Achilles in women’s clothing: Tzetzes’s allegorical interpretation

Achilles discovered in women's clothing on Skyros

“For the most powerful and most Homeric queen” — so John Tzetzes in twelfth-century Byzantium dedicated a work to “Lady Irene of the Germans.” The description “most powerful and most Homeric” suggests enormous, terrible violence against men. Yet in Greek, which was the language of Byzantine intellectuals, Irene means “peace.” Tzetzes re-interpreted Homer to present strong, independent women rejecting the gender structure of violence against men and insisting that men’s lives matter.

Homer’s Iliad is commonly read as if men’s lives don’t matter. The Iliad describes horrendous violence against men:

Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.

the savage work went on, Achaeans and Trojans
mauling each other there like wolves, leaping,
hurtling into each other, man throttling man.

That day ranks of Trojans, ranks of Achaean fighters
sprawled there side-by-side, facedown in the dust. [1]

In the man-slaughtering combat, a spear pieced a man’s temple and his brains splattered out within his helmet. The violence against men is both utterly conventional and grotesquely brutal in its bodily specificity:

a spearhead punched his gullet under the chin
and the bronze point went ripping through his nape

the spearhead punched his back between the shoulders,
gouging his flesh and jutting out through his ribs

he let fly
with a bronze-tipped arrow, hitting his right buttock
up under the pelvic bone so the lance pierced the bladder.
He sank on the spot, hunched in his dear companion’s arms,
gasping out his life as he writhed along the ground
like an earthworm stretched out in death, blood pooling,
soaking the earth dark red.

Whether as leaders or followers in business or politics, men lean in to do violence against men:

there man killed man in the pell-mell clash of battle

his turn next, Menelaus
rose with a bronze lance and a prayer to Father Zeus
and lunging out at Euphorbus just dropping back,
pieced the pit of his throat — leaning into it hard,
his whole arm’s weight in the stroke to drive it home
and the point went slicing through his tender neck.

Violence against men in the Iliad tends to be understood without gender-specific understanding of man. In the U.S. today, about four times as many men suffer violent deaths as do women. That reality attracts no more public concern than pervasive discrimination against men in criminal justice systems, in family courts, and in reproductive rights. Men’s lives don’t matter in gynocentric society, nor in dominant readings of the Iliad.

Under the patronage of Lady Irene of the Germans, John Tzetzes allegorized the Homeric matter of the Trojan War. Lady Irene was Queen of the Byzantine Empire. She had been Bertha von Sulzbach, sister-in-law of Conrad III, King of Germany. In 1142, with Roger II of Sicily threatening the Byzantine Empire, Manuel I Komnenos, the Byzantine Emperor’s son, was pressed into marriage with Bertha. The Byzantine objective for the marriage was to build a political alliance with the Germans. Bertha reportedly had “the natural trait of being unbending and opinionated.” Not surprisingly, Manuel I wasn’t passionately enthusiastic in his arranged marriage to Bertha. For a number years after their marriage, Manuel I didn’t sleep with her. Instead, he engaged in numerous affairs with other women. When his father died in 1143, Manuel I became the Byzantine Emperor. Lady Irene became the Queen of Byzantine. John Tzetzes probably allegorized the Homeric matter of the Trojan War for Irene shortly thereafter.[2]

Seeking to simplify for Irene the subtle Homeric treatment of men, Tzetzes recounted strong, independent women rejecting the dominant gender structure of violence against men. In ancient Greek myth, the goddess Thetis was the mother of Achilles. Thetis knew, perhaps from Chiron, that Achilles would die in battle if he followed men’s gender path. She thus dressed Achilles in women’s clothing and sent him to live among the daughters of King Lycomedes on the island of Skyros. Thetis rejected the life-depriving gender position of men for her son.[3]

Tzetzes emphasized that Thetis’s action represented maternal love prevailing over the central Homeric concerns of glory and honor. In Tzetzes’s account, Chiron’s prophecy was clear:

Thetis, my little daughter, hear your father’s words:
your son Achilles, should he stay in his fatherland,
will live many years, but without glory;
but, should he sail with the Greeks against the Trojans,
he will become glorious and radiant, but will die soon. [4]

Gynocentric society throughout history has favored the example of the Spartan mothers. They violently insisted that their sons fight to death. After hearing Chiron’s prophecy, Thetis treated her son much more humanely:

And so Thetis, learning this from her father {Chiron’s prophecy},
wanting him {Achillles} to have an inglorious but long life,
did not want to send him off on the expedition at all,
but held him back with her fervent maternal love,
which the myths call women’s clothing.

