Refusing an Odyssean Destiny: The End of the Iliad and the κλέος of Achilles

Giuseppe Lentini
Who is the best of the Achaeans? As Greg has shown in his much-admired book, this question dominates as well as unites the Homeric poetic tradition. While it is an “overall Iliadic theme that Achilles is the best of the Achaeans”, “in contrast to the Iliad, it is an overall theme of the Odyssey that indeed Odysseus is áristos Akhaiôn ‘best of the Achaeans’” [1] . The two poems can then be seen as the culmination, reached “through generations of both shifting and abiding preferences in performer-audience interaction”, of the κλέος of Achilles and Odysseus respectively [2] .
In both poems κλέος is seen in its relation to “death” (θάνατος) and “homecoming” (νόστος). The combination of these elements is very clearly illustrated in Il. 9.412-416, where Achilles reveals the prophecy by his mother Thetis about his “two fates” leading him to death:

εἰ μέν κ’ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι,
ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται·
εἰ δέ κεν οἴκαδ’ ἵκωμι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
ὤλετό μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, ἐπὶ δηρὸν δέ μοι αἰὼν
ἔσσεται, οὐδέ κέ μ’ ὦκα τέλος θανάτοιο κιχείη
If I remain here and fight around the city of the Trojans,
my return home (νόστος) is lost, but I shall have imperishable fame (κλέος);
but if I return to my dear native land
my glorious fame (κλέος) is lost, but my life will be long
and the doom of death (θανάτοιο) will not come soon upon me

The true fate of Achilles is that of winning κλέος, but he will have to die in Troy, thus renouncing his return to Phthia. In the Second Nekyia, Agamemnon, after narrating at some length Achilles’ death and the erection of his tomb (Od. 24.36-92), makes clear that Achilles has succeeded in obtaining κλέος by dying in Troy (ll.93-94):

ὣς σὺ μὲν οὐδὲ θανὼν ὄνομ’ ὤλεσας, ἀλλά τοι αἰεὶ
πάντας ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους κλέος ἔσσεται ἐσθλόν, Ἀχιλλεῦ·
Thus not even in death (θανών) you lost your renown, but you ever
will have glorious fame (κλέος) among all the men, Achilles;

This remark is in opposition to the sad comment Agamemnon makes next about his own destiny (ll. 95-97):

αὐτὰρ ἐμοὶ τί τόδ’ ἦδος, ἐπεὶ πόλεμον τολύπευσα;
ἐν νόστῳ γάρ μοι Ζεὺς μήσατο λυγρὸν ὄλεθρον
Αἰγίσθου ὑπὸ χερσὶ καὶ οὐλομένης ἀλόχοιο.
But, as for me, what pleasure do I have, after I wound off war?
On my return (νόστῳ) Zeus devised for me a woeful doom,
at the hands of Aegisthus and my accursed wife.

Unlike Achilles, Agamemnon has obtained νόστος, but a miserable death has deprived him of any κλέος (cf. Achilles’ remark at ll. 30-34) [3] . This is an interesting principle, which is stated also by Odysseus while he fears he is about to lose miserably his life among the waves in Od. 5.306-312: it would have been better for him to die at Troy while fighting for Achilles’ body, as in this way he would have gained a funeral and glory from the Achaeans (l. 311):

τῶ κ’ ἔλαχον κτερέων, καί μευ κλέος ἦγον Ἀχαιοί·
Then I would have received funeral rites, and the Achaeans would have spread my fame (κλέος);

If that had happened, Odysseus would have had the same fate as Achilles, as we have seen [4] . The risk of the νόστος for the hero is that of disappearing, thus destroying the prestige one has already gained. According to the Odyssean tradition, however, in the end Odysseus will be able to obtain not only νόστος but also κλέος. His conquest of κλέος is stated somewhat ambiguously again in the Second Nekuia, in the makarismos of Odysseus uttered by Agamemnon as soon as he learns from Amphimedon that the suitors have been killed (ll. 192-202) [5] ; and also indirectly by Tiresias’ prophecy, in which the picture of the hero about to die surrounded by “blessed people” (Od. 11.134-137 = 23.281-284 ) hints at the κλέος of good king acquired by Odysseus [6] . For the Odyssey it is relatively straightforward to offer reflections on such matters, since this poem can look at the mythic tradition of the Trojan war from a particularly favorable vantage point: the war is finished and all the heroes, except Odysseus, are either dead or at home.

Odysseus, Achilles, and Agamemnon debate about their destinies also in the First Nekuia: Agamemnon laments his unfortunate death (Od. 11.405-434); Achilles, who has been called by Odysseus the “most blessed” (μακάρτατος), since he was honored like a god while he was alive and now lords over the dead, says he would rather be a θής but alive. Granted, at that time Odysseus is still very uncertain as to whether he will be able to obtain νόστος, but it is clear that for him Achilles and Agamemnon have the function of foils: the more or less implicit comparisons with those two dead heroes help to better define the heroic identity of Odysseus, for it is precisely in relation to Achilles and Agamemnon that he can be the ‘best of the Achaeans’ in the Odyssey.
The fact that the Iliad deals with events happening well before those of the Odyssey does not prevent it from playing on the same motifs connected with heroic destinies. We have already seen that in Il. 9.412-416 Achilles hints at a possible fate in which he may attain νόστος together with a long life. It is probably extremely significant that those words are part of a speech addressed to Odysseus: the whole speech to Odysseus in the Embassy scene, as again Greg has shown, is a challenge to Odysseus’ heroic personality founded on μῆτις [7] .
In what follows I will attempt an analysis of the very last section of the Iliad in the same perspective. To do so, I will start from the speech pronounced by Priam as soon as he arrives at Achilles’ tent; in that speech the old king invites Achilles to remember his father and hints at the possibility of a different fate for Achilles (Il. 24.486-492):

