HOMER: The Odyssey [Book IV]

In Book IV of Homer’s Odyssey, Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive in Sparta. Menelaus welcomes them, and Telemachus asks him whether he knows the fate of Odysseus. Menelaus recounts his encounter with the sea god Proteus during his return home from Troy. Proteus told him that Odysseus is still alive, but he is being detained on the island of Calypso. Telemachus thanks Menelaus for the news of his father, and then returns to Pylos with Pisistratus.

Meanwhile, the suitors learn that Telemachus has secretly sailed to Pylos. They decide to ambush and kill him when he returns to Ithaca. Penelope learns of the suitors plan and grows inconsolable. That night, however, Minerva appears to her in a dream and assures her that Telemachus will return home safely because the immortal gods will protect him from the suitors.

Lineage is a major theme in Book IV. When Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive in Sparta, Menelaus does not know them, but he remarks that they must be the sons of “scepter-bearing kings” because they have a regal bearing. The ancient Greeks believed that noble men raised noble sons. History, however, has proven that this is not always the case. For example, the noble and virtuous philosopher king Marcus Aurelius had a son named Commodus. Commodus succeeded his father as Emperor of Rome, but his behavior was far different from his father’s stoic austerity and virtuous behavior. Commodus frequently engaged in gladiatorial combats, in which he would slay helpless victims, and the ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio recounts how Commodus executed citizens who angered him.

Wealth is another important theme in Book IV. Menelaus is perhaps the richest man in the world. When Telemachus and Pisistratus arrive in Sparta, they are astonished by the majesty of Menelaus’ palace. And yet, Menelaus reflects that he would rather be poor and suffer no other misfortune than be rich and suffer the misfortunes that he has had to bear in life. “While I was travelling and getting great riches, my brother was murdered through the perfidy of his wicked wife, so that I have no pleasure in being lord of all this wealth. Would that I had only a third of what I now have so that I had stayed at home, and all those who perished on the plain of Troy were living. I grieve, as I sit here in my house, for one and all of them.”

Amassing a large fortune often requires great sacrifice. Investment bankers in New York work 90-100 hours per week, but they earn significantly more money than the majority of American workers. In other words, they sacrifice their time, health, and personal relationships to accumulate wealth. Some investment bankers believe that this sacrifice is worth the monetary reward and high social status that accompanies wealth. But others deeply regret the thousands of hours that they spent in pursuit of money.

Menelaus’ feelings of remorse over fighting the Trojan War and losing many of his friends manifests an attitude different from that of the heroes in the Iliad. Achilles, Agamemnon, and even Menelaus seek glory and fame in the Iliad. In the Odyssey, however, the heroes denounce glory and fame in favor of an obscure and peaceful life free from troubles. Many academics believe that this difference in tone between the Iliad and the Odyssey indicates that the texts have different authors, or that Homer, in his old age, recognized the folly of pursuing fame and desired to impart this wisdom to posterity.


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