Open question for thoughts and explanations re Odysseus’ raid on the Cicones (also called Kikonians) while on his way home from the Trojan War, on any of my questions below and/or other thoughts of your own.

In Homer’s Odyssey Book 9, Odysseus tells his Phaeacian hosts of his adventures while returning victorious from Troy, beginning with how, leading his men home in 12 ships (I have added 3 explanatory notes I have researched):

“From Ilium [Troy] storms blew me to the Cicones*, to Ismaros. There, I sacked* the town and put the men to the sword. And we took the wives* and much loot out of the town to divide among us, and I did my best to see that every man received his proper share.”

*Notes: The “Cicones” are a people of that region listed in Homer’s Iliad Book 2 as sending warriors to reinforce the Trojans. They are not mentioned again in the Iliad so presumably their part in the War was minor.

“Sacked” - Ancient Greek ‘pertho’; to devastate, ruin, sack; used in relation to a conquered town in those days it would generally be taken to include plundering, slaughtering inhabitants, and enslaving many survivors. For the losing side, it could be total catastrophe. [Note: Odysseus also uses "olesa", which means to destroy.]

“Wives” Greek ‘alochous’, from words for lying down together; it may mean ‘wives’, but can mean or include concubines & mistresses.

Odysseus adds that he thought it best to leave quickly but his men insisted on staying to feast on captured wine, cattle and sheep on the beach. They were still there the next day when more Cicones arrived from inland, summoned by fugitives from Odysseus’ raid who ran to them and ‘made a great cry’. These new Cicones were “better men, more numerous and more skilled in war”. They gave battle. The Greeks put up a long fight but lost over 70 men and had to flee to their ships. After commemorating their dead, they sailed away unpursued.

This raid is referred to 3 further times in the Odyssey. In Book 9, at lines 164-168 Odysseus and his men enjoy wine captured in the raid. At 197-210 he says that in the raid out of respect for the god, he protected Maron, a priest of Apollo living near the town, and Maron’s family, from harm. In return, Maron gave Odysseus fine gifts of gold, silver and strong wine. The wine is useful in the story of the Cyclops. In Book 23 lines 310-311 when Odysseus is finally home he tells his wife Penelope of his many adventures, including laying waste the Cicones, so he presumably does not expect her to disapprove of his raid.

Any thoughts on this, on any point(s) below or anything else that occurs to you? (“That’s just how it was in those days” may be a valid answer to some questions, but please don’t assume it without some evidence or reasoning!)

  1. Why does Homer include this incident? Does it add anything to the story?

  2. How did Odysseus conquer Ismaros and its men so easily? He does not mention losing a single man doing so, but he does tell us when he loses men in the battle the next day.

  3. Did Odysseus sack Ismaros because of the Trojan War, or was it normal and OK to do this to any foreign town, given the opportunity? The Greeks sacked other Trojan allies’ towns in the War, gaining plunder and slaves. However, there was then a military need to eliminate enemy allies and capture supplies. There seems no need to attack Ismaros. The Trojan War is already won, Troy destroyed and Odysseus and his men already have plunder from Troy and are supposedly tired of war and eager for home.

  4. a) The one reference to the women of Ismaros in the passage above: “We took the wives and much loot out of the town to divide among us” is their only mention in the Odyssey. Do we assume hundreds (?) of these unfortunate Ciconian “wives” (actually now widows) are present as slaves, presumably servants and concubines, on Odysseus’ ships in the later adventures until the ships are lost, but are not considered worth mentioning? If not, what happened to them?

b) Ditto that in the Sack of Troy, the Greeks/ Achaeans are supposed to have enslaved Trojan women in large numbers as booty of war, yet there is no mention anywhere in the Odyssey of such women being on Odysseus’ ships?

c) If captured Trojan or Ciconian slaves and women are on board, presumably they die along with the crews when the ships are lost, but again their fate is not important enough to mention?

  1. Thoughts about the position of Maron and his wife, giving gifts to Odysseus even as he and his warriors kill or carry off into slavery all their neighbours?
  • 1
    I think this question is too broad and answers would tend to be opinion based, but your fourth point is very good, and unless an explanation is given you may have spoiled the whole Odyssey to me. Thanks.
    – Rodia
    Mar 19, 2017 at 12:34
  • Rodia - thank you for your comment. Sorry if a point I raised spoils the whole Odyssey for you. With Homer and the Trojan War, I am torn between thinking that those semi-barbarian times were so different we can't judge them by our standards, yet still being shocked when this view leads modern commentators to miss the cruelty of some of it. I accept answers may have to be conjectural by analogy from archaeology, other ancient literature & history etc. As to qu. being too broad, I hope people will feel free just to answer one or a few parts of it.
    – Timothy
    Mar 19, 2017 at 16:14

1 Answer 1

  1. It was quite common to sack towns on the trip to, from, and even during the war. (Compare to the medieval Crusaders.) I don't have time to run down specific examples, but there is a discussion here: Why did Homer’s Greeks sack so many cities in the Trojan War? Does it make them mostly pirates and slave raiders?

  2. Ostensibly the gentrified townsfolk were not fierce as their country neighbors:

Meanwhile the Cicones went and called to other Cicones who were their neighbors, at once more numerous and braver than they—men that dwelt inland and were skilled at fighting with their foes from chariots, and, if need were, on foot.
Source: Odyssey 9, 47-50

  1. Totally normal. Completely acceptable. Generally perceived as admirable, thus gladly recounted by Odysseus. (See 1.)

  2. Women were generally regarded as chattel. The term "booty" is most apropos.

4(b) Only significant prizes would be worth mentioning, such as Andromache.

4(c) Yup. They are chattel, not worth mentioning unless they previously had high status.

This is part of why Euripides is so important and even radical, shedding light on characters such as Polyxena, Cassandra and Hecuba, and the plight of the Trojan Women, after the fall of Troy.

  1. He was probably just relieved Odysseus spared him, even though Odysseus' actions were based on fear of Apollo.

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