μνῆσαι πατρὸς σοῖο θεοῖς ἐπιείκελ’ Ἀχιλλεῦ,
τηλίκου ὥς περ ἐγών, ὀλοῷ ἐπὶ γήραος οὐδῷ·
καὶ μέν που κεῖνον περιναιέται ἀμφὶς ἐόντες
τείρουσ’, οὐδέ τίς ἐστιν ἀρὴν καὶ λοιγὸν ἀμῦναι.
ἀλλ’ ἤτοι κεῖνός γε σέθεν ζώοντος ἀκούων
χαίρει τ’ ἐν θυμῷ, ἐπί τ’ ἔλπεται ἤματα πάντα
ὄψεσθαι φίλον υἱὸν ἀπὸ Τροίηθεν ἰόντα·
Remember your father, o Achilles similar to the gods,
who is the same age as I am, on the grievous threshold of old age;
and perhaps his neighbors who live around
harass him, and there is nobody who may ward from him destruction and ruin.
Still, as he hears about you being alive
he rejoices in his heart, and he hopes each day
that he will see his son coming back from Troy;

Achilles, Priam suggests, may obtain νόστος and come back to Phthia [8] : he would thus be able to defend his father. By way of the parable of the two πίθοι, Achilles explains to Priam that fate gave Peleus both good and bad things in his life: he was rich and blessed, he married a goddess, he was the lord of the Myrmidons; but at the same time he was the father of only one son, who is furthermore doomed to an untimely death (παναώριον, l. 540); Achilles cannot take care of him, since he is in Troy, troubling Priam and his children. Priam however asks Achilles to release Hector, and wishes him a safe return home (ll. 556-557: ἔλθοις | σὴν ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν), thus irritating Achilles (ll. 559-570). Achilles’ irritation is due, at least in part, to Priam’s mention of Achilles’ return home, as this appears a detail that is offensive to Achilles’ sense of the epic tradition he is destined to enter [9] . However, I would also draw attention to the fact that Priam speaks of a difficult situation for Peleus, harassed by those who live nearby (l. 488). Scholars have observed that, in order to move Achilles to pity, Priam is pressing the analogy between himself and Peleus, “two helpless old men” afflicted by war [10] . But Priam and Peleus are different in one important detail: it is only Peleus, and not Priam, who is harassed specifically by neighbors [11] . This detail, I would argue, is all the more remarkable since Peleus’ situation appears to be isolated within the Iliadic narrative, while it has an unmistakably Odyssean ‘flavor’ [12] . In order to highlight this aspect, I suggest we move to the Odyssey and look at a passage which is in some way connected to Priam’s words in the Iliad. In the First Nekuia, Achilles asks Odysseus about his father (Od. 11.494-503):

εἰπὲ δέ μοι Πηλῆος ἀμύμονος εἴ τι πέπυσσαι,
ἢ ἔτ’ ἔχει τιμὴν πολέσιν μετὰ Μυρμιδόνεσσιν,
ἦ μιν ἀτιμάζουσιν ἀν’ Ἑλλάδα τε Φθίην τε,
οὕνεκά μιν κατὰ γῆρας ἔχει χεῖράς τε πόδας τε.
οὐ γὰρ ἐγὼν ἐπαρωγὸς ὑπ’ αὐγὰς ἠελίοιο,
τοῖος ἐὼν οἷός ποτ’ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
πέφνον λαὸν ἄριστον, ἀμύνων Ἀργείοισιν.
εἰ τοιόσδ’ ἔλθοιμι μίνυνθά περ ἐς πατέρος δῶ,
τῶ κέ τεῳ στύξαιμι μένος καὶ χεῖρας ἀάπτους,
οἳ κεῖνον βιόωνται ἐέργουσίν τ’ ἀπὸ τιμῆς.
And tell me of noble Peleus, in case you know,
if he still has honor among the many Myrmidons
or if they dishonor him throughout Hellas and Phthia
because old age binds him hand and foot;
for I am not his protector under the bright light of the sun,
as I was when, once upon a time, in wide Troy
I killed the best people, defending the Argives.
If I could go to my father’s house even for a short time,
then I would make my fury and my invincible hands bitter
to those who harass him and deprive him of his honor.

For some scholars this passage is simply “based on” the Iliad passage in which Priam hints at the neighbors harassing Peleus [13] . However, I firmly resist the idea that the relationship between the Iliad passage and the Odyssey is simply unidirectional. Since we are dealing with poems which have received their definitive form over a long period of parallel evolution, we may find that a simple source-and-recipient model is usually inadequate to define the complex relationship between them. The traditions which are at the basis of the two poems have ‘listened to’ each other for a long time; allusions then can go both ways, from the Iliadic tradition to the Odyssean one, and also from the Odyssean to the Iliadic one [14] . In practice, as far as our two passages are concerned, I do not exclude that in the First Nekuia the Odyssean tradition is referring to the theme developed by Priam in the Iliad; but I hope to show also that Priam’s speech about Peleus in the Iliad alludes to some motifs typical of the Odyssean tradition, in order, as we will see, to construct a foil for Achilles’ destiny [15] .

