Heroic virtues in the Homeric world

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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.


The women of Heinrich Schliemann

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On Christmas 1890 in Piazza Carità in Naples, Italy an unknown lonely old gentleman dressed in simple attire – clearly a foreigner – while strolling with an absentminded attitude silently faints and lies down on the sidewalk; succoured by the bystanders he is rapidly transported to the nearest hospital, in vain: he passed away after two days. This elderly tourist was Heinrich Schliemann, without any shade of doubt the most legendary archaeologist of all times, the very first explorer of Troy, Tyrint and Mycenae, the discoverer of the celebrated so called Treasure of Priam and Mask of Agamemnon, the precursor of the excavations of Crete and Orchomenus. The extraordinary successful and energetic pioneer was 68 and still ready for more expeditions and quarrying. Born in North-East Germany to a underprivileged family, thanks to his indomitable tenacity, highly uncommon practical intelligence and – of course, for it is always needed – a fair dose of luck, this incredible merchant had been able before reaching forty to accumulate quite a great fortune, to retire from business and finally devote himself to the pursuit of the very dream of his childhood: to become and archaeologist and, by following the clues traceable within Homer’s masterpieces, to identify, localise and uncover the city of Ilios – which he actually did.

Being a self-made man, with inconsequential curricular studies he was apathetically scorned by the European intelligentsia and aloofly derided by the academics. Furthermore he was continuously and strenuously fighting against home and foreign bureaucracy and political intrusions. Nevertheless, supported by his remarkable determination and – of course, for it always helps – by his fathomless bank account, he finally was rewarded with great discovering achievements and received many honours. Yet, there are good reason to believe that he was in his inner nature a gloomy and murky character, inclined to sadness and altogether convinced of being unappreciated and misunderstood. This more intimate side of his temperament is indeed palpable when examining his relationships, where contradictory feelings and behaviours show the contrast between the greatly resolute successful businessman and his insecure sentimental nature.

His adolescent love Minna Meincke, a neighbour girl of better condition, got married in 1847 with someone else, while he – quite naively indeed – expected to marry her himself on his way back to Germany: as meantime working in the Netherlands and Russia he had acquired a considerable social status and significant finances. He indirectly asked her to marry him, via a friend C.E. Laué who reported him the sad outcome, which prostrated him: “But to my horror I received a month afterward the news she had just got married

Immediately afterwards he proposed to a German young lady living in Saint Petersburg, Sophie Hekker, whose greedy father, in spite of her reluctances, was more than willing to force her to accept. However Heinrich broke the romance for a rush of jealousy and went to the USA. Later, on his way back from California he proposed again to her – and at the same time to an attorney’s daughter, Katherina Lyshin; for, being a shrewd entrepreneur, he had guessed his reiterated proposal to Sophie would have been rejected. By the way it occurred that the two prospect spouses were acquainted with each other… However, shortly after his return from San Francisco on October 7th, 1852 in Saint Isaac Cathedral of Saint Petersburg Heinrich married Katherina Lyshin, who gave him three children Serge, Natalia, Nadeshda. Nonetheless it was soon evident that Katherina did not love him at all, as he writes to a friend of his: “She enjoys to portray me to everyone as a terrible tyrant, a despot, a debauched…”

Basically she deprecated his juvenile scholar dreams and youthful intellectual attempts, despised travelling with him (during their marriage years  he had visited – all by himself – several major European capitals, Egypt, Japan, India, China, Singapore…) and abhorred the idea of leaving Russia to settle down in Paris, in spite of his numerous appeals and letters: “Every night I go to theatre or conferences held by the most famous professors of the world, Touvé, Beulé, the viscount de Rougé and I could tell you stories for ten years without ever boring you…”

Knowing she loved Dresden he offered to settle down there instead of Paris, but also this offered solution was of no avail. Greedy of opulence and social ostentation, it seems she never really understood what was really important to him. Katherina, who never shared any intellectual and spiritual interests with him, slowly pushed him away in a deeper solitude and discomfort. Evidently the transformation of her husband from a highly acclaimed trader and banker to a weird amateur archaeologist, derided by the entire academic world, scantily travelling to dusty remote places and meagrely living away from the jet set and its lust and comforts was something way beyond her comprehension and acceptance. On Christmas 1868 she literally ran away from him, putting him in a deep state of consternation, as he wrote her:

You fled from home just because you knew that your poor husband was about to come back home. I had come to see you and stay with you at least one week and try to restore harmony between us, at any rate; actually I swear to God Almighty I was willing to make any kind of possible concession, I was ready to sacrifice 1 million francs to re-establish domestic peace. But how you behaved towards me! I still shiver for the dismay and the horror of your infernal conduct…. Yet, surely you never heard me utter one single bad word, even when your terrible and execrable behaviour had broken my heart…

He finally realised he could not make happy a woman who detested him and filed for divorce. Nonetheless Heinrich was stubborn in his pursuit for conjugal contentment. He confessed to a friend of his: “I strongly need to have by my side a heart that loves me”. And consequently he was contemplating, this time with the intercession of his cousin Adolph, to marry a cousin of his, Sophie Bürger: a girl he had seen only once, three years before and that apparently fancied him… Thus, to Schliemann’s businesslike line of reasoning she seemed the right one, as he explained to a friend: “human nature leads us to always esteem and love those who are more educated than us in those sciences and disciplines that we most cherish, for this reason I think I would be very happy with her…”

Yet the couple did not tie the knot – seemingly because of the large age difference. So he asked, again in his peculiar modus operandi, to his friend and highly distinguished Greek teacher Theokletos Vimpos (an Orthodox Archbishop) to find him a Greek wife endowed with the same “angelic temperament of his mother and sister”! Actually writing to his brother in law he had made a less idyllic portrayal of his intentions and expectations, bluntly stating that Greece was able to offer girls “as beautiful as the pyramids” and  as poor as rats” chasing any foreigner to escape from poverty. However, consumed merchant as he was, he placed a detailed order to Vimpos: she was supposed to be young enough to have children, amiable, enthusiast of ancient Greece art and literature, ancient history and geography, willing to accompany him in his travels and more… Surprisingly Vimpos, who likewise cousin Adolph had profited of Schliemann’s paranymph assignment to recover from some slight personal financial distress, had found him two possible prospect brides: Polyxena Giusti and Sophia Engastromenos. When Schliemann saw their two pictures Vimpos had sent him for review he commented:

As I am an old traveller I am a good judge of countenances and I can promptly describe you the character of the two girls by just examining their portraits. … Polyxena Giusti is the right age to marry me, but she is bossy, authoritarian, despotic, irritable and vengeful. I think she has developed all these faults while performing her least enviable metier of school teacher. Sophia Engastromenos, is a splendid woman, open, indulgent, gentle and good housewife, full of life and well educated.

And almost immediately showed the utmost willingness and proposed to marry her within three months, although previously asking poor Vimpos all sort of questions!:

What is Mr. Engastromenos trade? What are his possessions? How old is he and how many children he has? How many boys and girls? In particular how old is Sophia? What colour is her hair? Where does the family live in Athens? Does Sophia play the piano? Does she speak any foreign language? Which one? Is she a good housewife? Does she understand Homer and the other ancient authors? Or does she completely ignore the idiom of our ancestors? Would she consent to move to Paris and to accompany her husband through his travels to Italy, Egypt and elsewhere?

Once ascertained that all features of Sophia corresponded to his requirements and quality standards, Heinrich finally decided to propose, although with extreme tact and caution, as he wrote her:

Unfortunately, as it seems, marriages in Greece are always arranged in great haste, even only after the first meeting, and for this reason half of them dissolve within one year. My feelings repel such disastrous practice. Marriage is the most splendid of all human institutions if its sole motives are respect, love and virtue; but marriage is the most ignoble bond and the heaviest yoke if it is based on material interest or sensual pleasure. Wealth contributes to matrimonial happiness, but it does not create it by itself and the woman who would marry me only for my money, or to become a great lady in Paris, would bitterly regret to have left Greece, because she would make me and herself wretched. The woman who marries me, ought to make it because of my worth as a man.

After some more – mainly epistolary – negotiatory courting Sophia eventually responded:

Yes, my dear Heinrich, nothing would make me happier than your resolution to take ma as your spouse. If you decide to take this step, I will be grateful for my entire life and will consider you as my sole benefactor.

