In Book 2, Agamemnon gathers his troops on the beach and tests their courage by pretending to give up the war against Troy. The soldiers, exhausted by nine years of war, immediately run for their ships. Spurred by the goddess Athena, Odysseus pursues them and turns their mood with his oratory. But one soldier remains uncowed. Thersites is ‘a blabbing soldier, who had an impudent way with officers’  – the Iliad’s only social critic – and has the courage to stand up and challenge Agamemnon:
What have you got to groan about? What more
can you gape after? Bronze fills all your huts,
bronze and the hottest girls – we hand them over
to you, you first, when any stronghold falls.
Or is it gold you lack? A Trojan father
will bring you gold in ransom for his boy –
though I – or some footsoldier like myself –
roped the prisoner in.
Or a new woman
to lie with, couple with, keep stowed away
for private use – is that your heart’s desire?
You send us back to bloody war for that?
Comrades! Are you women of Akhaia?
I say we pull away for home, and leave him
here on the beach to lay his captive girls!
Let him find out if we troops are dispensable
when he loses us!
The ‘warrior vase’ found at Mycenae, dating from approximately 1200 BCE. The frieze on this krater, or mixing bowl, depicts rank and file warriors.
Thersites’ analysis of the situation makes perfect sense. Why should the troops not leave the aristocrats to sort out their marital squabbles between themselves? The war was launched by the ruling class to resolve a dispute over Helen that has not the least relevance or interest to peasant farmers who should be safe at home working their land. It is little wonder that these farmers are sick of the nine years of war that have kept them from their families and maimed and killed their kind by the thousand. They won’t even win glory, because their role in combat is anonymous.
With terse eloquence, Thersites is saying out loud what the great majority of the army has every right to be thinking. It is in this role as truth-sayer that he reappears in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida – coarse in language, but exposing hypocrisy.
Homer, however, makes it clear that he firmly disapproves. He describes Thersites at unusual length. His voice is described as ‘yapping’, ‘jeering’, ‘baiting’. In an absurd equation of physical deformity with deformity of spirit, he presents him as ‘the most obnoxious rogue who went to Troy. / Bowlegged, with one limping leg, and shoulders / rounded above his chest, he had a skull / quite conical, and mangy fuzz like mould.’ In an age of military heroes and Olympic athletes, it seems Thersites has done well to get into the army at all.
An angry Odysseus immediately confronts Thersites:
‘Better not raise your voice to your commanders,
or rail at them, after you lie awake
with nothing on your mind but shipping home…
‘Here is my promise, and it will be kept:
if once again I hear your whining voice,
I hope Odysseus’ head my be knocked loose
from his own shoulders, hope I may no longer
be called the father of Telemakhos,
if I do not take hold of you and strip you –
yes, even of the shirt that hides your scut!
From this assembly ground I’ll drive you howling
and whip you like a dog into the ships!’
The original Greek makes an explicit reference to exposing Thersites’ privates – usually softened simply to ‘nakedness’ by translators – as part of the threatened shaming. Odysseus then beats Thersites on the body and shoulders with his staff until the man drops in tears, raising a ‘scarlet welt’ on his back. There’s nothing gracious about Odysseus’ behaviour, but for the aristocrats lauded and celebrated by the Iliad, this treatment is entirely proper. Earlier in Book 2 when Odysseus is rallying the departing army, we see a marked contrast between how he treats the common soldier and how he talks to members of the elite. To the men of rank, Odysseus explains Agememnon’s test and relies on persuasion: ‘It isn’t like you to desert the field / the way some coward would!’
But when Odysseus met some common soldier
bawling still, he drove him back; he swung
upon him with his staff and told him:
go back, sit down, listen to better men –
unfit for soldiering as you are, weak sister,
counting for nothing in battle or in council!
Shall we all wield the power of kings? We can not,
and many masters are no good at all.
Let there be one commander, one authority,
holding his royal staff and precedence
from Zeus, the son of crooked-minded Kronos:
one to command the rest.’