We may start by observing that Peleus’ situation presented by Priam in the Iliad and by Achilles in the Odyssey has close analogies with the situation faced by Odysseus in Ithaca [16] : other people take advantage of the absence of both Achilles and Odysseus from home to overcome the members of the heroes’ families. In the case of Achilles it is his father Peleus that is dishonored; the family of Odysseus is larger, but it is especially his son Telemachus that undergoes abuse by the suitors [17] . Peleus seems to be too old to be able to defend himself, while Telemachus is too young for that: both these scenarios can be traced back to epic commonplaces [18] .
It is however the kind of people involved in the attack on the two heroes’ families which is worth emphasizing: they are the neighbors, the people who live around. In the Odyssey passage Achilles asks (ll. 495-496):

ἢ ἔτ’ ἔχει τιμὴν πολέσιν μετὰ Μυρμιδόνεσσιν,
ἦ μιν ἀτιμάζουσιν ἀν’ Ἑλλάδα τε Φθίην τε, …
if he still has honor among the many Myrmidons
or if they dishonor him throughout Hellas and Phthia, …

It is a clear implication of Achilles’ words that the people who may be dishonouring Peleus are Myrmidons: that is, his subjects. Those people moreover belong to the same ethnic group which accompanied Achilles to Troy. There is a remarkable coincidence with their entry in the Catalogue of Ships (Il. 2.683-684):

οἵ τ’ εἶχον Φθίην ἠδ’ Ἑλλάδα καλλιγύναικα,
Μυρμιδόνες δὲ καλεῦντο καὶ Ἕλληνες καὶ Ἀχαιοί, …
those who had Phthia and Hellas with beautiful women
and were called Myrmidons and Hellenes and Achaeans, …

In Homer the power of a king is conceived ideally as a center from which it extends over those who live nearby: the (potential) reign of Heracles in Il. 19.104 will extend “over all the neigbors” (πάντεσσι περικτιόνεσσιν); and Menelaus in Od. 4.177 lords over the cities “which lie near” (αἳ περιναιετάουσι) [19] . This principle is after all implied in general by the ethnic groups listed in the Catalogue of Ships. If we move to the story of Odysseus as narrated in the Odyssey, we see that a group of youths coming from Ithaca and the islands nearby occupy Odysseus’ house. In Od. 16.247-253 Telemachus himself gives a detailed catalogue of the suitors in Odysseus’ palace [20] :

ἐκ μὲν Δουλιχίοιο δύω καὶ πεντήκοντα
κοῦροι κεκριμένοι, ἓξ δὲ δρηστῆρες ἕπονται·
ἐκ δὲ Σάμης πίσυρες τε καὶ εἴκοσι φῶτες ἔασιν,
ἐκ δὲ Ζακύνθου ἔασιν ἐείκοσι κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν,
ἐκ δ’ αὐτῆς Ἰθάκης δυοκαίδεκα πάντες ἄριστοι,
καί σφιν ἅμ’ ἐστὶ Μέδων κῆρυξ καὶ θεῖος ἀοιδὸς
καὶ δοιὼ θεράποντε, δαήμονε δαιτροσυνάων.
From Doulichion fifty-two
chosen young men, and six servants follow;
from Same twenty-four men,
from Zakynthos twenty young men of the Achaeans
and from Ithaca itself, twelve, all the best ones,
and they have Medon as herald and a divine singer
and two servants, skilled in carving meat.

This catalogue echoes, but only to some extent, the description of Odysseus’ contingent in the Iliadic Catalogue of Ships (Il. 2.631-637):

αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς ἦγε Κεφαλλῆνας μεγαθύμους,
οἵ ῥ’ Ἰθάκην εἶχον καὶ Νήριτον εἰνοσίφυλλον
καὶ Κροκύλει’ ἐνέμοντο καὶ Αἰγίλιπα τρηχεῖαν,
οἵ τε Ζάκυνθον ἔχον ἠδ’ οἳ Σάμον ἀμφενέμοντο,
οἵ τ’ ἤπειρον ἔχον ἠδ’ ἀντιπέραι’ ἐνέμοντο·
τῶν μὲν Ὀδυσσεὺς ἦρχε Διὶ μῆτιν ἀτάλαντος·
τῷ δ’ ἅμα νῆες ἕποντο δυώδεκα μιλτοπάρῃοι.
And Odysseus led the high-hearted Cephallenians
those who held Ithaca and Neriton with trembling leaves
and inhabited Krokyleia and rugged Aigilips
and had Zakynthos and the lands lying over against it;
those were led by Odysseus, like Zeus in counsel;
and twelve ships with bows painted in red followed him.

The catalogue of Odysseus’ contingents in Il. 2 is notoriously fraught with difficulties, [21] but the echoes between the Catalogue of Ships and the catalogue of the suitors which we have just pointed out may even help us to better explain some of its problems: as E. Visser has persuasively observed, it is extremely likely that it was the already famous story of Odysseus and the suitors, who came traditionally from the islands near Ithaca, that determined an enlargement of Odysseus’ kingdom in the Catalogue of Ships; originally this was perhaps limited to Ithaca [22] .