Achilles wasn’t disguised in women’s clothing. He was wrapped in a mother’s love for her son against a society that devalued men’s lives. Tzetzes called “nonsense” accounts of Achilles dressed in women’s clothing and working spindles. According to Tzetzes, those stories merely allegorized Thetis’s fervent, socially conscious maternal love for Achilles. If all mothers showed such love, societies would recognize that men’s lives matter.

Further valorizing strong, independent women committed to gender equality, Tzetzes added to the Homeric matter an account of Hiera and the Mysian women responsibly fighting alongside their men. When Odysseus, King Nireus, and other Greeks, with help from Achilles, attacked Mysia, they encounter the fierce resistant of a strong, gender-equitable society. Tzetzes explained:

there would have been a total rout of the Greeks
had not the king of the Mysians, Telephos himself,
the son of Heracles and Auge, the daughter of Aleos,
been wounded by Achilles with a spear in the thigh;
had not Nireus killed Telephos’s wife,
called Hiera, as she was fighting in a chariot,
a woman who surpassed Helen in beauty
as much as Helen surpassed all other women. [5]

Not only Queen Hiera, but also all the Mysian wives took up onerous responsibilities associated with being truly equal partners for their husbands:

the wives of the Mysians, standing upon scythed chariots,
were also waging battle,
with their queen taking the lead of them all;
when Nireus slew that woman, he brought the battle to an end.
Immediately lamentations and cries went up from the Mysians and the Greeks,
when they saw such ineffable beauty suddenly cut down

Many men deeply appreciate the physical beauty of women. Yet men value women for more than just their physical beauty. Men deeply appreciate women who act to lessen historical injustices against men such as the vastly gender-disproportionate exposure of men to bodily violence.

Unlike Helen of Troy, the Mysian queen Hiera had both outer and inner beauty. Helen directly contributed to horrendous violence against Greek and Trojan men. After doing so, she sat in a palace watching while those men brutally fought with each other. Hiera, in contrast, didn’t incite men into violence against men. Moreover, Hiera and the Mysian women joined Telephos and the Mysian men in fighting to defend their city. Ancient readers of the Iliad would have recognized that Homer omitted all mention of Hiera.[6] They would have recognized, as John Tzetzes did, that Hiera was far more beautiful than Helen.

Throughout history, few readers of Homer have been as perceptive, socially conscious, and courageous as John Tzetzes. Himself a victim of a woman’s devastating false accusation, Tzetzes understand that all but the most elite men are subordinate to women in gynocentric society. Rejecting go-along get-ahead collegiality and obeisance to entrenched interests, Tzetzes fearlessly criticized falseness and corruption:

Tzetzes is … always taking issue with something or somebody: fraudulent holy men, conniving clerics, fornicating bishops, ungrateful students, stingy and philistine patrons, even the emperor, and most of all fellow intellectuals, who are airily dismissed as “buffaloes,” or paranoically indentified as the “gang” (κουστωδία) out to get Tzetzes. Even ancient authors are harangued like silly schoolboys. [7]

Most importantly, Tzetzes brought ancient texts to life in his own time:

in his cultural surroundings the ancient text is not just something to be explained but also ready source material for something new. … Most criteria used in the scholarly interpretation of classical texts today are based on the perception that the ancient text is far away and not really “ours.” History, for instance, or form are more easily discerned from afar. Byzantine writers of the twelfth century did not simply take the opposite view. They, too, knew that Homer had died a long time ago. But much more than we today, they felt that the gap could sometimes be bridged, and felt that the ancient material was still alive. [8]

In our time, lack of attention to Homer’s sophisticated marginalization of Hiera and Palamedes has deadened reading of the Iliad. Even more pernicious has been reading the Iliad as if men’s lives don’t matter. John Tzetzes provided Queen Irene with a Homeric interpretation in which strong, independent women affirm that men’s lives matter. Tzetzes’s work should also instruct us.

