The Odyssey

A peacetime epic, or a critique of the values of the Heroic Age?

Compared to Homer’s Iliad, the Odyssey appears to be set in a world at peace. But despite the epic taking place far from the Trojan battlefield, violence still plays an important role.

Written by Rosie Roberts on

Homer’s Odyssey has long been described as the “peacetime counterpart” to the Iliad (Dean 1976, p.229; Rutherford 1993, p.40), and while it is set in a world at peace, especially compared to the abundant battle scenes of the Iliad, there may be more under the surface.

Therefore, this article will examine the Odyssey more closely, looking at the world it depicts and, more importantly, the way its main character interacts with that world, in order to determine how “peaceful” this epic truly is.

Journey from war to peace

A surface-level analysis of the Odyssey might present an image of Odysseus as a war hero returning home, with his journey being both a physical one through the – real and imaginary – Mediterranean, and an emotional one as he adjusts from 10 years of fighting on the beaches of Troy to the peaceful outside world.

It follows, then, that the first chronological interaction Odysseus and his men have with a civilization in the Odyssey results in them sacking the city of Ismarus rather brutally. By Odysseus’ own description, he and his companions “plundered it and killed all the men, and we took the women with us as slaves, with a vast haul of treasure” (Od. 9.40-1, trans. by S. Mitchell).

The sacking of Ismarus is reminiscent of the mentions of how the Achaean soldiers sacked and plundered the cities surrounding Troy (Il. 1.163-4, for example), including the homelands of Chryseis and Briseis, and therefore links the Odysseus of the Iliad with his characterisation at the very start of his journey home.

As Odysseus’ journey progresses, he becomes more diplomatic in his approach to new civilizations, something which is very clearly shown in his interactions with Nausicaa (Od. 6.128-315). It should, however, be noted that Odysseus had, earlier in his journey, approached Ismarus with twelve ships of soldiers fresh from war, whereas he arrived at the Phaeacians’ land alone and without even his clothes.

Odysseus was in no position to even consider sacking the Phaeacian city of Scherie the way he had Ismarus at the start of his journey. As his time with the Phaeacians progressed, his interactions with the incendiary character of Euryalus (Od. 8.158-234) demonstrated that he was indeed leaning towards the more peaceful and acceptable methods of resolving conflict and demonstrating his prowess: words and sports.

The structure of this book places Odysseus’ tale of the sacking of Ismarus within his diplomatic and peaceful time on Scherie. This means a stark contrast is provided, which shows how far Odysseus has developed as a character on the course of his journey. The tale of the Cyclops provides a mid-point between these two extremes. Also related while in the Phaeacian city, the story involves Odysseus entering the land of the Cyclopes with more peaceful intent, looking to discover where he and his crew had ended up (Od. 9.171-271).

However, as the encounter progressed, the Cyclops acted violently towards Odysseus and his men. As such, when they had defeated him and escaped, Odysseus’ desire for glory necessitated his taunting of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, to the extent that his ship was almost destroyed by the rocks Polyphemus threw in anger, much to the dismay of the men on board (Od. 9.473-542).

Indeed, during this tale, Odysseus even noted that he couldn’t hear his men’s pleas to stop taunting the Cyclops because he was so overcome by anger (Od. 9.500-1). This episode in Odysseus’ tale, then, demonstrates both his attempt to be peaceful, when he first arrived on the island, and his devolution into glory-seeking arrogance after he had successfully outsmarted Polyphemus.

In a similar vein is the episode with Circe. Here, too, Odysseus attempted to be peaceful upon his arrival on her island, sending a party of his men to learn where they had landed (Od. 10.188-208). Indeed, Odysseus was never directly violent while on Circe’s island, only threatening her once, and even this was a result of Hermes’ advice (Od. 10.290-325).

Putting these four interactions in chronological order, a progression can be seen in the way Odysseus communicates with new civilizations he encounters. He started with the violent sacking of Ismarus immediately after he had left the battlefield of Troy, then he moved on to the peaceful start to the interaction with the Cyclops, though his desire for glory got the better of him towards the end of the encounter. Next, there was the relatively peaceful interaction with Circe, though this did involve some threats, and finally his completely peaceful and diplomatic time on Scherie with the Phaeacians.