The (at least partial) overlap that emerges from the comparison of the people of Odysseus at Troy and the people to whom the suitors belong is explicitly stated in Od. 24.426-429. Here, the father of one of the newly slain suitors will compare the killing of the suitors by Odysseus to the destruction of the hero’s companions at Troy:

ὦ φίλοι, ἦ μέγα ἔργον ἀνὴρ ὅδε μήσατ’ Ἀχαιούς·
τοὺς μὲν σὺν νήεσσιν ἄγων πολέας τε καὶ ἐσθλοὺς
ὤλεσε μὲν νῆας γλαφυράς, ἀπὸ δ’ ὤλεσε λαούς,
τοὺς δ’ ἐλθὼν ἔκτεινε Κεφαλλήνων ὄχ’ ἀρίστους.
My friends, this man devised a monstrous deed against the Achaeans;
He took some, many and noble, with his ships
and he lost the hollow ships and he lost his people;
then he came back and he killed by far the best among the Cephallenians.

As long as Odysseus’ house is occupied by the insolent suitors, however, the characters of the poem insist on the absence of the hero, who, if present, would no doubt defend his family: this theme resonates with the description of Peleus’ situation in Phthia. In Od. 1.245-266, after an identification of the suitors in catalogic style by Telemachus (Od. 1.245-248: ὅσσοι γὰρ νήσοισιν ἐπικρατέουσιν ἄριστοι, | Δουλιχίῳ τε Σάμῃ τε καὶ ὑλήεντι Ζακύνθῳ κτλ.) [23] , Athena/Mentes explains that Telemachus really has trouble due to the absence of his father (Od. 1.253-254: ὢ πόποι, ἦ δὴ πολλὸν ἀποιχομένου Ὀδυσῆος | δεύῃ, ὅ κε μνηστῆρσιν ἀναιδέσι χεῖρας ἐφείη) [24] ; for if Odysseus came back, he would punish the suitors (Od. 1.255-266):

εἰ γὰρ νῦν ἐλθὼν δόμου ἐν πρώτῃσι θύρῃσι
σταίη, ἔχων πήληκα καὶ ἀσπίδα καὶ δύο δοῦρε,
τοῖος ἐὼν οἷόν μιν ἐγὼ τὰ πρῶτ’ ἐνόησα
οἴκῳ ἐν ἡμετέρῳ πίνοντά τε τερπόμενόν τε,
ἐξ Ἐφύρης ἀνιόντα παρ’ Ἴλου Μερμερίδαο

τοῖος ἐὼν μνηστῆρσιν ὁμιλήσειεν Ὀδυσσεύς·
πάντες κ’ ὠκύμοροί τε γενοίατο πικρόγαμοί τε.
If he came now and he stood in the front door
of his house, with a helmet, a shield, and two spears,
as he was when I saw him
in our house drinking and enjoying himself
while he was coming back from Ephyra, from Ilos son of Mermerides

would that Odysseus might join the suitors’ company like that:
all of them would attain a bitter kind of marriage and would quickly die.

Here the diction is also remarkably close to Achilles’ speech in the Nekuia: compare the structure εἰ γὰρ… τοῖος ἐὼν οἷόν… at ll. 255, 257 and 265 with Od. 11.498-499 [25] .

An interesting variation of the theme can be found in Od. 2. Telemachus has gathered the people of Ithaca (λαὸν ἤγειρα, l. 41) to hold an assembly; he laments that his οἶκος is being destroyed by the suitors while the hero Odysseus is absent (Od. 2.58-59) [26] :

…οὐ γὰρ ἔπ’ ἀνήρ,
οἷος Ὀδυσσεὺς ἔσκεν, ἀρὴν ἀπὸ οἴκου ἀμῦναι.
…for there is not a man,
such as Odysseus was, to keep the ruin from our house.

Telemachus feels unable to defend himself and his house, and then seeks to obtain help from the people of Ithaca (ll. 64—66):

νεμεσσήθητε καὶ αὐτοί,
ἄλλους τ’ αἰδέσθητε περικτίονας ἀνθρώπους,
οἳ περιναιετάουσι·
be indignant you yourselves
and be ashamed before the neighbors,
those who live nearby;

The people of Ithaca should feel indignation at what happens, but they should also feel shame in front of their neighbors, who, Telemachus seems to imply, may ridicule them: most of the suitors come from the islands near Ithaca, so the neighbors may rejoice at the difficulties of the Ithacan ‘royal’ family and at the success of the suitors [27] . Telemachus’ appeal to the Ithacan people however is a failure: as we have already suggested, it is the refoundation of the oikos, not of the people (however limited to the Ithacans alone), which will make social order again possible.

