sea—far from Homeric epic, that is—mistakes the oar as a land-based tool for agriculture, mistranslating the poetic figure (“the wings of a ship”) as a prosaic object (“a winnowing fan”). [98] Taken together, Teiresias’ prophecy and Odysseus’ translation of it point to a storied terrain far removed from the Odyssey, far even from the kind of heroic epic that Homer’s poem represents.
The prophecy concerning the oar “meditates on the idea of the end of epic.” At first glance we might think that Teiresias, as the representative of the Theban tradition, is critically limiting the Odyssey, by suggesting that Odysseus’ nostos is not yet over; that is, that this poem fails even to tell that story right. Or that, in the words of Purves: “The logical consequence of Tiresias’ prophecy is that there exists somewhere upon the earth a group of people who, although they are human and ‘eaters of bread,’ have never heard of the Trojan War or a hero who fought in it called Odysseus.” [99] That may be true, but the Cyclops had not heard of Agamemnon and the Achaean sackers of Troy either, and he soon came to learn the mêtis of Odysseus. Here we should remember that Teiresias is not speaking in his own voice: his prophecy is being relayed, and translated later, by Odysseus himself. Another way of reading this prophecy, then, is (ironically) straight—as a prophecy that Odysseus will survive beyond epic. Through appropriating the Theban seer of legend, Homer/Odysseus stakes out—literally in the form of the oar—the ground for Homer’s hero’s transition from epic to prose. And, if the never-ending story of Odysseus’ wandering is a journey into other literary forms, epic as a genre will not survive beyond the (abrupt) end of our Odyssey.
Odysseus’ death, it is foretold, will come “gently from the sea” (ἐξ ἁλὸς / ἀβληχρὸς), and the people round about will be happy or “blessed” (ἀμφὶ δὲ λαοὶ / ὄλβιοι ἔσσονται). In epic, the people (laos) are always under threat of being killed or not being protected by their leaders and shepherds. The fact that Odysseus’ people are now blessed suggests that they live in a time beyond epic, when they no longer need to rely on the blessed heroes for security. It looks forward to an age of men that follows hard on the race of heroes, a world in and of our time, Hesiod’s Works and Days.

Hesiod’s Domestic Striving

After articulating the potential of the beneficial Strife to balance its evil twin, Hesiod turns to his brother Perses and laments their own conflict (Works and Days 27–41):

Ὦ Πέρση, σὺ δὲ ταῦτα τεῷ ἐνικάτθεο θυμῷ,
μηδέ σ’ Ἔρις κακόχαρτος ἀπ’ ἔργου θυμὸν ἐρύκοι
νείκε’ ὀπιπεύοντ’ ἀγορῆς ἐπακουὸν ἐόντα.
ὤρη γάρ τ’ ὀλίγη πέλεται νεικέων τ’ ἀγορέων τε
ᾧτινι μὴ βίος ἔνδον ἐπηετανὸς κατάκειται
ὡραῖος, τὸν γαῖα φέρει, Δημήτερος ἀκτήν.
τοῦ κε κορεσσάμενος νείκεα καὶ δῆριν ὀφέλλοις
κτήμασ’ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις. σοὶ δ’ οὐκέτι δεύτερον ἔσται
ὧδ’ ἔρδειν· ἀλλ’ αὖθι διακρινώμεθα νεῖκος
ἰθείῃσι δίκῃς, αἵ τ’ ἐκ Διός εἰσιν ἄρισται.
ἤδη μὲν γὰρ κλῆρον ἐδασσάμεθ’, ἄλλα τε πολλὰ
ἁρπάζων ἐφόρεις μέγα κυδαίνων βασιλῆας
δωροφάγους, οἳ τήνδε δίκην ἐθέλουσι δικάσσαι.
νήπιοι, οὐδὲ ἴσασιν ὅσῳ πλέον ἥμισυ παντὸς
οὐδ’ ὅσον ἐν μαλάχῃ τε καὶ ἀσφοδέλῳ μέγ’ ὄνειαρ.

O Perses, keep these things in your mind
and don’t let the evil-hearted strife keep your heart from work
while you lurk about observing conflict in the assembly.
For the season of conflicts and assemblies is a short one
for any man whose means of living is not abundantly stocked at home
in time, which the earth produces, Demeter’s grain.
After you have made your fill of that, you can add to the store of conflicts and strife
over another’s possessions. But it will not be possible for you a second time
to act like this. No, let us bring our conflict to a resolution
with straight judgments, which are best from Zeus.
For we have already divided up our inheritance, and you
made off with much besides, glorifying the bribe-swallowing
kings, the men who long have judged this kind of case.
The fools, they do not know how much more half is than everything
Nor how much wealth is in mallow and asphodel.

Many of the critical themes that we have been discussing in this chapter appear in this passage: the problem of evil-hearted strife (κακόχαρτος) and quarrels in the assembly (νείκε’… ἀγορῆς; νεικέων τ’ ἀγορέων τε); the desirability of separating out strife with straight judgements (διακρινώμεθα νεῖκος / ἰθείῃσι δίκῃς); the distribution of allotments (κλῆρον ἐδασσάμεθ’); and the corrupting influence of bribe-swallowing kings (βασιλῆας / δωροφάγους).