On September 23rd, 1869 the wedding took place. They had two children: Andromache and Agamemnon. Sophia was everything he had always wanted, beautiful, intelligent, interested in his job, apparently enjoyed helping him in his expeditions and excavations and was as enthusiastic as him about Iliad and Odyssey. But not all that glitters is gold: Sophia was also psychologically weak and slightly unbalanced, causing Heinrich a miserable family-life mixed with few sweet moments, though.. This circumstance was worsened by Schliemann’s atavic fears of giving himself to someone who did not really care about him. This highly shrewd merchant, smart investor, adventurous globetrotter and archaeologist, who in his loneliness loved to find refuge in a legendary poetical past, was deep inside very frail and vulnerable, and depressively nurtured and kept his suspicions and doubts of not being loved until his death. He wrote:

I do not deceive myself with foolish illusions. I know very well that a young and pretty girl cannot fall in love with a man like me for his looks. Because of the simple passing by of the years a man is no more physically attractive. But I’ve thought that a woman endowed with a character that perfectly harmonises with mine and enlightened by the same enthusiasm and desire for knowledge could respect me… then I dare hoping that with time she would learn to love me…

And later on he wrote her:

I suffer because of the many displeasures you give me everyday… Night and day an idea torments me: you would be happy with a young husband and maybe your compatriot…

Ultimately this unparalleled personage, who was able to achieve what perhaps anybody else would not ever dare dreaming of: success, money, adventure, travels, honours… never really uncovered what he himself considered the real treasure, as he sadly wrote:

Domestic happiness is the greatest of all earthly blessings

Proud faith in democracy

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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]

In praise of daydreaming

In this moneymaking, high-speed, success-oriented and appearance-is-all ruled world habitually “daydreamer” is a slightly offensive adjective of mockery with which inflexible restless sad workaholics, stiff etiquette and formalism worshippers and taut sentence-spitters pitifully address to the high cultural circles’ outcasts and world-that-counts’ pariahs in other words and to their bold self confident eyes  a flock  of absentminded and hopelessly quiet losers.

Nonetheless among those who ridiculously cannot realise and accept the limits and conditions of their own personalities, finances and lives and regardless strive to unreasonably divert the course of the events and nonsensically force them into an impossible lusty paradigm – which could be called utopians; or those who wish to follow unworthy highly publicised role models or worse to involve others into their own miserable ineptitude – which we could call visionaries; there are those who wisely lead their lives leaving room to sound and temperate daydreaming: a most commendable practise and meditative exercise – and naturally these are the fortunate ones I am hereby referring to.

Dreaming is unquestionably a fundamental aspect of living: imagination and fantasy create true emotions and indelible feelings. Hopes and expectations, as well as regrets and remorse, widely spread throughout daydreams accompanying the steps of our life. Anyhow woolgathering is neither a unmistakably distinct project of life, nor a well pondered definitive course of action, and it is not even the childish and useless proclaim for an alternative and of course better reality; it is a mere, and consciously distinct, image of reality that exceeds every day’s life and reassesses it under a new – happier and smoother – light.

In truth sometimes this reverie is more dangerously like a vague sense of emptiness and it reveals the confidence, or perhaps the warm hope, one has for being worthy of something better, yet, not knowing what this something actually is – as wonderfully depicted in a few lines by Flaubert:

“ Vaguement je convoitais quelque chose de splendide que je n’aurais su formuler par aucun mot, ni préciser dans ma pensée sous aucune forme, mais dont j’avais néanmoins le désir positif, incessant. ”

More often though this daydreaming fights against the hardships and responsibilities that age and reality usually – and inexorably… – bring along:

“Et puis, sont-ce là des états? Il faut s’établir, avoir une position dans le monde, on s’ennuie à rester oisif, il faut se rendre utile, l’homme est né pour travailler: maximes difficiles à comprendre et qu’on avait soin de souvent lui répéter.”

and this by opposing a marvellously clear and mellow perspective, often unachievable, that – I daresay fortunately – melts within one’s imagination. Flaubert, rather a gloomy personality, reaches wonderful nuances of merriment when daydreaming..:

“Que ne suis-je gondolier à Venise ou conducteur d’une de ces carrioles, qui, dans la belle saison, vous mènent de Nice à Rome! Il y a pourtant des gens qui vivent à Rome, des gens qui y demeurent toujours. Heureux le mendiant de Naples, qui dort au grand soleil, couché sur le rivage, et qui, en fumant son cigare, voit aussi la fumée du Vésuve monter dans le ciel! Je lui envie son lit de galets et les songes qu’il y peut faire; la mer, toujours belle, lui apporte le parfum de ses flots et le murmure lointain qui vient de Caprée. Quelquefois je me figure arriver en Sicile, dans un petit village de pêcheurs, où toutes les barques ont des voiles latines. C’est le matin; là, entre des corbeilles et des filets étendus, une fille du peuple est assise, elle a ses pieds nus, à son corset est un cordon d’or, comme les femmes des colonies grecques ; ses cheveux noirs, séparés en deux tresses, lui tombent jusqu’aux talons, elle se lève, secoue son tablier; elle marche, et sa taille est robuste et souple à la fois, comme celle de la nymphe antique. Si j’étais aimé d’une telle femme! ”