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[1] Homer, Iliad, 4.521-2, 544-6, 629-30, from Greek trans. Fagles (1990). The book.line numbers are for Fagles’s English translation. They are close to the line numbers of the Greek text. The subsequent two sets of quotes are from id. 13.452-3, 5.45-6, 13.749-55 and 16.361, 17.50-5. The man getting his brain splattered out is from id. 20.451-4.

[2] The two short quotations in the first paragraph of the above post are from John Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Preface to Prolegomena, from Greek trans. Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) p. 3. The biographical information in the above paragraph is from id., Introduction, and Annals of Niketas Choniates, from Greek trans. Magoulias (1984) p. 32. The short quote is from 2.1 of the latter.

[3] On Thetis’s knowledge of Achilles’s fate, Iliad 9.410ff. On Chiron’s prophecy about Achilles, Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis 1062-75. Chiron told Achilles that he wouldn’t return from Troy. Horace, Epodes 13. In addition to seeking to preserve her son’s life from the men-on-men violence of war, Thetis also rejected suppression of men’s sexuality. When Achilles was deeply despondent, Thetis compassionately urged him to have sex with women. Iliad 24.128-31. That’s similar to ancient treatment for lovesickness.

[4] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena 446-50, trans. Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) p. 35. Subsequent quotes will be cited by line number and translation page in id. The subsequent quote is from ll. 451-55, p. 35. Tzetzes’s declaring as “nonsense” stories of Achilles in women’s clothing among spindles (at the loom) is from l. 437, p. 35.

The title Allegories of the Iliad obscures that Tzetzes highlighted matter that Homer omitted from the Iliad. Given Homer’s poetic genius, such omissions should be considered as deliberate poetic choices. Tzetzes explicitly sought to teach his patron about Homer. Tzetzes thus took a different approach:

by simplifying and analyzing, he has made it possible for everyone to traverse the difficulties of Homer.

Morgan (1983) p. 175. On the need for Tzetzes to provide students with low-level instruction, Budelmann (2002) pp. 162-3.

[5] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena ll. 1005-12, p. 77. The subsequent quotes is from ll. 1017-22, p. 77.

[6] Philostratus, Heroicus 23.26 recognizes that Homer excluded Hiera from the Iliad.

[7] Magdalino (1993) pp. 402-3. Intellectuals can be extraordinarily vicious. A gang of intellectuals may well have sought to persecute Tzetzes. Id. p. 397 adds:

Tzetzes deplored the fact that the chains and fetters of bogus holy men were more highly prized in aristocratic chapels that “icons of saintly men by the hand of some first-rate artist.”

The quote is cited to one of Tzetzes’s letters.

[8] Budelmann (2002) p. 164. Tzetzes’s work was regarded as an important, distinctive contribution. His name was attached to his work, he was identified as a grammarian, and in Byzantium he was among those “whose commentaries were treated not just as reworkings of older material but as new works.” Id. p. 150. Yet Tzetzes wasn’t a popularizer who lacked respect for his source material:

He {Tzetzes} tried to understand ancient writers on what he took to be their own terms. Byzantine Hellenism had matured. It had come a long way from the demonization of Hellenism that prevailed in past centuries. A shift in values among the political and intellectual elites, and the rise of professional classicism, had conveyed scholars almost to the opposite extreme. Homer was idolized and one could have a mental life immersed in the classics.

Kaldellis (2007) p. 307. Tzetzes was a professional classicist with a commitment to enlightened public life.

[image] Fresco depicting Achilles between Diomedes and Odysseus at Skyros. Buried in first-century GC in House of the Dioscuri in Pompei. Thanks to Olivierw, Themadchopper, and Wikimedia Commons.