However, on this occasion, the narrator is speaking as someone who has suffered from strife and is (still) negotiating its destructive nature.. According to Hesiod, he has been deprived of his rightful share of what has already been distributed (ἤδη μὲν γὰρ κλῆρον ἐδασσάμεθ’), because his brother has skewed the settlement by “bigging up” (μέγα κυδαίνων) those who are supposed to oversee the distribution with straight judgments. These bribe-swallowing kings apparently now intend to issue a new judgment (οἳ τήνδε δίκην ἐθέλουσι δικάσσαι) that will unjustly favor his brother. Frustrated by the institutional corruption, Hesiod is left to wield poetic tropes to express his dismay—paradox (“they don’t know how much more half is more than everything”) and figure (“nor how much wealth is in mallow and asphodel”).
Hesiod’s anatomization of strife and criticism of society’s efforts to manage it is an important corrective not only to the impression that might have been given in the Theogony that strife was only bad and that kings deliver only good judgments, but also to the Iliad’s domestication of strife. The particular comment that Perses should avoid “looking out for conflict in the assembly” (νείκε’ ὀπιπεύοντ’ ἀγορῆς ἐπακουὸν ἐόντα) seems pointedly aimed at an Iliadic take on strife, which is—as we have seen—so characterized by striving in debate. Moreover, where in the Iliad the prizes are stored up for the man who makes the best judgment, Hesiod makes the point that there is no store of prizes for the combatants, and the judges are corrupted by gifts. The political imaginary at the end of the Iliad made possible by the separation from the zero-sum game unravels when faced with the material reality of Hesiod’s Ascra or, as we have seen, of Odysseus’ Ithaca.
At one level this is about promoting farming and peace over wars and battles, the Works and Days over the war at Troy (or the Iliad). [100] But Hesiod goes further. He makes Iliadic striving dependent on the aesthetic of self-reflection and hard work that he is promoting. The time (or, better, “season,” for that captures the thematics of this poem) for quarrels in the assembly is short (ὤρη γάρ τ’ ὀλίγη πέλεται νεικέων τ’ ἀγορέων τε); only once one has a year’s grain of supply in hand (again the language of farming) can one raise disputes and conflict over another’s possessions (τοῦ κε κορεσσάμενος νείκεα καὶ δῆριν ὀφέλλοις / κτήμασ’ ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις). According to Hesiod, it is the evil, non-productive Eris that compels men away from work and reduces them to audience members to someone else’s striving instead of their own. It is as if Hesiod is accusing Perses of being distracted by Homeric epic from doing the work that is inspired by the better Eris. What Perses really needs to do is to attend to his own affairs and pay more attention to his brother by hearkening to this poem.
We should further note that Hesiod gives advice to his brother in the context of a fraternal dispute. After establishing the principles of the good strife, Hesiod turns back to his personal conflict: though they have already divided their inheritance, his brother has engaged bribe-taking officials to make a judgment against him. As we explored above, fraternal disputes over an inheritance are a feature of the fragments of the Theban tradition that have come down to us. In fact, judgment of distribution is arguably even more of an issue in the Theban storyworld than it is at Troy, since in Thebes the king casting judgment is both father and brother, both victim of a familial curse and agent of one. [101] In the Works and Days it is as if Eteocles had taken up farming and sought to deprive his brother of his fair share of their father’s inheritance by going back on the deal—and finds himself challenged by a Hesiod of “many conflicts” (Polyneikes). When Hesiod later aligns both traditions, he defines the Trojan War as striving over Helen, and the Theban conflict as a war over the “flocks of Oedipus.” These phrases not only summarily domesticate the rival epic traditions; they even suggest a Hesiodic Works and Days appropriation. [102] In the Hesiodic cosmos, the conflicts of the age of heroes relate to the concerns of the everyday man, the theft of valuable property—a woman on the one hand, sheep on the other. By offering his reader guidance on observing the basic rules of living a just life, the Works and Days offers a rumination on epic conflict that has resonance for the men of now, engaged in inheritance disputes, getting a wife, or skirmishing or with neighboring groups.
The Odyssey shares many of these concerns with Hesiod’s Works and Days. Though a returning hero from the Trojan War, Odysseus is presented—and presents himself—as a beggar in rags, mixing in the company of the people who work the land. When he is faced by the violent arrogance of the suitors, he challenges them to a farming contest. Where Hesiod longs to separate out conflict with straight justice (ἀλλ’ αὖθι διακρινώμεθα νεῖκος / ἰθείῃσι δίκῃς) and cannot because of the corrupt kings, so Odysseus cannot simply return to a world where he can just work harder (in spite of the fantasy of his metaphorical challenge to the suitors); he must violently regain what is his. Here we might think that this is where the comparison ends, as Odysseus’ removal of his beggar’s disguise ushers in an Iliadic scene of frenzied slaughter. Yet Odysseus’ assumption of a heroic mantle represents a last raging against the dying light of the heroic age. From now on, as Zeus and Athena make clear, conflicts cannot be resolved in such individualistic shows of strength; some kind of community judgment, as shown on Achilles’ shield, and as promoted here by Hesiod, is needed.
