Basileus, wanax and king in Homer

basileus-assembly

The precise contextualisation of the Homeric poems is still to a certain extent inconclusive: many scholars have pursued this undertaking yet reaching rather hesitant results. The Mycenaean epoch, even though widely recognised as the social framework within which the splendid Homeric narrative masterly develops, seems to correspond only partially to the scenario where the highly celebrated heroes dwell. From the political standpoint, however, it can be almost confidently affirmed that the Homeric heroes’ functions and their institutions appear less sophisticated and bureaucratic than those we can infer from the archaeological findings related to the Mycenaean world. Actually, in spite of the detailed descriptions of warfare tools, strategies and attires which almost comply with civilisation of Mycenae, several social, political and religious beliefs, behaviours and rituals must be considered somewhat modern and definitely more recent.

For instance the Basileus represented into both poems is deemed only partly as the reproduction of the Mycenaean king; for he can also be considered the chief of any of those communities who survived the decay of that evolute pre-Greek culture. His government his principally based on recognised power and strength rather than acclaimed wisdom and proved judgement. As Hector sustains talking about his son to his wife Andromache:

But he kissed his dear son, and fondled him in his arms, and spoke in prayer to Zeus and the other gods: “Zeus and ye other gods, grant that this my child may likewise prove, even as I, pre-eminent amid the Trojans, and as valiant in might, and that he rule mightily over Ilios. And some day may some man say of him as he cometh back from war, ‘He is better far than his father’; and may he bear the blood-stained spoils of the foeman he hath slain, and may his mother’s heart wax glad.

And as hopeless Telemachus laments before the Ithacan assembly enduring the long lasting siege perpetrated by Penelope’s suers:

For there is no man here, such as Odysseus was, to ward off ruin from the house. As for me, I am no-wise such as he to ward it off. Nay verily, even if I try I shall be found a weakling and one knowing naught of valour. Yet truly I would defend myself, if I had but the power

And as proudly Nausicaa claims the praises of her father king Alcinous when she meets Ulysses for the first time:

The Phaeacians possess this city and land, and I am the daughter of great-hearted Alcinous, upon whom depend the might and power of the Phaeacians.

The Homeric Basileus, similarly to the Mycenaean wanax, besides exercising his ruling functions is primarily in charge of the army and derives his powers directly from the Gods, as Odysseus points out to the assembly of the generals:

In no wise shall we Achaeans all be kings here. No good thing is a multitude of lords; let there be one lord, one king, to whom the son of crooked-counselling Cronos hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgments, that he may take counsel for his people.

The same creed is corroborated by Nestor when he speaks before a restricted counsel held in Agamemnon’s (commander in chief of the Achaean forces) tent:

He with good intent addressed their gathering and spoke among them: “Most glorious son of Atreus, Agamemnon, king of men, with thee will I begin and with thee make an end, for that thou art king over many hosts, and to thee Zeus hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgements, that thou mayest take counsel for thy people. Therefore it beseemeth thee above all others both to speak and to hearken, and to fulfil also for another whatsoever his heart may bid him speak for our profit; for on thee will depend whatsoever any man may begin.

What particularly strikes is the greatly confounding contrast between the description of Alcinous’ kingdom and residence – which strongly reminds of a typical palatial socio-political structure – and Ulysses’ realm:

