Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.56

J. C. B. Petropoulos, Kleos in a Minor Key: the Homeric Education of a Little Prince. Hellenic studies, 45.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, trustees for Harvard University, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 171.  ISBN 9780674055926.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Benjamin Sammons, Queens College, City University of New York (


Few passages of the Odyssey have been more discussed, and perhaps none more frequently maligned, than the so-called Telemachy of Books 1-4. Its awkward structural connection with the narrative of Odysseus’s homecoming, its slow pace, and its unprepossessing protagonist have long offered grist for the critical mill. Few since the Analysts would deny that it has an important place in the overall design of the Odyssey, yet discussion tends to dwell on the brilliant scenes and exciting storytelling at the homes of Nestor and Menelaus, while the sordid depiction of Ithaca and the portrayal of its woebegone prince in Books 1-2 generally evoke a more ambivalent response. J.C.B. Petropoulos’s concise but rich account should do much to redress our prejudices; with particular emphasis on these first two books, he reveals the Odyssey’s opening as a Homeric tour de force of characterization and social analysis that serves to introduce, as a kind of anticipatory leitmotif, the fundamental theme of kleos.

Chapter 1 (“Kleos and Oral History”) begins with discussion of Telemachus’s silent musing over his father in Book 1 (114-18), establishing the importance of the paternal ideal to the young man’s development and self- perception. References to the physical resemblance of Telemachus to Odysseus only call attention to the son’s shortcomings. His fundamental challenge is to become worthy of an idealized father. Petropoulos argues, with reference to the Iliad, that a hero’s pursuit of kleos depends on his connection with his ancestors, and with his father especially. Telemachus lacks such a connection, but Athena makes up the deficit both in her practical “paideutic role” (26) and by fostering Telemachus’s increasingly vivid psychological image of his father. Petropoulos shows nicely the diffident and halting manner in which Telemachus slowly accepts the obligations forced on him by Athena’s psychological manipulation; he is particularly sensitive to the young hero’s tendency to rhetorical hyperbole and flights of fancy (e.g., 21-23 on 1.214-20). The chapter closes with an interesting discussion of kleos as it functions within the heroic world as a kind of social capital: A hero’s kleos represents the sum total of oral narratives concerning him, some of which circulate widely enough to become permanent features of the hero’s own “social universe” (31). Odysseus’s kleos reaches to heaven (8.74, 9.20), whether in his own account or in poetic performances about him, because his story has achieved “a relatively fixed and quasi-objective character” (36). Kleos in this sense is virtually commensurate to one’s social identity, and it is precisely such kleos that Telemachus lacks.

Chapter 2 (“Kleos and Oral News”) takes a closer look at how information constitutive of kleos is transmitted, preserved or distorted in the oral society depicted by Homer. Drawing primarily on J. Vansina,1 Petropoulos discusses kleos synchronically as “news,” a term that covers everything from ordinary gossip to the songs of poets like Demodocus and Phemius. As concerns poetry and poets, some of the argument seems unconvincing, particularly the idea that heralds were originally singers (41-44). Nevertheless, his discussion rightly draws attention to the fact that in Homer’s imagined world, singers generally sing about relatively recent events, a problem that is regrettably glossed over in many discussions of the Odyssey’s depiction of poetic performance. The chapter concludes with an overview of the great variety of “oral news” exampled in the Telemachy, ranging from wholly unreliable rumors to direct eye-witness accounts. In searching for “news” of his father Telemachus must evaluate many types of information, and the poet himself may well be reflecting on the difficulty of evaluating “oral history.”

Chapter 3 (“Kleos and Social Identity”) deals with Telemachus’s first steps toward true heroic identity, particularly in his new role as a speaker both at home and in the assembly of Book 2. Petropoulos declares that in Homeric society speech is “the highest form of action,” and offers a lucid account of Telemachus’s first “faltering attempts at deliberative oratory” (66). Petropoulos is particularly good at tracing Telemachus’s rhetorical blunders, poorly chosen aims and half-accomplished goals. The discussion offers a salutary case-study in Homer’s methods of psychological characterization through conventionalized speech. Yet Petropoulos also notes that Telemachus’s rhetorical and political failures in these first books are not merely the result of inexperience; rather it is the absence and unconfirmed death of Odysseus that delineate “the structure of the prince’s entrapment in the decaying state of Ithaca” (79), an entrapment from which there is no real escape without Odysseus’s return. For although Telemachus may gain some “minor” kleos (and a fair measure of personal confidence) through his impending journey, to drive out the suitors alone would imply surpassing his absent father in a way that would contradict the underlying patriarchal ideology of kleos.

Chapter 4, (rather misleadingly titled “The Little Prince’s Voyage on a Borrowed Ship”), deals with Telemachus’s relationship with his mother; here Petropoulos seems to follow a more rigidly Freudian approach than elsewhere, and his argument is likely to meet with skepticism. According to Petropoulos, the kleos gained by Penelope in beguiling the suitors necessarily limits Telemachus’s own access to kleos. Consequently, Petropoulos sees Penelope and Telemachus in an antagonistic relationship, with the mother trying to infantilize her grown son while the son dreams of eliminating his “surrogate brothers” (the suitors) and becoming his mother’s husband, a possibility implied in his wish to string the bow at 21.113.