This starts with the audience themselves. Strife is left to be adjudicated—and to be contested over and over again—by the audiences who receive it and by the next singers who will add to these tales. Homer’s audience departs mulling over the end of the Odyssey and weighing the guilt assigned to each party; Hesiod’s audience is presented with the case of the striving brothers followed by traditional advice on good living, and, most importantly the story of the end of the race of heroes. Their task is to figure out how to achieve a better life, the good life, in their worlds.


Polyidos marries Eurydameia the daughter of Phyleus, the son of Augeas. His sons were Eukhênôr and Kleitos who sacked Thebes with the Epigonoi. Then they went to Troy with Agamemnon where Eukhênôr died at Alexander’s hand.
Pherecydes, fr. 115 [103]

The T Scholia credit to Pherecydes the mythographer a genealogy that combines Thebes and Troy. Two otherwise unknown brothers, Eukhênôr and Kleitos, sack Thebes with the Epigonoi and then go on to fight at Troy. There, the “Boasting-Man” (Εὐχήνωρ) is killed by Paris, but his brother, “Mr. Famous” (Κλεῖτος), survives. The pairing and the generational overlay helps to explain why even an early mythographer like Pherecydes found the intersection of the two traditions useful and insightful. The destruction at Thebes was not enough; more perishing was necessary to erase the race of heroes. Troy is not offered to replace Thebes but rather as a supplement to finish the work that was begun.

In this chapter we have explored critical Homeric and Hesiodic themes that are securely identified within the corpus of extant Theban fragments. A key feature of this thematic overlap is poetic rivalry as the poems draw on ideas and issues from their common traditions and from each other to deploy and explore in their own ways. Just as Hesiod’s good strife (cf. Chapter 4) enables neighbors to compete with each other and create greater wealth than they might have in isolation, the competitive aesthetic of Greek poetry facilitated repeated and repeatedly more complex explorations of similar themes in contexts and interrelations where the performance of a new version was at least partly derivative from, and built on, prior and competing visions. Such results, we suggest, are characteristic of an artistic marketplace where poet strives against poet, working to maintain audience interest as they sing “the latest song.” Yet, among competing visions there resides too a certain cooperative outcome. By drawing on and reworking similar themes and characters in reaction to audience interest, political contexts, and social trends, they help develop a cultural gestalt. [104]
Throughout this chapter we have been exploring the heroic epic deployment of the theme of eris and its attendant features of division (dasmos) and judgment (krisis). These aspects rely on the intrinsic interformularity and intertraditionality of Greek epic and they are present through Homer, Hesiod, and the fragments of the Theban tradition. The contrasting presentations of Strife in Theogony and Works and Days offer different ways of thinking about rivalry not only in the Hesiodic but also Homeric tradition. In addition to the zero-sum game that exists in both, there is another supplementary competitive spirit that can be useful for communities, a domesticated Eris disambiguated from violence and destruction. Though we have lost the Theban epics, their fragments and parallels in poems on similar subjects imply that they too were part of this process. Speculation about how and why they were eventually fall out of the epic tradition handed down to us is the subject of our last chapter.


[ back ] 1. The title of this chapter acknowledges the debt to Christos Tsagalis’s 2008 The Oral Palimpsest. Explaining the oxymoron (using a term from the manuscript tradition to describe oral poetics), he writes (xi): “During a long process of shaping, the Homeric tradition has absorbed, altered, disguised, and reappropriated mythical, dictional, and thematic material of various sorts and from different sources. In that sense it is like an oral palimpsest, ‘to be erased’ and re-‘written’ in accordance with traditional structure and within the limits of the multiform idiom.”
[ back ] 2. It is glossed in the Mantissa Proverbiorum as προξενεῖ καὶ προμηθεύεται (“manages and takes care over”).
[ back ] 3. The paroemiographer Arsenius adds: “this is applied to those striving over philosophy” (ἤτοι ἐπὶ φιλοσοφίᾳ ἐριζόντων, Apophthegmata 7.94a).
[ back ] 4. This is not to argue that the Theban epics did not deploy political themes: if the Athenian tragedies are anything to go by, stories about Thebes were intensely interested in questions of power, social relations, etc. But, if there is a difference between these stories and those relating to Troy, it seems to be that the interest of the Theban stories appears to lie in exploring issues of distribution and judgment through a framework not so much of coalition as of the family. Other mythical stories whose details are now lost to us, such as the Calydonian boar hunt or the voyage of the Argo, equally provide ample opportunity for considering how heroes band together. Our evidence, meager though it is, implies that a Seven Against Thebes tradition and the Epigonoi did not develop this element in depth, though that again may be largely due to the warping effect of the Homeric poems.
[ back ] 5. On the generic force of the term “heroes”: Haubold 2000:3–11. On the Dios boulê in the wider epic tradition, see Chapter 3, n39, above.
[ back ] 6. On the meaning and stakes of this boundless ransom: Wilson 2002a:40–53.
[ back ] 7. “But it wasn’t pleasing to Atreus’ son, Agamemnon in his spirit” (ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ Ἀτρεΐδῃ Ἀγαμέμνονι ἥνδανε θυμῷ, Iliad 1.24).
