The Crime, Punishment, and Justice Found Throughout Homer’s the Odyssey

Crime, punishment, and the justice system have changed a lot throughout the years. The crimes committed in ancient Greece and the punishments that went along with those crimes are different than they are in the epic poem The Odyssey by Homer.  The legal systems back in ancient Greece are the laws of Athens. Three factors determined the ancient Greek legal system and this included the multiplicity of city-states, most of the city-state’s laws were in written statues and become a rule for justice, and the third factor was the absence of a body of jurisprudence.

Aristocrats governed most city-states in Ancient Greece. Back in those times Ancient Greece has no lawyers and the citizens were expected to know the laws and act on their own in court as their attorney. Not everyone has legal rights however. Women, slaves and immigrants were some who fell into this category and only citizens had rights. Back then if a slave had to be tried in court, they could not represent themselves and their owner would be the one who had to represent them.

Some crimes that took place in Ancient Greece included murder, theft and assault. There was also pirating, rape, and even adultery. If someone were to offend a God, the individual would have bad luck themselves along with their family, friends, and their descendants. A group of criminals called Kakoujrgi were ones who burglarized houses and stole purses and fine clothing. Any citizen could accuse another of committing a crime and take him to court because there were not official laws yet in Greece. Murder was the most serious crime just like it is today, and adultery was looked at to be a very serious crime as well. Vagrancy was known to be a very common crime at that time and being a homeless beggar wasn’t looked upon sympathetically. Back then the Greeks didn’t really have a police force. I assume that this made everything difficult and if it was a serious crime like murder, the accused could go on the run and never be heard from again. In the absence of a police force, it was up to the injured party to bring the person they are accusing to court. 

Crimes committed today and the crimes committed back in ancient Greece are very similar, although the punishments that went along with these crimes varied in court depending on what crime was committed. The worst crimes that were committed in ancient Greece were punished with banishment or the death penalty. The guilty who received banishment were to be casted out of their families and their homeland, and they would have to leave everything behind. The sentence for banishment typically lasted around 10 years but, in some cases, it was for life. If you were found guilty of a serious crime such as adultery or kidnapping, the guilty person would be sentenced to death. The citizens who were found guilty of theft were to return the stolen property and pay twice the value of the stolen property. 

If you were guilty of murder, you were to be thrown into barathron, which is a pit of sharp spikes. Sometimes the victim’s family would kill the murderer themselves. Apotympanismos also called crucifixion was a punishment in Greece. “Noting that pieces of wood still adhered to some manacles, the scholarship recalled that tympanon means ‘board’ as well as ‘cudgel’, and suggested that apotympanismos refers to a punishment in which victims were fastened to planks of wood and left to die, after a long exposure in a public, open place, where they would suffer hunger, thirst and the assaults of animals such as dogs and birds and prey. Since that moment, apotympanismos has come to be defined as a type of crucifixion, performed using a collar around the neck and manacle, rather than nails through the hands and feet like the more familiar Roman form.” (Cantarella 429-430)

In Greek mythology there is the goddess Dike. In Greek, Dike means justice and Dike is the daughter of Zeus and Themis. Dike has a sword in her right hand, a blindfold over her eyes, and also she has scales in her left hand. All her characteristics represent her fairness in judgment. In order for the ancient Greeks to carry out the punishments for crimes that had been committed, they needed to create a system to try, convict and sentenced the accused. In other words, they needed to get justice for the crimes that were committed. They would eventually create a court system that was cheap and their court officials would be paid minimal.

They had no official or professional court officials, lawyers, and judges. “ Trials, not insignificantly called agones, or ‘contests’, like sporting matches, were certainly a moment when the place of the prosecutor and defendant in the community was discussed and defined. Forensic speeches also show that the Athenians attempted (and perhaps managed) to use the laws for their own purposes, and were ready to ignore then when convenient. But as we do not have the juries’ verdicts, we can only speculate about the success f this strategy. The possibility exists that juries often accepted crooked interpretations of laws: Athenian judges were common citizens, not particularly skilled in legal matters.” (Cantarella 432-433)

There is crime, punishment, and justice found through out the Odyssey. One example is when Odysseus’ blinded the Cyclops. “Hear me, Poseidon who circle the earth, dark-haired. If truly I am your son, and you acknowledge yourself as my father, grant that Odysseus, sacker of cities, son of Laertes, who makes his home in Ithaca, may never reach that home; but if it is decided that he shall see his own people, and come home to his strong-founded house and to his own country, let him come late, in bad case, with the loss of all his companions, in someone else’s ship, and find troubles in his household.” (Homer Book 9) The Cyclops, Polyphemos wants to revenge on Odysseus and wants justice for what he has done.

