What’s a Slave’s Life Worth?

The Odyssey follows the slaughter of the suitors with the mutilation and murder of slaves: the torture of the goatherd Melanthios (Od. 22.474–477) and the hanging of twelve slave women (Od. 22.463–73). But it also considers the death of the older slave Eurykleia on multiple occasions. We first hear about her in book 1:

Homer, Odyssey 1.428-433

“And with him Eurykleia carried the burning torches.
She knew proper things, the daughter of Ops, the son of Peisênor
whom Laertes bought to be among his possessions
when she was just a girl and he paid a price worth 20 oxen.
And he used to honor her equal to his dear wife in his home
but he never had sex with her and he was avoiding his wife’s anger.”

τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ἅμ’ αἰθομένας δαΐδας φέρε κεδνὰ ἰδυῖα
Εὐρύκλει’, ῏Ωπος θυγάτηρ Πεισηνορίδαο,
τήν ποτε Λαέρτης πρίατο κτεάτεσσιν ἑοῖσι,
πρωθήβην ἔτ’ ἐοῦσαν, ἐεικοσάβοια δ’ ἔδωκεν,
ἶσα δέ μιν κεδνῇ ἀλόχῳ τίεν ἐν μεγάροισιν,
εὐνῇ δ’ οὔ ποτ’ ἔμικτο, χόλον δ’ ἀλέεινε γυναικός·

So, it seems, Eurykleia’s life is ‘dear’—in the archaic English meaning of having a high price—since she was worth so many oxen and Laertes honored her equal to his wife without having sex with her. Despite so high a price—or perhaps because of it—her life is risked several times in the epic. The moment that has always stuck with me comes from the famous recognition of the scar scene. While this scene has garnered a lot of attention for the way the scar triggers a story and communicates Odysseus’ identity, there have been relatively few comments about the violence imminent in the scene.

Homer, Odyssey 19.466-490

“The old woman, as she took it in the flat part of her hands,
recognized the scar as she felt it, and she dropped the foot.
His shin fell onto the basin and the bronze clanged,
then it tilted to one side and water sloshed out onto the ground.
Joy and pain overtook her mind at once and
both of her eyes filled with tears as her strong voice got stuck inside.
She touched his beard and then addressed Odysseus.
“You really are Odysseus, dear child.
I did not recognize you before, before I examined my lord all over.”

And then she would have gotten Penelope’s attention too
with her eyes because she wanted to tell her
that her dear husband was here.
But she was not able to turn or to notice anything
because Athena had turned her mind elsewhere.
But Odysseus closed his hand on her throat with his right hand
and with his left hand he drew her close and said,

“Auntie, why do you want to ruin me?
You fed me yourself on your own breast.
Now after suffering many pains I have returned
in the twentieth year to my fatherland.
But since you have recognized me and a god put it in your mind
be silent lest anyone else in the home learn it.
For I will speak this out and it will be completed,
If the god subdues the haughty suitors under me
I will not leave you even though you were my nurse,
when I kill all the other slave women in my home.”