Odysseus went to the glorious palace of Alcinous. There he stood, and his heart pondered much before he reached the threshold of bronze; for there was a gleam as of sun or moon over the high-roofed house of great-hearted Alcinous. Of bronze were the walls that stretched this way and that from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and around was a cornice of cyanus. Golden were the doors that shut in the well-built house, and doorposts of silver were set in a threshold of bronze. Of silver was the lintel above, and of gold the handle. On either side of the door there stood gold and silver dogs, which Hephaestus had fashioned with cunning skill to guard the palace of great-hearted Alcinous; immortal were they and ageless all their days. Within, seats were fixed along the wall on either hand, from the threshold to the innermost chamber, and on them were thrown robes of soft fabric, cunningly woven, the handiwork of women. On these the leaders of the Phaeacians were wont to sit drinking and eating, for they had unfailing store. And golden youths stood on well-built pedestals, holding lighted torches in their hands to give light by night to the banqueters in the hall. And fifty slave-women he had in the house, of whom some grind the yellow grain on the millstone, and others weave webs, or, as they sit, twirl the yarn, like unto the leaves of a tall poplar tree; and from the closely-woven linen the soft olive oil drips down. For as the Phaeacian men are skilled above all others in speeding a swift ship upon the sea, so are the women cunning workers at the loom, for Athena has given to them above all others skill in fair handiwork, and an understanding heart. But without the courtyard, hard by the door, is a great orchard of four acres, and a hedge runs about it on either side. Therein grow trees, tall and luxuriant, pears and pomegranates and apple-trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. Of these the fruit perishes not nor fails in winter or in summer, but lasts throughout the year; and ever does the west wind, as it blows, quicken to life some fruits, and ripen others; pear upon pear waxes ripe, apple upon apple, cluster upon cluster, and fig upon fig. There, too, is his fruitful vineyard planted, one part of which, a warm spot on level ground, is being dried in the sun, while other grapes men are gathering, and others, too, they are treading; but in front are unripe grapes that are shedding the blossom, and others that are turning purple. There again, by the last row of the vines, grow trim garden beds of every sort, blooming the year through, and therein are two springs, one of which sends its water throughout all the garden, while the other, over against it, flows beneath the threshold of the court toward the high house; from this the townsfolk drew their water. Such were the glorious gifts of the gods in the palace of Alcinous. There the much-enduring goodly Odysseus stood and gazed. But when he had marvelled in his heart at all things, he passed quickly over the threshold into the house.

Especially when compared Odysseus’ domains and patrimony, which albeit devotedly praised by his servant Eumaeus – who considers his masters’ possessions boundlessly abundant – seem quite distant from requiring and actually having a Minoan and/or Mycenaean palatial organisation and bureaucracy:

Verily his substance was great past telling, so much has no lord either on the dark mainland or in Ithaca itself; nay, not twenty men together have wealth so great. Lord, I will tell thee the tale thereof; twelve herds has he on the mainland; as many flocks of sheep; as many droves of swine; as many packed herds of goats do herdsmen, both foreigners and of his own people, pasture. And here too graze roving herds of goats on the borders of the island, eleven in all, and over them trusty men keep watch.

Ultimately it seems that the Homeric society is rather a melange of different stages of proto-Greek and pre-classic Greek world, starting from the Mycenaean era to the more recent period were the poems are believed to have been composed: thus embracing at least three-four centuries of slow evolution/involution – as this period includes what is commonly defined the Greek Dark Age. These mixed traditions and their scenery concoction, most likely due to the sedimentary oral composition of the poems, narratively blend elements and situations that historically could have never concomitantly existed, perhaps poetically enhanced by Homer’s frequent romantic glances to the good old mythical and Mycenaean days.

Heroic virtues in the Homeric world

homeric-hero-virtues-arete-metis

The Homeric poems and some legends and myths narrated by posthumous authors are the only literary source we can rely on in order to assess the main features and events of the dawn of Greek civilisation. The lack of very organised information, rather fragmentary and only partially comforted by archaeological discoveries, still now puzzles scholars, academics and amateurs passionate about archaic Greece. Nevertheless, the attentive reading of these sources has revealed some evident characteristics and aspects of Hellenic archaic culture that can aid us to draw the basic sketch of virtues and values, of morally correct behaviour and socially accepted and praised conduct: some of the paradigmatic main lines of a civilised society.

Accordingly, hospitality can be considered the very first duty and virtue within and among the ancient tribes who populated the archaic Greek terra-firma, islands and the Ionian colonies.  Protection, hosting and gifts were rituals deeply rooted and consistently honoured for generations. An interesting instance is reported in Iliad’s dialogue between Glaucus and Diomedes:

But Hippolochus begat me and of him do I declare that I am sprung; and he sent me to Troy and straitly charged me ever to be bravest and pre-eminent above all, and not bring shame upon the race of my fathers, that were far the noblest in Ephyre and in wide Lycia. This is the lineage and the blood whereof I avow me sprung.” So spoke he, and Diomedes, good at the warcry, waxed glad. He planted his spear in the bounteous earth, and with gentle words spoke to the shepherd of the host: “Verily now art thou a friend of my father’s house from of old: for goodly Oeneus on a time entertained peerless Bellerophon in his halls, and kept him twenty days; and moreover they gave one to the other fair gifts of friendship. Oeneus gave a belt bright with scarlet, and Bellerophon a double cup of gold which I left in my palace as I came hither. But Tydeus I remember not, seeing I was but a little child when he left, what time the host of the Achaeans perished at Thebes. Therefore now am I a dear guest-friend to thee in the midst of Argos, and thou to me in Lycia, whenso I journey to the land of that folk. So let us shun one another’s spears even amid the throng; full many there be for me to slay, both Trojans and famed allies, whomsoever a god shall grant me and my feet overtake; and many Achaeans again for thee to slay whomsoever thou canst. And let us make exchange of armour, each with the other, that these men too may know that we declare ourselves to be friends from our fathers’ days.”

Recognizably in the Homeric poems physical power, bravery, strength and cleverness on the battlefield are remarkably emphasised and rewarded. The effort and commitment aimed at the conquest of eternal glory are summarised within the utmost virtue for an Homeric hero: excellenceAρετή. This is brilliantly described in this brief dialogue between Sarpedon and Glaucus during the siege of Troy:

“Even so did his spirit then urge godlike Sarpedon to rush upon the wall, and break-down the battlements. Straightway then he spoke to Glaucus, son of Hippolochus: “Glaucus, wherefore is it that we twain are held in honour above all with seats, and messes, and full cups in Lycia, and all men gaze upon us as on gods? Aye, and we possess a great demesne by the banks of Xanthus, a fair tract of orchard and of wheat-bearing plough-land. Therefore now it behoveth us to take our stand amid the foremost Lycians, and confront the blazing battle that many a one of the mail-clad Lycians may say: “Verily no inglorious men be these that rule in Lycia, even our kings, they that eat fat sheep and drink choice wine, honey-sweet: nay, but their might too is goodly, seeing they fight amid the foremost Lycians. Ah friend, if once escaped from this battle we were for ever to be ageless and immortal, neither should I fight myself amid the foremost, nor should I send thee into battle where men win glory; but now—for in any case fates of death beset us, fates past counting, which no mortal may escape or avoid—now let us go forward, whether we shall give glory to another, or another to us. So spoke he, and Glaucus turned not aside, neither disobeyed him, but the twain went straight forward, leading the great host of the Lycians.”

This rather complex concept of ἀρετή (arete) is not solely straightforwardly affirmed, but per contrapasso is ulteriorly stressed by the pending oppression of the shame caused by any possible display of cowardice and ineptitude – as Hector clearly states before his duel with Achilles:

“Then, mightily moved, he spoke unto his own great-hearted spirit: “Ah, woe is me, if I go within the gates and the walls Polydamas will be the first to put reproach upon me, for that he bade me lead the Trojans to the city during this fatal night, when goodly Achilles arose. Howbeit I hearkened not—verily it had been better far! But now, seeing I have brought the host to ruin in my blind folly, I have shame of the Trojans, and the Trojans’ wives with trailing robes, lest some other baser man may say: ‘Hector, trusting in his own might, brought ruin on the host.’ So will they say; but for me it were better far to meet Achilles man to man and slay him, and so get me home, or myself perish gloriously before the city.”

To exercise just vengeance to a personal or social offence is another greatly demanded virtue, unquestionably also part of the sense of honour and courage that an Homeric hero is naturally supposed to possess – as Athena warmly reminds to Telemachus:

“First go to Pylos and ask Nestor; thence go on to Sparta and visit Menelaos, for he got home last of all the Achaeans; if you hear that your father is alive and about to achieve his homecoming, you can put up with the waste these suitors will make for yet another twelve months. If on the other hand you hear of his death, come home at once, celebrate his funeral rites with all due pomp, build a grave marker to his memory, and make your mother marry again. Then, having done all this, think it well over in your mind how, by fair means or foul, you may kill these suitors in your own house. You are too old to plead infancy any longer; have you not heard how people are singing Orestes’ praises for having killed his father’s murderer Aigisthos? You are a fine, smart looking young man; show your mettle, then, and make yourself a name in story. Now, however, I must go back to my ship and to my crew, who will be impatient if I keep them waiting longer; think the matter over for yourself, and remember what I have said to you.”