[ back ] 8. αὐτὰρ ὁ κηρύκεσσι λιγυφθόγγοισι κέλευσε / κηρύσσειν ἀγορήνδε κάρη κομόωντας Ἀχαιούς· / οἳ μὲν ἐκήρυσσον, τοὶ δ᾽ ἠγείροντο μάλ᾽ ὦκα, Iliad 2.50–52.
[ back ] 9. Haubold 2000: 54, 55.
[ back ] 10. As Haubold (2000:56) goes on to argue: “In what follows, Agamemnon turns a structured world of groups and leaders, in which all the responsibility for success or defeat rests on him, the ‘shepherd of the people’, into a homogeneous social world of equally interested single agents…qua ‘heroes’.”
[ back ] 11. This argument was first proposed in Barker 2004 (cf. 2009); the focus here is rather different.
[ back ] 12. We thank Mary Yossi for this observation.
[ back ] 13. Haubold 2000:79. As Haubold notes, the only other character to do so is Athena, who, in Nestor’s story, is said to have “turned the host back again” (ὅθεν αὖτις ἀπέτραπε λαὸν Ἀθήνη, 11.758).
[ back ] 14. Initially addressing Agamemnon (59), Achilles immediately refers to the welfare of the Achaeans as a whole (61), and proceeds to use the first person plural subjunctive (“let us ask,” 62) to invite “whoever” (64) to speak up—as heralds will later formally do in convoking the Athenian assembly: see Sommerstein 1980:160 on Aristophanes Acharnians 45.
[ back ] 15. See Barker 2009:40–52. Scenes of the Trojan assembly lack any kind of foundational moment like this, with the result of the crippling, and catastrophic, consensus that greets Hektor’s final speech in the assembly, when he commits them to staying outside the walls. The narrator feels compelled at this point to step in and say “fools” (νήπιοι, 8.311): Barker 2009:67–74.
[ back ] 16. Haubold (2000:75). For him, “the laoi leave behind their suffering to become what we might call the ‘founding people’ of successful institutional structures” only outside Homer (144). The later emphasis of Graziosi and Haubold 2005 on the Homeric epics as foundational narratives accords better with our emphasis on the foundational character of Achilles’ act of gathering the people.
[ back ] 17. Hera puts it into his mind to call an assembly (Iliad 1.55); Athena prevents him from striking down the king, and redirects his violence into words (Iliad 1.207–214); it is Zeus to whom Achilles turns (through his mother) to make sure that his honor will be recognized (Iliad 1.352–356, 393–412).
[ back ] 18. Achilles asserts his individual effort and poor return: though he does the lion’s share of the work, “whenever the distribution happens, for you [meaning Agamemnon] the prize is by far greater, and I have little but dear” (ἀτὰρ ἤν ποτε δασμὸς ἵκηται / σοὶ τὸ γέρας πολὺ μεῖζον, ἐγὼ δ’ ὀλίγον τε φίλον τε, 1.166–167). In response to Agamemnon’s willful assertion of authority, this complaint does not detract from the political implications of his argument.
[ back ] 19. On the significance of the scepter for assembly speech, see Detienne 1996:95. Cf. Easterling 1989.
[ back ] 20. On the Hesiodic Nestor, see Martin 1989:81; Dickson 1995; Mackie 1996:132.
[ back ] 21. See Taplin 1992:6–7; cf. Hammer 1997; Wilson 2002a; Roisman 2005; Barker 2009; Christensen 2009; Elmer 2013.
[ back ] 22. Chapter 4, “Honor, Division, and Strife.” Whether this fragment derives from the Thebais or whether the Iliad was aware of this passage, the importance of the oath to the Theban tradition is well testified: Oedipus swears an oath that curses his sons and leads to strife between them.
[ back ] 23. In the catalogue of gifts that he promises Achilles, Agamemnon expressly says that he takes him as a son and honors him like Orestes: Iliad 9.142.
[ back ] 24. On the argument here and below, see Barker 2009:61–66; Christensen 2009. Cf. Barker and Christensen 2011:61–88.
[ back ] 25. The narrator caps the assembly with the description, “so the two of them, having fought with violent words, stood up” (ὣς τώ γ᾽ ἀντιβίοισι μαχεσσαμένω ἐπέεσσιν / ἀνστήτην, 1.304–305). See Barker 2009:49–51.
[ back ] 26. On the phrase “it is the custom,” see Kirk 1985:122–123; Griffin 1986:38. When the narrator next mentions strife in the assembly, it is in the context of introducing a skilled young speaker, Thoas, whom “few of the Achaeans could vanquish in the assembly, whenever the young men strived with words” (ἀγορῇ δέ ἑ παῦροι Ἀχαιῶν / νίκων, ὁππότε κοῦροι ἐρίσσειαν περὶ μύθων, 15.283–284)—the “whenever” marking “striving with words” a normal event in the maturation of a young man. See Barker 2009:65–66; Christensen 2018b.
[ back ] 27. See Singor 1992; Tsagalis 2008:25; cf. Pache 2014; Barker and Christensen 2014:270–273. On the destruction of the Achaean Wall: Scodel 1982.
[ back ] 28. But not the two emissaries that one would expect according to traditional referentiality (cf. Ebbott 2014: see Chapter 1, ”On Not Being Alone”). In fact, the Iliad’s use of duals in this episode seems deliberately to play on and confront such audience expectations. On the aspect of the troubling duals, see e.g. Griffin 1995:51–53.