τὴν γρηῦς χείρεσσι καταπρηνέσσι λαβοῦσα
γνῶ ῥ’ ἐπιμασσαμένη, πόδα δὲ προέηκε φέρεσθαι·
ἐν δὲ λέβητι πέσε κνήμη, κανάχησε δὲ χαλκός,
ἂψ δ’ ἑτέρωσ’ ἐκλίθη· τὸ δ’ ἐπὶ χθονὸς ἐξέχυθ’ ὕδωρ.
τὴν δ’ ἅμα χάρμα καὶ ἄλγος ἕλε φρένα, τὼ δέ οἱ ὄσσε
δακρυόφιν πλῆσθεν, θαλερὴ δέ οἱ ἔσχετο φωνή.
ἁψαμένη δὲ γενείου ᾿Οδυσσῆα προσέειπεν·
“ἦ μάλ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς ἐσσι, φίλον τέκος· οὐδέ σ’ ἐγώ γε
πρὶν ἔγνων, πρὶν πάντα ἄνακτ’ ἐμὸν ἀμφαφάασθαι.”
ἦ, καὶ Πηνελόπειαν ἐσέδρακεν ὀφθαλμοῖσι,
πεφραδέειν ἐθέλουσα φίλον πόσιν ἔνδον ἐόντα.
ἡ δ’ οὔτ’ ἀθρῆσαι δύνατ’ ἀντίη οὔτε νοῆσαι·
τῇ γὰρ ᾿Αθηναίη νόον ἔτραπεν. αὐτὰρ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
χείρ’ ἐπιμασσάμενος φάρυγος λάβε δεξιτερῆφι,
τῇ δ’ ἑτέρῃ ἕθεν ἄσσον ἐρύσσατο φώνησέν τε·
“μαῖα, τίη μ’ ἐθέλεις ὀλέσαι; σὺ δέ μ’ ἔτρεφες αὐτὴ
τῷ σῷ ἐπὶ μαζῷ· νῦν δ’ ἄλγεα πολλὰ μογήσας
ἤλυθον εἰκοστῷ ἔτεϊ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν.
ἀλλ’ ἐπεὶ ἐφράσθης καί τοι θεὸς ἔμβαλε θυμῷ,
σίγα, μή τίς τ’ ἄλλος ἐνὶ μεγάροισι πύθηται.
ὧδε γὰρ ἐξερέω, καὶ μὴν τετελεσμένον ἔσται·
εἴ χ’ ὑπ’ ἐμοί γε θεὸς δαμάσῃ μνηστῆρας ἀγαυούς,
οὐδὲ τροφοῦ οὔσης σεῦ ἀφέξομαι, ὁππότ’ ἂν ἄλλας
δμῳὰς ἐν μεγάροισιν ἐμοῖς κτείνωμι γυναῖκας.”

This theme is internalized later when Eurykleia threatens her own life.When she tries to tell Penelope in book 23 that Odysseus is actually present, she offers to wager her life on the truth of the statement when Penelope doubts her.

Homer, Odyssey 23.75-79

“…I wanted to tell you myself
but he took me with his hands at my throat
and would not allow me to speak thanks to the cleverness of his mind.
So, follow me. But I will wager myself over this to you:
If I have deceived you, kill me with the most pitiful death”

….ἔθελον δὲ σοὶ αὐτῇ
εἰπέμεν· ἀλλά με κεῖνος ἑλὼν ἐπὶ μάστακα χερσὶν
οὐκ εἴα εἰπεῖν πολυκερδείῃσι νόοιο.
ἀλλ’ ἕπευ· αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ἐμέθεν περιδώσομαι αὐτῆς,
αἴ κέν σ’ ἐξαπάφω, κτεῖναί μ’ οἰκτίστῳ ὀλέθρῳ.”

For me, Eurykleia’s willingness to wager her life is indication of an internalized oppression created by the experience of slavery. But the specific value of her initial price is interesting too. This probably complicates matters, but there is little in the Homeric poems set at a worth of 20 oxen. The price comes up again during the slaughter of the suitors. Eurymachus tries to offer Odysseus recompense and sets the price for each suitor at 20 oxen (in addition to payment for all the food and drink).

Homer, Odyssey 21.54–59

“But now, even though it is ordained by fate, spare your people.
And in exchange we will gather about the land as payment
As much as was drunk up and eaten in your halls,
And each man will bring a payment worth twenty oxen,
Which we will pay in bronze and gold, until your heart
Softens—before this, there is no blame for being angry.”

νῦν δ’ ὁ μὲν ἐν μοίρῃ πέφαται, σὺ δὲ φείδεο λαῶν
σῶν· ἀτὰρ ἄμμες ὄπισθεν ἀρεσσάμενοι κατὰ δῆμον,
ὅσσα τοι ἐκπέποται καὶ ἐδήδοται ἐν μεγάροισι,
τιμὴν ἀμφὶς ἄγοντες ἐεικοσάβοιον ἕκαστος,
χαλκόν τε χρυσόν τ’ ἀποδώσομεν, εἰς ὅ κε σὸν κῆρ
ἰανθῇ· πρὶν δ’ οὔ τι νεμεσσητὸν κεχολῶσθαι.”

Post-script: An average ox seems to cost around $3000.00 right now. So, in modern ox-dollars, Eurykleia was valued at $60,000. This seems a little off to me. According to Beef Magazine (which is a real thing) a good bull on average can run more like $7500, placing Eurykleia at $150,000. I do not print any of this to make light of the selling of human beings (because, when we leave the abstract, this is all really horrifying), but instead, rather, to give a really relative view of what her–and the suitors–economic value might be in today’s terms. The range is basically luxury car to cheap apartment. This is, alternatively, the price acceptable for a good slave, but not worth the life of an offending suitor. In both cases the economic equivalence for any human life is, to put it simply, dehumanizing.