And as it is very sadly lamented by Helen when speaking of Paris’ spinelessness:

“Howbeit, seeing the gods thus ordained these ills, would that I had been wife to a better man, that could feel the indignation of his fellows and their many revilings. But this man’s understanding is not now stable, nor ever will be hereafter; thereof I deem that he will e’en reap the fruit”.

Yet warfare skills, fierce revenge and combating courage seem of course admittedly necessary, but not sufficient, to reach the excellence and the consequent of endless glory. The Homeric hero must be also a master of the dialogue, able to gain consensus with his words and submit masses with his charismatic speech, virtues highly praised in both Iliad and Odyssey:

“Then among them spoke Thoas, son of Andraemon, far the best of the Aetolians, well-skilled in throwing the javelin, but a good man too in close fight, and in the place of assembly could but few of the Achaeans surpass him, when the young men were striving in debate”.

Nevertheless when force and/or speech cannot obtain success the Homeric hero has to count on the absolute and most sophisticated virtue – Μτις (metis): a multifaceted and articulated ability implying wit, inventiveness, audacity and shrewdness, whose master of course is Odysseus. IN fact not only a mortal: king Nestor, who knowledgeably lectures his son Antilochus on how to win the cart race:

“The horses of the others are swifter, but the men know not how to devise more cunning counsel than thine own self. Wherefore come, dear son, lay thou up in thy mind cunning of every sort, to the end that the prizes escape thee not. By cunning, thou knowest, is a woodman far better than by might; by cunning too doth a helmsman on the wine-dark deep guide aright a swift ship that is buffeted by winds; and by cunning doth charioteer prove better than charioteer. ”

notwithstanding his own old age, intelligence and experience, confesses Ulysses’ artful deceptiveness superiority; but even the goddess Athena, almost proudly and appreciatively, admits Odysseus’ insuperable foxiness in conceiving and fulfilling ingenious plans:

Athena smiled and caressed him with her hand. Then she took the form of a woman, fair, stately, and wise, “He must be indeed a shifty and deceitful person,” said she, “who could surpass you in all manner of craft even though you had a god for your antagonist. Daring that you are, full of guile, unwearying in deceit, can you not drop your tricks and your instinctive falsehood, even now that you are in your own country again? We will say no more, however, about this, for we both of us know craftiness upon occasion – you are the best counsellor and orator among all humankind, while I for diplomacy and crafty ways have fame among the gods.


Proud faith in democracy

akropolis-athens

In these last weeks a sudden and unexpected wave of optimism, proud patriotism and faith in the power of democracy has moved on and been spreading almost all over the world. The glowing hopes and the great expectations for the time to come seem to have overcome even the most deep rooted scepticism.

Indeed attachment and loyalty to the community had an extraordinary significance especially in the ancient world, it was a sacrosanct duty and certainly had a remarkable influence on citizens and politicians alike. Patriotism was also the most effective means of cohesion, perhaps the true basic proviso able to achieve – or at least to grant the preconditions of – social stability and widespread respect for the laws and institutions.

In truth there are quite several examples in ancient Greek literature of expressions of  the pride to belong to a community and praising its foundations and traditions. Very likely the most famous eulogy to one’s country and frank praise of democracy is Pericles’ speech to commemorate the Athenian soldiers who perished in the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-430 b.C.). This episode is masterly narrated by Thucydides and, albeit according to his writing style it cannot be considered utterly authentic: meaning not a true and fair journalistic report of the facts, it certainly is a honest artistically well structured and written memoir of this outstanding actual event. During this tribute the supreme στρατεγος took the opportunity not simply to condole the parents, wives and children of the war victims, but also to celebrate the institutions of his πολις, its social and political achievements and its remarkably highly advanced customs and lifestyle: a model for the other Greek πολεις – and, as we have then well learnt, altogether a most refined and enlightened civilisation leadership under whose influence we still live today:

“I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour… but what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men…

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life… But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

… We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger… And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger…

In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause.

Not so rarely, even the Greek tragedies of the V century b.C. report plain hints of acclamation towards the achievements of Athens and the nationalistic courage of its citizens and soldiers. In the Persians, written by Aeschylus in 472 b.C., the plot’s background is the naval victory the Greeks (lead by the Athenians) on the Persians in the waters of Salamina in 480 b.C.; Aeschylus places the tragic leverage on showing the events under the perspective of the defeated army and court: Xerses, his mother Queen Atossa and thus the whole dialogues among the Persians aim at amply show the enormous differences between the two contenders:

ATOSSAYou, its first interpreter, have indeed read the meaning of my dream with goodwill, at least, toward my son and house. May the outcome then prove beneficial! When I return to the palace, I will perform for the gods and my dear ones beneath the earth all those rites which you recommend. Meanwhile, my friends, I would like to learn where Athens is located.