Nonetheless, I wish to remark that daydreaming does not mean censure or forgetfulness of actuality, or worse escape from real life; it is rather a flame in the darkness, a rosy perspective in proximity of a paramount choice or a capital turn of life. Even art – especially poetry – is always inspired and supported by dreams: the artists represents life just the way he/she sees it; without borders, rules and limitations. Even though sometimes this representations of the world might be rather sorrowful and murky the satisfaction of creation gives him/her peace and joy: music enthuses the listener with memories, and evoking affections and relations. Fortunately this is not a mere privilege of great minds, everyone can seek for the spark that can inspire and enrich his/her aspirations and expectations from life. In fact the great emotions that art can instigate are tightly linked to its ability in setting free the reality from the schemes and formats, by expressing it through new and diverse representations.

Human beings should never level themselves to the immediate representation of reality, but they have the right – if not the duty – to transfigure it to the extent that, via this new image of actuality, they can comply, or at least cope, with the dream of the life they mostly cherish for. It is obviously a clear fact that all human activities must consider the existing conditions and requisites and the overall framework they develop within; actually too often mirages get shattered, perspectives fade away, prospect projects weaken down: but even those professionally firmly taken decisions and highly detailed programmed/budgeted doings are based on an implicit fallacious assumption: the absolute existence of solely controllable variables… Yet even pessimism is, to a certain extent, a degenerated representation of reality, which additionally discourages from hard fighting and forecloses any enthusiasm.

Even such a severe author like Dante Alighieri, who most certainly knew enough the world’s crudeness and  its impact on actual life as he had his share of defeats, disappointments and troubles, could not refrain from daydreaming:

“Guido, i’ vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io
Fossimo presi per incantamento,
E messi in un vasel ch’ad ogni vento
Per mare andasse al voler vostro e mio,

Sì che fortuna od altro tempo rio
Non ci potesse dare impedimento,
Anzi, vivendo sempre in un talento,
Di stare insieme crescesse ‘l disio.

E monna Vanna e monna Lagia poi
Con quella ch’è sul numer de le trenta
Con noi ponesse il buono incantatore:

E quivi ragionar sempre d’amore,
E ciascuna di lor fosse contenta,
Sì come i’ credo che saremmo noi.”

[Guido, I wish that Lapo, you and I,
could be by spells conveyed, as it were now,
upon a vessel, with all the winds that blow
across all seas at our good whim to sail.

So that no misfortune nor temper of the sky
could ruin our route with hatred or cruel slip;
but we, respecting our old friendship,
to be companions still should long thereby.

And Lady Joan, and Lady Lagia, then
with she who’s the thirtieth on my rank,
with us should our good wizard set:

sailing and talking always and only of love:
and each of our three ladies would be merry
as we should be, I think, if this were thus.]

Thus surprisingly such an austere writer, who dared to describe in his Divina Commedia an audaciously insightful journey throughout the “Other World” portraying crude punishments, poignant atonements and mystic joy, used to covet a very simple – and rather common I daresay – dream: to sail far and away, boundlessly, on a little vessel with his two best friends and fellow poets Guido Cavalcanti and Lapo Gianni and their  three girlfriends, cherishing the pleasure of infinite hours spent talking about art and love within the smooth waves of the tranquil ocean.

I definitely concur that modern life requires a cold blooded capacity of promptly and correctly analysing people and situations. Nonetheless daydreams accompany life, do not replace it; they do not overflow on actuality, but can smooth it out – thus reducing its severity, intransigence and harshness; and they allow to overcome dire moments by unveiling promising new perceptions of present and future. Therefore consequent joy, sadness, hopes and fears should move along our daily steps following – but absolutely not stopping – the rhythm of our life, which would be otherwise too rational, and also way more droning.

