RV-0675: Achilles killing Thersites. Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher (Göttingen, 1845- Dresden, 1923), Ausfürliches Lexikon der griechisches und römisches Mythologie, 1884.
"Fool, who in sack of towns lays temples waste, and tombs, the sanctuaries of the dead! He, sowing desolation, reaps destruction." (Poseidon. Euripides, Daughters of Troy 90).
"Homer also testifies to this; for he has represented kings and potentates as those who are punished everlastingly in the nether world — Tantalus and Sisyphus and Tityus; but Thersites, or any other private person who was wicked, has been portrayed by none as incurable and therefore subjected to heavy punishment; no doubt because he had not a free hand, and therefore was in fact happier than those who had. For in fact, Callicles, it is among the powerful that we find the specially wicked men." (Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias 525d-526b)
This is the man universally known and remembered for carrying an ugly soul inside an ugly body. Thersites conspired against Oeneus 2, taking the kingdom of Calydon from
him and giving it to his father. However, he had
later to escape from Diomedes 2's revenge,
and came to Peloponnesus. Thersites was of
measureless speech and lame in one foot. And having
laughed at Achilles'
love for Penthesilia after her death, he brought Achilles' wrath upon
himself, and was killed by him.
Thersites helps to overthrow King Oeneus 2
After the death of Tydeus 2 during the war of the SEVEN AGAINST
THEBES, his old father Oeneus 2, now bereft of children, saw his throne in Calydon shaken. It was then that Thersites and his brothers (Onchestus 1, Prothous 1, Celeutor, Lycopeus, and Melanippus 9) deemed that the time had come to take power through sedition. So they deposed their uncle King Oeneus 2; but as such conspirators usually become afraid of their own deeds, they also imprisoned and tormented him, believing that cruelty would protect them.
Diomedes 2 expels
Having thus seized power, they put their own father Agrius 3 on Oeneus 2's throne. However, Tydeus 2's son Diomedes 2 appeared in Calydon accompanied by Alcmaeon 1, the future leader of the EPIGONI against Thebes, and assisted by him, seized back what belonged to his grandfather Oeneus 2. But as these fights for power usually cause bloodshed, also this time many were killed, particularly most of Thersites' brothers. Himself and his brother Onchestus 1, however, could escape to the Peloponnesus, while their father Agrius 3, having been expelled from the kingdom, committed suicide.
End of Oeneus 2
Diomedes 2 did not restore the power to Oeneus 2 because he was too old; so the king's son-in-law Andraemon 1 (for he was married to Gorge 2) became king, and Diomedes 2 took Oeneus 2 with him to Argos. But
in Arcadia, as it is told, Onchestus 1 and Thersites lay in wait for the old man, and killed him. Diomedes 2 brought the
corpse to Argos and buried
him in Oenoe, called after the old king.
Thersites comes to Troy
These were Thersites' inglorious deeds in some
of the minor military adventures that took place
between the war of the SEVEN AGAINST
THEBES and that of the EPIGONI. Now, no one who is eager to go to a big war would need to be disappointed; for wars come one after the other, as ships to a busy harbor, or thoughts to the brain. And Thersites, who being engaged in his conspiracies, missed two big wars, came, for one or another reason, to the third and biggest of all: the Trojan War.
Ugliest in the army
And they say that he was the ugliest man that
ever came to Troy, for he
was hunchbacked, had a lame foot, was bandy-legged,
and on his egg-shaped head there were but a few
short hairs. But then no other war has seen so many
handsome men assembled, some of which were even
sons of gods and goddesses.
Courage & Cowardice
Now, courage is a queer disposition of the soul
that allows, among other things, to endure such an
enormity. But many feel more brave before the war,
while they still feel safe at home, than during the
carnage when they may sleepless roll over in the
mud among pestilent corpses. And he who keeps his
courage under such conditions, despising both life
and death, is praised whereas those who don't, are
called cowards; for they forget why they came to
the war in the first place, and instead they just
care about staying alive and returning to their
comfortable lives back home, where there often
waits a beautiful woman.
Agamemnon tests his
Thersites, who as a pastime used to play dice
with Palamedes, the
same man whom the Achaeans accused of being a
traitor, is remembered among the cowards. For when
King Agamemnon tested
his troops by tempting them to return without
having taken Troy,
Thersites approved. Said the king:
"Our wives and
little children sit at home and wait for us.