[ back ] 29. Perhaps heralded by what Achilles is doing when the embassy arrives: he’s singing about the κλέα ἀνδρῶν (9.189)—the glories of (other) men.
[ back ] 30. Expressed most forcefully by Parry 1973. Cf. Friedrich and Redfield 1978; Scully 1984; and Martin 1989.
[ back ] 31. Wilson 2002: 71–108.
[ back ] 32. Mackie 1996:143. This includes casting “Agamemnon in the role of a hybristic king of the type Hesiod’s audience is warned against” (144) and assuming the role himself of an “‘exterior insider,’ a metanastês” (145), with reference to how Agamemnon has treated Achilles as “an alien without honor” (ἀτίμητον μετανάστην, 9.648; cf. 16.58–59). Kelly 2008:193, 197–198 discusses the relationship between Odysseus’ self-presentation as a metanast (in his Cretan tales) and Hesiod, whose father was a metanast (Works and Days 633–640). Cf. Martin 1992.
[ back ] 33. Mackie 1996:142–143. On Agamemnon’s flouting of the system: Wilson 2002a: 54–55.
[ back ] 34. Achilles calls Agamemnon “a people-eating  king who rules over nobodies” (δημοβόρος βασιλεὺς ἐπεὶ οὐτιδανοῖσιν ἀνάσσεις, Iliad 1.231). Cf. Hesiod Works and Days 221 and 264 for “bribe-eating kings” (δωροφάγοι). See also Scholia bT to Iliad 1.231 ex. for the explanation that, “This disturbs the masses. For the most serious accusation is making the common goods your own” (δημοβόρος: κινητικὰ ταῦτα τοῦ πλήθους· μεγίστη γὰρ κατηγορία τὸ σφετερίζεσθαι τὰ κοινά).
[ back ] 35. If anything, the dead Achilles is even more dismissive of (Iliadic) glory and even more desperate to have lived a Hesiodic life, even as a slave to another (Odyssey 11.488–503). But, then, this is the Odyssey. See Edwards 1985.
[ back ] 36. Another candidate is the nostos tradition best represented (for us) by the Odyssey. In Achilles’ first words in the Iliad, he suggests that the Achaeans will be leaving for home (if a solution to the plague is not quickly found); it is his threat to go home that provokes Agamemnon’s dismissive threat to take his prize. Achilles returns to the idea of leaving here, in response to Odysseus’ delivery of Agamemnon’s offer of recompense. It is also noteworthy that Odysseus takes a leading role in the epic in the direct fallout from each of Achilles’ decisions to withdraw from battle: See Haft 1990; cf. Barker 2009:55–61.
[ back ] 37. Patroklos is persuaded to fight in his friend’s place by Nestor, reworking a story from his epic past that featured Herakles: see Chapter 2, “Out of Time.”
[ back ] 38. For extensive discussion (and further bibliography) on Achilles’ shield: see Edwards 1991:200–204; Becker 1995:5; Hammer 2002:107–109. For the juridical scene in particular, see Westbrook 1992. Cf. Muellner 1976:105–106 and Nagy 2003:72–87.
[ back ] 39. Detienne 1996:91–102. Cf. Barker 2009:17–18, 86–87.
[ back ] 40. For these comparisons, see Christensen 2018a. There are historical parallels for emphasizing the performance of the judges, just as Hesiod’s Works and Days provides a poetic outcome for when their judgments are wrong. A fifth-century BCE inscription from West Lokris (IG IX, 12 3:718.41-45 = Nomima 1, 43 = Koerner, Inschriftliche Gesetzestexte, no. 49) preserves a law to disenfranchise an archon who did not pursue a case; an earlier inscription from Chios (Meiggs and Lewis, no. 8 = Nomima 1, 62 = Koerner, Inschriftliche Gesetzestexte, no. 61) sets fines for the poor execution of judicial duties. See Papakonstantinou 2004:14.
[ back ] 41. Lynn-George 1988:197.
[ back ] 42. In his reworking of the shield scene, Virgil makes explicit his hero’s legacy by representing the future historical battle for Rome, Actium (Aeneid VIII 617–731). When Aeneas re-enters the fray, he carries on his back Augustus’ new world order.
[ back ] 43. Pache 2014:288: “The city at war depicted on the shield of Achilles is in many ways generic, and as such could stand in for various cities, but the epithet ἐπήρατος is unusual and echoes the Odyssean passage about πολυήρατος Thebes.” See Chapter 3, n109.
[ back ] 44. See Ellsworth 1974; Barker 2009:78–81.
[ back ] 45. “Even they at that time came to the agora, since Achilles had appeared, / and for a long time he had ceased from grievous battle” (καὶ μὴν οἳ τότε γ’ εἰς ἀγορὴν ἴσαν, οὕνεκ’ Ἀχιλλεὺς / ἐξεφάνη, δηρὸν δὲ μάχης ἐπέπαυτ᾽ ἀλεγεινῆς, 19.45–46).
[ back ] 46. On the most convincing argument for an Iliad in three divisions, see Heiden 2008.