Ultimately daydreaming is both the spring and symptom of a positive attitude towards life, because in each and every moment gives room and way to hints of happiness, flashes of possible satisfactions and anticipations of prospect victories: altogether some softer and milder expectations that may try to counterbalance those foggy, grey and gloomy hours and days that nobody ever lacks of…

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

Odysseus judge and executioner

In my last post I have been analysing the revenge perpetrated by Odysseus against Penelope’s suers at his return to Ithaca. He showed no mercy to anyone and savagely slain 108 individuals:

“These men here has the fate of the gods destroyed and their own reckless deeds, for they honoured no one of men upon the earth, were he evil or good, whosoever came among them; wherefore by their wanton folly they brought on themselves a shameful death”.

Yet our hero has not fully performed his offended king’s “duties” as loyalty within the oikos needs now to be assessed and punishment to the unfaithful must be performed; thus more blood and pitiless actions will take place under his orders. Nevertheless a totally different approach will lead him in administering justice within the saddened walls of his own palace.

Twelve of his fifty servants, have shown  disrespect to Penelope and Telemachus, and worse of all they have become concubines of the suers, thus violating their oikos duty of sexual fidelity towards their king:

“But come, name thou over to me the women in the halls, which ones dishonour me and which are guiltless.” Then the dear nurse Eurycleia answered him: “Then verily, my child, will I tell thee all the truth. Fifty women servants hast thou in the halls, women that we have taught to do their work, to card the wool and bear the lot of slaves. Of these twelve in all have set their feet in the way of shamelessness, and regard not me nor Penelope herself. And Telemachus is but newly grown to manhood, and his mother would not suffer him to rule over the women servants.”

Odysseus summons the twelve unfaithful women and orders them to move away the slain bodies and clean up the still bleeding hall, floor and furniture; regrettably this is not at all their punishment:

“But when they had set in order all the hall, they led the women forth from the well-built hall to a place between the dome and the goodly fence of the court, and shut them up in a narrow space, whence it was in no wise possible to escape. Then wise Telemachus was the first to speak to the others, saying: “Let it be by no clean death that I take the lives of these women, who on my own head have poured reproaches and on my mother, and were wont to lie with the wooers.”

The disloyal concubines were all hanged to death:

“…tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it round the dome, stretching it on high that none might reach the ground with her feet. And as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their resting-place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid, that they might die most piteously. And they writhed a little while with their feet, but not long.”

The maid-servants were not the only people of the oikos who had betrayed and been punished. Melanthius, his goatherd, had been repeatedly helping the suitors, even supplying them with weapons during the feral revenge of Ulysses:

“Then Melanthius, the goatherd, answered him: “It may not be, Agelaus, fostered of Zeus, for terribly near is the fair door of the court, and the mouth of the passage is hard. One man could bar the way for all, so he were valiant. But come, let me bring you from the store-room arms to don, for it is within, methinks, and nowhere else that Odysseus and his glorious son have laid the arms.” So saying, Melanthius, the goatherd, mounted up by the steps of the hall to the store-rooms of Odysseus. Thence he took twelve shields, as many spears, and as many helmets of bronze with thick plumes of horsehair, and went his way, and quickly brought and gave them to the wooers.”

And he was stopped by Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd, who offers to Ulysses to kill him:

“But Melanthius, the goatherd, went again to the store-room to bring beautiful armour; howbeit the goodly swineherd marked him, and straightway said to Odysseus who was near: “Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, yonder again is the pestilent fellow, whom we ourselves suspect, going to the store-room. But do thou tell me truly, shall I slay him, if I prove the better man, or shall I bring him hither to thee, that the fellow may pay for the many crimes that he has planned in thy house?”

Ulysses was still fighting against the suers, therefore it is Eumaeus who is appointed to chase, capture and execute the traitor:

“I and Telemachus will keep the lordly wooers within the hall, how fierce soever they be, but do you two bend behind him his feet and his arms above, and cast him into the store-room, and tie boards behind his back; then make fast to his body a twisted rope, and hoist him up the tall pillar, till you bring him near the roof-beams, that he may keep alive long, and suffer grievous torment.”

Eumaeus, helped by another swineherd, did then perform his duty in full accordance with his master’s instructions and did leave the traitor tied up with a mortal rope:

“then the two sprang upon him and seized him. They dragged him in by the hair, and flung him down on the ground in sore terror, and bound his feet and hands with galling bonds, binding them firmly behind his back, as the son of Laertes bade them, the much enduring, goodly Odysseus; and they made fast to his body a twisted rope, and hoisted him up the tall pillar, till they brought him near the roof-beams.”