Image result for ancient greek vase cow sacrifice
Me, times 20.

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…

Blinding, Boasting and Justice: The Scholia on Odysseus and Poseidon

Od. 9.523-525

“I wish I could separate you from your soul
And your life and send you down to Hades’ home,
Then not even the earth-shaker would heal your eye”

‘αἲ γὰρ δὴ ψυχῆς τε καὶ αἰῶνός σε δυναίμην
εὖνιν ποιήσας πέμψαι δόμον ῎Αϊδος εἴσω,
ὡς οὐκ ὀφθαλμόν γ’ ἰήσεται οὐδ’ ἐνοσίχθων.’

Image result for ancient greek cyclops

Schol. ad Od. 9.525

he would not heal your eye”: [this is because] he does not want to, not because he is not capable. For Poseidon did not want to help his own son because he believed that it is right for him to be paid back for his wickedness. So the thought is ‘Poseidon will not heal you because you are evil’

Why did Odysseus so thoughtlessly demean Poseidon in saying “not even the earth-shaker will heal your eye?” Is it because he knowns that Poseidon is not a healer, but Apollo is? Or is it because he will not help him because of his wickedness?”

Why did Odysseus so thoughtlessly demean Poseidon when he said to the Kyklôps “not even the earth-shaker will heal your eye”? Antisthenes says that it is because he knows that Poseidon is not a doctor, but Apollo is; Aristotle says that it is not because he is not capable but because he is not willing, due to the Kyklôps’ wickedness.

Then why was Poseidon angry? Surely he is not upset because of the statement but because of the blinding, as the epic says “He was angry over the Kyklôps, because he had put out his eye” (Od. 1.69) even though he was completely wretched and had eaten Odysseus’ companions? Aristotle solves this problem in saying that [in terms of behavior] [responsibilities] are not the same for a free man toward a slave or for a slave toward a free man, nor again for those near to the gods toward those far away. Therefore, the Kyklôps deserved a penalty, but he didn’t need to be chastised by Odysseus, but by Poseidon, if he had any thought to help his son as he was harmed—it was the companions who started the wrongdoing.”

οὐκ ὀφθαλμόν γ’ ἰήσεται] μὴ βουλόμενος, οὐ γὰρ μὴ δυνάμενος. οὐκ ἐβούλετο δὲ Ποσειδῶν τὸν ἴδιον υἱὸν θεραπεῦσαι, δίκαιον ἡγούμενος τιμωρεῖσθαι αὐτὸν τῆς πονηρίας. ὁ δὲ νοῦς, οὐδὲ Ποσειδῶν ἰάσεταί σε κακὸν ἐόντα. B.Q.

διὰ τί ὁ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς οὕτως ἀνοήτως εἰς τὸν Ποσειδῶνα ὠλιγώρησεν εἰπὼν “ὡς οὐκ ὀφθαλμόν γ’ ἰήσεται οὐδ’ ἐνοσίχθων;” (525.) ἢ διὰ τὸ γινώσκειν ὡς οὐκ ἦν ἰατρὸς ὁ Ποσειδῶν, ἀλλ’ ὁ ᾿Απόλλων, ἢ ὅτι οὐ θεραπεύσει αὐτὰ διὰ τὴν πονηρίαν αὐτοῦ. M.

διὰ τί ᾿Οδυσσεὺς πρὸς τὸν Κύκλωπα οὕτως ἀνοήτως εἰς τὸν Ποσειδῶνα ὠλιγώρησεν τῷ λόγῳ εἰπὼν “ὡς οὐκ ὀφθαλμόν γ’ ἰήσεται οὐδ’ ἐνοσίχθων” (525.).

᾿Αντισθένης μέν φησι διὰ τὸ εἰδέναι ὅτι οὐκ ἦν ἰατρὸς ὁ Ποσειδῶν, ἀλλ’ ὁ᾿Απόλλων, ᾿Αριστοτέλης δὲ οὐχ ὅτι οὐ δυνήσεται, ἀλλ’ ὅτι οὐ βουληθήσεται διὰ τὴν πονηρίαν τοῦ Κύκλωπος. H.Q.T.