We may now stop for a moment and make some more general remarks on the material so far gathered. It seems to be an overarching and distinctive theme of the Odyssey that the ‘people’ seek to undermine the power of their king. This peculiarity can be traced back to a fundamental aspect pointed out by M. Nagler. He observes that the Iliad and the Odyssey, while both dealing with conflict, investigate two opposed types and aspects of conflict; he writes: “Taken together, the Iliad and the Odyssey seem to present a balanced study of conflict and order, whatever theory of authorship that implies. The Iliad seems to explore how organized conflict produces disruption of the social order, while the Odyssey explores how the reconstruction of family and the social system based around the extended family brings that order back toward stability”. The roots of this opposition lie in the fact that “the poems seem to be based on two bases of social order, laos and oikos [28] . Indeed, the loyalty of the λαοί to their leaders is in practice never challenged in the Iliad. Even the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, which no doubt reflects an intracommunal conflict, is a quarrel between two leaders, and cannot be interpreted as a conflict between leader and followers. On the contrary, in the Iliad there is never mention of conflicts between the single leaders and their own λαοί: that is, the Myrmidons, or, for that matter, the Cephallenians, the Cretans etc. never break the loyalty bond they have with their own chief, be he Achilles, or Odysseus, or Idomeneus. As we have seen, things are different in the Odyssey, where the relationship between the leader and his people is often conflictual. This applies to the relationship between Odysseus (together with his family) and the suitors, but also to that between Odysseus and his companions [29] . It may even be argued that the Odyssey signposts the moment in which the relationship between leader and followers switches from an ‘Iliadic’ to an ‘Odyssean’ model: it is in the liminal adventure of the Ciconians [30] . Odysseus and his companions arrive at the Ciconians’ land and they sack their city. Odysseus orders his men to flee, but his companions do not take heed of him and prefer to remain there, feasting. The Ciconians then call their neighbors to their aid: once those men arrive, a battle ensues, and some of Odysseus’ companions are killed. This adventure on the one hand exemplifies some typically ‘Iliadic’ motifs (the expedition of men coming from afar who sack a city; the positive and loyal relationship between neighbors on the Ciconian side); on the other hand, Odysseus’ companions start to disobey him (with disastrous consequences), and ‘chronologically’ that is the first example of this Odyssean motif.
To go back to Priam’s words in Il. 24, we may suppose that, among other things, Priam’s allusion to Peleus’ difficult relationship with his subjects prompts a definition of Achilles’ heroic identity in opposition to an ‘Odyssean’ model. This assumption is confirmed, I believe, by the fact that in his reply Achilles portrays Peleus’ situation in opposition to an ideal which is, again, central in the Odyssey. Achilles explains (Il. 24.534-542):

ὣς μὲν καὶ Πηλῆϊ θεοὶ δόσαν ἀγλαὰ δῶρα
ἐκ γενετῆς· πάντας γὰρ ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους ἐκέκαστο
ὄλβῳ τε πλούτῳ τε, ἄνασσε δὲ Μυρμιδόνεσσι,
καί οἱ θνητῷ ἐόντι θεὰν ποίησαν ἄκοιτιν.
ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ καὶ τῷ θῆκε θεὸς κακόν, ὅττί οἱ οὔ τι
παίδων ἐν μεγάροισι γονὴ γένετο κρειόντων,
ἀλλ’ ἕνα παῖδα τέκεν παναώριον· οὐδέ νυ τόν γε
γηράσκοντα κομίζω, ἐπεὶ μάλα τηλόθι πάτρης
ἧμαι ἐνὶ Τροίῃ, σέ τε κήδων ἠδὲ σὰ τέκνα.
Precisely so, the gods gave shining gifts to Peleus,
from his birth; he excelled among all men
in prosperity and riches, and he was lord of the Myrmidons;
and to him, a mortal, they gave an immortal wife.
But to him the gods gave also this evil in addition, that he
had no generation of strong sons in his house,
but a single child he had, doomed to an untimely death, and I do not
take care of him as he grows old, for I sit here in Troy
far away from my land, vexing you and your children.

However fortunate Peleus may have been in the first part of his life (birth, marriage), his life is now unhappy, as he cannot grow old peacefully in his house with the support of his son. Achilles’ portrait of his father contrasts markedly with e.g. that of Nestor made by Menelaus in the Telemacheia (Od. 4.207-211):

… ἀνέρος, ᾧ τε Κρονίων
ὄλβον ἐπικλώσῃ γαμέοντί τε γεινομένῳ τε,
ὡς νῦν Νέστορι δῶκε διαμπερὲς ἤματα πάντα
αὐτὸν μὲν λιπαρῶς γηρασκέμεν ἐν μεγάροισιν,
υἱέας αὖ πινυτούς τε καὶ ἔγχεσιν εἶναι ἀρίστους.
…of a man, to whom the son of Cronus
allotted prosperity in marriage and birth;
as now he has given to Nestor continuously all his days
that he himself grow old in his house
and that his sons in turn are wise and excellent with spears.

Nestor not only had ὄλβος in his birth and marriage; he has also the opportunity of a sleek old age (λιπαρῶς γηρασκέμεν), accompanied by the presence of excellent children [31] . This is exactly the end to which Odysseus’ life tends. As Eurycleia tells it, it was Odysseus himself who prayed that he might reach “sleek old age” and raise his brilliant son (Od. 19.367-368: ἧος ἵκοιο | γῆράς τε λιπαρὸν θρέψαιό τε φαίδιμον υἱόν). This wish seems at the beginning to be unattainable by Odysseus: in Od. 1.217-220 Telemachus tells Athena/Mentes that he would have liked to be the blessed son of a man whom old age came upon among his possessions (μάκαρός νύ τευ ἔμμεναι υἱὸς | ἀνέρος, ὃν κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖσ’ ἔπι γῆρας ἔτετμε), while now he is said to be the son of the most unhappy of all men. In the end, however, we know that Odysseus will reach that ideal condition [32] . In his prophecy Teiresias states that an easy death will catch Odysseus

γήρᾳ ὕπο λιπαρῷ ἀρημένον· ἀμφὶ δὲ λαοὶ
ὄλβιοι ἔσσονται.
worn out with sleek old age; all around the people
will be prosperous.