Meanwhile the task we set ourselves when we came
here remains undone. So now let every man of you
take his cue from me. Aboard the ships, I say, and
home to our own country! Troy with its broad streets will never
fall to us." (Agamemnon to the
army. Homer, Iliad 2.135).
Thersites dares to talk aloud against the king
On hearing this speech, many in fact made a dash
for the ships. It took time to restore order, but
it showed who were on which side. When all sat down
again, Thersites addressed the assembly:
"My lord ...
what is your trouble now? What more do you want?
Your huts are full of bronze, and since we always
give you the first pick when a town is sacked, you
have plenty of the choicest women in them too.
Maybe you are short of gold...or one more girl, to
sleep with ..." (Thersites to the army. Homer, Iliad 2.224ff.).
This is how Thersites abused the king, recalling
conflict with Achilles:
"... Only a
little while ago he insulted Achilles, a far better man than he is. He
walked off with his prize and kept her for
So he concluded:
"Let us sail
for home ... and leave this fellow here to batten
on his spoils and find out how completely he
depends on the ranks."
Odysseus rebukes and
When Thersites' seditious diatribe was over, Odysseus, after
rebuking him harshly for daring to stand up against
the king and insolently abuse him, threatened him:
"... If I
catch you once again playing the fool like this ...
I will strip you of your clothes ... and then trash
you ignominiously and throw you out of the Assembly
to go and blubber by the ships." (Odysseus to Thersites.
Homer, Iliad 2.258ff.).
And having said so, Odysseus struck him on
the back and shoulders with his staff, causing a
bloody weal. Much later, when Odysseus needed to show
his merits in order to be awarded Achilles' armour, he
recalled the episode:
"... I turned
them from their intended flight and led them back.
The Atrides assembled the allies still perturbed
and fearful ... But Thersites dared ... to chid the
kings with insubordinate words, but, thanks to me,
not without punishment! I arose and urged my
faint-hearted comrades against the enemy, and by my
words I restored their lost courage." (Odysseus to the army.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.232ff.).
Some may believe that Thersites, a man with such an audacious tongue, would stand up and defend himself. But Thersites flinched, and sitting down terrified, brushed away his tears. And as many enjoy others' disgrace, whether deserved or not, the army laughed at Thersites' expense, whom they supposed would keep quiet in the days to come. That is what vulgarity, in conjunction with bad looks, may accomplish, no matter how true or false words might be. But Agrius 3, they say, may have called Thersites fair.
Thersites' last jest
After the death of Hector 1, who was the pillar of Troy, allies came to help
the beleaguered city. Among these were the AMAZONS, then led by
Queen Penthesilia, who is credited with the deaths
of many Achaeans. However, she met Achilles, and he slew
her. But when he saw her dead in all her
loveliness, he felt remorse for having slain a
thing so sweet. For Penthesilia, they say, looked
like an immortal, and in her death she seemed to
sleep. This is why Achilles' heart grew
wrung, contemplating her who was a wonder of beauty
even in death. And as he gazed on her with broken
down heart, Thersites brought him to earth:
"Achilles! Are you not ashamed to let some
evil power beguile your heart to pity of a pitiful
Amazon, whose furious spirit purposed nothing else
but ill to us and ours? Ha, you are woman-mad, and
your soul lusts for this thing, as she were some
lady wise in household ways ... Good had it been
had her spear reached your heart ... Sorry wretch,
where is now all your goodly prowess? Where your
wit? ... Nothing there is to men more ruinous than
lust for woman-s beauty; it makes fools of wise men
..." (Thersites to Achilles. Quintus
Fall of Troy 1.723).
This was the last jest of Thersites, whose mind,
they say, was full of a great store of disorderly
words. For wrath took the heart of Achilles, who, with a
sudden buffet, dashed all of Thersites' teeth to
the earth, making him fall dead upon his face,
while his blood gushed in a torrent.
Opinions about who and when
It has been said that Thersites' cousin Diomedes 2 was angry
at Achilles because of he causing Thersites' sudden departure to the next world. For there are those who believe that the coup d'état against Oeneus 2 took place after the Trojan War, and not before. In such a case, neither Thersites had been involved in the conspiracy against Oeneus 2, nor had Diomedes 2 expelled him from Aetolia. Some say that of the sons of Agrius 3, Diomedes 2 only killed Lycopeus, and it has also been
said that Diomedes 2 attack on Calydon took
place after the Trojan
War and his subsequent expulsion from Argos, but naturally
before his exile in Italy.