Odyssey and Iliad: Compensation for the Beloved Dead

After the slaughter of the suitors, Odysseus warns his son that they should be wary of their families seeking recompense.

Odyssey 23.118–122:

“For whoever has killed only one man in his country,
one who does not leave many behind to avenge him, flees,
leaving his relatives and his paternal land.
And we have killed the bulwark of the city,
the best by far of the young men in Ithaca.
I order you to think about these things.”

καὶ γάρ τίς θ’ ἕνα φῶτα κατακτείνας ἐνὶ δήμῳ,
ᾧ μὴ πολλοὶ ἔωσιν ἀοσσητῆρες ὀπίσσω,
φεύγει πηούς τε προλιπὼν καὶ πατρίδα γαῖαν·
ἡμεῖς δ’ ἕρμα πόληος ἀπέκταμεν, οἳ μέγ’ ἄριστοι
κούρων εἰν ᾿Ιθάκῃ· τὰ δέ σε φράζεσθαι ἄνωγα.

This passage makes me think of Ajax’s words to Achilles in book 9 where he seems to imply that payment may be rendered in the situation of a murder.

Image result for Ajax Achilles' body

Il. 9.632-638:

“You are relentless: someone might even accept payment
for the murder of a brother or the death of his own child.
and after making great restitution, the killer remains in his country,
and though bereft, the other restrains his heart and mighty anger
once he has accepted the price. But the gods put an untouchable
and wicked rage in your heart over only a girl…”

νηλής· καὶ μέν τίς τε κασιγνήτοιο φονῆος
ποινὴν ἢ οὗ παιδὸς ἐδέξατο τεθνηῶτος·
καί ῥ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν δήμῳ μένει αὐτοῦ πόλλ’ ἀποτίσας,
τοῦ δέ τ’ ἐρητύεται κραδίη καὶ θυμὸς ἀγήνωρ
ποινὴν δεξαμένῳ· σοὶ δ’ ἄληκτόν τε κακόν τε
θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι θεοὶ θέσαν εἵνεκα κούρης

The scholia to the Iliad contend that Ajax is referring to an actual practice.

Schol. bT ad Il. 9.632-33a

“For it was the custom to give [recompense] to the relatives in order to go into exile for not more than a year…

ἔθος γὰρ ἦν τοῖς συγγενέσι διδόναι πρὸς τὸ μὴ πλέον τοῦ ἐνιαυτοῦ φεύγειν

One might wonder why Odysseus does not think it fit to offer recompense to the suitors’ families…

5 thoughts on “Odyssey and Iliad: Compensation for the Beloved Dead

  1. A wonderful post! I agree that it does seem clear that Homer is describing details of a real practice of offering compensation to relatives of a person who was killed/murdered.
    To these references I would also like to add the ‘conflict in the market’ scene on Achilles’ shield created by Hephaistos and described by Homer in Book 18 of the Iliad:
    “Then in the market, surrounded by men, two argued the blood-price for murder.
    The guilty man loudly claimed he would pay, but the other quickly decried him.
    They both demanded a verdict by judges, and crowds had to be restrained
    From yelling encouragement to the men and adding to the tumult.”
    [Homer’s Iliad, Book 18, Lines 496-504, Vail’s translation]
    Regarding your question about Odysseus offering recompense to the relatives of the dead suitors, I think if we added up the debts owed to Odysseus by the suitors for the way they feasted ten-plus years on Odysseus’ flocks and herds – and emptied his stocks of wine as well, it might be that the relatives still owed Odysseus even more compensation!

    1. Nice catch on the shield passage. I paired that with the Ajax speech in an earlier post. I had not yet considered Odysseus’ comments too.

      But when it comes to the suitors, true, they ate a lot, but only for 3-4 years!

      1. Oh, very good – I just ‘discovered’ your blog so haven’t had enough time to dive into your previous posts but this is something I’m looking forward to! And, was it only 3-4 years? it probably seemed like ages, especially to Penelope, lol!

      2. The timeline is confusing but The suitors showed up, Penelope did the weaving trick for three years. They are in the first year after that. I think there is a post somewhere about this too….

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