διὰ τί οὖν ὁ Ποσειδῶν ὠργίσθη, καίτοι μὴ χαλεπαίνων διὰ τὸ ἀπόφθεγμα, ἀλλὰ διὰ τὴν τύφλωσιν, “Κύκλωπος γὰρ κεχόλωται, ὃν ὀφθαλμοῦ ἀλάωσε” (Od. α, 69.), καὶ παμπονήρου ὄντος καὶ τοὺς ἑταίρους κατεσθίοντος; λύων δὲ ὁ ᾿Αριστοτέλης φησὶ μὴ ταυτὸν εἶναι ἐλευθέρῳ πρὸς δοῦλον καὶ δούλῳ πρὸς ἐλεύθερον, οὐδὲ τοῖς ἐγγὺς τῶν θεῶν οὖσι πρὸς τοὺς ἄπωθεν. ὁ δὲ Κύκλωψ ἦν μὲν ζημίας ἄξιος, ἀλλ’ οὐκ ᾿Οδυσσεῖ κολαστέος, ἀλλὰ τῷ Ποσειδῶνι, εἰ πανταχοῦ νόμιμον τῷ διαφθειρομένῳ βοηθεῖν, τῷ υἱῷ, καὶ ἦρχον ἀδικίας οἱ ἑταῖροι. H.M.T.

The ‘Trial’ Of Odysseus: The Ithacan Assembly in Odyssey 24

Aristophanes of Byzantium  and Aristarchus (according to the scholia) believed that the Odyssey should end at 23.296, once the happy couple have retired to their bed-chamber. But, of course, the epic does not end. Book 24 treats us to a second trip to the Underworld (where the suitors talk to Agamemnon), a final battle and dea ex machina and, in the middle, a public debate over what to do about Odysseus.

Even a less than generous reading would concede some points to all parties…

“In this way, they busied themselves with dinner in their halls.
But rumor went as a swift messenger everywhere through the city
singing of the hateful death and fate of the suitors.
And as each person heard this they traveled from different places
with weeping and lamentation up to Odysseus’ home
where they carried out the corpses and buried them,
while some from other cities they sent to their own homes
once they placed them to be carried on swift fishing boats.
Then, pained in their hearts, they gathered together in the assembly.
When they had collected there and were assembled,
Eupeithes stood among them and spoke.
Unforgettable grief sat in his thoughts over Antinoos
Who was the first man shining Odysseus killed.
Shedding tears for him, he addressed them and spoke:

Continue reading “The ‘Trial’ Of Odysseus: The Ithacan Assembly in Odyssey 24”

Swift Reprisal for Evil Done is Best for All Involved? Plutarch, “On Divine Procrastination in Vengeance”

Plutarch’s De Sera Numinis Vindicta (Moralia 548c-e)

“Patrokleas responded, “The slowness and procrastination of the deity’s punishment of the wicked seems to me to be especially terrible. Now, too, I am compelled and renewed by these words even as long ago I was moved when I heard Euripides saying “[Apollo] delays, this is the nature of the gods.”

Certainly, it is not right for god to delay in anything, least of all in punishing the wicked, men who are far from slow themselves, who are never procrastinators of doing evil, but who are driven by piercing passions into their crimes.

And, further, as Thucydides says, “when a response comes closest to suffering” it immediately creates blocks the path for those most moved by an easy way with wickedness. For nothing renders the wronged party weaker in his hopes and spirit and increases the criminal’s daring and audacity than a debt paid late. But the immediate punishment meted out to bold acts is both a restraint on futures crimes and a special comfort to those who have suffered from them.”

Καὶ ὁ Πατροκλέας ‘ἡ περὶ τὰς τιμωρίας’ εἶπε ‘τῶν πονηρῶν βραδυτὴς τοῦ δαιμονίου καὶ μέλλησις ἐμοὶ δοκεῖ μάλιστα δεινὸν εἶναι· καὶ νῦν ὑπὸ τῶν λόγων τούτων ὥσπερ πρόσφατος γέγονα τῇ δόξῃ καὶ καινός, ἔκπαλαι δ’ ἠγανάκτουν ἀκούων Εὐριπίδου λέγοντος (Or. 420)

‘μέλλει, τὸ θεῖον δ’ ἐστὶ τοιοῦτον φύσει.’