The U-turn of book 22

Over the course of books 5 to 12 of the Odyssey, Odysseus can be seen learning to control his anger and restrain it for the purposes of diplomacy. How, then, does the battle of book 22, in which Odysseus and his allies killed the suitors and subsequently executed the maids, fit into this progression?

Odysseus’ growing restraint for his temper, and behaviour generally, do help him to maintain his disguise as a beggar in the palace upon his return to Ithaca, but if he really did learn restraint and how to act in this peacetime world, why do his actions in book 22 feel like a sack of his own city akin to the sack of Ismarus described in book 9?

Keeping in mind that Odysseus had been away for 20 years by the time he returned to Ithaca, it then follows that a lot of the younger people on the island would not remember him (Dean 1976, p.234). These younger people would no doubt include many of the suitors and especially the maids killed in book 22.

Therefore, when Odysseus talks about the enslaved people in the palace acting “disloyally” (Od. 22.412-13) and has them brutally hanged, it appears that he is angry that the maids didn’t show loyalty to a king they only knew of through the stories of the older Ithacans. The enslaved people of the palace were also required to be loyal to Penelope and Telemachus, and they were not, despite the text demonstrating Penelope’s kindness towards them (Od. 18.318-322), but it still warrants consideration whether disloyalty and disobedience justified their fate.

The maids’ relationships with the suitors are similarly ambiguous; though many translations present the maids as willingly sleeping with the suitors, the Greek text does not make clear whether the maids were raped or not. The context of the maids being enslaved and the suitors being members of the aristocracy suggests further how little choice the maids would have had if the suitors had taken an interest in them.

Emily Wilson has stated that in her recent translation of the Odyssey she made efforts to emphasise the needless brutality of Odysseus’ treatment of the maids, as past translators have glossed over this, or even shifted the blame onto the maids for their own deaths (Mason 2017).

Treatment of enslaved people, particularly enslaved women, as disposable, unnamed possessions and not people seems to be a feature of Homeric epic, with the Iliad often including enslaved women as part of prizes (Johnston 1988, p.70), and while this may explain the needless brutality shown towards them in the Odyssey, it does not excuse or justify it.

Continuing in this vein of comparisons, it can be argued that the battle of book 22 feels more brutal and ruthless than the battles of the Iliad. The Iliad has a necrology for almost every soldier killed in battle, reminding the audience that every single character who dies was an individual with a homeland and a family (Johnston 1988, p.25).

The Odyssey, on the other hand, does not include necrologies in its battle scene. Some of the suitors are named as they are killed, but we don’t hear about whether they were from Ithaca or Zakynthos or any of the other nearby islands, we do not hear who their parents were, and we certainly are not given any tales about how the dying warrior was named after the river where he was born (cf. Il. 14.442-5).

The way that Homer presents the actions of those whom Odysseus kills in book 22 allows the audience to believe that they deserved the violence against them, and as such, not read into how it reflects on Odysseus’ character. Odysseus even explicitly states that the suitors brought their deaths on themselves through their actions (Od. 22.413-17), and certainly the suitors were far from innocent.

The way they used their superior status and numbers to take advantage of those around them in the palace, in particular the enslaved young maids, shows that they were by no means blameless. On top of this, their attempt to ambush Telemachus on his return from his journey of books 2-4 demonstrate that there needed to be some sort of consequences for their actions.

However, taking a closer look at their violence reveals that it is mostly carried out through trickery and manipulation, never overtly. They use their words to manipulate Penelope (Od. 16.437-50), keep their plot against Telemachus shrouded in secrecy (Od. 4.658-72, 842-7), and are only openly violent against those who would not be able to retaliate, namely those who were enslaved, and especially enslaved women (Od. 22.36-7).

The way that the suitors only started fights they knew they would win, through tricks or taking advantage of those who could not fight back, suggests a certain amount of cowardice. This suggests that there could, perhaps, have been other ways of ousting them from the palace than the battle, even ones involving less bloodshed and less risk of retaliation against Odysseus from their families. It seems, however, that Odysseus was set on slaughtering them all, as in his eyes they deserved no kinder fate.