CHORUSFar from here, to the west where the last rays of our Lord the Sun set.

ATOSSACan it then really be that my son had the keen desire to make this city his prey?

CHORUSYes, for then all Hellas would be subject to the King.

ATOSSADoes their army have such a multitude of men?

CHORUSYes, it is an army of such magnitude that it has caused great disaster for the Medes.

ATOSSAAnd what else have they besides? Do they have sufficient wealth in their homes?

CHORUSOf silver they possess a veritable fountain, a treasure chest in their soil.

ATOSSAIs the bow-stretching arrow particularly suited to their hands?

CHORUSFar from it; they have lances for close fight and shields that serve them for armour.

ATOSSAAnd who is set over them as shepherd and is master of their host?

CHORUSOf no man are they called the slaves or vassals.

ATOSSAHow then can they withstand the attack of an invading foe?

CHORUSSo well as to have destroyed Darius’ great and courageous host.

ATOSSAIn truth, your words have given the fathers and mothers of those who are now on their way there dire food for thought.

CHORUSNo, rather I think that you will soon learn the truth of the matter. For here comes one who is beyond a doubt a Persian courier. He bears clear tidings of some issue, be it good or bad.

A more accurate praise of Athens democratic foundations and their social and political success in governing the golden πολις, is plainly stated by Euripides in his Suppliants (424 b.C.), where the author compares the institutions of Thebe with the constitution of Athens. Within the plot Theseus, king of Athens, confronts the messenger of Creon (the king of Thebe) explaining to him what were – and still are – most unanimously considered the greatest attainments of Athens’ democracy:

THEBAN HERALDWho is the tyrant of this land? To whom must I announce the message of Creon who rules over the land of Cadmus, since Eteocles was slain by the hand of his brother Polyneices, at the sevenfold gates of Thebes?

THESEUS - You have made a false beginning to your speech, stranger, in seeking a dictator here. For this city is not ruled by one man, but is free. The people rule in succession year by year, allowing no preference to wealth, but the poor man shares equally with the rich.

THEBAN HERALD - You give me here an advantage, as in a game of checkers; for the city from which I come is ruled by one man only, not by the mob; no one there puffs up the citizens with specious words, and for his own advantage twists them this way or that, one moment dear to them and lavish of his favours, the next harmful to all; and yet by fresh calumnies of others he hides his former failures and escapes punishment. Besides, how would the people, if it cannot form true judgments, be able rightly to direct the state? No, it is time, not haste, that affords a better understanding. A poor farmer, even if he were not unschooled, would still be unable from his toil to give his mind to politics. Truly the better sort count it no healthy sign when the worthless man obtains a reputation by beguiling with words the populace, though before he was nothing.

THESEUSThis herald is a clever fellow, a dabbler in the art of talk. But since you have thus entered the contest with me, listen awhile, for it was you that challenged a discussion. Nothing is more hostile to a city than a despot; where he is, there are first no laws common to all, but one man is tyrant, in whose keeping and in his alone the law resides, and in that case equality is at an end. But when the laws are written down, rich and weak alike have equal justice, and it is open to the weaker to use the same language to the prosperous when he is reviled by him, and the weaker prevails over the stronger if he has justice on his side. Freedom’s mark is also seen in this: “Who has wholesome counsel to declare unto the state?” And he who chooses to do so gains renown, while he, who has no wish, remains silent. What greater equality can there be in a city?

Again, where the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having a reserve of youthful citizens, while a king counts this a hostile element, and strives to slay the leading men, all such as he thinks discreet, fearing for his power. How then could a city remain stable, where one cuts short all enterprise and mows down the young like meadow-flowers in spring-time? What good is it to acquire wealth and livelihood for children, merely to add to the tyrant’s substance by one’s toil? Why train up daughters virtuously in our homes to gratify a tyrant’s whim, whenever he wishes, and cause tears to those who rear them? May my life end if ever my children are to be wedded by violence! This bolt I launch in answer to your words.