καίτοι πρὸς οὐθὲν ἥκιστα δὲ πρέπει πρὸς τοὺς πονηροὺς ῥᾴθυμον εἶναι τὸν θεόν, οὐ ῥᾳθύμους ὄντας αὐτοὺς οὐδ’ ‘ἀμβολιεργούς’ τοῦ κακῶς ποιεῖν, ἀλλ’ ὀξυτάταις ὁρμαῖς ὑπὸ τῶν παθῶν φερομένους πρὸς τὰς ἀδικίας. καὶ μήν ‘τὸ ἀμύνασθαι τῷ παθεῖν,’ ὡς Θουκυδίδης (III 38, 1) φησίν,  ‘ὅτι ἐγγυτάτω κείμενον’ εὐθὺς ἀντιφράττει τὴν ὁδὸν τοῖς ἐπὶ πλεῖστον εὐροούσῃ τῇ κακίᾳ χρωμένοις. οὐθὲν γὰρ οὕτω χρέος ὡς τὸ τῆς δίκης ὑπερήμερον γινόμενον ἀσθενῆ μὲν ταῖς ἐλπίσι ποιεῖ καὶ ταπεινὸν τὸν ἀδικούμενον, αὔξει δὲ θρασύτητι καὶ τόλμῃ τὸν μοχθηρόν· αἱ δ’ ὑπὸ χεῖρα τοῖς τολμωμένοις ἀπαντῶσαι τιμωρίαι καὶ τῶν μελλόντων εἰσὶν ἐπισχέσεις ἀδικημάτων καὶ μάλιστα τὸ παρηγοροῦν τοὺς πεπονθότας ἔνεστιν αὐταῖς.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1145-1160: On The Origin of the Social Contract

“The race of man, tired of living in a state of violence
was languishing in feuds and they were eager
to submit themselves to law and strict judgments.
Otherwise, each man would turn himself to vengeance
More harshly than our current laws allow,
And this is why man has avoided living in a state of violence.
From here comes the fear that alters life’s rewards
Since violence and pain entrap the man who wields them
And tend to return most to those who acted first.
It isn’t easy to lead a quiet and peaceful life
If you break the faith of a community’s written peace.
Even if you deceive the races of god and man,
There’s no way to be sure to keep a secret forever.
Often many men reveal themselves by speaking in sleep
Or confused by a lengthy illness, they finally
Disclose their deeply hidden memories and sins.”


nam genus humanum, defessum vi colere aevom,
ex inimicitiis languebat; quo magis ipsum
sponte sua cecidit sub leges artaque iura.

acrius ex ira quod enim se quisque parabat
ulcisci quam nunc concessumst legibus aequis,
hanc ob rem est homines pertaesum vi colere aevom.
inde metus maculat poenarum praemia vitae.
circumretit enim vis atque iniuria quemque
atque unde exortast, ad eum plerumque revertit,
nec facilest placidam ac pacatam degere vitam
qui violat factis communia foedera pacis.
etsi fallit enim divom genus humanumque,
perpetuo tamen id fore clam diffidere debet;
quippe ubi se multi per somnia saepe loquentes
aut morbo delirantes protraxe ferantur
et celata [mala] in medium et peccata dedisse.

Hesiod’s Works and Days, 265: on Justice

“The man who does evil against another harms himself.”

οἷ αὐτῷ κακὰ τεύχει ἀνὴρ ἄλλῳ κακὰ τεύχων



Perhaps (Plato’s) Socrates was thinking of this when he said “doing wrong is worse than suffering it“.


Of course, Hesiodic poetry is not always consistent (Fr. 286):


“If someone sows wrongs, he will reap wicked profits.

If he suffers what he has wrought, now that is straight justice.”


εἰ κακά τις σπείραι, κακὰ κέρδεά <κ’> ἀμήσειεν·

εἴ κε πάθοι, τά τ’ ἔρεξε, δίκη κ’ ἰθεῖα γένοιτο


But this description is not completely opposed to the first: one is about personal morality and the other is about a wish for punishment for someone else.

This eye-for-an-eye take on justice is one of the traditional notions epic poetry investigates and Plato’s interlocutors debate. Another, also from Plato, is the idea that justice is relative, merely the hegemonic privilege of those in power.