The Sole Son in the Iliad

Jonathan L. Ready

University of Miami

Hesiod suggests that it is best to have only one son: "There should be only one son, to feed his father's house, for so wealth will increase in the home; but if you leave a second son you should die old" (Works and Days 376-8; trans. H.G. Evelyn-White). Telemachos articulates the thematic importance of a sole son to the Odyssey: "For so it is that the son of Kronos made ours a single / line. Arkesios had only a single son, Laertes, / and Laertes had only one son, Odysseus; Odysseus in turn / left only one son, myself in the halls, and got no profit / of me" (16.117-20; trans. R. Lattimore). It is worth querying the representation of the sole son in the Iliad.

Among the Achaians, Achilles laments that Peleus has no other son to care for him in his old age (24.538-42). But the motif of the sole Achaian son runs deeper, and neither the presence of the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaos nor the repeated references to their being brothers (cf. 2.409, 6.61, 10.72, etc.) need obscure it. Nestor tells Patroklos that he was the only son of Neleus to survive Herakles's attack on Pylos (11.689-92). Phoinix says that Peleus treated him "as a father loves his own son / who is a single child brought up among many possessions" (9.481-2; trans. R. Lattimore). The regular criticism that Diomedes is not as good a warrior as his father relies on the fact that Tydeus had only one son who alone must struggle to live up to his pedigree (cf. 4.399-400; 5.800, 812-3). The well-known pairing of Teukros and Aias seems to consist of only one legitimate son of Telamon (Aias) (compare 15.439 with 8.284 and 12.371 and see 13.695 and 15.334 on Medon and Oilean Aias). Appropriately, pairs of what seem to be inseparable Greeks, such as the two Lapithai who team up to defend the Achaian wall, are not brothers (12.127-30).

Only one pair of Achaian brothers (Pheidippos and Antiphos [2.679]) remains intact by the end of the Trojan saga, but only one pairing suffers two fatalities (Orsilochos and Krethos [5.542]). One son usually survives. In the Iliad Askalaphos dies (13.519), but not his brother Ialmenos (2.512); Schedios dies (17.304-11), but not his brother Epistrophos (2.517); Protesilaos was the first to die at Troy (2.701-2), but his brother Podarkes lives (2.704). The Little Iliad (Pausanias 3.26.9) relates the death of Machaon, brother of Podaleiros (2.732), and the Aithiopis, the passing of Antilochos, brother of Thrasymedes (16.326). Menelaos is only the most famous brother to survive.

            The motif of a sole or a sole surviving son among the Achaians contrasts with the representation of male children among the Trojans and their allies. Priam famously has fifty sons. Sarpedon mocks the idea that Hektor could defend Troy with his siblings alone (5.472-5). Antenor, has at least six sons: Agenor, Akamas, Archelochos, Polybos, Koon, and Iphidimas (cf. 14.463-85); Panthoos has three. While of a pair of Achaian brothers one generally survives, Achaians regularly kill pairs of Trojan brothers. Diomedes sets upon Phegeus and Idaios, the sons of Dares, at the start of his aristeia (5.9-29) (cf. 5.148, 152, 159). Agamemnon kills Isos and Antiphos, two sons of Priam (11.102-3), and then Peisandros and Hippolochos, the sons of Antimachos (11.122-3). (Cf. 2.693, 2.831, 11.250, 11.329, 11.427, 16.320, 17.22, 20.460).

            This rendition of sons and the fates of brothers on each side sharpens the distinctions presented elsewhere in the poem between Trojans and Achaians. Yet, Priam's relationship to Hektor partially collapses the differences in the portrayal of Achaian and Trojan sons. The Trojan king expresses the wish that all his sons had died in place of Hektor (24.253-64). As a pseudo-sole son Hektor is aligned with what the poem presents as an Achaian family structure (cf. G. W√∂hrle, Telemachs Reise, Chapter 3 [1999]). This representation coheres with the poet's other efforts to make Hektor a sympathetic and familiar character to his audiences.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page