Od. 11.136-137

It is common belief that this Odyssean ideal is consciously in contrast with the fate of Achilles in the Iliad [33] . On the basis of the intertextual approach we have defined earlier, however, I would contend that also the Iliad, specifically in the dialogue between Achilles and Priam, consciously opposes Achilles’ fate to that of Odysseus. Though evoked by the text only indirectly, as we have seen, the fate traditionally ascribed to Odysseus functions as a foil for that of Achilles: unlike Odysseus, Achilles will not go back home, and he will not be able to defend his family from neighbors threatening his father’s power; Achilles is moreover unable to allow his father Peleus to enjoy a sleek old age, a privilege which will instead befall Odysseus himself.

At this point, we may wonder about the meaning of this operation. It is clear that the contours of Achilles’ heroic destiny stand out more clearly against the foil of the figure of Odysseus, the hero who indeed goes back home and frees his house from insolent neighbors. However, the foil figure of Odysseus highlights only the ‘negative’ side of Achilles’ fate. Achilles’ tragic stature is no doubt heightened by his short life and the irremediable distance from his father; but in his speech about the two κῆρες of Il. 9.412-416 Achilles was explicit about the fact that these negative elements were balanced by a positive aspect, that is, the winning of imperishable κλέος. Let us read again Il. 9.412-413:

εἰ μέν κ’ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι,
ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται·
If I remain here and fight around the city of the Trojans,
my return home (νόστος) is lost, but I shall have imperishable fame (κλέος);

Looking for a clear pronouncement of Il. 24 on the attainment of imperishable fame by Achilles, like for example the one we read in the Second Nekuia (Od. 24.36-94: see above), would be fruitless. It is in an indirect and yet very effective way that the last book of the Iliad signals such an achievement by Achilles [34] : it does so, I would suggest, by recording the raising of the tomb for Hector. This is the event closing the poem, together with the feast in honor of the dead hero in Priam’s house (Il. 24.801-804). As usually happens in epic, also in the last lines of the poem the tomb of the hero is called σῆμα, which means generally “sign” [35] . In Homeric epos, the hero’s tomb is a ‘sign’ especially because it functions as a physical manifestation of the hero’s κλέος as conferred by poetry [36] : we have already mentioned, for example, the passage in which Odysseus, fearing to be about to die in the sea, laments that it would have been better for him to be killed in Troy, as he would have received a tomb and the Achaeans would have promoted his κλέος (Od. 5.306-312; cf. 1.237-240). With its monumentality, the σῆμα will force men to come to inquire about it, and in this way the memory of the man buried there will be passed on. In Il. 7.77-91 Hector refers to the same basic principle, but with a remarkable twist. Before his duel with Ajax, the Trojan hero establishes the ‘rules’ concerning winner and loser: if Hector is slain, the killer may strip him of his arms, but should return his body to the Trojans so that they can burn it; if Hector is the winner, he will dedicate the spoils to Apollo, but he will also return the dead body to the Achaeans, so that they may raise a tomb. One obvious point of interest in this speech is Hector’s concern for the restitution of the body, which dramatically anticipates the central issue of the last book of the poem [37] . But it is also the way in which Hector imagines his dead enemy’s tomb that is truly remarkable (Il. 7.84-91):

τὸν δὲ νέκυν ἐπὶ νῆας ἐϋσσέλμους ἀποδώσω,
ὄφρά ἑ ταρχύσωσι κάρη κομόωντες Ἀχαιοί,
σῆμά τέ οἱ χεύωσιν ἐπὶ πλατεῖ Ἑλλησπόντῳ.
καί ποτέ τις εἴπῃσι καὶ ὀψιγόνων ἀνθρώπων
νηῒ πολυκλήϊδι πλέων ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον·
‘ἀνδρὸς μὲν τόδε σῆμα πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος
ὅν ποτ’ ἀριστεύοντα κατέκτανε φαίδιμος Ἕκτωρ’.
ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει· τὸ δ’ ἐμὸν κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται.
and his corpse I shall give back, back to the strong-benched ships
so that the long-haired Achaeans may give him burial,
and they may heap up for him a tomb (σῆμα) by the wide Hellespont.
And some day one of the men of a future generation will say
sailing with a benched ship on the wine-dark sea:
“this is the tomb (σῆμα) of a man who died a long time ago,
whom once upon a time glorious Hector killed while performing great deeds”.
So one will say; and my fame (κλέος) will never perish.

