Eumaeus, in his first protracted exchange with Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey, goes a long way towards conveying what it means to be a slave in Homeric society. Disguised, Odysseus is a guest to Eumaeus, but he is also a beggar who could become a dependent in the same way that Eumaeus had. Emphasising that guests and beggars are sacred to Zeus (14.56-8), Eumaeus talks about his role in Odysseus' household. His labour (14.66) increased his master's holdings, yet Eumaeus' focal point, the way in which he frames his speech is not labour, per se, but honour and power. It is not right (themis) to dishonour a guest, but even so, 'it is the habit of slaves always to be in fear, whenever young kings are in power' (14.59-60). Eumaeus links his master's power, and the ability to take in a beggar who could become a slave, to the gods. Odysseus has come to a place where people respect standard social practice: gods come first, kings are kind, and dependants - guests, beggars, slaves - honour their lords. That is, people in Ithaca respected these practices until Odysseus left for Troy, when he 'swore many things' to his slave Eumaeus, 'had he grown old here' (14.67). Odysseus of course has gone to Troy to fight for honour (14. 70), and in his absence affairs have degenerated into chaos. Nevertheless, Eumaeus wants his guest - Odysseus as beggar -to know what's what.
Copyright © 2011 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. This book chapter first appeared in Reading Ancient Slavery.
Please note that downloads of the book chapter are for private/personal use only.
Purchase online at Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Rankine, Patrice. "Odysseus as Slave: The Ritual of Domination and Social Death in Homeric Society." In Reading Ancient Slavery, edited by Richard Alston, Edith Hall, and Laura Proffitt, 34-50. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011.