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Odysseus In
The Iliad
   "Oh man! You can't count how many good things Odysseus has done for the Greeks, a real leader in council and in battle...." (Iliad 2.294-6) This is how the Greek troops at Troy describe Odysseus in Homer's Iliad. Often described as "wily" or "cunning", Odysseus stands out among even the Greek heroes at Troy, whether in battle or in council.
   Though he is known for his cleverness, Odysseus demonstrates that he is a great fighter on the plains of Troy. Though he is no Achilles or Ajax, he still demonstrates his valor numerous times. As a favorite of Athena, goddess of war, few enemies who antagonize him live to tell the tale. Though Zeus grants the Trojans the better of the fighting for much of the Iliad, and does manage to frighten Odysseus away from battle on a single occasion in Book 8, Odysseus seldom fails to stand out among the Greeks against the oncoming Trojans, refusing to yield until seriously wounded. He is also crucial in convincing the troops not to pack up and head for home after Agamemnon fails to rouse their fighting spirit to attack after the false dream Zeus sent him.
    Odysseus first demonstrates his fighting ability in the Iliad in Books 4 and 5, just after the Trojan Pandarus breaks the truce. He sees Leucas, a companion of his, fall by the spear of Antiphus:
he strode forward, through the front ranks glowing in his bronze and, sweeping the enemy lines with his eyes, cast his javelin. The Trojans fell back as his spear homed in on Democoon, Priam's bastard son from his horse farm in Abydos. With the weight of Odysseus' anger behind it the spearpoint entered one temple and came out through the other. (4.539-47)
A mighty spear throw, indeed. Later in the battle, he stands tall with the two Ajaxes and Diomedes against the oncoming Trojans, spurred on by Ares, god of war, and slaughters several Trojans in succession.
    Later, in Book 11, Odysseus unmistakably displays his great courage in the Greeks' hour of dire need. With Hector advancing like a madman, approaching the Greek ships, it is Odysseus who has the good sense in the panic to call out to Diomedes, "Diomedes, what's the matter with us? Have we forgotten how to fight? Take a stand here with me. There'll be hell to pay if Hector takes the ships." (11.331-3) Together, they kill several Trojans, and Diomedes manages to stun Hector with a spear to his helmet. Suddenly, Paris hits Diomedes with an arrow. Now Odysseus demonstrates that he is capable of holding off the Trojans by himself. He defends Diomedes until he can escape, and then, all alone, with the Trojans closing in, he says to himself:
Now what? It will be bad enough if I lose my nerve and run, but worse yet if I am caught here alone, as I will be, since Zeus has scattered all the Danaans. But why am I talking to myself like this? I know only cowards depart from battle. A real warrior stands his ground whether he is hit or hits another." (11.428-35)
All alone, Odysseus staves off the Trojans, even after Socus wounds the flesh on his ribs, until at last Menelaus and Ajax come to his aid.
   However much he helps the Greeks in battle, tenfold he helps the Greeks and himself with his cunning. It is no coincidence that he is sent as the captain of the ship which returns Chryseis, Agamemnon's war prize, when her father, the priest of Apollo, demands her return. Odysseus makes sacrifice to Apollo to free the Greeks from his plague. It is no surprise that the embassy Agamemnon sends to Achilles in Book 9 relies heavily on him to find the words to convince Achilles to rejoin the battle. It is not by luck that he manages to keep Ajax from pinning him at the funeral games for Patroclus, or that he wins the foot race (though Athena did give him a hand.)
   Despite these accomplishments, he best demonstrates his ability when he and Diomedes are sent to spy on the Trojan camp at night. On their way, they capture Dolon, a Trojan sent by Hector to spy on the Greeks. They extract all the information they can from him and then run him through with a sword, promising his armor as a trophy for Athena. They then go on to kill a dozen newly-encamped Thracians, steal prize horses, and return safely, having left no one aware of their presence.
   This foray of his demonstrates most clearly the sneakiness for which Odysseus is also well-known. Very seldom did any sort of military action take place at night; therefore, this is a highly unusual maneuver by the Greeks. But even in this daring action, Odysseus is always thinking. He is the one who senses Dolon's presence first and has Diomedes and himself hide, and he is the one who moves the bodies of the slain Thracians out of the way as Diomedes slays them in their sleep. Odysseus does not actually kill anyone on the mission, though he definitely facilitates the killings that Diomedes commits. Still, this covert operation is somewhat underhanded --Odysseus and Diomedes do not conquer their enemies in a fair fight, but slaughter them helplessly. This episode hints at the sinister side of Odysseus' cunning, a side of him on which Homer does not dwell, but which later writers expand.
   Odysseus may not be the greatest warrior of the Greeks, but in battle he is a formidable presence, surpassed by few in the Trojan War. But in council, no one can touch him. Wily, much-enduring Odysseus is rightfully respected as one of the greatest of the Greeks at Troy, and in Homer's Iliad he seldom fails to live up to his reputation.
All translations of the Iliad are from Homer, Iliad, Stanley Lombardo, trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997). Information also drawn from Sheila Murnaghan, "Introduction" in Lombardo's translation. All line numbers refer to those of the translated English.
Timeline of Relevant Events
Genealogy of Relevant Characters
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