But if only those who deserved it were killed, then why did Odysseus almost kill Phemius and Medon before Telemachus begged him to spare them? Surely, if the plan was only to kill those who had wronged Odysseus’ family while he was away, then shouldn’t he have asked his family and the enslaved people of the palace whom he trusted (Eumaeus and Philoetius, to be specific) who else ought to be spared?

Furthermore, during the battle, Leodes the priest supplicates Odysseus and begs for his life (Od. 22.310-19). The text is clear in demonstrating that he did not agree with the suitors’ behaviour (Od. 21.142-51), though could not go against them on his own, and yet Odysseus kills him anyway (Od. 22.326-9).

Odysseus seems, during the battle, to have a lack of control over who is killed and who is spared, with only Telemachus being able to get through to him to vouch for those he believes were loyal (Od. 22.354-8, 372-3).

As such, it leaves us to question whether Odysseus actually learned restraint over his temper and emotions during his journey, or if he just learned to hold onto his anger better and release it only where appropriate – in this case, when directed at the suitors.

Is it Athene’s fault?

At this point, it may be pertinent to consider the influence of Odysseus’ patron – Athene, a war goddess - on his actions. Could Odysseus’ violent actions and reluctance to show mercy while on the peaceful Ithaca be the result of Athene’s influence on him? To answer this question, Athene’s advice to Odysseus may be examined, as well as how he acted as a result.

Firstly, while Athene was present to the reader’s knowledge for much of the first 12 books, primarily just keeping Odysseus alive (Od. 5.424-9, for example), it is noted by Odysseus himself when she appears to him as herself upon his return to Ithaca, that she has not directly interacted with him in that way since he left Troy (Od. 13.314-20).

This means, therefore, that the progress Odysseus made in the restraint of his emotions and adjustment to the world of peace from leaving Troy to arriving back on Ithaca was all his own doing, and Athene’s influence only acted from book 13 onwards.

Focusing on the second half of the poem, Athene’s influence on Odysseus begins with the aforementioned meeting in book 13, in which she informs him of the situation in the palace involving the suitors.

While this sounds relatively innocuous, her phrasing – “it is time for you to consider the best way to punish the suitors” (Od. 13.376-7, trans. by S. Mitchell) – makes it clear she favours the prospect of a violent, rather than diplomatic, defeat of the suitors. This seems counterintuitive to Odysseus’ progression to more peaceful forms of interacting with those he encounters on his travels, as was discussed above, and yet this is the course of action she encourages him to pursue.

Athene’s presence, and its connection to Troy, seems to bring Odysseus back to a more wartime state of mind, as he compares the future defeat of the suitors to the fall of Troy (Od. 13.387-8). Beyond this, she simply helps him maintain his disguise and recruit Eumaeus and Telemachus to help him, before ultimately standing to fight with him in the battle of book 22. It’s hard to tell, therefore, how much of Odysseus’ actions in the second half of the poem are down to Athene’s influence.

Granted, she doesn’t influence his choices much beyond the conversation in book 13, but that interaction certainly planted a seed in Odysseus’ mind for what the suitors’ fate ought to be, and neither Telemachus nor Eumaeus attempt to dissuade him from this course of action.

In fact, Telemachus, too, had previously been encouraged by Athene towards a violent encounter with the suitors in order to remove them from the palace, even likening his potential defeat of the suitors to Orestes’ murdering Aegisthus (Od. 1.293-300).

Or was it just a long time coming?

It is difficult to determine the extent of Athene’s influence over Odysseus’ actions in book 22. The next step, therefore, is to look more closely at Odysseus’ behaviour while on his travels, and see if there were signs of this in his other actions, going against the general trend of him becoming less violent.

There are a few notable examples, the first of which being the aforementioned interaction with the Cyclops, wherein Odysseus taunted Polyphemus for the sake of his own glory and nearly caused the deaths of his men and himself as a result (Od. 9.472-542).

