Avenging Vengeance: Murder, Exile, and ‘Justice’

When Telemachus slips their ambush, the suitors hold an assembly and reflect on the political consequences.

Homer, Odyssey 16.372–382

“…For I do not think
that our acts will come to good while [Telemachus] is alive.
For he is smart in plans and thought on his own,
and the people are no longer completely showing us favor.
Come, before he gathers the Achaians in assembly.
For I do not think that he will delay at all,
but he will be angry and he will rise and speak among everyone
because we were weaving sheer murder for him and we did not catch him.
They will not praise it when they hear these evil deeds,
but they will accomplish something terrible
and drive us from our land, and we will go to another’s country.

“…οὐ γὰρ ὀΐω
τούτου γε ζώοντος ἀνύσσεσθαι τάδε ἔργα.
αὐτὸς μὲν γὰρ ἐπιστήμων βουλῇ τε νόῳ τε,
λαοὶ δ’ οὐκέτι πάμπαν ἐφ’ ἡμῖν ἦρα φέρουσιν.
ἀλλ’ ἄγετε, πρὶν κεῖνον ὁμηγυρίσασθαι ᾿Αχαιοὺς
εἰς ἀγορήν· —οὐ γάρ τι μεθησέμεναί μιν ὀΐω,
ἀλλ’ ἀπομηνίσει, ἐρέει δ’ ἐν πᾶσιν ἀναστάς,
οὕνεκά οἱ φόνον αἰπὺν ἐράπτομεν οὐδ’ ἐκίχημεν·
οἱ δ’ οὐκ αἰνήσουσιν ἀκούοντες κακὰ ἔργα·
μή τι κακὸν ῥέξωσι καὶ ἥμεας ἐξελάσωσι
γαίης ἡμετέρης, ἄλλων δ’ ἀφικώμεθα δῆμον.”

After slaughtering the suitors, Odysseus tells Telemachus to think about what happens when someone murders someone else.

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.”

Peter Ahrensdorf emphasizes that in times of civil war “human hopes, especially for immortality, tend to overwhelm human fears, even of violent death”  (2000, 579). It changes the threshold of expectation the way that epic tales of vengeance set a horizon of expectation for proper behavior and outcomes in narratives (587). In contemplating the Thucydidean claim that men “preferred to suffer injustice and then take revenge than not suffer injustice at all. They believed it was better to be wronged and to avenge that wrong than never to wrong at all”, he explains that “ the passion for vengeance is, from the viewpoint of one who seeks vengeance, a passion for justice, since it necessarily entails seeking to punish what is thought to be previous injustice.”

Peter. J. Ahrensdorf. “The Fear of Death and the Longing for Immortality: Hobbes and Thucydides on Human Nature and the Problem of Anarchy.” The American Political Science Review 94 (2000) 579-593.

Image result for Ancient greek vase odysseus suitors

Odyssey 22.11-14

“Murder wasn’t on his mind at all.
Who would think that one man alone among many dinner guests
Even a really strong one, could contrive a wicked death
And dark fate?”

… φόνος δέ οἱ οὐκ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
μέμβλετο. τίς κ’ οἴοιτο μετ’ ἀνδράσι δαιτυμόνεσσι
μοῦνον ἐνὶ πλεόνεσσι, καὶ εἰ μάλα καρτερὸς εἴη,
οἷ τεύξειν θάνατόν τε κακὸν καὶ κῆρα μέλαιναν;

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