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Odysseus in The Iliad: Character Analysis

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

In Homer's 'The Iliad,' Odysseus stands out, but not because he is a main character. Instead, it is his attributes as a soldier and a leader that draw the reader's eye. His brief appearances hint that there is more to his character than what Homer reveals.

Who is Odysseus?

The Trojan War, as described in Homer's The Iliad, is laden with characters. Among the many who play a role in this epic poem about the Trojan War, one man stands out. Odysseus makes his presence known each time he appears. Perhaps this is build-up for his starring role in Homer's Odyssey. Regardless, each time Odysseus appears in The Iliad, his strong voice is heard, his courage is on display, or his wisdom solves a critical problem. All these characteristics make Odysseus a highly valued and respected leader.

Helen, the young woman over whom the Trojan War is being fought, provides some basic information on Odysseus. According to Helen's description, Odysseus is the son of Laertes (a well-respected king) and comes from the country of Ithaka. Odysseus is described as having broad shoulders, which give him an imposing appearance. Even when he sits, Odysseus appears ''more lordly'' than those around him. Yet it is his voice to which ''no other mortal man beside could stand up.'' This is evident when he intercedes in the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles.

Diplomacy

Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaeans, has quarreled with Achilles, who is perhaps the greatest warrior on the battlefield. As a result, Achilles has decided to leave the battle and return home. Agamemnon needs Achilles to return to the Achaean army, because it is commonly believed that the Achaeans cannot win without him. He offers wealth and a multitude of prizes as an incentive, but Achilles still refuses.

Agamemnon asks Odysseus to intervene, imploring him to ''rescue/the afflicted sons of the Achaeans from the Trojan onslaught.'' Odysseus goes to Achilles and makes his appeal, reminding him of everything Agamemnon has promised. However, Achilles turns Odysseus away, refusing to make peace with Agamemnon and rejoin the fight. Odysseus returns to Agamemnon and explains the reason for Achilles' anger. Homer explains that the words of Odysseus strike Agamemnon ''very strongly.''

What stands out in this sequence is how Odysseus presents his argument to Achilles and then remains silent and stoic during Achilles' angry response. Odysseus does not enrage Achilles further by continuing their negotiations. Odysseus recognizes the futility in arguing with someone who is filled with such rage.

Leadership

The men whom Odysseus leads into battle see him as a strong leader. His words carry great weight whenever he speaks. How does Odysseus earn such respect and admiration from those around him? It may be, in part, the way he is willing to stand up to Agamemnon. Beyond this, however, Odysseus has a reputation for standing up for and protecting the men under his leadership. Once again, the best example occurs in context of a confrontation with Achilles.

Achilles is overcome with anger and wants to attack the Trojans with great haste. Odysseus, however, tells Achilles not to ''drive the sons of the Achaeans...when they are hungry.'' Odysseus explains that if the men are deprived of food and drink, their ability to win battles diminishes, as their strength diminishes without nourishment. Achilles has no regard for this argument and insists that they go off to battle. Odysseus reminds Achilles that ''When there is battle men have suddenly their fill of it.'' He drives home the point that continual battle without an opportunity to rest and eat will decrease morale and breed discontent among the troops.

Here, Odysseus confronts Achilles and refuses to concede any point when it comes to the health and safety of his men. Only when his men have fortified themselves with food and drink, then ''afterward all the more strongly/we may fight on forever relentless against our enemies.'' This concern over the safety and health of his men is what earns him the respect of the men around him.

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