Pride, celebration, self-praise truly characterised those years and, in a more nostalgic nuance, many more to come… Unfortunately Athens’ Golden Age did not last too long, though. Nonetheless it is undeniable that the achievements of the Pentecontaetia still somehow reverberate their fair light onto our world.

“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” [Aristotle]

Merciful Odysseus absolves his loyal servants

In book 22nd of Odyssey Ulysses massacres one hundred and eight of his wife’s suitors, dreadfully hangs to death twelve of his unfaithful maid-servants and sentences to an horrible death his goatherd who had been a traitor. Unquestionably a carnage and an unmerciful sequence of actions where revenge and justice, though barbaric to our modern view and custom, duly follow – as I have tried to clarify in my latest articles – a code of honour deep-rooted in those societies and in those days. However, as it has brightly noted and pointed out by one of my readers, Odysseus spares Medon and Phemius’ lives even though both of them, regardless being members of his oikos, had proved to be disloyal to their king and master during the interminable suers’ siege.

The former, Phemius, is one of those minstrels who used to sing in order to entertain with their stories. It is worth mentioning that normally those bards were nomadic artists who used to perform anywhere there was any audience available, thus typically squares, marketplaces, harbours and inns. Some of them were highly successful and some were also punished when fame, as well as it most commonly happens also nowadays to stars, overtook their wits..

“the Muses met Thamyris the Thracian [a very famous bard] and made an end of his singing, even as he was journeying from Oechalia, from the house of Eurytus the Oechalian: for he vaunted with boasting that he would conquer, were the Muses themselves to sing against him, the daughters of Zeus that beareth the aegis; but they in their wrath maimed him, and took from him his wondrous song, and made him forget his minstrelsy”

Sometimes, if lucky enough and truly deserving, minstrels stopped and were almost permanently hosted in royal palaces – which is our case. In fact what makes Phemius guilty is the circumstance that he is one of those few non-itinerant minstrels who permanently resided and lived within a king’s court, thus becoming an active part of his oikos and subject to its rules like any other member. As member of the oikos Phemius benefited of several advantages; first of all in terms of protection, which was quite a priceless commodity in those days of brigands, unwritten laws and brutally – and rather inconsistently – administered justice; moreover Phemius had a granted roof and enough food to support himself. Clearly this safe and unwavering status corresponded to a total acquiescence to his patron

Regrettably during his king’s long absence Phemius chanted and told stories to entertain the suers throughout their banquets within his master’s very palace. Sometimes he also sang tales about the war of Troy and the nostoi of its heroes (the adventures of their way back) to amuse the bold usurpers and yet, just because of the sadness of the subject, of course unbearably unpleasant to his Queen Penelope.

For them the famous minstrel was singing, and they sat in silence listening; and he sang of the return of the Achaeans—the woeful return from Troy which Pallas Athena laid upon them. And from her upper chamber the daughter of Icarius, wise Penelope, heard his wondrous song, and she went down the high stairway from her chamber, not alone, for two handmaids attended her. Now when the fair lady had come to the wooers, she stood by the door-post of the well-built hall, holding before her face her shining veil; and a faithful handmaid stood on either side of her. Then she burst into tears, and spoke to the divine minstrel: “Phemius, many other things thou knowest to charm mortals, deeds of men and gods which minstrels make famous. Sing them one of these, as thou sittest here, and let them drink their wine in silence. But cease from this woeful song which ever harrows the heart in my breast, for upon me above all women has come a sorrow not to be forgotten. So dear a head do I ever remember with longing, even my husband, whose fame is wide through Hellas and mid-Argos.”