Budelmann, Felix. 2002. “Classical Commentary in Byzantium: John Tzetzes on Ancient Greek Literature.” Ch. 7 (pp. 141-69) in Gibson, Roy K., and Christina Shuttleworth Kraus. The classical commentary: histories, practices, theory. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill.

Fagles, Robert, trans. and Bernard Knox, intro. and notes. 1990. The Iliad. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.

Goldwyn, Adam J. and Dimitra Kokkini, trans. 2015. John Tzetzes. Allegories of the Iliad. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 37. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kaldellis, Anthony. 2007. Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Magdalino, Paul. 1993. The empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Magoulias, Harry J. trans. 1984. Nicetas Choniates. O city of Byzantium: annals of Niketas Choniatēs. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Morgan, Gareth. 1983. “Homer in Byzantium: John Tzetzes.” Pp. 165-88 in Rubino, Carl A., and Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, eds. Approaches to Homer. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mabonagrain enthralled: Joie de la Cort shows folly of courtly love

Joie de la Cort

Joy, the love of the knight Mabonagrain from the time of his childhood, asked him to promise to give her a gift. She didn’t specify the gift. In modern Ovidian love literature, that’s called a “shit test.” Present-day teachers of love advise a response such as picking up a pebble, giving it to your girlfriend, and saying, “Here, a gift just for you.”

Mabonagrain lacked Ovidian love learning. Mired in ignorance like many men today, Mabonagrain disastrously failed his girlfriend Joy’s shit test:

Who could deny his love
a gift? No courteous lover
could refuse her any pleasure.
He’s obliged to oblige her, without
hesitation, as best as he can.
So I said I would, of course,
but she said she also wanted
my solemn oath. So I swore it
and offered anything else
she might like, but my oath was enough.
I’d promised, but didn’t know what [1]

Joy then declared the gift to be that he would not leave the garden in which she and he lived until a knight came and defeated him in battle. Being defeated in battle implied being seriously injured or perhaps killed. In short, Mabonagrain’s girlfriend had bound him to rules only slightly less oppressive for a man than the modern, legal institution of marriage.

Mabonagrain pretended to like his circumstances even while he despaired of them. He explained:

I’d never known what she wanted
but once I saw what the dearest
creature in the world craved,
what choice did I have? I’ve done
my best to pretend I approve,
since once she knew I didn’t,
her heart would never be mine
again — and God knows nothing
could make me let that happen.
Which is how my lady has kept me
here, all these years [2]

The choice of standing up for his own inherent human dignity as a man apparently never occurred to Mabonagrain. Instead, he remained in the garden as his girlfriend Joy’s captive. He perpetuated his captivity by killing many knights in battle. Such violence against men often serves to sustain gynocentrism.

In Arthurian romance, violence against men is pervasive. In this particular Arthurian romance, Erec, seeking fame and devaluing his own lifespan, claimed Joie de la Cort. That literally means “Joy of the Court.” In Celtic languages, joy seems to have been associated with women and “bright, pure beings.”[3] Mabonagrain’s girlfriend Joy appeared to be a bright, pure being. She was actually a man-oppressing woman who caused many men to die fighting against Mabonagrain.

Erec prevailed against Joy and the perverse meaning of Joie de la Cort. He defeated Mabonagrain in battle and blew a horn that gave Mabonagrain his freedom. The joy of a man breaking free from oppressive gynocentric captivity — such a rare event! — pleased everyone at court. It created a new, liberating meaning for Joie de la Cort.

Violence against men wasn’t necessary to create the liberating meaning of Joie de la Cort. Mabonagrain should have been wise enough to pass his girlfriend’s shit test. He should have been bold enough to walk out from under her rule.[4] Emancipating men ultimately depends on freeing them from mental slavery. Liberating men’s minds will bring Joie de la Cort across centuries and will delight women and men far and wide. Let that horn sound!

Every single
soul was filled with such pleasure.
They couldn’t stop singing
and dancing and making merry.

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Read more:


[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide {Erec and Enide} ll. 6058-76, from Old French translation (modified slightly) from Raffel (1997) p. 191. The Old French text is available in Foerster (1909). I use line numbers from that edition. Many manuscripts of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances are available online.

