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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 mentioned twice in Homer’s Iliad as allies of Troy, including in the catalogue of ships in Iliad Book 2 as sending warriors to reinforce the Trojans.

“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, killing the men and enslaving the women. For the losing side, it was total catastrophe. [Note: Odysseus also uses "[olesa][4]" to describe what he did to the Ciconian men, which means to destroy.]

“Wives” Greek ‘[alochous][5]’, from words for lying down together; it may mean ‘wives’, but can mean or include concubines & mistresses. This was a normal and acceptable word to use for female partners, but the suggestion of sleeping together could also, frankly, be a hint at what the Greeks want them for.

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][6] Odysseus and his men enjoy wine captured in the raid. At [197-210][7] 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][8] 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? (Most modern readers prefer the more fantastical magic and monsters episodes that follow with the Cyclops, Circe, Sylla and Charybdis etc. and many modern retellings downplay or omit the raid on the Cicones.)

  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? Obviously by our values their enslavement would be totally wrong, but would their lives thereafter and relations with their Greek captors have been uniformly terrible, or could they have adapted?

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?

[4]: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=w%29%2Flesa&la=greek&can=w%29%2Flesa0&prior=e)/praqon&d=Perseus:text:1999.01.0135:book=9:card=1&i=1 [5]: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=a%29lo%2Fxous&la=greek&can=a%29lo%2Fxous0&prior=d%27&d=Perseus:text:1999.01.0135:book=9:card=1&i=1 [6]: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0136%3Abook%3D9%3Acard%3D161 [7]: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0136%3Abook%3D9%3Acard%3D193 [8]: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0136%3Abook%3D23%3Acard%3D310

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    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

3 Answers 3

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  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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The Odyssey is a nostos, a tale of a hero's homecoming from the great war. In its opening lines, it alludes to its own membership in this epic subgenre, and even uses the expression nostimon ēmar, homecoming-day, as a synecdoche for life itself—what the sun-god took away from Odysseus' last surviving companions (1.11-12, 9).

Such homecomings, then as now, require change of mindset as well of place. Odysseus must learn to be something other than a warrior. Circe confronts him with this challenge when he proposes to fight off Scylla:

You rash man, do the works of war concern you again,
And toil? Will you not yield to the immortal gods? (12.116-17, Cook trans.)

He is slow to learn: despite this reproof, he dons his war-gear as he approaches Scylla's lair (12.226-31).

The Cicones episode is present in part to show just how far he has yet to go in this mental journey, when he first sails from Troy. Like the Trojan War itself, it is a Pyrrhic military victory whereby more is lost than won. The episode ends with the first instance of a mournful two-line formula that repeats, in whole or in part, after each of the early adventures Odysseus recounts in Book 9:

Then we sailed on further, grieving in our hearts,
Glad to escape death, having lost our dear companions. (9.62-63, 105, 565-66)

The role of the raider, the pirate—to which Odysseus seems frankly to confess in answer to the cyclops' question (9.252-55, 263-66)—no longer answers. But it is in that role, or that of mobster, that he receives the wonderful wine and other treasures from Maron the priest, in Ismaros, the Cicones' city. As Odysseus tells it, Maron gives out of gratitude for protection (9.196-211). But from what or whom did he need protection while the Ithacan fleet was there? Nice temple you got there—shame if something was to happen to it.

As to the captive Ismaran women, they most likely got left behind in the rout (9.59), as the Ithacans barely made their escape by sea. They would hardly have been kept confined on board undecked ships during the debauchery that the more warlike Cicones interrupted. Nor, had they been taken off their own land, would they have been kept around as mouths to feed while the men were starving on Thrinacia.

The key alternative role that Odysseus has to learn is that of guest. Homeric hospitality or xenía is the principal alternative to war, as a basis for relationships connecting the petty kingdoms into which Homeric Greece is divided. Of all the adventures that he undergoes on his way from Troy home to Ithaca, this the first, in the role of raider, nets him no lasting profit, nor yet does he bring home any treasure from Troy; but at his last stop, as honored guest of the Phaeacians, he gains great treasure as well as a suddenly easy ride home.

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  • Many thanks for your knowledgable and enlightening answer.
    – Timothy
    Sep 7, 2023 at 10:53
  • 'Undecked ships', although Book 12, lines 223 - 6 'I did not mention Scylla, since she meant inevitable death, and if they knew, the men would go drop the oars and go huddle down in the hold in fear' suggests there was a hold below the rowing deck that was large enough that the crew could have hidden there. I quoted Emily Wilson's translation, but the majority of others I have looked at mention a hold. Fagles just says 'stowed themselves away' but that may imply a hold as it suggests somewhere out of site in which to 'stow themselves'.
    – Timothy
    Sep 8, 2023 at 22:00
  • Captured Cicones women from Ismaros, may, as you say, have escaped during the Greeks' panicked flight from the Cicones army. I assumed though there were probably Trojan women slaves on the ships, as the Iliad says that, like it or not, capturing and enslaving women was normal when the Greeks sacked an enemy town, as they intended to do on taking Troy. Nestor refers Odyssey Book 3 line 153 to loot and women put on their ships for the return. Your comment 'Nor... would they have been kept around as mouths to feed while the men were starving on Thrinacia' raises thoughts I would rather not think.
    – Timothy
    Sep 8, 2023 at 22:17
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    @Timothy, ἐντός "within" (@12.225) could easily just mean amidships, away from the gunwales and presumably as low into the bilge as possible, below rowing-bench level. Sep 8, 2023 at 22:45
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    That's what I'd probably do myself if I knew my captain was using me for bitch bait. (I construe the monster's name as simply a doubled-lambda version of σκύλα, literally female dog; and I have even seen the anglophone slur "bitch!" subtitled on Greek TV as σκύλα.) Sep 8, 2023 at 23:13
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Note: This was posted before Brian Donovan added his informative answer of 5 September.

