Stephanie Lindeborg’s study of the Homeric scholia shows how disturbing Odysseus’s behavior in Iliad 8 was to ancient scholars, and how it continued to occupy medieval scribes as well (see her series of three posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Whether Odysseus hears Diomedes and disregards him, or simply does not hear him, his brief appearance in the episode in Iliad 8, far from bringing him any glory, seems intended to undermine his reputation, and for no apparent reason. To be sure, there is no blame if Odysseus did not hear Diomedes, and this is how his reputation is defended in the scholia. The defense, however, is anything but iron-clad, and I side with those who understand the crucial words oud’ esakousen as “he did not listen,” and not “he did not hear” (the preverb es, in and of itself, indicates where Odysseus directed his attention, namely, not to Diomedes, and not what he did not hear from that direction). But this point, too, is uncertain, given counterexamples of the meaning of the compound verb in later authors. The difficulty with Odysseus’s action was not resolved in ancient or medieval times, and arguments continue to be made on both sides today as well. A scholar whom Stephanie cites presents both sides of the argument and concludes that “any audience is perfectly at liberty to assume that Odysseus ignores the cry, but it is impossible to be certain that this was the poet’s intention” (Adrian Kelly 2007; see Stephanie’s bibliography and the second installment of her study).
The poet’s intention in a wider sense is the real question here. Why does the poet put Odysseus in a position where “any audience is perfectly at liberty” to think the worst of him? Surely the poet was not so tone-deaf to his own poem as not to realize that this is absolutely the case, whatever may be said to defend Odysseus in this episode and in general. We can in fact tell that the poet knew that this episode risked blackening Odysseus’s name by the measures taken later in the poem to set the record straight. This does not happen immediately. In fact Odysseus is left out of account later in Book 8 when the retreating Greeks turn and make a stand (8.245–266). The Venetus A scholia, as discussed by Stephanie, took this second “no show” by Odysseus as confirmation that it was his deliberate choice to play the coward earlier as well. I don’t disagree with the scholia (Stephanie suggests it may have been the scribe himself who made the argument) that there is a connection between the two incidents in Book 8, but the object of the second incident, which is a non-incident after all, was not to draw attention to Odysseus for shirking yet again, but simply to leave him out of account for the time being, allowing him, as it were, to cool off after his disturbing action on the battlefield. It is not until Book 11 that Odysseus’s reputation is redeemed (Book 10, where Diomedes slays sleeping Trojan allies, but Odysseus is ready to do it, does not count, and in Book 9 words rather than deeds are at issue). In Book 11, during another Greek retreat, Odysseus has a peculiar soliloquy as he alone is left to face the oncoming Trojans, and he asks himself, Hamlet-like, whether to flee or not to flee, and then answers, with no Hamlet-like hesitation, that cowards (kakoi) flee but a champion stands his ground. He then awaits the Trojans as they surround him like hunters surrounding a wild boar. After showing his mettle by dispatching several Trojans he is finally wounded and helped from the field by others who come to his aid (Odysseus’s soliloquy, Iliad 11.404–410; note that in the immediately preceding lines the last to leave Odysseus in the lurch is the wounded Diomedes—tit for tat after Iliad 8).
Calculated to remove any stain from Odysseus’s earlier behavior (if you thought he was a kakos, think again), the episode in Iliad 11 only deepens the mystery of that earlier behavior. Something must be going on that does not meet the eye. The episode in Iliad 8 has three protagonists, and Odysseus’s role is by far the shortest. Nestor and Diomedes are the main actors, and the scene that they play out together is apparently based on a similar scene in which Nestor’s son Antilochus dies. Antilochus’s death lies outside the time frame of the Iliad, but it is mentioned in the Odyssey, when Nestor receives Telemachus in Pylos and tells him of the Trojan war and its aftermath. The actual story of Antilochus’s death is not told in Homer, but we know it from fragments of the epic cycle and, especially, a Pindaric ode. Nestor’s horse is again shot by Paris’s arrow, and this time Antilochus instead of Diomedes rescues him. But Antilochus pays for his father’s life with his own when Memnon (who now champions the Trojans in place of the dead Hector) slays him standing at his father’s defense. Diomedes, who is young like Antilochus, reenacts the episode in advance (this can happen in traditional poetry), but with a crucial change of outcome. Together Diomedes and Nestor rout the Trojans on Diomedes’ chariot, which Nestor drives, until Zeus hurls a thunderbolt in front of them that stops the horses short, and Diomedes, persuaded by Nestor, reluctantly retreats. This episode ends the terrific run Diomedes has had on the battlefield since Book 5, when Athena herself was his charioteer and he wounded even immortals. But Zeus’s plan is to have the Greeks defeated, so that at the end of Book 8 the Trojans are able to camp outside their city walls for the first time. Nestor, who restrains Diomedes in Book 8, is a direct contrast to Athena, who incites him in Book 5, and this plays on Nestor’s own traditions, when he was young and impetuous himself. These traditions are evoked in his stories about his youth in Iliad 11 and Iliad 23, but the aged Nestor in Iliad 8 has long since learned his lesson, and he imparts that lesson to his young companion.