While this was not a violent interaction – he did not choose to attack the Cyclops after blinding him and escaping – there are connections to Troy and being at war in his actions. In the Iliad, the only positive descriptor Homer uses for war is “glory-bringing” (van Wees 2001, p.39), so it makes sense that the heroes of the Iliad would want glory as recompense for risking their lives in war. In this way, Odysseus seeks glory for his victory over the Cyclops, even if it means he is cursed and pursued by Poseidon for revenge as a result (Od. 9.528-37).

Odysseus acts similarly in the episode with Scylla in book 12, once again to the potential detriment of his men. When preparing him for the journey ahead, Circe tells Odysseus not to attempt to fight Scylla when he encounters her, as this will just endanger his men more (Od. 12.111-26). She even seems shocked at the suggestion that he would attempt to fight Scylla, showing that this is just not a course of action to even be considered (Dean 1976, n. 9).

Odysseus, though, still puts on his armour as they approach Scylla, and attempts to fight her, though he is unsuccessful in defeating her or saving his men (Od. 12.226-59). In fact, going against Circe’s warnings could have caused Scylla to come back for six more men, as she had predicted.

This could show that Odysseus was unable to leave the war and fighting state of mind, and thought it better to fight than to submit, even if it costs you your life. These two distinct examples show Odysseus going against the requests or instructions of those around him, and putting others in danger as a result.

Maybe this is all normal?

It is possible that Odysseus’ actions throughout his journey and on Ithaca may have been the result of his inability to leave the wartime state of mind behind him. The next step is to assess the world around him, focusing specifically on Ithaca, and determine if it was acceptable for Odysseus to bring the war back home with him in the way that he did.

The clearest way to do this is to look at the place the battle of book 22 has in the world of Ithaca as it was upon Odysseus’ return, but first a basis for comparison of what the surroundings and aftermath of a battle was in the context of war is required.

Looking to the Iliad for this, there are instances of battles halting for truces to bury the dead (Il. 7.399-441, 24.656-70), but it is difficult to identify how an equivalent of this mutual respect between enemy armies would be represented in the Odyssey, as all the suitors are wiped out.

The closest possible equivalent could be Odysseus and his allies allowing the families of the suitors to bury the dead and mourn them, but instead the deaths are covered up and kept secret for fear of retribution by the families.

This causes a rather unsettling juxtaposition of the horror of the battle and the celebratory nature of the wedding feast which is orchestrated as a cover-up. The use of the fake wedding feast to conceal the battle reminds us that this is the sort of event that happens in this Ithaca; it is a world of wedding feasts and peaceful celebration, not battles and killing.

Furthermore, the need to cover up the battle shows how out of place it is in this world – this level of violence does not belong in Ithaca, and yet Odysseus has introduced it anyway.

There are a number of similarities between this cover-up on Ithaca and the events in Mycenae with Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus, frequently referenced during the poem. It is certainly true that allusions were made to suggest Odysseus’ homecoming would resemble that of Agamemnon, if he was not careful upon his return (Od. 11.389-465).

The tale of Orestes’ revenge on Aegisthus was also often used to demonstrate what happens to those who do not respect xenia, the Greek concept of guest-friendship (Od. 1.27-44, 298-300, for example). Euripides’ later play Orestes explored the immediate aftermath of the murders of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

This play involved the retaliation by the people of the city, who demanded justice for the killings and did not wish for Orestes, now a murderer, to become their king (Kovacs 2002, p.400). This aspect was not explored in the recounting of the tale of Aegisthus’ death in the Odyssey, perhaps because the reminder of the possibility of retaliation if Odysseus or Telemachus followed in Orestes’ footsteps with regard to the suitors would add increased risk to his actions, as well as making them seem more questionable.

Another possibility is that this version of the myth had not yet come about, and perhaps this episode was an original creation by Euripides from the late fifth century. The use of references to these events repeatedly throughout the poem prepare both the audience and the characters of Odysseus (Od. 11.389-465) and Telemachus (Od. 1.298-300) for the oncoming violence upon Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.

The deaths of the suitors took place in a large and obvious battle, which contrasts starkly with their attempt on Telemachus’ life: a secretive plot designed to look like an accident and remove all possibility of accusation falling upon the perpetrators (Od. 4.665-76, 767-86).