Telemachus has never received a proper education and has never been properly introduced into heroic society. In Chapter 5 (“Of Beards and Boar Hunts, or, Coming of Age in the Odyssey”) Petropoulos attempts to address that very elusive subject, Homeric education, noting that education has been rightly viewed since antiquity as a central theme of the Telemachy. It is unclear to what extent heroic education consisted in the type of training Achilles was supposed to have received from Phoinix (Iliad 9.442-43) and to what extent it was essentially “initiatory” or involved rites of passage. Petropoulos seeks a middle road, arguing through a close reading of the story of Odysseus’s scar for a type of initiatory introduction of the young hero to the heroic society of his male relatives. Petropoulos’s attempt to read the boar hunt as a “rite of passage” in the strict sense, largely on the basis of relatively late Macedonian comparanda, seems unconvincing, and his belief that other heroes such as Nestor must necessarily have begun their careers with a boar-hunt goes well beyond the textual evidence. He argues more convincingly for a further stage of heroic education in which the young hero is sent on an official embassy or mission, as attested in the case of Odysseus (Od. 21.15ff) and Nestor (Il. 11.670ff.).2 Since such missions would involve “low-risk exposure to warfare and aristocratic courtesies” (122), they would have been ideal for the education of young heroes; needless to say this also matches up well with Telemachus’s own journey to Pylos and Sparta. However, it must be noted that such cases imply nothing in the way of ritual or initiatory significance, and in general Petropoulos takes little note of Homer’s well-known silence about this whole aspect of historical Greek society.

The final chapter, (“The End of the Telemachy: The culmination of extinction?”) traces Telemachus’s role in the final books of the Odyssey, arguing that the Telemachy does not end even in Book 17 but is carried through to the final lines of the poem. According to Petropoulos, the final books show a particular interest in social relations based on age over and against those based on kinship, essentially setting up a conflict between a non-kin group of age-mates (the suitors) and an inter-generational genos (the joined forces of Laertes, Odysseus and Telemachus). Because of the “singleness” of the male line within this genos (cf. Od. 16.117-20), what is at stake in the final conflict of Book 24 is the extermination of a royal family. The final scenes of the poem lay emphasis on the solidarity of this family against its more numerous adversaries; the climax consists of a “group portrait” showing the grandfather, father and son standing together and vying with each other over virtue (24.505-15).

There are three appendices, one on the anthropology of “rumor” in oral societies, one on the phrase “father of the people” in connection with Odysseus, and one offering an illuminating discussion of Odysseus’s reunion with Laertes and his naming of the trees in their orchard.

Although not quite the “quantum leap” in Homeric scholarship advertised by G. Nagy’s “Foreword,” this is a fine, engaging and useful book. In arguing that Telemachus’s story represents the paideusis of a young hero, Petropoulos brings theoretical rigor to an interpretation that has good ancient pedigree but seems perpetually threatened with the status of a cliché. While his interpretation of Telemachus’s character is intensely psychological, he avoids the many pitfalls of “psychologizing” interpretation. For example, while there is a danger in reading too much into the conventionalized and overtly rhetorical speech of Homer’s characters, Petropoulos proves a keen interpreter of Homeric rhetoric and often notes how a rhetorical strategy can be illustrative of a psychological motive or an emotional state. Indeed, Petropoulos is at his best when engaged in sustained close reading of speeches and other significant passages.3 But what is most refreshing in this book is the forthright approach to Homeric kleos, viewed as it functions synchronically within Homer’s imagined society. It is almost customary these days to make hasty resort to the diachronic, “poetic” meaning of “(imperishable) fame” at every appearance of the word; ordinary uses by the narrator or his characters are often treated as uninteresting except insofar as they represent veiled and ironic allusions to this diachronic significance. Although this latter sense is not absent from Petropoulos’s discussion, his real contribution is to show the social complexity and semantic range of the word from the perspective of Homer’s characters. Similarly, in his discussion of orality, Petropoulos does not dwell on well- known oral features of the poem itself but rather Homer’s own idea of how an oral culture functions, and makes good use of comparative evidence to show how historically true the poet’s depiction is.

A few general criticisms: Petropoulos is sometimes overzealous in seeking historical bedrock in the fictional world of the poem; he does not seem to consider that in matters such as heroic education Homer’s vagueness may not necessarily conceal a social reality. Although Petropoulos’s use of comparative evidence on oral societies is welcome, some of his other anthropological comparanda seem less well chosen and at times rather strained, for example when Odysseus’s wounding in the boar hunt is compared to “ritual wounding” such as circumcision (119). Perhaps reflecting the book’s origin in the classroom (xiii), there is an over-reliance on commentaries, which are sometimes put to good use but sometimes seem only to provide a banal or even trivializing foil for discussion. Finally, one cannot help but notice that although much is predicated of Telemachus’s voyage in Books 3-4, this portion of the Telemachy does not receive the same sustained analysis that is offered for Books 1-2, leaving the reader with a feeling of having packed bags for a journey that never takes place. But it is, after all, the mark of a good book to leave the reader wishing for more, and the mark of a good scholarly book to show the path forward. The latter service in particular is one for which the author is to be heartily thanked.4


1.   J. Vansina, Oral Tradition as History. Madison, 1985.
2.   Od. 24.376-79 (adduced on p. 123) is not a convincing case because it describes a full-fledged heroic exploit; since Petropoulos seems to make much of the word ἐξεσίη, I missed a discussion of Il. 24.235, its only other occurrence aside from Od. 21.20.
3.   Some analyses deserve to join the standard references; see especially 19-29 on the exchange of Athena and Telemachus at 1.178-251 and 69-83 on Telemachus’s speech at 2.40-79.
4.   The full text can be found in the online publications section at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

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