Throughout the Odyssey, there are different examples of crime, the punishment that went long with those crimes, and also justice. A major crime, according to the Ancient Greeks, that happened in the Odyssey was Odysseus committing adultery. When Odysseus left Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War, he was married to Penelope. He continued to be married to Penelope during the Trojan War and on his journey back to Ithaca. But along his journey home, he met Circe. Circe is the daughter of the sun God Helios, and the ocean nymph Perse.

Circe has the ability to change humans in to animals and when Odysseus and his men visited her island, Aeaea, she changed the crew into swine. Odysseus ate an herb and was protected from Circe and didn’t get changed into a pig. “The oath is a precondition for Odysseus having sex with Circe. Since the purpose of this sex was to gain the release of Odysseus’ companions we may in the interests of parsimony presume against any other motive for the sex.” (McClymont) Hermes helped instruct Odysseus on how to over power Circe and has her change his men back. Odysseus and Circe had a love affair for a year and that whole time Odysseus should have been trying to get back to his wife. “Circe’s invitation to bed is dangerous, which means that Homer represent her as sexually threatening and to that extent violating the traditional role of women.” (McClymont)

After leaving Circe, Odysseus met Calypso on the island of Ogygia. Calypso is a sea nymph and is also the daughter of the Titan god Atlas. Odysseus is still trying to return to his wife Penelope after being unfaithful with Circe when Calypso seduces him. Calypso ends up falling for Odysseus and wants to make him her immortal husband. Although Odysseus has been committing adultery, he still cries for his wife Penelope and can no longer stand to be away from her anymore. After committing adultery by staying on the island with Calypso for seven years, she eventually has to set Odysseus free.

Odysseus has committed the crime of adultery with now two different women. His punishments for this was all the time he spent with these other women instead of getting back to his wife. Throughout these years, his absents in Ithaca has brought suitors to his palace and could end up losing Penelope. Odysseus also gets help in the Odysseus by Gods but at some parts of the poem, the Gods punish him. His men eating the sun gods cattle and getting turned into swine was the only punishment they got. Helios appealed to Zeus asking for him to ultimately dispose of the men or he will take the sun to the underworld. “Father Zeus, and you other everlasting and blessed gods, punish the companions of Odysseus, son of Laertes; for they outrageously killed my cattle, in whom I always delighted, on my way up into the starry heaven, or when I turned back again from heaven toward earth. Unless these are made to give me just recompense for my cattle, I will go down to Hades’ and give my light to dead men.’ (Book 12 377) Zeus ends up punishing Odysseus and his men by destroying the ship with his lightning bot and killing all of his crew.

For Helios this is justice. Helios warned Odysseus that even if the supplies they have get low and they get hungry to never eat his cattle. Odyssey warned his men and they did what they wanted, ultimately killing and eating the cattle. Helios wanted to make sure the men did not get away with this and wanted them to get punished which is why he prayed to Zeus for help. A punishment for that would seem to be just a fine or a little prison time, but for Helios he looks at it as an eye for an eye and wants them dead in order for him to feel that they was justice.

Another crime presented in The Odyssey is stealing; in ancient Greece stealing was crossing the line. Just as today, no one wants their property stolen and in ancient Greece, usually their houses were broken into and their cattle stolen and the thieves were severely punished in the courts. Not only did the main character Odysseus commit crimes throughout the Odyssey, the suitors were also committing crimes.

After returning home from Ithaca, Odysseus realizes all the suitors are trying to marry his wife and if they know he has returned, they will kill him. The suitors are committing the crime of stealing by trying to steal Odysseus’ throne. Not only are they trying to steal his throne, they are also trying to steal Penelope from him by marrying her and throughout the years during Odysseus’ absent, the suitors continue to steal Odysseus’ resources such as food and water. After learning that the suitors would kill him upon his return, Athene disguises Odysseus as a beggar so he can better examine the situation. Odysseus then finds his swineherd, Eumaios, who helps him out for a little so Athena could go and retrieve his son, Telemachos.