That σῆμα, Hector thinks, will be prominent, placed as it will be at the Hellespont, and it will arouse in those who sail by the memory of epic tales: the words which Hector imagines will be pronounced by the passer-by at ll. 89-90 encapsulate, we may say, the basic theme of potentially a whole epic poem like the Iliad [38] . For Hector, however, contrary to the point of view usually expressed in Homer, the κλέος emanating from that σῆμα will be in the first place not that of the man buried there, but that of the man who killed him, that is, Hector himself. If we follow the logic of Hector’s speech, we see that a rather interesting principle emerges: imperishable κλέος is obtained by the hero who grants a tomb to the enemy he has killed. This principle allows us to see in a significantly new light Achilles’ restitution of Hector’s body which marks the conclusion of the poem; and also to better understand the irony which Greg has noticed in Hector’s words in Il. 7. Indeed, the tomb of the unknown warrior killed by Hector would be at the Hellespont, clearly visible to those who sail by (Il. 7.86); but it turns out that the epic tradition assigns such a tomb to Achilles himself, as we read in Od. 24.82-84:

ἀκτῇ ἔπι προὐχούσῃ, ἐπὶ πλατεῖ Ἑλλησπόντῳ,
ὥς κεν τηλεφανὴς ἐκ ποντόφιν ἀνδράσιν εἴη
τοῖσ’, οἳ νῦν γεγάασι καὶ οἳ μετόπισθεν ἔσονται.
on a jutting headland, by the wide Hellespont,
so that it may be visible from the sea for the men
for those who now are and for those who will be hereafter.

Greg writes on Hector’s speech in Il. 7: “It is Achilles who should have answered Hektor’s challenge to the one who is best of the Achaeans … Achilles will die, yes, and his ashes will indeed be enshrined at the Hellespont. But ironically, it is Hektor who will be killed by Achilles. It is Hektor who will become part of an epic story glorifying the deeds of Achilles. By performing his fatal aristeíā, Hektor will become part of a kléos, as he says at VII 91, but the kléos will belong to the winner, Achilles” [39] . I agree with Greg here, but would also supplement his words with another observation: it is the elevation of Hector’s, not Achilles’, tomb which will become part of (in fact, it will close) the epic story glorifying the deeds of Achilles, that is our Iliad. [40] What I would suggest, in other words, is that the end of the Iliad should be read in accordance with the logic advocated by Hector in his speech in Il. 7: according to this logic, it is now Achilles who will obtain imperishable κλέος, once he has given back the body of his great enemy and a tomb (σῆμα) for him has been built: that ‘sign’ (σῆμα), which seals, as it were, the poem, points to Achilles’ κλέος; it points, we may say, to the Iliad itself. Happy birthday, Greg!


