Scepter in Hand: Odysseus, Virtue, and the Question of Rank in the Iliad

Rank was central in Homeric Greek society. Though first given by one's pedigree, a man's standing in society was affected by his aret (virtue). A man of low rank, unless elderly or a seer, was supposed to be physically weak, unremarkable or ugly, and unable to debate complicated issues well. A man of high rank was expected to have physical prowess and debating skill worthy of his fathers, and a man's rank could be increased if he outstripped his ancestors in virtue. For example, though Odysseus is lord of a relatively minor island, he manages to augment his influence on the war through his power and cunning.

This is illustrated by Odysseus' victory in two decisive arguments in the Iliad, one against a man of lower rank than his, the other against a man of higher rank. The former consists of Thersites' diatribe against Agamemnon's greed and Odysseus' rebuttal of it (Iliad, transl. Fagles, 2.245-328), the latter is Odysseus' rebuke of Agamemnon's plan to flee (Iliad, 14.99-127). Odysseus, ever fitting his argument to his opponent, pulls rank on Thersites and questions Agamemnon's virtue, saying it seems incommensurate with his vaunted position.

Thersites is a pathetic character, the...

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