At home with Odysseus (and his servants)

You are Odysseus. You have just spent 20 years away from your family, first at war and then lost on your way home. When you arrive back you have to disguise yourself because everyone assumes that you have died and 108 big, hairy and not very nice local ‘big men’ are currently competing in your palace to marry your ‘widow’.

They are likely to react pretty badly to your surprise re-appearance. With a bit of devious preparation and a little help from your friends, however, you proceed to slaughter your unwelcome ‘guests’. This does make something of a mess but you get rid of most of the blood and gore by digging up the floor and throwing it away (clearly ‘palaces’ in Odysseus’ time aren’t quite like palaces today). So, what are you going to do next? Talk with your wife? Have a bath? No, you have your son Telemachus kill 12 of your serving maids. Homer, who tells the story, cheerfully reports that their feet kicked out while they were hanged, but not for very long… Curiously this last episode hasn’t made it into the Hollywood movies of the Odyssey. This is a pity, since understanding why Odysseus did it is crucial in explaining what the world of Odysseus might have been like for ordinary people like us.

Before we begin, however, you might see a bit of a problem. Surely the Odyssey is just a story? Greeks of 2,700 years ago didn’t really talk to gods, get turned into pigs by witches or blind one-eyed giants, did they? So why should we believe anything we get told about servants either? And things get even worse. Not only is the story a fairy-tale, but it was almost certainly passed down by word of mouth (by singing), over hundreds of years. The events it claims to describe supposedly happened before 1200 B.C. but the poem was written down around 700 B.C. Before that each person who sang it had to remember it as best they could. It is 12,000 lines long. That’s a lot of remembering. Just how many of the original 12,000 lines do you think would have survived intact through 400-500 years? Some people argue that it is an utter mess, reflecting bits of the very different societies that existed in Greece in 1200 B.C., 900 B.C. and 700 B.C. To put that in perspective, imagine you had an ancestor in England in the time of Henry VIII who had tried to teach their child a poem as long as a novel for which there was no written text. Then 30 years later that child, now grown-up, tried to teach it to their child, and so on for another 15 generations. Would you be surprised if the story ended up looking a bit odd and suddenly included dragons and giants?

Some historians have, therefore, despaired of getting anything sensible out of Homer (apart from fun stories). Others, however, have suggested that the very fact that it was never written down may actually be an advantage and that it may not be a problem that it is a fairy tale either. Let’s imagine that you start a story a story in 1540. The basic lines of the story would probably reflect the society of that time, yes? It might feature a slightly bad-tempered king with a tendency to behead his wives. It might depict a world controlled by bishops and lords. As the story gets passed down by word of mouth, generation over generation, might any of that change? Well, yes. By 1750 it would seem odd to have a story with bishops running the country, so that bit of the story might be easily forgotten and changed. By 1900 you might find it odd that everyone in your story travelled just on foot or by horse, so you might be tempted to stick in the occasional train ride. By 2010 mobile phones might appear in the poem. Oral poetry, poetry which is never written down, has a tendency to change over time because there is no written version to check it against. It typically adapts to the world that it is being sung in rather than reflect the world it first appeared in. For this reason, most historians now assume that the basic elements of Odysseus’ world reflect the world the poem was written down in, Greece about 800-700 B.C. Fairy tale elements aren’t such a big problem either, for pretty much the same reason. The poem has to be understandable to an audience the very first time they hear it (they don’t have the chance to re-read it or check the footnotes). The way people relate to one another in the story must, therefore, make immediate sense to its listeners, even if you throw in the occasional monster.

So far, so good, but there is one last odd thing about the poem. It is connected to something which makes you very special, even though you may not realise it: you can read this sentence. For almost all of history, people couldn’t read. It is easy to forget that writing had to be invented: it isn’t a ‘natural’ part of being human. In the 400 years before Homer no-one in Greece could read or write. Then, sometime around 750 B.C. they started to write again. Why? Usually societies adopted writing when a ruler wanted a list of everything he intended to tax, or traders wanted records of what they were buying and selling. Most people got on just fine without it. Weirdly, the first really important things the Greeks wrote down appear to have been Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: 27,000 lines of poetry. Even more weirdly they appear to have invented vowels simply so that people would get the sound of the poetry right when they read it aloud. Doing all this just to copy down poems might seem crazy, but there may have been an important reason. There are moments in the poems when, for example, various aristocrats ask why they get all the best things in society, including the best wine and meat (a real luxury then: it explains why heroes in Homer eat a lot of meat). The answer, allegedly, is simple: they are the people who go to war to defend their societies (Homer doesn’t note that only they could afford the armour). Homer therefore ‘explains’ why wealthy and violent but also supposedly wise and brave ‘aristocrats’ such as Odysseus run the world. Some historians have suggested the poems were written down precisely to justify the power of such people as it was being challenged by people below them. Writing the poem down stopped it being changed in the next generation. It would freeze it forever and also, the ‘aristocrats’ might have hoped, so continue to justify their power. The poems may, therefore, not reflect the world as it was but rather the world as the ‘big men’ wanted it to be. Now, you might think this would make the poems useless to an historian, but it actually tells us something very important: how the ‘big men’ wanted to control the people below them. The picture isn’t very nice.