Certainly Phemius never took part to any of the outrageous actions of the suitors, albeit he passively kept performing his duties at request and to the delight of illegitimately arrogating people different from his master. Thus, having seen the unfortunate punishment of his fellows the poor bard tries to beg for mercy representing that somehow he was restrained by the circumstances, and unwillingly he could not but comply:

“the minstrel, was still seeking to escape black fate, even Phemius, who sang perforce among the wooers. He stood with the clear-toned lyre in his hands near the postern door, and he was divided in mind whether he should slip out from the hall and sit down by the well-built altar of great Zeus, the God of the court, whereon Laertes and Odysseus had burned many things of oxen, or whether he should rush forward and clasp the knees of Odysseus in prayer. And as he pondered this seemed to him the better course, to clasp the knees of Odysseus, son of Laertes. So he laid the hollow lyre on the ground between the mixing-bowl and the silver-studded chair, and himself rushed forward and clasped Odysseus by the knees, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “By thy knees I beseech thee, Odysseus, and do thou respect me and have pity; on thine own self shall sorrow come hereafter, if thou slayest the minstrel, even me, who sing to gods and men. Self-taught am I, and the god has planted in my heart all manner of lays, and worthy am I to sing to thee as to a god; wherefore be not eager to cut my throat. Aye, and Telemachus too will bear witness to this, thy dear son, how that through no will or desire of mine I was wont to resort to thy house to sing to the wooers at their feasts, but they, being far more and stronger, led me hither perforce.”

Telemachus, who had witnessed the minstrel’s conduct takes the stand and intercedes in his favour, joining his plead; furthermore he includes in the begging for mercy also for the poor Medon, the herald:

“Stay thy hand, and do not wound this guiltless man with the sword. Aye, and let us save also the herald, Medon, who ever cared for me in our house, when I was a child, unless perchance Philoetius has already slain him, or the swineherd, or he met thee as thou didst rage through the house.”

In fact Medon, although not really guilty of any disloyal behaviour, was in any case hiding from his master’s rage and castigation; can finally come out from his hiding place:

“Medon, wise of heart, heard him, for he lay crouching beneath a chair, and had clothed himself in the skin of an ox, newly flayed, seeking to avoid black fate. Straightway he rose from beneath the chair and stripped off the ox-hide, and then rushed forward and clasped Telemachus by the knees, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “Friend, here I am; stay thou thy hand and bid thy father stay his, lest in the greatness of his might he harm me with the sharp bronze in his wrath against the wooers, who wasted his possessions in the halls, and in their folly honoured thee not at all”.

To this appeals Ulysses, benevolently, surrenders and spares both servants’ lives:

“Odysseus of many wiles smiled, and said to him: “Be of good cheer, for he has delivered thee and saved thee, that thou mayest know in thy heart and tell also to another, how far better is the doing of good deeds than of evil. But go forth from the halls and sit down outside in the court away from the slaughter, thou and the minstrel of many songs, till I shall have finished all that I must needs do in the house.”

It is significant that both servants plead their innocence and blame any of their ambiguous actions on the conflicting conditions within the under siege oikos and their obvious fear for the suers’ reactions. Thus their reluctant involvement to any possible wrongdoing was induced only by the psychological  and physical pressure exerted by the suitors. Consequently it may be argued that Odysseus had a different behaviour towards Phemius and Medon compared to his unmerciful decision after Leiodes’ (the suitors’ soothsayer) practically identical appeal:

“Leiodes rushed forward and clasped the knees of Odysseus, and made entreaty to him, and spoke winged words: “By thy knees I beseech thee, Odysseus, and do thou respect me and have pity. For I declare to thee that never yet have I wronged one of the women in thy halls by wanton word or deed; nay, I sought to check the other wooers, when any would do such deeds. But they would not hearken to me to withhold their hands from evil, wherefore through their wanton folly they have met a cruel doom. Yet I, the soothsayer among them, that have done no wrong, shall be laid low even as they; so true is it that there is no gratitude in aftertime for good deeds done.”

Yet, to a more attentive analysis, the two decisions are only apparently contradictory. The circumstances, the scenario and the personal position of each single pleader (and under which his actions were performed) play a significant role solely within the framework of the administration of justice within Odysseus’ oikos – but are irrelevant to Odysseus’ vendetta. Ulysses administers his domestic justice to restore the order within his oikos. He analyses different levels of guilt and consequent nuances of punishments and forgiveness, by this setting also precedents:

“and that thou mayest know in thy heart and tell also to another, how far better is the doing of good deeds than of evil.”

When instead it comes to revenge, as I have already described, it’s the act itself that essentially wounds the honour – regardless the circumstances and the willingness of the wrongdoer. Intentions and motives pertain to the sphere of justice, which by definition cannot be applied to Leiodes who is not a member of the oikos, and unfortunately for him the vengeance paradigm admits no gradations between slaughter and financial compensation