Raffel’s phrase “courteous lover” highlights the relation of this text to the man-abasing ideology of courtly love. The underlying Old French:

N’est pas amis, qui antreset
Tot le buen s’amie ne fet
Sanz rien leissier et sanz feintise,
S’il onques puet an nule guise.

Erec et Enide ll. 6059-62, from Foerster (1909) p. 168. Scholars have failed to appreciate the extent to which Chrétien de Troyes mocked the new, oppressive ideology of courtly love.

Mabonagrain’s beloved isn’t literally called Joy in Chrétien de Troyes’s romance. King Evrain, however, says to Erec, “in just a moment Joy / Will arrive, and bring you sorrow.” Erec et Enide ll. 5825-6, trans. Raffel (1997) p. 184. The first person Erec met in the garden was Mabonagrain’s beloved. Meeting her prompted Erec’s fight with Mabonagrain. King Evrain expected Mabonagrain to kill Erec.

[2] Erec et Enide ll. 6079-86, trans. Raffel (1997) p. 192. The subsequent quote is from ll. 6166-9, trans. id. p. 194.

[3] Sayers (2007) pp. 18-21.

[4] Sterling-Hellenbrand celebrated as a “female space” the garden in which Mabonagrain’s girlfriend held him captive. Sterling-Hellenbrand (2001) p. 50. That “female space” became the site of many men’s deaths. Characterizing the garden as a “female space” is unfair to women. Not all women are like that.

Nightbringer’s entry on Mabonagrain’s lady displays the women-are-wonderful effect. That entry declares:

One is tempted to hypothesize that this damsel made her request of Mabonagrain because she wanted to keep him safe with her, secluded in their garden from the violence of the age.

The best cure for such failure in reasoning is reading some Old French fabliaux and learning to appreciate Boccaccio’s humanistic genius.

[image] Three court musicians, perhaps including Berthold Steinmar von Klingnau, who flourished in the second half of 13th century. Illustration from Codex Manesse, Zurich, made between 1305 and 1315. UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 308v. Thanks to University of Hiedelberg and Wikimedia Commons.


Foerster, Wendelin, ed. 1909. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec und Enide. Halle a.S.: M. Niemeyer.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Erec and Enide. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sayers, William. 2007. “La Joie de la Cort (Érec et Énide), Mabon, and Early Irish síd [peace; Otherworld].” Arthuriana. 17 (2): 10-27.

Sterling-Hellenbrand, Alexandra. 2001. Topographies of gender in middle high German Arthurian Romance. New York: Garland.

Homer effaced Palamedes to heroize word-twisting Odysseus

Palamedes before Agamemnon; history painting by Rembrandt, 1626

In the ancient Greek epic cycle, Palamedes was a culture hero. He invented writing and counting, systems of signalling across land and sea, important aspects of military organization, and leisure-time board games. A scholar observed:

The tradition of his {Palamedes’s} innocence and high-mindedness, combined with his inventive cleverness, made him a favourite character with {ancient Athenian} dramatists and rhetoricians of democratic or progressive sympathies [1]

Homer, however, excluded Palamedes from the Iliad and heroized the word-twisting Odysseus in the Odyssey. In literary history, the most vigorous response to Homer’s treatment of Palamedes came from the marginalized, twelfth-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes. Tzetzes work is vital for recovering the figure of Palamedes and broadening critical understanding of Homer and social justice.

Palamedes attempted to live as a man of integrity within dominant gynocentric ideology. When Helen and Paris illicitly fled from her husband to Troy, Palamedes supported the oath of Helen’s suitors to defend her husband’s marital rights.[2] Odysseus took a more critical position. He refused to engage in violence against men over issues centering on women. To avoid being impressed into the Trojan War, Odysseus pretended to be mentally deranged. He plowed his fields with an ox and a horse yoked together (symbolizing the folly of marriage) and sterilized his fields with salt (symbolizing social oppression of men’s sexuality). Palamedes, however, pretended to prepare to kill Odysseus’s son. Odysseus then intervened, revealing that he was actually mentally healthy and possessed a father’s deep love for his children. Palamedes thus foiled Odysseus’s attempt to avoid life-threatening military service.[3] In short, Palamedes acted against Odysseus in support of an oath made under gynocentrism.