[ back ] 47. On eris in the games, see Hogan 1981:42–43 For a comparison between Achilles’ management of this strife and Hesiod’s “good” Eris, see Gagarin 1991:66–69; Thalmann 2004:372; and Christensen 2018a.
[ back ] 48. As before, once the agon is dissolved, the various groups go their separate ways: the people go back to their ships to eat, Achilles goes back to abusing Hektor’s body (24.1–2).
[ back ] 49. For the first event (the chariot race), he puts forth prizes into the contest-space (τάδ᾽ ἄεθλα δεδεγμένα κεῖτ᾽ ἐν ἀγῶνι, 273) to be competed over; it is into “the middle of the contest-space” (μέσῳ ἐν ἀγῶνι, 23.507) that Diomedes enters to claim his first prize. For the second event (boxing), he “sets forth prizes… into the contest-space” (θῆκεν ἄεθλα…ἐν ἀγῶνι, 23.653–654), and so on: at 685 competitors step forward to fight; at 696 the defeated man is led out; at 710, two more competitors step forward; at 799 Achilles sets up the next prize; at 847 a discus is thrown out of the agon; at 886 Achilles sets up the next prize. On the language of the agon, see Barker 2009:86–87; cf. Detienne 1996:95. On the agon as marking the “contest” for the Achaean ships: Ellsworth 1974.
[ back ] 50. Idomeneus challenges the rest of the Achaeans to disagree with who he thinks is leading; dismissing his claim the lesser Ajax, Agamemnon-like, criticizes his big mouth (23.474–479; cf. 1.291); in turn, like Achilles, Idomeneus “gets angry” (23.482; cf. 1.244) and lays down a wager using Achilles’ phrase “so that you may know” (23.487; cf. 1.299). The echoes between Book 1 and Book 23 were sensed in antiquity: Richardson 1993:228–299.
[ back ] 51. On the agon’s emphasis here on the problems of conduct for contestants and spectators alike: Scott 1997:221. Hammer 1997 argues that Achilles resolves the crisis by getting the two parties to imagine themselves as onlookers to a quarrel (cf. 23.494). Farenga 2006:150 talks of the “intersubjective perspective” that Achilles introduces to this scene of judgment.
[ back ] 52. Just as Achilles threatens to fight any man who would take from him anything more than Briseis, so Antilochus threatens the same, only he won’t even give her (the feminine pronoun this time signifying a horse) up (23.553; cf. 1.161).
[ back ] 53. He warns Achilles that he may get angry should his complaint not be heard: cf. Diomedes’ careful framing of his contest of words with Agamemnon that we explored above.
[ back ] 54. Of course, such a proposal reflects a kind of political fantasy. The strife between Achilles and Agamemnon occurs because all of the prizes have already been distributed—how one manages scarce resources is a fundamental fixture of political debate. Here Achilles is able to sidestep the problem by introducing new resources to address the scarcity. Even so, Antilochus is able to make this proposal in this way precisely because the situation among the Achaeans has changed. As a direct consequence of Achilles’ challenge to the king in Book 1, it is now possible to dissent from the figure in power. (Agamemnon could have given up part of his booty, as Achilles does here, to maintain the public good—but he doesn’t.)
[ back ] 55. For Achilles recognizing his own words in Antilochus’, see Martin 1989:188–189. It is also noteworthy that the Trojan War tradition depicts Antilochus and Achilles as great friends. In the Aithiopis it is apparently the death of Antilochus at the hands of Memnon that drives Achilles into a(nother) destructive rage.
[ back ] 56. Agamemnon believes Achilles is trying to trick him out of a prize (1.131–132). The potential for this scene to re-examine the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles was not lost on ancient commentators: see Richardson 1993:230. Finley 1954:80–81 believes that the dispute between Antilochus and Menelaos is merely a private issue. Cf. Hammer 1997:19.
[ back ] 57. See Chapter 4, “Managing Strife in Hesiod’s Cosmos.”
[ back ] 58. Antilochus’ reaction reflects this difference. He chooses to diffuse the situation by addressing Menelaos with due respect and admitting to his own inexperience. Indeed, by this strategy, Antilochus actually succeeds in retaining his prize, while also allowing Menelaos to keep his honor. That is to say, both Antilochus and Menelaos, like Achilles, seem to have learned from the earlier events of the epic.
[ back ] 59. Hammer 1997, 2002:140; cf. Barker 2009:86–88; Elmer 2013:187–197.
[ back ] 60. Farenga 2006:145 connects the two scenes for their ideal solutions to intractable conflicts, though his emphasis lies on how they “dramatize ways a basileus may perform a dikê consistent with themis.” This fits his overall focus on individuals who perform “scripts” (8) of justice on the way to establishing of an idea of citizenship: he does not regard the institutions that Achilles sets up as the place where the people may find security.
[ back ] 61. See Macleod 1982 for an in-depth discussion of this ring composition.
[ back ] 62. Significantly the Iliad uses the language of the prize, geras, to describe burial rites. The first occasion is when Hera resists Zeus’ attempt to save his son, Sarpedon, from his fated death: she insists instead on rescuing his body so that his family and kinsmen can bury him, “for this is the right of those who have died” (τὸ γὰρ γέρας ἐστὶ θανόντων, 16.457). The paradoxical idea of “saving” a body for burial is most explicitly articulated by Apollo here, when he calls upon the other gods to “save him [Hektor], though a corpse” (24.35). Zeus supports this claim, precisely because Hektor had made due sacrifice, “for that we gods have received as our right” (24.70).