Odysseus’ tirade neatly illustrates Thersites’ sin – it is to have challenged the authority of the king and, by extension, the class system.
Homer, who identifies with the class ideology of the nobles, does not allow the rank and file to agree with Thersites:
for all their irritation, fell to laughing
at the man’s disarray. You might have heard
one fellow, glancing at his neighbour, say:
‘Oh, what a clout! A thousand times Odysseus
has done good work, thinking out ways to fight
or showing you how to do it: this time, though,
he’s done the best deed of the war,
making that poisonous clown capsize.’
Whatever the troops’ wariness about abusing the nobility, Thersites has expressed a view shared by many of his comrades. These are the troops who, a few lines earlier, gratefully surged towards their ships the moment they thought the war was over: ‘They cheered each other on to draw the ships into the sea; they cleared the channels in front of them; they began taking away the stays from underneath them, and the welkin rang with their glad cries, so eager were they to return.’ This is not the behaviour of men determined to serve their masters’ glory at all costs.
Structurally, the episode illustrates how close the Greeks are to defeat at this point, which is early in the poem but late in the war (and makes all the more dramatic their eventual victory). Now an end to the war is dandled before the troops and then snatched away. No wonder then if Thersites berates Agamemnon, ‘at whom the troops were furious.’
But Odysseus has saved the day, not least through his treatment of Thersites, which brings the ‘irritated’ men together against the scapegoat. The episode is partly intended to be comical, both for the reader/listener – Greek humour could be very cruel – and for the characters – their laughter at the ‘poisonous clown’ helping to restore the normal hierarchy of power. The Greek army rallies around its leaders, and after some speeches and a sacrifice to the gods, Homer gives us a long (and tedious) roll-call of the warriors and peoples participating in the campaign.
The arrogant class attitude Homer reveals here was normal among the ancient Greek writers. G.E.M. de Ste Croix has pointed out that the ideological norm of the period was the poor ‘are not really fitted to rule and that this is much better left to their “betters”.’ Membership of the propertied class was an ‘essential qualification’ for rule. The Greek aristocracy was opposed to democracy: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle included. It is one of the contradictions of ancient Greek society that the system that allowed philosophy to flower, by encouraging independent thought, was implacably opposed by the philosophers themselves.
In taking issue with the warlike mood of aristocratic honour and due obedience that dominates the Iliad, Thersites actively challenges the dominant ideology of the day. Why, then, did Homer allow Thersites a voice at all?
The poem’s gestation is so obscure that we are forced to speculate. One explanation may simply be that Thersites’ punishment serves as a warning to any listeners who might be feeling resentful of the ruling class. We should also remember that the Iliad was probably created from the contributions of many poets – it is possible that the episode is an interpolation by one of the more daring of them. Afterward, Thersites was permitted to remain as long as he was put firmly in his place. A more subtle possibility, observed by Rupert Graves and the critic Kenneth Burke, is that a great many members of the poem’s audience are struck by the sheer waste of life and resources portrayed in the war, and the oppressiveness of its class structure. Burke wrote:
If an audience is likely to feel that it is being crowded into a position, if there is any likelihood that the requirements of dramatic ‘efficiency’ would lead to the blunt ignoring of a possible protest from at least some significant portion of the onlookers, the author must get this objection stated in the work itself. But the objection should be voiced in a way that the same breath disposes of it.
Homer has found a way to acknowledge an alternative voice, but by making Thersites ugly and ridiculous he distances himself from the seditious remarks.
Ironically, a couple of centuries after the Iliad was written down, Greek democracy would allow a political voice to the common man (not woman). It came far too late to help poor cone-headed Thersites. But we may agree with Hegel that ‘the Thersites of Homer who abuses the kings is a standing figure for all times.’
 All quotes in this article are from Book 2 of the Iliad. The translation is by Robert Fitzgerald (1974), my personal favourite.
 See John Miles Foley, A Companion to Ancient Epic (2005).
 G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981).
 Kenneth Burke, Language As Symbolic Action (1966).
 Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1837).