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ODYSSEUS by Charles Rowan Beye

ODYSSEUS

A Life

By Charles Rowan Beye

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2004
ISBN: 1-4013-0024-3

Synthesizing material from the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other ancient sources, a “biography” of the legendary Greek hero that doubles as a vivid history of Bronze Age customs and beliefs.

Situating Odysseus’ life in the second millennium b.c.e., the author reminds us that this “king” was more like a local chieftain than the monarch of a post-medieval nation-state, and he ruled a rocky island 17 miles long, 4 miles wide. In Ithaca, as in the rest of the ancient world, even the elite lived simply, close to the land. Political relationships were intensely personal, oiled by lavish exchanges of gifts and ironclad rules of hospitality whose violation played a crucial role in the Trojan war and in many acts of Odysseus that seem horrifyingly brutal to modern readers. (The slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, for example.) Beye (Classics Emeritus/CUNY; Ancient Epic Poetry, 1993, etc.) accepts the traditional portrait of his hero as cunning, cold, ruthless, essentially a loner in a society dominated by male friendships—“the protean man,” in other words: “hated by many, respected by most, doubted, suspected, not exactly liked except by women. But then being liked was not one of the concerns of a prince in the Greek Bronze Age.” The author’s lucid chronological narrative of Odysseus’ career is written in witty, deliberately colloquial prose. Only when describing his subject’s sex life does Beye lapse into jarring anachronisms (“Circe was, he dimly realized, the woman of his masturbatory fantasies and his wet dreams finally come true”); in general, his breezy approach helps readers to grasp the nature of long-ago experiences while realizing how very differently these people thought and behaved. Early chapters covering less well-known events in Odysseus’ youth are particularly fascinating, but Beye’s accounts of the Trojan War, the hero’s ten years of wandering, and his return to Ithaca also benefit from the author’s formidable, yet lightly worn, erudition.

Lively, informative, and great fun: the perfect introduction to Odysseus and the society that shaped his exploits.