Friday, 16 October 2015

Eurycleia the slave - An interesting passage from the Odyssey

First posted on my classics blog, Memento, on 21 September 2014.

In this post, I want to look at an interesting passage from the first book of Homer's Odyssey.

The "he" in the passage is the hero Odysseus' son, Telemachus.  At this point, Telemachus is living in Odysseus' palace and waiting for his father's long-delayed return from the Trojan War.  Laertes is Odysseus' old father, who is now living in retirement:
There he went, to his bed, with his mind full of thoughts;
with him, carrying burning torches, went the prudent
Eurycleia, daughter of Ops, son of Peisenor;
Laertes had bought her long ago with his wealth,
for twenty cattle, when she was still a young girl;
he honoured her like his prudent wife in the house,
but he never slept with her and angered his wife.
She brought burning torches with him [Telemachus]; she loved him most
of the house-maids; she had nursed him as a baby.  (427-435)
Eurycleia is a significant character in the epic.  When Odysseus finally returns, she is the only person who recognises him without him first revealing himself.  It is also she who tells Odysseus' wife Penelope that he has returned.


Eurycleia is a slave-woman and a member of Odysseus' household.  The fact that she served as a wet-nurse must mean that she had children of her own, but we are told nothing about them.  In Homer, the city-state (or polis) is still only imperfectly developed, and the family is still the central unit of society.  This would have included, in aristocratic circles at least, the extended family of slaves and retainers.  Such an extended family could be very large.  Homer tells us that both Odysseus and another character, King Alcinoos, have 50 female slaves each.  Such an establishment is almost certainly larger than the actual households kept by Greek lords in Homer's time; it represents a kind of poetic exaggeration.

Note that Eurycleia's price is expressed in cattle.  The Homeric economy was based on barter rather than money.  We know from the Iliad that the going rate for an ordinary skilled female domestic slave was four cattle (23.705), so Eurycleia was particularly valuable.  On the other hand, an exceptionally valuable male captive, like the Trojan prince Lycaon, could be sold for 100 cattle (21.79).

Slaves were mainly female for the simple reason that they were generally acquired through war and raiding.  By the time that the women of a defeated town or tribe came to be enslaved by the victors, their husbands and brothers would be dead.  The younger and more attractive slave-women would inevitably have become concubines of their masters - a custom which entailed no moral disapproval.  The entire plot of the Iliad is based on a quarrel between the Greek heroes Agamemnon and Achilles over a concubine, Briseis.  That quarrel was in turn precipitated by Agamemnon's loss of another concubine, Chryseis, whom Agamemnon expressly said he preferred to his wife Clytaemnestra (1.113-115).  Another character mentioned in the Iliad, Amyntor, is also said to have loved his concubine more than his wife (9.450-451).

Laertes, however, did not go down this road, even though he bought Eurycleia when she was próthébén, which means something like "in the prime of youth".  Instead, he "honoured" her and had respect for the feelings of his wife.  Honour was a key idea in Homeric culture.  It was often expressed through physical heroism on the battlefield, but it could also sometimes apply to relations between men and women.  Amyntor, who we met in the last paragraph, is said to have "dishonoured" his wife through his relationship with his concubine.  Laertes evidently did not do the same.

Interpretations of Laertes' conduct have differed.  Eustathius, a mediaeval archbishop who wrote an enormous commentary on Homer, couldn't resist taking it as an example of desire being checked through "mindful respect".  The Victorian novelist Samuel Butler thought that the Odyssey was written by a woman, and took Laertes' regard for his wife's feelings as one of his pieces of evidence:
The very beautiful lines in which the old nurse Euryclea lights Telemachus to bed... suggest a woman's hand rather than a man's.  So also does the emphasising Laertes’ respect for his wife's feelings....  This jealousy for a wife's rights suggests a writer who was bent on purifying her age, and upholding a higher ideal as regards the relations between husband and wife than a man in the Homeric age would be likely to insist on.
Most scholars are unpersuaded by Butler's theory, but I have a feeling that it may have something to be said for it.


Homeric society, like ancient society generally, was fundamentally conservative and role-based.  Individuals were assigned to fixed social roles with well-defined duties and prerogatives attached to them.  An individual's role was based on components like sex (man, woman), occupation (farmer, sailor, carpenter) and social position (king, free man, slave).  This role-based conservatism was a kind of insurance policy, a means of instilling stability and order into a world which was more violent and risky than our own.  But it came at the price of largely suppressing things which modern society regards as important goods - individual rights, freedom of choice and meritocracy.

Did whoever composed the Homeric epics endorse these social arrangements?  Not necessarily.  Of course, it would be anachronistic to see Homer as a social critic in the modern sense - a kind of archaic Greek Naomi Klein or George Monbiot - but there is an undercurrent in the epics of what might broadly be called social criticism.  The Iliad contains elements which can be seen as, by turns, anti-establishment, anti-war and anti-gods.  The Odyssey has some "subversive" elements too, but the Odyssey is a subtler and softer-edged poem, and so they tend to be less obvious.

We are told that Eurycleia loves Telemachus, and it is made clear elsewhere that she loves Odysseus and Penelope too; she even addresses them as "teknon emon", "my child".  We are also told that Laertes loved her, on a level that was expressly not reducible to sex.  And this is all in spite of the fact that she was a slave.  Love, after all, is a very subversive thing.  More generally, the strength of personal relationships among Homer's characters can undermine the distinctions of class and status that exist between them.  Odysseus' and Penelope's marriage is as close to a partnership of equals as anything in ancient literature, and this necessarily calls into question the patriarchal values on which, on the face of it, Homeric society is based.  Plus, of course, we know that Laertes didn't disrespect his own wife by sleeping with Eurycleia.  This sort of thing can be found in the Iliad too.  The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles is initially depicted as mostly a matter of male honour and revenge, with Briseis as an object or trophy, but it later turns out that Achilles genuinely loves the girl.

Eurycleia may be a slave, but she isn't necessarily of slave origins.  The fact that Homer takes the trouble to tell us about her parentage - she is the "daughter of Ops, son of Peisenor" - may indicate that she is of noble blood.  Homer's characters, particularly the aristocratic ones, are preoccupied with ancestry because social status was mostly inherited.  If Eurycleia is of aristocratic descent, it isn't clear why Homer needed to let us know this.  Was it, perhaps, a concession to his own aristocratic audience or employers?  Maybe he had to hint that Eurycleia was of noble blood because otherwise she wouldn't have been taken seriously as a character.  This may also be why Odysseus' swineherd Eumaeus, who becomes a major character in the second half of the epic, turns out to be a nobleman down on his luck.  Whatever the reason for these slightly surprising characterisations, the message to be drawn is that social status can be a matter of pure chance - which is, you might think, a distinctly subversive idea.