But there is more. The episode in Iliad 8, as mentioned, looks ahead to Antilochus’s death. It does so not by direct reference, but by poetic allusion—by the parallelism between the two situations. In the same way the episode in Iliad 8 looks even further ahead to Diomedes’ fate, which is not to be slain in Troy like Antilochus, but to return home. Unlike the death of Antilochus, this story is told in Homer, and it is Nestor himself who tells it. It is again in the Odyssey, when Telemachus visits Nestor to find out what happened to his father, that we hear the story. After the fall of Troy the Greeks, in a drunken and disorderly assembly, were divided as to their course, whether to return home immediately, or to stay at Troy to appease Athena, who was clearly angry about what some of the Greeks had done in their moment of victory. The brothers Agamemnon and Menelaos were themselves divided, Agamemnon keeping half the army at Troy to appease Athena, Menelaos leading the other half of the army to Tenedos, where a second quarrel broke out. Nestor, who went with Menelaos, was in no doubt about the right course to take at this point, and fled at once for home. Diomedes, we learn, went with him, and together they reached Lesbos, where again they made the right decision, taking the fast route across the Aegean rather than the slow route by way of islands—the slow route would have been the safe route except for Athena’s anger. Diomedes, accompanying Nestor, was home in Argos in a matter of days after leaving Troy. Diomedes in fact owed his swift, safe return to his older companion, who correctly read the signs at every turn on their way home—or so we can infer from clear indirect evidence. Nestor’s name, which is closely related to the noun noos, “mind,” makes him a bred-in-the-bone interpreter of signs. His name in fact means “he who brings back,” and this meaning, which did not survive after Homer, was still very much alive in Homer. In Iliad 8, when Diomedes saves Nestor—“he who brings home”—on the battlefield, he in effect saves his own nostos—“return home”—at the end of the war.
|Nestor performing a sacrifice back home in Pylos after the war. Red-figure calyx crater by the Meleager painter, 400–380 BCE, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.|
Odysseus, too, is part of this story. In Odyssey 3 Telemachus comes to Pylos to hear what happened to his father, and Nestor tells him all, but some of it only indirectly. Nestor explicitly narrates the quarrel between Agamemnon and Menelaos that split the army in two. The second quarrel, on Tenedos, is left vague, except for its immediate effect: when Nestor fled for home, taking Diomedes with him, Odysseus—this is the crucial point in Nestor’s account—turned around and returned to Troy and Agamemnon. The second quarrel must have been between Nestor and Odysseus, though Nestor does not say so directly to Odysseus’s son. But he does so indirectly when, at the very start of his account to Telemachus, he says that he and Odysseus never disagreed with each other in counsel during the war. After the war, as we learn at the end of his account, this was no longer the case. The disagreement between Nestor and Odysseus on Tenedos could not have been sharper to judge by their opposite actions.
When Odysseus does not respond to Diomedes’ call to save Nestor on the battlefield in Iliad 8, he completes the triad of characters who will replay everything in reverse in their return from Troy: Diomedes saves Nestor on the battlefield, but Nestor saves Diomedes in their nostos; Odysseus does not save Nestor on the battlefield, but Nestor—this is the point of his account in Odyssey 3—fails to save Odysseus in their nostos. For the triple allusion to the return home of all three heroes to work, Odysseus must be seen as pointedly not saving Nestor in Iliad 8, even if this risks Odysseus’s reputation in the short run. A bigger poetic point justifies the risk to Odysseus’s reputation: unlike Diomedes, who will stick with Nestor and reach home immediately without any great tale to tell, Odysseus, by separating from Nestor, will take ten years to find his own way home, and have an outstanding tale to tell. If he too had followed Nestor from Tenedos there would be no Odyssey, and this, it seems to me, is the underlying poetic motive for Odysseus’s questionable behavior in Iliad 8. To put it somewhat differently—and somewhat bluntly—Odysseus, unlike Diomedes, simply does not need Nestor.
If the episode in Iliad 8 alludes specifically to Nestor’s account in Odyssey 3, as I have argued (Hippota Nestor, chs. 6 and 11), it would mean that the Iliad and the Odyssey must have been composed together in performance. There are good indirect reasons for thinking that this was the case, but Iliad 8, if my argument is correct, constructs a point-for-point correspondence with the Odyssey, and that, I think, is unique.