This is a clear difference from Odysseus’ desire for glory for every one of his victories, and the secretive nature of the suitors’ attempt on Telemachus demonstrates how shameful such an action was in the peacetime world of Ithaca. Odysseus seems less invested in glory for his victory over the suitors, though, and prioritises regaining control of Ithaca and avoiding immediate backlash from the suitors’ families.

For this reason, the deaths of the suitors are disguised in the same way that the suitors themselves disguised their plot against Telemachus. Notably, however, any attempts at secrecy regarding the battle in book 22 only occurred after the battle had already finished, whereas the suitors’ attempted murder of Telemachus was intended to be entirely concealed from the start.

The battle of book 22 is further hidden from the people of Ithaca by Athene, who disguises Odysseus with a mist as he goes to visit his father to announce his return. The way in which the poem ends before we see the reactions of the suitors’ families and how the kingdom of Ithaca reacts to Odysseus’ return allows Homer to gloss over the consequences of the violence of book 22.

Indeed, if the poem originally ended partway through book 23, as some scholars suggest (Carne-Ross 2010, p.100), even the brief confrontation with the few people of Ithaca who had discovered the deaths of the suitors would not have occurred.

Furthermore, the insight into the suitors’ experiences in the underworld feels like a comic element, in a way, telling us that even in death the suitors still spend their time hating Odysseus and his family, despite the fact that they have even less chance of defeating him now they are dead than they did when they were alive.

Because the poem ends before any real consequences are brought about for the deaths of the suitors, and for Odysseus’ return generally, it is difficult to determine what the reaction of the Ithacan people would be; we don’t know if they would have celebrated in the way of Eurycleia (Od. 22.407-16), or been sceptical like Penelope (Od. 23.11-25), or horrified at the violence that heralded their king’s return.

The underlying darkness of the final books

The fact that we get to see the suitors in the underworld makes their deaths feel less final. This removal of the finality of death as we see in the Odyssey with the insights we are given into the underworld means that the concept of death has a lot less weight than it does in the Iliad.

Outside of Patroclus’ ghost, the Iliad gives no insight into the afterlife, and when a character dies that really is the last we hear from them. Would the deaths of Patroclus, or Hector, or any of the other heroes have had the same emotional impact if the poem’s narrator took us into the underworld to see how they were faring, post-death?

Glossing over the reactions of the suitors’ families to the events of book 22, combined with the comic elements of the underworld episode brings a more light-hearted aspect to the Odyssey, reducing the emotional impact of the deaths.

On the surface, this makes the Odyssey feel like a lighter and more comedic poem than the Iliad, but when looking into the actual material and the events, dark undertones emerge in the way the deaths and the violence are brushed under the rug (or under Laertes’ funeral shroud, if you prefer).

On one hand, it’s easy to see how later genres like the Greek romance novels originated from this poem, but on the other, the way in which the darker events are ignored rather than addressed brings a fairly unsettling undertone to the poem.

Contrasts are created between the lack of treatment of the topic of the suitors’ families and the simile linking Odysseus to the widows of dead soldiers (Od. 8.519-32), as well as that which connects Odysseus and Telemachus’ reunion to the grief of mothers whose children were taken from them by war while they were still young (Od. 16.213-19).

It seems to be quite an oxymoron to liken Odysseus to a woman grieving for a husband who died in war, and to a parent whose child was taken from them too young, before they had a chance to defend themselves.

It is rather contradictory for the narrator to allow Odysseus to relate to these experiences, and to simultaneously place him as the aggressor in both scenarios, considering the number of women he surely left widowed in Troy, and the parents he left childless both in Troy and after the battle of book 22.

It has been suggested that the aforementioned simile of the widow from book 8 indicates that Odysseus, returning to Ithaca as a beggar and as a victim of the world and of Poseidon’s wrath, now understands and can empathise with those victims of war who grieve their lost husbands or sons (Foley 1978, p.20).

I believe, however, with the way that Odysseus goes on to deprive up to 108 families of their adolescent sons, that this only shows that while you can take the man out of the war, you can’t take the war out of the man.

Is it a “peacetime” epic, then?

Like many of the arguments presented thus far, it is difficult to definitively say whether the Odyssey is a ‘peacetime’ epic or not. There seems to be a lot of contradictions in where the story seems to be going, and in how it actually concludes.