It is quite remarkable that the chastisement is in both cases decided by Odysseus, but performed by others. Unlike his “vendetta” – which is carried out personally by Odysseus, when it come to administering justice in his own reign our hero issues his “sentence” and then dispatches servants to summon the culprits and perform the unfaltering punishment.

Furthermore, it is worth noticing that in both cases the tool used for the execution is a “rope” – albeit different kind of chords (a slipknot or tie rope) and used with different method (hanging or fastening). The maid-servants were hanged with a brochos – a noose – which in the Greek world was typical. Women normally chose it (in case of suicide), or were sentenced to death always by hanging. There are numerous examples within the ancient Greek mythology, literature and tragedy that confirm this custom: in a old Rhodian legend reported by Pausania Helen of Troy was hanged as a refugee in Rhodes after Menelaus death in Sparta; Antigone the daughter of the unintentionally incestuous matrimony between King Oedipus of Thebes and his mother Jocasta, took her life by hanging herself in order to prevent her from being buried alive by Creon; and her mother as well, Jocasta who committed suicide once she realised being an incestuous wife:

“And I saw the mother of Oedipodes, fair Epicaste,[Homer version of Jocasta] who wrought a monstrous deed in ignorance of mind, in that she wedded her own son, and he, when he had slain his own father, wedded her, and straightway the gods made these things known among men. Howbeit he abode as lord of the Cadmeans in lovely Thebe, suffering woes through the baneful counsels of the gods, but she went down to the house of Hades, the strong warder. She made fast a noose on high from a lofty beam, overpowered by her sorrow, but for him she left behind woes full many, even all that the Avengers of a mother bring to pass”.

Actually the hanging of a woman was then also considered an aition, a ritual: in Delphi, as Plutarch wrote, every eight years a religious ceremony was performed to commemorate the death of a young girl Charila, who according to the legend had been sacrificed to put an end to a famine in the region; the procession carried a hanged-doll to Charila’s grave; and again Statius in his Thebaid reports of a choir of maidens that, feeling in some kind of danger, decided to escape by hanging themselves:

“cum luderent virgines meditatus ruinam omnis chorus in arborem nucis fugit et in ramo eius pependit”

Another Thessaly ritual, performed on a yearly basis, consisted in several virgins that performed the hanging of a goat. This ritual was linked to the legend of Tartar, a ruthless tyrant of Melitea (a polis of Thessaly) who repeatedly kidnapped and raped young girls from the region, until one of them Aspalis hanged herself to escape his assaults and tortures. Later on her brother, disguised as a maiden, sneaked into the tyrant’s palace and murdered him, thus avenging his sister.

Another rope: this time is the desmos – a strong fastening rope and another punishment is instead arranged for the male-traitor. Unlike the twelve servants, the disloyal goatherd will face a slow and painful death, tied up to a wooden column – the kion. This punishment, which clearly refers to the myths of Sisyphus, Prometheus, Tantalus, and known as apotympanismos, was normally administered to awful criminals being meant to leave them die gradually; and it was widely diffused even in the Pentecontaetian Athens, with the only difference in later days of exposing the sentenced unlawful villains for the public to see and be intimidated. The punishment of women, instead, was and remained along the centuries after Homer a more homely affair, strictly performed and retained within the walls of the oikos – coherently likewise everything referred to Athenian women…

Thus Ulysses, considering his mythological and traditional background, in addition to his well known skills and endowments, within his kingdom seems also a brainy judge, who – although quite briskly – following the unwritten nomoi and his own popular sense of themis – rather not unwisely – administers the justice in Ithaca and dispenses the consequent canonical punishments to the rogues.

Revenge and justice in Odysseus

Feelings and actions in Homer characters offer a wonderful and rich amount of clues as to the ancient Greek world’s moral values, religious creed and social custom and rituals. Nevertheless we usually tend to idealise the heroes and their acts, and we seldom actually contextualise the poems, a practice that sometimes may lead us to contradictory or fallacious interpretations of their behaviour. For instance: Odysseus is back to Ithaca after twenty years of (mis)adventurous wanderings, thanks to the help of Athena he is disguised as an old beggar and hosted in his own palace by his own (still unaware) wife and his accomplice son; yet there is no time at all to cherish his return: his first duty is to take back the control of his kingdom, his palace, his oikos and avenge himself. To restore his honour and take vengeance is his first and foremost aim. The occasion is given by the uninformed Penelope herself:

“Now when the fair lady reached 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 straightway she spoke among the wooers, and said: “Hear me, ye proud wooers, who have beset this house to eat and drink ever without end, since its master has long been gone, nor could you find any other plea to urge, save only as desiring to wed me and take me to wife. Nay, come now, ye wooers, since this is shown to be your prize. I will set before you the great bow of divine Odysseus, and whosoever shall most easily string the bow in his hands and shoot an arrow through all twelve axes, with him will I go, and forsake this house of my wedded life, a house most fair and filled with livelihood, which, methinks I shall ever remember even in my dreams.”