[ back ] 63. On the Cypria, see above and Chapter 4, “Strife and the Age of Heroes.”
[ back ] 64. Odysseus reminds Achilles of his father’s (pre-war) advice: 9.252–259; Phoenix’s autobiography subtly corrects this (mistaken) move in a way that establishes him as the true surrogate father: 9.434–447, 485–495. See Wilson 2002a:97–98. Throughout the argument of her book, Wilson perceptively demonstrates how Agamemnon consistently tries to subordinate Achilles through relations of dominance that a father would enjoy over a son.
[ back ] 65. For the burial of the Seven, see the Conclusion.
[ back ] 66. Steinbock 2013:172 notes that Theseus’ help to the fallen Argives may have been an answer to the tradition.
[ back ] 67. “In spite of the assurance there is a sense of apprehension, insecurity and urgency on the borders of the text”: Lynn-George 1987:254.
[ back ] 68. For overviews of political ideology in the Odyssey, see Rose 1975, 2012; Thalmann 1998; cf. Barker 2009:85–93 for the movement from the Iliad through the Odyssey. Halverson 1986 and Silvermintz 2004 discuss issues of succession in the monarchy, while Chaston 2002 examines different models of authority within the poem. See also Whitman 1958:308 for Ithaca as being in a permanent state of flux; and generally Finley 1954 on the difficulty of talking about politics in the Odyssey. For the comparatively limited importance of the laos in the Odyssey, see Haubold 2000:101–103.
[ back ] 69. For this passage as encapsulating the “functions of patronymics and genealogies in Homer,” see Higbie 1995:147; cf. 176 for the epic’s end with the three standing together to fight as a fulfillment of the three-generational image.
[ back ] 70. For the oikos dominating the idea of the polis in the Odyssey, see Scully 1990:87 and Haubold 2000:102–103. For civil strife as emerging from the transgressions of the boundaries between the oikos and the polis, see Agamben 2015:10–16.
[ back ] 71. On combat trauma in Homer and the use of stories to make sense of pain: see Shay 2003; Race 2014. Cf. Christensen 2018c.
[ back ] 72. See the description by the suitors of their wooing in 2.85–128.
[ back ] 73. See our discussions of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women in Chapter 6 below. Cf. Haubold 2000:140–141.
[ back ] 74. Hogan 1981:45: “The concept of eris in the Odyssey does not differ from that in the Iliad. What is changed is neither the passions nor attitudes accompanying it, but the kinds of context in which it appears.”
[ back ] 75. Importantly he speaks over the heads of the suitors directly to the people: “you too must feel indignation yourselves and shame before others” (νεμεσσήθητε καὶ αὐτοί, / ἄλλους τ’ αἰδέσθητε, 2.64–65); and they should fear the wrath of the gods (θεῶν δ’ ὑποδείσατε μῆνιν, 2.66). Here, Telemachus speaks to an audience—a group to whom the Iliadic heroes pay lip-service but never directly address—and seeks to use the weapons of public cohesion—shame and fear of the anger of the gods—to bring about a change for the better in society, in the proper arena for effecting such change, the public assembly. On the Ithacan assembly, see Barker 2009:92–119. Cf. Haubold 2000:110–115.
[ back ] 76. See too Homer’s fully formulaic description of the setting up of the assembly (2.6–14).
[ back ] 77. “The suitors’ repeated rejections of Telemachus’ attempts at mediation serve to underline their obdurate self-regard. In marked contrast to the cohesive support for Odysseus, they consistently represent themselves as individuals contesting for the right to marry Penelope: a different suitor speaks each time; individually they try only to silence the previous speaker, and fail to appeal to the people” (Barker 2009:105). In the words of Haubold 2000:111, “the suitors resist social formation.”
[ back ] 78. Telemachus throws the scepter down in an Achillean show of temper (2.80–81; cf. Iliad 1.245–246): Barker 2009:101–102.
[ back ] 79. In fact Telemachus doesn’t just seek a fair distribution but vengeance or payback (tisis, 2.76)—a watchword of the Odyssey that brings to mind that older, more destructive, zero-sum strife. Telemachus will achieve this by becoming more like his father—going on his own odyssey (cf. 2.209–213) and learning to use deception.
[ back ] 80. Cf. Austin 1975:153–162.
[ back ] 81. For King 1999:81–83 the Cretan figure is an evocation of “the greatest of the Greek heroes” but also a caricature. For similarities between the Cretan persona and Odysseus, see Walcot 1977:14. For Newton 2015:270 “the beggar confirms for Eumaios that marauders who succumb to excess do indeed bring on their own ruin.”
[ back ] 82. For an overview of Odysseus’ Cretan “lies” see Haft 1984; Emlyn-Jones 1986. For their common elements and connection to the epic’s themes, see Reece 1994; cf. Walcot 1977:9–12; Higbie 1995:170–171; King 1999; and Newton 2015.
