‘Diomedean Compulsion’: Or, Remember the Time Odysseus tried to Stab Diomedes in the Back?


The Suda Has the following Entry:

Diomedean Compulsion: “This is also called a horse; a proverb from either the son of Tydeus or from the Thracian Diomedes who compelled guests to sleep with daughters who were ugly (and whom some allegorize as horses), or he would kill them.

And some say that Odysseus and Diomedes, after stealing the Palladion, returned during the night. Odysseus, who was following, planned to kill Diomedes. But when Diomedes saw the shadow of the sword in the moonlight, because he feared Odysseus, he made him walk in front of him, slapping him with the sword in the middle of the back. This proverb is used when people do things under compulsion.

For this reason, Diomedes kept man-eating horses: in the departure he was greatly aggrieved and was not welcomed to his own home, but after he was exiled he went to Kalabria and founded a city which he called Argurippê but whose name later was changed to Benebentos.”


Διομήδειος ἀνάγκη. λέγεται καὶ ἵππος. παροιμία, ἀπὸ τοῦ Τυδέως ἢ ἀπὸ τοῦ Θρᾳκός· ὃς ἠνάγκαζε τοὺς ξένους αἰσχραῖς οὔσαις ταῖς θυγατράσιν αὐτοῦ μίσγεσθαι (ἃς καὶ ἵππους ἀλληγορεῖ), εἶτα ἀν-ῄρει. οἱ δέ, ὅτι Διομήδης καὶ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς τὸ Παλλάδιον κλέψαντες νυκτὸς ἐπανῄεσαν. ἑπόμενος δὲ ὁ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς τὸν Διομήδην ἐβουλήθη ἀποκτεῖναι. ἐν τῇ σελήνῃ δὲ ἰδὼν τὴν σκιὰν τοῦ ξίφους ὁ Διομήδης, δείσας τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα ἐποίησε προάγειν παίων αὐτοῦ τῷ ξίφει τὸ

μετάφρενον. τάττεται δὲ ἐπὶ τῶν κατ’ ἀνάγκην τι πραττόντων. διὰ τοῦτο λέγει, ὅτι ἵππους ἀνθρωποφάγους εἶχεν ὁ Διομήδης. ὅτι Διομήδης εἰς τὸν ἀπόπλουν καταχθεὶς εἰς τὰ ἴδια οὐκ ἐδέχθη, ἀλλὰ διωχθεὶς ἀπῆλθεν εἰς Καλαβρίαν καὶ κτίζει πόλιν, ἣν ἐκάλεσεν ᾿Αργυρίππην, τὴν μετονομασθεῖσαν Βενεβεντόν.


Hesychios the Lexicographer discusses the same two origins for the phrase:

“Diomedean Necessity: A proverb. Klearkhos says that Diomedes’ daughters were absolutely wretched and that some were forced to sleep with them or he murdered them immediately. In the little Iliad, the story is that the phrase comes from the theft of the Palladion.

Διομήδειος ἀνάγκη· παροιμία. Κλέαρχος μέν φησι, Διομήδους
θυγατέρας γενέσθαι πάνυ μοχθηράς, αἷς ἀναγκάζειν πλησιάζειν
τινάς, καὶ εὐθὺς αὐτοὺς φονεύειν· ὁ δὲ τὴν μικρὰν ᾿Ιλιάδα
φησὶ (fr. 9 Allen) ἐπὶ τῆς τοῦ Παλλαδίου κλοπῆς γενέσθαι

There is one fragment from the Little Iliad about this moment:

“It was the middle of the night, and the bright moon lay on them”

νὺξ μὲν ἔην μεσάτη, λαμπρὴ δ’ ἐπέτελλε σελήνη.

This, admittedly, doesn’t say much. The basic story is that, in order to take Troy, the Greeks needed to steal the Palladion, an image of Athena. Odysseus and Diomedes sneaked into the city to get it. On the way back, Odysseus tried to kill Diomedes. According to the fragments of the historian Konon, Diomedes climbed on Odysseus’ shoulders to get into the city, but then left him behind to secure the Palladion himself. According to other accounts (summarized by Servius in his commentary on the Aeneid, see Gantz 1992, 643-5), Odysseus just wanted the glory all to himself.

In any case, the Palladion-tale is a re-doubling of other Trojan War Motifs: the requirement of Herakles’ bow and Philoktetes or the need to have Neoptolemus present, for example, are similar talismanic possessions to end the long war. Odysseus’ conflict with Diomedes, here, is not dissimilar either to his quarrel with Ajax or his feud with Achilles (mentioned in the Odyssey). This narrative, also engages with the pairing of Diomedes and Odysseus elsewhere, especially Iliad 10.

Odysseus and Diomedes


15 thoughts on “‘Diomedean Compulsion’: Or, Remember the Time Odysseus tried to Stab Diomedes in the Back?

  1. Odysseus is one of those characters who becomes more detestable the more you learn about him. I am truly shocked and scandalized!

    1. And this isn’t the first time that Odysseus and Diomedes didn’t see eye to eye. When the Greeks were in flight, Nestor got into difficulties when one of his horses went down. Diomedes asked Odysseus to come with him to help Nestor but what did Odysseus do

      ὣς ἔφατ᾽, οὐδ᾽ ἐσάκουσε πολύτλας δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς,
      ἀλλὰ παρήϊξεν κοίλας ἐπὶ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν.

      So Diomedes spoke, but much enduring noble Odysseus didn’t listen to him but rushed off to the hollow ships of the Achaians.

      Iliad 8.97

    1. Ah, I don’t think it is necessary to hate him, just to recognize that he isn’t the nicest guy. I think that part of the point of it all is to realize that to be human is also to be a bit f-ed up.

      1. This is probably close to the reason I tend to like Odysseus a lot; I also tend to prefer the character that is not born into it (Superman, Thor) or given great and powerful gifts (Green Lantern) but has to get by on his wits and courage (Captain America, Hawkeye)

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