Odysseus awaits in a corner and observes each of the candidates’ failure, and finally asks  for the permission to try; then allowed by the Queen, among the laughs and mockeries of the all the contenders, he grabs the bow and effortlessly aces the test. This is the moment of revelation and revenge: Telemachus in his shining bronze armour takes the stand by his father’s side and Odysseus, suddenly back to his young and strong himself, taking everyone by surprise kills first Antinous (with an arrow through his throat) and then one by one the whole 108 usurpers.

Now, some readers – and even some scholars – deem this violent vendetta rather excessive, especially considering the crimes committed by the pretenders were not that grave, even in those days. Furthermore it is worth to notice that among the 108 suitors-victims there are several quite different personalities with distinct aims and levels of participation to the felonies perpetrated by the bunch. Actually Homer refers to the suers quite always as a group, nonetheless, there are examples within and throughout the poem into which the Poet describes individuals by characterising either their specific evil disposition or their disagreement and/or dissociation with respect to some criminal decisions and ill-actions performed by the group.

There is no doubt that Antinous, their natural charismatic chief, was portrayed as the worst of them all, keenly taking advantage of the devastating situation in Ithaca and trying unsuccessfully to kill Telemachus:

“The wooers they straightway made to sit down and cease from their games; and among them spoke Antinous, son of Eupeithes, in displeasure; and with rage was his black heart wholly filled, and his eyes were like blazing fire. “Out upon him, verily a proud deed has been insolently brought to pass by Telemachus, even this journey, and we deemed that he would never see it accomplished. Forth in despite of all of us here the lad is gone without more ado, launching a ship, and choosing the best men in the land. He will begin by and by to be our bane; but to his own undoing may Zeus destroy his might before ever he reaches the measure of manhood. But come, give me a swift ship and twenty men, that I may watch in ambush for him as he passes in the strait between Ithaca and rugged Samos. Thus shall his voyaging in search of his father come to a sorry end.” So he spoke, and they all praised his words, and bade him act”.

Actually twice failing in his plot and yet eagerly inciting his companions:

“Then among them spoke Antinous, son of Eupeithes: “Lo, now, see how the gods have delivered this man from destruction. Day by day watchmen sat upon the windy heights, watch ever following watch, and at set of sun we never spent a night upon the shore, but sailing over the deep in our swift ship we waited for the bright Dawn, lying in wait for Telemachus, that we might take him and slay the man himself; howbeit meanwhile some god has brought him home. But, on our part, let us here devise for him a woeful death, even for Telemachus, and let him not escape from out our hands, for I deem that while he lives this work of ours will not prosper. For he is himself shrewd in counsel and in wisdom, and the people nowise show us favour any more. Nay, come, before he gathers the Achaeans to the place of assembly–for methinks he will in no wise be slow to act, but will be full of wrath, and rising up will declare among them all how that we contrived against him utter destruction, but did not catch him; and they will not praise us when they hear of our evil deeds. Beware, then, lest they work us some harm and drive us out from our country, and we come to the land of strangers. Nay, let us act first, and seize him in the field far from the city, or on the road; and his substance let us ourselves keep, and his wealth, dividing them fairly among us; though the house we would give to his mother to possess, and to him who weds her. Howbeit if this plan does not please you, but you choose rather that he should live and keep all the wealth of his fathers, let us not continue to devour his store of pleasant things as we gather together here, but let each man from his own hall woo her with his gifts and seek to win her; and she then would wed him who offers most, and who comes as her fated lord.”

But above all is he the very one who beats up Ulysses (while he was camouflaged as a ragged vagrant) the very morning of our hero’s revenge:

“…and Antinous waxed the more wroth at heart, and with an angry glance from beneath his brows spoke to him winged words: “Now verily, methinks, thou shalt no more go forth from the hall in seemly fashion, since thou dost even utter words of reviling.” So saying, he seized the footstool and flung it, and struck Odysseus on the base of the right shoulder, where it joins the back. But he stood firm as a rock, nor did the missile of Antinous make him reel; but he shook his head in silence, pondering evil in the deep of his heart.”