There must have been farmers working for themselves, independent of the ‘big men’, but Homer isn’t interested in them. He concentrates on the homes of the aristocrats. The servants there either work in preparing meals, cleaning, and making clothes (mostly women: Odysseus allegedly has fifty of them) or in agricultural work, looking after animals (mostly men, we don’t know how many). Some servants may have been captured in war or bought for cash, but many of them were possibly born on the farm or even ‘volunteered’ for work if their own families couldn’t feed them. We meet one of the servants, Eumaeus, in book 14 of the Odyssey. Odysseus is back in his own country, but still afraid to reveal his true identity and disguised as a beggar. Eumaeus is living away from the ‘palace’. He supervises other servants and has even bought his own slave. He tells the ‘beggar’ how much he misses his master, a good man, the kind who would have given an old servant some land and a woman. Eumaeus also reveals that he wasn’t born a slave, but was the kidnapped son of a king. Despite this, he loves Odysseus’ family, who had brought him up almost like a son, more than his own. He will later prove his loyalty by fighting alongside Odysseus once he learns of his true identity.

How far can we trust this happy picture? Eumaeus comes across as a slightly unbelievable ‘super slave’, the way you might want to imagine slaves if you were a slaveowner. Even Homer himself hints that all may not be as rosy as he claims. Firstly, while Eumaeus may have raised like a son, he was then sent away to look after the family’s pigs. It wasn’t an easy life. When Odysseus’ father Laertes lost hope of seeing his son again he apparently fell apart and went off to live with some servants out on the estate, clearly a terrible thing for an aristocrat. When Odysseus, still in disguise, meets Laertes he notices his dreadful appearance and clothes and asks: ‘Whose slave are you?’ The material conditions of servants are assumed to be very poor. Secondly, Eumaeus may hope for rewards for working hard, but Odysseus has been gone 20 years. Eumaeus has meanwhile gotten himself in trouble with the men hoping to marry Penelope. This is a bad idea: at this point of the story it looks as if one of them will be his next master, and they aren’t very nice people. One of the other servants, Philoetius, is so depressed that he is thinking of running away. Even Odysseus’ son Telemachus later threatens Eumaeus when he hesitates to do as he is told, and Odysseus almost strangles his loyal old nurse Eurykleia when she inconveniently sees through his disguise.

They are the good servants. Others have been behaving pretty badly. Melanthius has been helping the suitors rather than his mistress Penelope. Much to her annoyance he also behaves horribly towards a passing beggar. That beggar is, of course, Odysseus in disguise, which is bad news for Melanthius – before the end of the story he is going to die really, really horribly (he's very graphically tortured to death). Melanthius’ sister Melantho has also been behaving badly, acting cheekily to Penelope and sleeping with Eurymachus, one of the suitors. We aren't told what happens to her but it is clear that Odysseus has something very nasty in store for her. That brings us back to those 12 hanged maids. They have also been sleeping with the suitors, and that is a key reason Odysseus has them killed. Apparently Odysseus could decide whom his female servants could sleep with. We are told Odysseus’ father Laertes did not sleep with his servant Eurycleia when he bought her. That might seem a positive thing to you, but why does Homer tell us this? It was, presumably, unusual and worthy of note: most masters wouldn’t have had such scruples. Odysseus was angry because the maids were sleeping with someone other than him. This might seem a sad reason to lose your life, but there is one final tragic twist. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus is faced with a tricky problem. He has just killed over a hundred men. Their relatives are looking for vengeance. Our hero is rather outnumbered. You will have to read the Odyssey to find out how he gets out of trouble. My point, however, is not about Odysseus, or the dead aristocrats, but the serving girls. No-one comes to avenge them. They counted for nothing. So, to answer my question of what life might have been like for people like you and me in the world imagined by Homer, the answer is simple: probably pretty unpleasant.