Odysseus reveals himself to only his son, and still disguised as a beggar, he try’s to convince Penelope that Odysseus is fine and on his way home so that the suitors would leave and not continue stealing. He was also trying to figure out which of his servants and help were still loyal to him. Penelope wants all this to end and decides to have a contest and whoever is the winner, she promises to marry. The challenge will be to see which of the suitors can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot it through the head of twelve axes. Every suitor steps up, try’s to string the bow but in the end, all the suitors have failed.

The usually punishment in Ancient Greece for the crime of stealing is exile. The thefts could either have banishment from their homeland for many years or for life. Odysseus had a different punishment in line for the suitors. After all the suitors tried to string the bow and failed, Odysseus still disguised as the beggar, strings the bow and shoots all the axes with no problem. “You dogs, you never thought I would any more come back from the land of Troy, and because of that you despoiled my household, and forcibly took my serving women to sleep beside you, and sought to win my wife while I was still alive, fearing neither the immortal gods who hold the wide heaven, nor any resentment sprung from men to be yours in the future. Now upon you all the terms of destruction are fastened.

All that you have now, and what you could add from elsewhere, even so, I would not stay my hands from the slaughter, until I had taken revenge for all the suitors’ transgression. Now the choice has been set before you, either to fight me or run, if any of you can escape death and its spirits. But I think not one man will escape from sheer destruction.” (Odyssey 22.35-41,62-67) He drops his disguise and with the help of his son, the servants who are still loyal, and having protection from Athena, kills Antinous, who is one of the leaders of the suitors who was also planning on killing his son. Through out the poem, Antinous was arrogant and while Odysseus returned and was disguised as a beggar; Antinous threw a stool at him.

The second of the suitors to feel the wrath of Odysseus is Euymachus, who also acts as a leader to the other suitors. After Odysseus reveals himself, he attempts to avoid his punishment by blaming everything on Antinous. After the two of them were punished, Odysseus continued to kill the rest of the suitors ending with a bloody slaughter. Odysseus also had a punishment for his maids. He found out that not only were the suitors trying to steal his wife, they were also sleeping with his maids making them disloyal to Odysseus. That was a huge betrayal for him and made them clean up the dead bodies of their lovers, the suitors. Their punishment ended quickly by Odysseus son. He hung all the maids even though Athena instructed that they should suffer. “In other words, we have here a description not of a killing but of a punishment by maiming and mutilation.” (Davies murder or mutilation)

In ancient Greece and in today’s time, Odysseus’ punishments for the suitors and the maids would not be justified and instead be too cruel. Odysseus killing the maids for sleeping around with the suitors and not being loyal to him was to far. Along his journey home to Ithaca, Odysseus committed adultery and also slept with multiple women but does that mean he deserves to die too. Odysseus could justify that by explaining his sleeping with Circe and Calypso helped him get back to Ithaca and the maids sleeping with the suitors was just betrayal and needed to be punished.

To Odysseus on the other hand, the punishments were justified. “The actual suitors who, whatever their faults, were at least nobles and princes, are for the most part struck down in the hall, in heroic combat with Odysseus and his allies. Next Leodes the priest, who passively supported the suitors in their depredations, is beheaded by Odysseus in the act of supplicating.

The serving-maids, who slept with the suitors, are explicitly (and on Odysseus’ explicit orders) awarded a humiliating mode of death by Telemachus, who arranges a mass hanging for them.” (Davies murder or mutilation) The suitors had to be punished for trying to steal everything from him and if he didn’t kill them, they would end up killing him. They were ready to risk being a murderer just for Penelope and a throne. Odysseus did have a reason and every right according to the Odyssey to kill the suitors and get his revenge. The suitors mooched off his land and resources for years and Odysseus was going to make sure they didn’t get away with that.

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The Crime, Punishment, and Justice Found Throughout Homer's The Odyssey. (2022, Apr 09). Retrieved May 18, 2022 , from
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