I posted the original question a few years ago. In the meantime I have thought and read about it further in the light of the Comments I received and now suggest the following partial answers, subject to what anyone else may make of this.

  1. Why Homer includes this incident, when most readers find it less interesting and appealing than Odysseus' later adventures with the Cyclops, Lotus Eaters, Circe turning his men into pigs, the ghosts of Hades etc.

Modern stories of the supernatural tend to begin in ordinary reality to establish credibility before introducing the more creepy or fantastical elements. In the same way, Odysseus begins his journey with a raid of the type that probably did occur in those days, representing a local continuation of the Trojan War, to anchor his narrative in reality, before getting on to the more unlikely but more entertaining encounters with magic and monsters.

It also reminds us of the War the Greeks have been fighting for the past decade, perhaps telling us that they are still in a violent, predatory, warlike mentality.

Finally, it demonstrates a theme that will recur later in the stories of the bag of winds and Helios's cattle, that Odysseus is wiser than his men (in this case wanting to sail away quickly with their loot before the Cicones of the rest of that country can do anything about it) but cannot always persuade his men to do the wise thing. (They are not like a modern professional army subject to military discipline; even Odysseus' orders are not always obeyed.)

  1. How Odysseus conquers Ismaros so easily. Most likely by striking quickly and catching the Cicones of Ismaros by surprise. Greek 50 oared ships of the time were suited to making sudden surprise attacks. Having both sails and oars for propulsion, if the wind was favourable they could approach quickly, and did not have to find a harbour to land but could drive the front part of the ship on to a beach and the warriors jump straight out on to the sand. As, Book 13 lines 114 - 116, the Phaeacians, landing, with more peaceful intent, on Ithaca:

'...Their arms were pulling at top speed; the ship was travelling so fast that when she reached dry land, she beached for half her length.'

  1. Why Odysseus attacks Ismaros. From various other references in the Odyssey e.g. the Cretan 'cover' story that Odysseus tells Eumeus in Book 14, raiding across the seas for plunder was a common and socially acceptable way to gain wealth. However, I confess I am a little puzzled by the contrast between this and the idealisation of hospitality 'xenia' and mutual duties between travellers and hosts in the rest of the poem. Was the rule to be generous and respectful to strangers, except when you decided to rob and kill them?

4 a. Fate of the women of Ismaros enslaved by Odysseus and his men; no one, not even modern feminist influenced commentators, asks whether Odysseus selects one of these women for himself.

4 b. Trojan women slaves. While not explicitly stated in the Odyssey, it is surely implied that there will be some on Odysseus' ships. Indeed, in Book 3 lines 152-3, Nestor describes the departure of the victorious Greeks, including Odysseus, from Troy:

'...dragged our ships down to the sea piled high with loot and women'

These must be women from Troy and other towns sacked by the Greeks during the War, when by the custom, however wrong it seems to us, but accepted as the way of the World back then, in a war the losers' wives, daughters and concubines became the property of the winners.

By another tradition, cited by Euripides in 'The Trojan Women' and 'Hecuba', Hecuba Queen of Troy became a slave of Odysseus.

As to the subsequent fate of these unlucky women, I have come across the argument from a respected Professor of Classics, that, treating the Odyssey as the fiction that it mostly must be, all that exists of the characters is what is said about them in the text, and characters who are not mentioned in a sense do not exist. Therefore, since Homer, not wanting to be distracted from the primary narrative of the poem, does not mention them again, it is idle to speculate on the subsequent fate of these women as though they were real people.

I accept that as true up to a point.

However, some things may not be stated because to the original audience they would have been so obvious as to be implied. As in 19th Century literature, if a character is described as wealthy and owning a large house, the audience would have taken it to be implied that they would have servants.

Also, if we are considering a text not just as literature but as historical evidence of how things were at the time it was created, we might consider what is left out as well as what is included.

We can assume, as Homer's audience would surely have assumed, that things stated elsewhere in the Iliad and Odyssey about the position of women enslaved in wars would probably have applied to them. As in the simile of the hysterically sobbing woman in an unidentified conquered town near the end of Book 8 of the Odyssey, whose husband has just been killed fighting the invaders, and she is not even allowed time to cry over his body but beaten to make her get up so she can be immediately dragged off into slavery, the process of capture was heartbreakingly ruthless and traumatic. And Nestor's promise to the Greek army in Book 2 of the Iliad that when they win the War they will all get a Trojan's wife to sleep with. Thus, these women, if young and attractive, can all expect to be slept with by a Greek, whether they consent or not.

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