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Feasting on Corpses: Violence and Its Limits in Iliad 24

Caleb Simone

Columbia University

A popular theme in the archaic visual tradition must have shocked its viewers with its evocation of what has been called the most violent sentiment in the Iliad: Achilles appears to fulfill his threat to cut up Hector’s flesh and eat it raw (Segal 1971: 38 on Il. 22.345-54). On closer examination, it becomes clear that the image actually adheres more closely to the epic narrative of the ransom. Priam has come to ransom Hector’s body and Achilles’ participation in the dais or properly ordered feast suggests a favorable outcome.

Assuming this archaic image as a lens, my paper shows how Iliad 24 represents violence and its limits in terms of the dais. In the vase paintings, the jarring juxtaposition of Achilles reclining with meat and a sacrificial knife over the bloody corpse of Hector demarcates the bounds of a spectrum of violence within the epic narrative, from justified retribution to its clear transgression. This provocative image thus becomes a nexus of politically significant attitudes and decisions—affects related to what Sloterdijk terms the “thymotic impulse”—which are here mediated in the resolution of the Iliadic narrative. Within its context of the archaic aristocratic symposium, this epic image resonates with contemporary ideas of political order as moderation in the feast (as opposed to violence and hubris). The paper thus demonstrates how Iliad 24 may have been interpreted in the archaic symposium as a paradigm of politics understood as a complex accumulation of thymotic affects. 

Following a brief account of the visual formula of the ransom scene (Recke 2002; Lowenstam 2008; Giuliani and O’Donnell 2013), my argument focuses on the many levels at which this image engages the epic tradition. When Priam arrives to supplicate Achilles, the hero has just finished the dais, having fasted for eleven days as he grieved for Patroclus and mutilated Hector’s corpse. His participation in this symbolic ritual marks his decision to recognize his place within the hierarchy of gods and men, and to heed the will of Zeus (Saïd 1979; Bakker 2013). But at the same time, the depiction of Achilles carving flesh over Hector’s mangled corpse evokes the fever-pitch of Achilles’ thymotic impulse when he threatened to cut up the Trojan’s flesh to eat (22.346-7; cf. Lowenstam 2008: 53-7). This impulse is vividly recalled at the counsel of the gods in Iliad 24. In remarkable language, Apollo describes Achilles as a thymotic, senseless lion which pounces upon its prey in an utterly perverse dais; this beast is enaisimos—without any sense of apportionment (24.39-45). Furthermore, Zeus reveals his own submission to the power of the dais: Hector must no longer serve as Achilles’ defiled prey, precisely because Hector faithfully participated in the dais while he was living (24.69). Other examples illustrate the full extent to which the Iliad’s resolution emerges as a complex accumulation and mediation of affects concretely conceptualized in the dais.

These various affects articulated in terms of the dais find a contemporary resonance in the image’s context; here the paper turns to consider the late archaic setting of the ransom scenes on drinking cups (Steiner 2007). As in several other instances of sympotic songs and vessels, we can assume a high degree of identification between the epic hero and the vase’s user (Irwin 2005). Moreover, Solon’s sympotic poetry (fr. 4W.7-10) provides a contemporary parallel in which the order of the feast correlates with an ideology of the well-ordered polis, while its disruption or perversion is hubris (Nagy 1990: 269-75). The paper concludes by hypothesizing the ways in which this archaic reception of the Iliad’s resolution conceptualizes justice and political mediation more generally as an accretion of thymotic affects. While a structure of order imposes restraints upon divine and mortal communities, the image—and Iliad 24—underscore the contingency of these powerful affects, as the constant potential for violence lies just beneath the surface.  

Session/Panel Title

Violence and the Political in Greek Epic and Tragedy

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