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[ back ] 1. Nagy 1999 (quotations are from pp. 26 and 35 respectively).
[ back ] 2. Nagy 1999: 41.
[ back ] 3. On this theme cf. Edwards 1985: 74.
[ back ] 4. We find the same theme also in Telemachus’ words in Od. 1.237-240.
[ back ] 5. Greg interprets this passage “to mean that Penelope is the key not only to the nóstos, but also to the kléos of Odysseus. I understand kléos at verse 196 as belonging primarily to Odysseus himself and that it is his aretḗ ‘merit’ to have won a Penelope, not a Clytemnestra” (Nagy 1999: 38), but most scholars refer ἀρετή (ll. 193 and 197) and κλέος (l. 196) to Penelope (cf. for example Heubeck 2004: 291-292). Agamemnon’s words seem to be purposely ambiguous: cf. Edwards 1985: 73, 75, 79-83, 88; Pucci 1995: 217; Katz 1991: 20-29.
[ back ] 6. As I argue in Lentini 2006: 160.
[ back ] 7. Nagy 1999: 42-58.
[ back ] 8. On the connection Τροίηθεν + εἶμι to indicate νόστος in a strict sense cf. Od. 2.257, 276; 4.488; 9.38.
[ back ] 9. Martin 1989: 145.
[ back ] 10. Macleod 1982: 128, who also notices that the verb τείρουσι (Il. 24.489) is also used of what the Greeks do to Troy in Il. 6.255. Priam’s strategy is ‘prepared’ in Il. 22.419-422.
[ back ] 11. In his otherwise perceptive commentary on these lines, MacLeod 1982 obscures this significant difference. There were stories circulating about Peleus being expelled from Phthia by Acastus or his sons (cf. Eur. Tro. 1126-1130; Apollod. Epit. 6.13); yet, even if Priam’s words were more or less obscurely alluding to such tales, that alone would not explain the specificity of Priam’s reference to the neighbors harassing him.
[ back ] 12. I insist on the Odyssean character of such motifs but, quite obviously, would not claim that they were exclusive to the Odyssey and could not be part also of other tales of return. Plat. Leg. 682d is an intriguing passage on the difficult return of the warriors from Troy due to the staseis of young people in their own countries (on this passage cf. Scheid-Tissinier 1993: 20-21); cf. also Thuc. 1.12.
[ back ] 13. Macleod 1982; cf. also Di Benedetto 2010: 638. For a history of how the relationship between the last book of the Iliad and the Odyssey has been interpreted by the old Analyst and Unitarian schools cf. Richardson 1993: 21-24.
[ back ] 14. For this intertextual method I refer readers to my 2006 book (Lentini 2006); cf. also Pucci 1995; Marks 2005: 13-14. Needless to say, Nagy 1999 and 1990 (especially pp. 52-81) are fundamental on such issues.
[ back ] 15. For an interesting case of a quotation in the Iliad of an ‘Odyssean’ expression cf. Ferrari 2007: 35-48 (on the relationship between Il. 24.6-9 and the Odyssey).
[ back ] 16. Cf. Heubeck 2003: 298.
[ back ] 17. Notice that the verb βιάω (above, Od. 11.496) is employed also regarding Telemachus in Od. 23.9 (βιόωντό τε [scil. the suitors] παῖδα); and that ἀτιμάζω (Od. 11.503) is also used regarding Telemachus and Penelope in Od. 14.163-164 (ὅς τις … ἀτιμάζει ἄλοχον καὶ φαίδιμον υἱόν).
[ back ] 18. I especially point out the coincidence in diction between Il. 24.368-369 (about Priam) and Od. 16.71-72 (about Telemachus; cf. also Od. 21.132-133): being too old and being too young prevents one from “driving back a man, when he offends first” (ἄνδρ’ ἀπαμύνασθαι, ὅτε τις πρότερος χαλεπήνῃ). On the negative aspects of old age cf. Dickson 1995: 15-16. We will see, however, that in the Odyssey old age is evaluated rather differently when it is accompanied by ὄλβος and children.
[ back ] 19. Cf. also Odysseus’ description of his own ‘kingdom’ in Od. 9.22-24: ἀμφὶ δὲ νῆσοι… ναιετάουσι.
[ back ] 20. For other less detailed catalogues of the suitors see below.
[ back ] 21. It is sufficient here to refer to the discussion by Visser 1997: 589-598.
[ back ] 22. Visser 1997: 598 (n. 20 for further bibliography).
[ back ] 23. For another identical catalogue cf. Od. 19.130-131, in a speech by Penelope.
[ back ] 24. For the motif of the missed father cf. also the scene of Telemachus’ visit to Menealus, Od. 4.164-167: πολλὰ γὰρ ἄλγε’ ἔχει πατρὸς πάϊς οἰχομένοιο | ἐν μεγάροισ’, ᾧ μὴ ἄλλοι ἀοσσητῆρες ἔωσιν, | ὡς νῦν Τηλεμάχῳ ὁ μὲν οἴχεται, οὐδέ οἱ ἄλλοι | εἴσ’, οἵ κεν κατὰ δῆμον ἀλάλκοιεν κακότητα. In the context, the situation of Odysseus and Telemachus contrasts with that of Nestor and his children described at ll. 207-211 (see below on those lines and the ideal of “sleek old age” which is central in the Odyssey).
[ back ] 25. For this parallel cf. Danek 1998: 240-241. For another occurrence of the same structure again referring to Odysseus’ return cf. Od. 4.333-346.
[ back ] 26. Notice the similarity with Il. 24.491 in Priam’s speech. The same lines are also repeated by Penelope in Od. 17.538-542.
[ back ] 27. On these lines cf. Cairns 1993: 134.
[ back ] 28. Nagler 1988 (the quotation is from p. 81). Cf. also Scully 1990: 100-113, who construes the opposition as one between polis and oikos. Like Nagler, I prefer to use the term λαός, which refers generally to the followers of a leader (cf. Hammer 2002: 233 n. 14, with bibliography). On Homeric laoi cf. also Haubold 2000, who however, when it comes to the Iliad, focuses mainly on the λαὸς Ἀχαιῶν, while for him it seems to be unimportant that λαός/λαοί is equally used to refer to the followers of each βασιλεύς.
[ back ] 29. On the relationship between Odysseus and his subjects (laoi, companions, suitors) one may refer to Haubold 2000: 100-144, who however appears to me to be sometimes too schematic in pitting the different groups against each other.
[ back ] 30. For other aspects which make the Ciconian adventure a liminal one cf. Olson 1995: 47-48; also Most 1989: 22, with further bibliography.
[ back ] 31. On the ideal of “sleek old age” in the Odyssey cf. Falkner 1995: 34-50.
[ back ] 32. For this narrative progression in the Odyssey (Odysseus’ destiny seems at the beginning to be the worst, but turns out to be the best in the end) cf. de Jong 2001: 4.
[ back ] 33. Cf., for example, the commentary of A. Heubeck on these lines (Heubeck 2003: 273).
[ back ] 34. In this sense we may even say that the last part of Il. 24 elaborates on the basic theme expressed in Il. 9.413 (Achilles has lost νόστος, but he will have κλέος ἄφθιτον).
[ back ] 35. On Homeric σήματα cf. Nagy 1990b: 202-222; Foley 1999: 25-34; Scodel 2002, with further bibliography. On the grave monument as σῆμα cf. also Sourvinou-Inwood 1995: 109-139.
[ back ] 36. Nagy 1990b: 215.
[ back ] 37. Cf. also Hector’s words at Il. 22.254-259 and 340-343 (indeed, ll. 342-343 are identical to Il. 7.79-80).
[ back ] 38. To highlight the potential of the theme contained in l. 90 (ὅν ποτ’ ἀριστεύοντα κατέκτανε φαίδιμος Ἕκτωρ) I point out the basic similarity between this line and the Indo-European formula for ‘heroic’ killing investigated by Watkins 1995.
[ back ] 39. Nagy 1999: 28-29.
[ back ] 40. On Hector as the primary beau mort in the Iliad, especially in relation to the conclusion of the epic, cf. also Nagy 2009: 583-587.