Eurymachus is another ill-character, he takes the command after Antinous’ death, but immediately afterwards he realises that there is no gateway, consequently he tries another strategy by admitting the serious offence he caused and offering his public apology by paying him back for the damages and his wrongdoing:

“many deeds of wanton folly in thy halls and many in the field…. but do thou spare the people that are thine own; and we will hereafter go about the land and get thee recompense for all that has been drunk and eaten in thy halls, and will bring each man for himself in requital the worth of twenty oxen, and pay thee back in bronze and gold until thy heart be warmed; but till then no one could blame thee that thou art wroth.”

Eurymachus’ proffer  cannot be deemed totally inconsiderate by Ancient Greek standards, yet his cowardice is peer to his deceitfulness as he puts the entire blame on the just murdered – and until only a few minutes before comrade – Antinous:

“But he [Antinous] now lies dead, who was to blame for all, even Antinous; for it was he who set on foot these deeds, not so much through desire or need of the marriage, but with another purpose, which the son of Cronos did not bring to pass for him, that in the land of settled Ithaca he might himself be king, and might lie in wait for thy son and slay him”.

The deal – act of contrition and patrimonial indemnity – is brusquely refused by Odysseus:

“Eurymachus, not even if you should give me in requital all that your fathers left you, even all that you now have, and should add other wealth thereto from whence ye might, not even so would I henceforth stay my hands from slaying until the wooers had paid the full price of all their transgression. Now it lies before you to fight in open fight, or to flee, if any man may avoid death and the fates; but many a one, methinks, shall not escape from utter destruction.”

Thus the feral revenge takes place, no escape, no mercy, one by one the suitors are slain by a thunderous Odysseus:

“…Odysseus amid the bodies of the slain, all befouled with blood and filth, like a lion that comes from feeding on an ox of the farmstead, and all his breast and his cheeks on either side are stained with blood, and he is terrible to look upon..”.

What has been often remarked is that Odysseus unemotionally kills all of them, including Leiodes, their soothsayer who always sincerely dreaded their actions:

“But 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.”.

And also shows no mercy for Amphinomus, an unprejudiced personage who had appeared wise also to Penelope’s eyes:

“He was the glorious son of the prince Nisus, son of Aretias, and he led the wooers who came from Dulichium, rich in wheat and in grass, and above all the others he pleased Penelope with his words, for he had an understanding heart.”

and had refused to participate in the plot for the assassination of Telemachus:

“Friends, I surely would not choose to kill Telemachus; a dread thing is it to slay one of royal stock…”

Thus Odysseus’ conduct may seem somewhat incongruous as he completely disregards the individual behaviour of the single members of the bunch and massacres indifferently each and everyone of them ignoring any of their attempts of justification and even any considerate appeal for mercy, including the one of Leiodes – regardless “deeds of wanton folly were hateful to him alone, and he was full of indignation at all the wooers”.

In reality in Homeric society revenge, justice and punishment are conceived, placed and administered at different levels. In Homer’s world vengeance takes no notice of behavioural choices taken by the offender: no matter if he was under pressure, or obeying an order or worse just following the stream while mingling within the crowd – which is the case. There is no consideration whatsoever as to the possible unequal conscience’s situations and single ethic circumstances within the members of the gang. Revenge has no concern for consciousness and culpability, willingness and motive: these concepts pertain to the justice’s sphere, which has really little to do with reprisal itself. In Homer, vendetta is a mere matter of honour – offended honour – and the only plausible reparations within this ancient themis and nomos framework are either the killing or the forgiveness. Nonetheless each and both determinations have no other reason to prevail than the offended pure will, without any possible reference to the circumstances, intentions and emotional participation that have accompanied the committed crime. Honour, if it has been offended, must be somehow compensated, in a form and in a way that can unquestionably restore the image, stature and status of the insulted king primarily within his own community and even in the outer world – he will incontestably decide his offenders’ atonement path.

Ultimately vendetta within the Homeric poems  is purely a matter of regaining incontrovertibly the lost reputation and re-establishing social standing and political power and credibility above and within the community. Therefore, given the perpetrated and reiterated offences carried out against his realm, family, possessions and oikos in general, Odysseus – albeit certainly also blinded by his escalating rage – seems to have followed paradigmatically, and rather canonically, the ritual retaliation of mass hybris.