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Is Telemachus a "Naturally Gifted Orator?" The Case of Od. 2.40-79

David F. Driscoll

In his opening speech to the Ithacan assembly at Od. 2.40-79, Telemachus seems to work against his own interests by insulting his prospective helpers. Heraclides of Pontus (F 102 Schütrumpf) was the first to see the problem, noting that though Telemachus should supplicate to gain the Ithacans’ support, he instead rebukes them. Solutions to the problem ancient and modern have come in two groups: some argue that the speech characterizes Telemachus as a poor speaker (Heraclides, some scholia, Heubeck 1990, de Jong 2001, Heitman 2005, Petropoulos 2011), while other claim that the speech is in fact rhetorically effective (some scholia, Eustathius, Felson 1994).

While building on both, I propose a new way to overcome the divide. Telemachus’ apparent criticism is in fact the language of battle exhortations, but Telemachus' combination proves to be an inappropriate mixture of speech genres. My argument falls into three parts: I first show striking but heretofore unnoticed similarities between Telemachus’ speech and Iliadic battle exhortations, most notably the shared formula φίλοι, καί μ' οἶον. I second argue that the speech fails because the Ithacans are unsure which part of the blended speech to respond to. Third, I connect this reading to broader questions of Telemachus’ suitability to rule and his role as an audience surrogate.

To begin with, I demonstrate that Telemachus’ criticisms of the Ithacans have lexical or semantic similarities to battle exhortations (Kampfparänesen, Latacz 1977), where heroes try to encourage other heroes in the field of war. First, his imperative command to ‘censure yourself’ (νεμεσσήθητε) is only paralleled in battle exhortations. Second, his sarcastic wish to be abandoned to his misery shares a formula with battle exhortations (φίλοι, καί μ' οἶον). Finally, Telemachus’ accusation that the Ithacans are harming him (κακὰ ῥέζετε) is similar to the exaggeration typical of battle exhortations that the slackness of allies leads to the enemies’ victory.

Next, I show that the Ithacans’ response both proves this reading and explains the failure of Telemachus’ speech. In the narrator’s unusually detailed description of the Ithacans’ response, they react emotionally to each part of Telemachus’ speech. Pity (οἶκτος) seizes the whole assembly – the typical response to supplications – but simultaneously nobody dares to respond with “angry words” (μύθοισιν … χαλεποῖσιν) – the typical response to a battle exhortation. The Ithacans are unsure which reaction to choose, and their hesitation is responsible for the failure of Telemachus’ appeal.

Finally, Telemachus’ inability to persuade sheds light on the Odyssey’s views on kingship and its audience. Though ambitious Telemachus is still learning to speak, and, in light of the link the Odyssey draws between speech and kingship (Martin 1984, 1993), his failure to master rhetoric reveals him as not yet ready to rule. Furthermore, since Telemachus serves as an audience surrogate (Martin 1993, Felson 1994), I suggest that the dramatization of his learning to speak serves as a didactic model for the audience. Telemachus may not be Eustathius’ “naturally gifted orator” (θυμοσόφος ῥήτωρ), but Eustathius is right to see Telemachus as a model for students (Nünlist 2012).

Session/Panel Title

Homer, Odyssey: Speech and Ritual

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