These include such things as the way in which Odysseus seems to be moving away from going into a new place ready to fight, and towards a more diplomatic approach, as well as the oxymoron of the similes expressing empathy for the grieving victims of war with Odysseus going on to create more grieving victims of war.

This doesn’t mean to say that the finale of the Odyssey is ‘bad’, though; a more peaceful conclusion to the story certainly wouldn’t have been as climactic or exciting. The goal of this article is to consider how the Odyssey’s conclusion fits with the progression of the poem up to that point, and to assess the longstanding arguments that the Odyssey is the “peacetime counterpart” (Dean 1976, p.229; Rutherford 1993, p.40) to the Iliad.

Part of assessing these arguments involves looking into how the Iliad treats war, too. Homer’s presentation of war in the Iliad has been briefly touched upon in the above discussion of necrologies, so next to examine is how the ‘war epic’ really treats the concept of war in comparison to the Odyssey.

This will involve focusing on the character of Achilles, and his two mutually exclusive fates: to die in battle and be remembered forever, or to have a long life and die in obscurity (Il. 9.410-16). Achilles ends up with the first option and a short life. The conflict that is presented in the Iliad of whether it is better to die having been remembered, or to have a long and unremarkable life follows through into the Odyssey.

Indeed, Odysseus himself at times wishes he had died with glory on the battlefields of Troy (Od. 5.306-13), and Achilles in the underworld says he wishes he had chosen a long life (Od. 11.487-91).

This choice of whether to live or to be remembered falls a little flat in terms of the Odyssey’s conclusion, however, as Odysseus gets to have it both ways. He indeed has glory and is remembered for his efforts at Troy and his journey home, as well as the defeat of the suitors, but his death is prophesied to be in a land far away, where nobody knows him, and when he is very old (Od. 11.119-37).

So, Odysseus gets the glorious life and victories, and he gets to grow old and die in obscurity. Odysseus being able to have his prophetic cake and eat it makes Achilles’ difficult choice feel rather hollow.

In the Iliad, Achilles expresses internal conflict in his opinion on the war. Initially he is willing to participate, and chooses to have a short life. Later, though, after the dispute with Agamemnon, he tells Odysseus, Nestor, and Diomedes that wants nothing to do with the war (Il. 9.337-420).

Thus, despite the setting of the Iliad being a war, what is arguably its ‘main’ character does not see the concept of war and dying for glory completely favourably throughout the poem. In a similar way, the world of the Odyssey is a world of peace – nowhere on his travels does Odysseus encounter a civilisation at war – and yet Odysseus himself seems insistent on bringing the war with him wherever he goes.

Examining the worlds of each poem – the background setting – the Iliad is indeed a war poem and the Odyssey one of peace. However, when looking more closely at the character of Odysseus and how he interacts with this peacetime world, as this discussion has done, it becomes clear that he doesn’t quite fit.

The question, therefore, isn’t quite as simple as if the Odyssey is a poem of war or of peace, and it is unfair to this complex narrative to categorise it as such. To tell its story, the Odyssey requires aspects of both war and peace; their interaction is really what the poem is about, and not either one on its own.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • D.S. Carne-Ross, “‘The poem of Odysseus”, in: K. Haynes (ed.), Classics and Translation: Essays by D.S. Carne-Ross (2010), pp. 58-100.
  • J. Dean, “The Odyssey as romance”, College Literature 3 (1976), pp. 228-236.
  • H.P. Foley, “‘Reverse similes’ and sex roles in the Odyssey”, Arethusa 11 (1978), pp. 7-26.
  • D. Kovacs, Helen, Phoenician Women, Orestes (2002).
  • W. Mason, “The first woman to translate the Odyssey into English”, New York Times (accessed 2nd February 2021).
  • I.C. Johnston, The Ironies of War. An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad (1988).
  • R.B. Rutherford, “From the Iliad to the Odyssey”, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 38 (1993), pp. 37-54.
  • H. van Wees, “War and peace in ancient Greece”, in: B. Heuser and A.V. Hartmann (eds), War, Peace and World Orders in European History (2001), pp. 33-47.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.