Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: The Counsel of Thersites
In the Iliad, it’s not only heroes like Achilles who raise doubts about war. Thersites, a commoner, does, too—attacking the aristocracy while he’s at it.
In my previous essay, we saw how Homer’s Iliad uses the character of Achilles to express skepticism toward the ideal of military glory, and a preference for the pursuits of peace. Before passing from Homer to Hesiod, let’s take a look at how a very different character from the Iliad – the commoner Thersites, the “ugliest man who came beneath Ilion” 1 – is used to suggest a further libertarian moral.
The Iliad begins in the tenth year of the Achaian (Greek) expedition against Troy, an expedition thus far unsuccessful. Early in the poem, Agamemnon, leader of the expedition, decides to test the morale of his troops by falsely announcing plans to give up the campaign and return home:
And now nine years of mighty Zeus have gone by, and the timbers of our ships have rotted away and the cables are broken and far away our own wives and our young children are sitting within our halls and wait for us, while still our work here stays forever unfinished as it is, for whose sake we came hither. Come then, do as I say, let us all be won over; let us run away with our ships to the beloved land of our fathers since no longer now shall we capture Troy of the wide ways. 2
Unfortunately for Agamemnon, his troops are more homesick and battle‐weary than he has bargained for, and they accept the proposal with unexpected alacrity:
[A]ll of that assembly was shaken, and the men in tumult swept to the ships, and underneath their feet the dust lifted and rose high, and the men were all shouting to one another to lay hold on the ships and drag them down to the bright sea. 3
In short, it’s not only Achilles but the entire army that prefers the life of domestic peace to that of foreign war. And so “a homecoming beyond fate might have been accomplished,” 4 – but Odysseus (a former draft evader as tradition has it, though once compelled to join the war effort he became pretty thoroughly committed) quickly rushes into the crowd to call them back.
Odysseus’s manner of engagement varies strikingly depending on the class of the person he is remonstrating with. Toward those of high position or noble birth he is mild and respectful:
Whenever he encountered some king, or man of influence, he would stand beside him and with soft words try to restrain him: ‘Excellency! It does not become you to be frightened like any coward. Rather hold fast and check the rest of the people. …’ 5
But when he encounters a commoner, the “soft words” are replaced by insults and blows:
When he saw some man of the people who was shouting, he would strike at him with his staff, and reprove him also: ‘Excellency! Sit still and listen to what others tell you, to those who are better men than you, you skulker and coward and thing of no account whatever in battle or council. …’ 6
(“Excellency” is a misleadingly deferential translation of a Greek term which can properly be used to address either nobles or commoners; “good sir” would be a bit closer.)
Odysseus chastises the commoners for their temerity in acting on their own judgment rather than bowing to Agamemnon: “Surely not all of us Achaians can be as kings here. Lordship for many is no good thing. Let there be one ruler .…” 7 Of course such a reproof is doubly unfair: first, because they are not defying Agamemnon but on the contrary are acting as Agamemnon has just (insincerely) instructed them; and second, because the commoners aren’t doing anything that the nobles aren’t doing too, yet the latter have received a much gentler reproof.
It is at this point that Thersites – one of the despised commoners, a buffoon, “bandy‐legged” and “lame of one foot,” with “shoulders stooped and drawn together over his chest,” and a head that “went up to a point” 8 – enters the narrative:
[B]ut one man, Thersites of the endless speech, still scolded, who knew within his head many words, but disorderly; vain, and without decency, to quarrel with the princes .… But he, crying the words aloud, scolded Agamemnon: ‘Son of Atreus, what thing further do you want, or find fault with now? Your shelters are filled with bronze, there are plenty of the choicest women for you within your shelter, whom we Achaians give to you first of all whenever we capture some stronghold. Or is it still more gold you will be wanting, that some son of the Trojans, breakers of horses, brings as ransom out of Ilion, one that I, or some other Achaian, capture and bring in? … [L]et us go back home in our ships, and leave this man here by himself in Troy to mull his prizes of honour .…’ 9
Thersites also describes, quite accurately, Agamemnon’s childish and greedy behavior in his dispute with Achilles, which Homer has shown the reader in the previous book.
Odysseus’s response to Thersites’ outburst is swift: he “dashed the sceptre against his back and shoulders,” so that Thersites “doubled over, and a round tear dropped from him, and a bloody welt stood up between his shoulders,” while the spectators “laughed over him happily.” 10
Is the reader supposed to join in the mirth? Some interpreters have thought so; indeed, Homer is periodically charged with “aristocratic bias.” 11 Literary theorist Kenneth Burke sees the Thersites episode as a technique for “silencing objections of any in the audience who might tend to rebel,” by getting the objection “stated in the work itself” but “voiced in a way that in the same breath disposes of it” through making its spokesman “the abominable Thersites, for whom no ‘right‐minded’ member of the Greek audience was likely to feel sympathy.” 12 And classical scholar Gerard Else, in terms reminiscent of Nietzsche, reads Homer as uncritically accepting the Greek class system:
Greek thinking begins with and for a long time holds to the proposition that mankind is divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and these terms are quite as much social, political, and economic as they are moral. … [I]t began as the aristocrats’ view of society and reflects their idea of the gulf between themselves and the “others.” … [O]f course “we” are the good people, the proper, decent, good‐looking, right‐thinking ones, while “they” are the rascals, the poltroons, the good‐for‐nothings – in short, everyone else. … The dichotomy is mostly taken for granted in Homer: there are not many occasions when the heaven‐wide gulf between heroes and commoners even has to be mentioned. 13
All the same, even if Homer does buy into the idea that merit correlates with class, he seems to regard the correlation as environmentally determined rather than innate: “Zeus of the wide brows takes away one half of the virtue from a man, once the day of slavery closes upon him.” 14 Moreover, if Homer’s aim is to discredit Thersites, why does he make his condemnation of Agamemnon so accurate – and why does he make his target one of the least sympathetic of the aristocratic characters? Why, too, does he place the Thersites incident in the context of a gross deception on Agamemnon’s part, followed up by grossly unfair brutality on the part of Odysseus? And finally, why does Thersites’ call to return home end up being echoed later in the poem by the handsome, heroic, and aristocratic Achilles?
In his introduction to his own translation of the Iliad, the poet and classicist Robert Graves calls Thersites’ remarks a “sensible and telling speech,” and notes: “To dissociate himself from Thersites’ sentiments, Homer presents him as bow‐legged, bald, hump‐backed, horrible‐looking, and a general nuisance; but the speech and Odysseus’ brutal action stay on record.” 15 I don’t think it’s implausible to see the character of Thersites as embodying Homer’s own skepticism both about the superiority of the aristocracy and about the glorious purpose of war.
Iliad 2. 216; Richmond Lattimore translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). ↩
See, e.g., Albert G Keller, “Sociology and Homer,” p. 42; in American Journal of Sociology 9.1 (July 1903), pp. 37–45; Kurt A. Raaflaub, Josiah Ober, and Robert Wallace, Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), p. 32; and Lillian Eileen Doherty, Homer’s Odyssey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 301. ↩
Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 110. ↩
Gerald Frank Else, Aristotle’s Poetics: The Argument (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 75. ↩