Homer as Political Thinker II

Odysseus’ return home is a restoration of his kingship and so is a political event, amongst other things. He faces a major political problem on his return, which is that the Suitors are out of control and are consuming his wealth. The Suitors are the aristocratic families, who seem to be largely if not entirely from Cephalonia, one of the Ionian islands south of Ithaca. It is possible to look at all this on a map of modern Greece with the reservation that the relation between Homer and observable geography is always poetic more than useful for map making purposes and that there is no certainty that the island now known as Ithaca is the same as the island kingdom mentioned by Homer. The modern name is itself a tribute to Homer rather than a name that has always been there.

The Suitors and their families seem very present on Ithaca at the end of The Odyssey, and also seem to be in a subordinate relation to Odysseus, so could be the aristocracy of Ithaca and dependent territories rather than people visiting from a separate domain. The belief that the Suitors have betrayed a relationship of loyalty is the justification for the horrifying massacre very close to the end of The Odyssey. At least one of the conversations of The Odyssey seem to suggest that the kingship of Ithaca does not go automatically to the  heir of a recently deceased king in a clear line of descent. So it looks as if the king might be an elective figure, elected by the major landowning families of Ithaca and associated territories, or at least some who commands some consensus amongst the aristocracy regarding his claims to be  king.

I cannot see anything else in Homer to suggest that kings are appointed in  that manner, though kings are assumed to be the strongest warriors and closely  related to the gods, possibly implying that their position could be under threat if they are not the best warriors. The one king at Troy who is not still a heroic warrior is Nestor of Pylos and he compensates for this with the quality of his advice, in which he resembles Odysseus, in a quality of advice that is, not limitations in his fighting capacity, which is shown to be not not much below that of the greatest heroes, Hector and Achilles. Hector’s own father, King Priam of Troy is shown to be too elderly and infirm to fight and does not compensate for that with advice and ingenuity. Hector seems to have largely taken over from him as the king in all the activities expected of a king. So inheritance seems to be the rule and on Ithaca there seems to be an assumption that Telemachus will inherit the kingdom from his father. That still leaves the question of what is inherited.

The palace of Odysseus seems to be with some other great houses in the ‘city’ in Ithaca, which is presumably a citadel with the royal palace and a few other major building, and some huts for farmers and craftsmen outside the citadel wall, that anyway is the typical pattern of Mycenaean cities. The palace of Odysseus  is identified as the best out of some buildings close together, which might suggest a group of aristocratic mansions, centred round banqueting halls, like the palace of Odysseus, and Odysseus has the biggest. Is it biggest because he is the king, or is he king because he has the most impressive private property? Anyway, the assembly of the Suitors in the ‘city’ suggests that the aristocracy have some idea of government of the city through power sharing between the great families. They also bring up the issue of people who died in the Trojan war as part of the reason for denying allegiance to Odysseus on his return.

There is a suggestion of a political aristocratic revolt against the dangers of the war, and even a slight suggestion of a war of the plebeian Cephalonians against a despotic Odysseus threatening on sending them to war in a land so far unknown to them. Odysseus is given a link with the common kind of man when he visits the herdsman Eumaeus in disguise and finds him to to be full of noble virtue. It is later suggested that Eumaeus is of a royal lineage, so quite what kind of social standing he is connected with is undefined. Odysseus himself imitate Eumaeus in that he adopts the cover story of a vagabond who used to be of very high standing. When Odysseus gets to the palace and reveals himself he restores the ideal of the stability of a kingdom under an unquestioned god king, but we have also seen evidence of other forms of conflict about the power in the kingdom.

More to come


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