The Way Virtue and Rank Work in the Iliad
Rank was central in Homeric Greek society. Though first given by one’s pedigree, a man’s standing in society was affected by his aret (virtue). A man of low rank, unless elderly or a seer, was supposed to be physically weak, unremarkable or ugly, and unable to debate complicated issues well. A man of high rank was expected to have physical prowess and debating skill worthy of his fathers, and a man’s rank could be increased if he outstripped his ancestors in virtue. For example, though Odysseus is lord of a relatively minor island, he manages to augment his influence on the war through his power and cunning.
This is illustrated by Odysseus’ victory in two decisive arguments in the Iliad, one against a man of lower rank than his, the other against a man of higher rank. The former consists of Thersites’ diatribe against Agamemnon’s greed and Odysseus’ rebuttal of it (Iliad, transl. Fagles, 2.245-328), the latter is Odysseus’ rebuke of Agamemnon’s plan to flee (Iliad, 14.99-127). Odysseus, ever fitting his argument to his opponent, pulls rank on Thersites and questions Agamemnon’s virtue, saying it seems incommensurate with his vaunted position.
Thersites is a pathetic character, the antithesis of a hero. From his first description the reader or listener of the poem knows that he cannot make a decent argument. Having just been dissuaded from flight by Odysseus, all the men are content to listen to their king’s counsel except for Thersites. As the solemn assembly convenes this comic figure steps forward. Wretched Thersites, a disliked commoner and the ugliest man among the Greeks, dares to rail at Agamemnon, glorious marshal of armies! (Iliad, 246-254) How can he, totally lacking in social and physical stature, challenge the great king of Mycenae and sound the retreat for all the Achaean armies? Not effectively at all, as it turns out.
Thersites, whose oratory is on par with his appearance, presents a weak argument to the Achaean hosts. He compares Agamemnon to a greedy dog, “panting” after yet more riches that he “or another hero” shall win for him. (Iliad, 2.263-270) Thersites sets himself up as a hero lofty enough to challenge Agamemnon, then calls for a retreat on the grounds that Agamemnon is not fit to command the army. He implies that Agamemnon isn’t responsible enough to be king, declaring it “shameful” that such a “high and mighty commander” should “lead the sons of Achaea into bloody slaughter!” (Iliad, 2.272-273) Thersites calls Agamemnon’s rank and the qualities befitting his kingship into question, forgetting that he has neither the rank nor the heroic deeds behind him to support his argument. Odysseus, a man of both rank and virtue, soon reminds him of that.
Odysseus exhibits the power and poise of a great man in his successful rebuke of Thersites. He starts his confrontation with physical intimidation and ends it with a blow from Agamemnon’s scepter and threats of further violence and humiliation if Thersites should be insolent again. Using a formula he will call on again in his rebuke of Agamemnon, Odysseus, in reference to Thersites’ defeatist diatribe, tells him, “You’re the outrage[, not Agamemnon’s behavior].” (Iliad, 2.300)
Odysseus, in an attempt to keep the Achaeans from fleeing to the ships as Agamemnon had ordered as a test, “relieved him [(Agamemnon)] of his fathers’ royal scepter.” (Iliad, 2.215) This may not seem too shocking today, but in Homeric times the king’s scepter was the symbol of his authority and this particular scepter can trace its history from Hephaestus to Zeus to Hermes to Atreus to Agamemnon. This scepter represents the greatness of Agamemnon and the house of Atreus — by taking it Odysseus claims temporary power of kingship by right of his competence. Indeed, just as Agamemnon called the troops to assembly “raising high in hand the scepter,” (Iliad, 2.118) Odysseus “stood there, scepter in hand,” (Iliad, 2.226) with Athena quieting the troops for him after they cheered Thersites’ defeat, a mark of favor she had not done for Agamemnon. In this way, Odysseus is portrayed as almost kingly as a result of his virtue in terms that must have seemed obvious to Homer’s audience.
Thersites’ failure at overcoming Agamemnon’s will in argument does not mean that rank is unassailable. Later in the epic when the Trojans are pressing hard against the ships and Agamemnon counsels retreat (Iliad, 14.91-99), Odysseus successfully rebukes Agamemnon, taking up words against the great king. His argument hinges on two propositions: that Agamemnon’s conduct does not befit a man of his rank, and that a retreat would be disastrous. Making the first point, Odysseus chooses the same construction he used against Thersites and tells Agamemnon, referring to his counsel, “You are the disaster[, and not the Trojan assault]. (Iliad, 14.102, italics in original) Odysseus emphasizes the gross indecency of a man of Agamemnon’s stature proposing such a disastrous plan, saying:
Quiet! / What if one of the men gets wind of your brave plan? / No one should ever let such nonsense pass his lips, / no one with any skill in fit and proper speech — / and least of all yourself, a sceptered king. (Iliad, 14.110-114, my emphasis)
How it must cut Agamemnon to the quick that his plan should “fill me [(Odysseus)] with contempt!” (Iliad, 14.117) Odysseus is careful not to heap too much direct abuse on the head of Agamemnon out of respect, choosing to make only the few pointed remarks mentioned above. Odysseus also finishes the argument with his second, pragmatic point: the soldiers who have to be left behind until the next day, seeing that their comrades have left, will break into a rout and “commander of armies, your plan will kill us all!” (Iliad, 14.123-127) In this way cunning Odysseus, having “wheeled on his commander,” (Iliad, 14.100) gives Agamemnon an honorable reason to back down from his plan. If Agamemnon concedes that his plan was foolish he loses some face, but it is less than if he were to lead the army to ruin. Odysseus’ words win the day, saving the Achaeans.
The story of the Iliad is, in large part, a story of rank. Men are always trying to live up to or exceed the honor and virtue expected of them by reason of the rank originally derived from their parentage. Diomedes, for example, is spurred to his great prowess in battle after Agamemnon chides him for not living up to his father’s warrior reputation. Odysseus makes a truly great name for himself as he exhibits his virtue and cunning. Feats of rank such as using Agamemnon’s scepter, putting Thersites in his place, and convincing Agamemnon not to flee are by no means typical of Homeric heroes; however, they serve to illustrate the currency of virtue and deeds in the marketplace of rank.
After his reprimand of Thersites, Homer suggests a glorious picture of Odysseus. This stocky man, “shorter than Atreus’ son Agamemnon,” (Iliad, 3.235) standing erect, Agamemnon’s god-given “scepter in hand,” whips a hushed assembly of soldiers into a war-frenzy as the majestic glory of gray-eyed Athena rises from behind him: this is the quintessence of rank, the paragon of authority wielded by dint of a man’s personal excellence, a hero’s aret.
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