[ back ] 83. For Newton 2015:271 Odysseus’ narrative resolves the “adversarial relationship between raiding and hospitality” by focusing on the excess of the men. King 1999:80 argues that “Odysseus’ tale invents and vividly depicts a hero who aspires to the ideal of the other great Homeric epic (or epic tradition) and therefore serves as a countertype to the hero of the Odyssey.”
[ back ] 84. On andra—the first word of the poem—see Goldhill 1991:1–5; cf. Slatkin 1986:262–263. On Odysseus the “middle” man: Peradotto 1990.
[ back ] 85. Odyssey 3.214–215; 16.95–96.
[ back ] 86. When Nestor asks Telemachus about the political situation at home, he follows up the same question asked by Odysseus in Book 16 with an express hope that Odysseus may someday return (3.216–217).
[ back ] 87. Pucci 1987:128–38. Rutherford 1993:44 describes Odyssey 22 as “‘Iliadic’ warfare transferred to the domestic setting.” On the importance of Odysseus suffering insult at home, see Emlyn-Jones 1984:6–7.
[ back ] 88. Chapter 3, “A Great Deed.”
[ back ] 89. The end of the Odyssey has been viewed as notoriously problematic: see Moulton 1974: 154–157; Wender 1978; Marks 2008, Chapter 3; Kelly 2007: 382–387. For arguments strongly in favor of Book 24’s authenticity, see Lord 1960: 177–185; Kullman 1992: 291–304; Henderson 1997.
[ back ] 90. See Odysseus’ description of the conflict between the Trojans and Achaeans at 18.264: ἔκριναν μέγα νεῖκος ὁμοιΐου πτολέμοιο. Cf. Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos s.v. ὁμοίιος for the meaning “gemeinschaftlich”—the formula seems to imply necessarily a difficulty of judgment.
[ back ] 91. Torres 2014:343: “It is striking that Teiresias does not actually explain to Odysseus what Circe had promised (see, ‘your journey, and the distances to be covered, and the return’), and that it is Circe herself who will later (Odyssey 12.37–141) outline the particularities of the return voyage. Circe had made clear that Odysseus needed to consult Teiresias, but the question is: why necessarily Teiresias?”
[ back ] 92. Odysseus later retells the prophecy to Penelope back on Ithaca (23.267–277).
[ back ] 93. Teiresias the Theban: Odyssey 10.492, 565; 11.90, 165; 12.267; 23.323.
[ back ] 94. Torres 2014:355: “It should be noted that, when Teiresias appears in the Odyssey, the role he may have played as the counselor to Laius or his son is irrelevant. In the Homeric poem, he is characterized as the ‘Theban’ Teiresias, which connects him to the city, not with the Labdacids; he is even ‘lord Teiresias’ (Τειρεσίαο ἄνακτος).”
[ back ] 95. According to Purves 2010:79, “to speak of the domain (or metra) of Homeric poetics is also, in the same breath, to talk of the metra of the sea.”
[ back ] 96. Purves 2010:71.
[ back ] 97. For the connection between the Odyssey (23.249: ametrêtos ponos) and Works and Days (648–649, metra ‘measures’ of the sea): Purves 2010:76. On Hesiod: Nagy 1982:62–65 for the Hesiodic association and rejection of sailing wisdom and Homeric poetics; Rosen 1990 for Aulis as suggesting a connection between sailing and song-making; Dougherty 2001:13, 21–25 for the similarities between shipbuilding and poetic composition. As Barbara Graziosi 2002:169 has shown, this summary of the Iliad is rather pointed: “unlike Hesiod, the Achaeans did not know when the right time for sailing was.”
[ back ] 98. Purves 2010:80.
[ back ] 99. Purves 2010:85.
[ back ] 100. As the narrator of the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, cited above, puts it at any rate. For Hesiodic rivalry with Homer, and in particular the significance of the narrator’s hostility to sailing and criticism of Aulis, see Graziosi 2002:169–171.
[ back ] 101. Notice how much of Sophocles’ reworking of the Theban field highlights the king’s judgment—whether that king is Oedipus or Kreon—as the issue at stake.
[ back ] 102. Such strategies of conflict domestication occur throughout the Iliad, especially in the speeches of heroes. See Christensen 2009 and 2018b.
[ back ] 103. Πολύιδος…γαμεῖ Εὐρυδάμειαν τὴν Φυλέως τοῦ Αὐγέα· τῷ δὲ γίνονται Εὐχήνωρ καὶ Κλεῖτος, οἳ Θήβας εἷλον σὺν τοῖς ἐπιγόνοις· ἔπειτα εἰς Τροίαν ἔρχονται σὺν ᾿Αγαμέμνονι, καὶ θνήσκει Εὐχήνωρ ὑπ’ ᾿Αλεξάνδρου. See Fowler 2000:337 for this fragment and its attestations; for the scholion, Erbse 3.526.28; Schol. T Iliad 13.663.
[ back ] 104. Consider the character of the criminal anti-hero on American television from the past 20 years, through which, from Tony Soprano to Walter White, competing networks and writers have explored similar themes for similar audiences. The success of these characters and their stories in appealing to modern audiences is dependent not just on the nature of post-industrial capitalism, Western-style democracy, and eroding religious faith, combined with ultimately impotent frustration at the pace and state of the world; they are also interdependent: one counter-cultural narrative depends upon the inroads made by others.