Palamedes in many ways provided better leadership and counsel for the Greeks than Odysseus did. Interpreting a wolf attack more wisely than Odysseus did, Palamedes saved the Greek army from a devastating plague. Palamedes effectively managed the distribution of food when the Greek army was in short supply and beginning to quarrel among themselves about provisions. While Odysseus failed to procure additional corn for the army, Palamedes secured an abundant supply. Palamedes also invented the games of dice and checkers to avoid problems arising from soldiers’ idleness and to distract them from their hunger.[4]

Paralleling the tragedy of the Trojan War, a dispute over a woman helped Odysseus to have Palamedes killed. Achilles and Palamedes co-commanded a Greek army that sacked twenty-three cities allied with the Trojans. In ancient warfare, men tended to be killed, while women, who have long been considered more valuable than men, were taken captive. The Greeks had agreed to place captured women into a common pool of plundered wealth to be divided equitably among the Greek warriors. However, after sacking Briseis’s city of Lyrnissos and killing her husband, Achilles became impassioned for her. In violation of the Greek warriors’ sworn operational protocol, Achilles took Briseis for himself. That action generated outrage among the army. Exploiting that outrage, Odysseus falsely claimed that Palamedes was supporting Achilles’s bid for the rights of a king.[5]

Accounts of how Odysseus contrived to have Palamedes killed vary. The most plausible account involves socially constructed treason. Odysseus forced a Trojan prisoner to forge a letter from the Trojan king to Palamedes. The Trojan king described in the forged letter a large payment in gold to Palamedes for betraying the Greeks to the Trojans. Odysseus planted that forged letter and the gold reward in Palamedes’s tent. Odysseus also forged a conspiratorial reply letter from Palamedes. Odysseus then contrived to have the Trojan prisoner killed after being ordered to return to Troy. The forged letter from Palamedes to the Trojan king was discovered on the Trojan prisoner’s body. The Greek leaders believed Odysseus’s social construction of a capital crime. They ordered Palamedes to be executed for treason.

Palamedes as well as Achilles understood too late the underlying problem. Palamedes recognized that embracing the social construction of reality is a horrific substitute for seeking truth. Before being killed, Palamedes spoke only a single, telling sentence:

Farewell, glorious truth, for you have perished before me. [6]

When Achilles learned that Palamedes had been executed on a fabricated charge of treason, he grieved deeply. The grave injustice against Palamedes was commonly recognized to have resulted from Achilles’s betrayal of his fellow Greek men in favor of the woman Briseis. Regretting his action, Achilles gave up Briseis to the Greek commanders. He also angrily stopped fighting alongside of the Greeks. But Achilles’s rage didn’t stop the brutal violence against men of the Trojan War.

Palamedes probably recognized the folly of the Trojan War shortly before he was killed. In the Aeneid, the pretend Greek traitor Sinon in his cunning speech to the Trojans declared:

perhaps you’ve caught some rumor of Palamedes,
Belus’s son, and his shining fame that rings in song.
The Greeks charged him with treason, a trumped-up charge,
an innocent man, and just because he opposed the war
they put him to death, but once he’s robbed of the light
they mourn him sorely.

{fando aliquod si forte tuas pervenit ad auris
Belidae nomen Palamedis et incluta fama
gloria, quem falsa sub proditione Pelasgi
insontem infando indicio, quia bella vetabat,
demisere neci, nunc cassum lumine lugent} [7]

Popular belief that Palamedes eventually opposed the Trojan War would enhance Sinon’s credibility. Virgil, with his profound insight into men’s social position and behavior, probably didn’t fabricate the claim that Palamedes opposed the Trojan War.

Homer’s silence about Palamedes speaks eloquently about false accusations against men and the devaluation of men’s lives. In the ancient Greek epic cycle, Achilles raged about the death of Palamedes. Palamedes death resulted from a false accusation that the word-twisting Odysseus contrived. Homer, writing under gynocentrism, highlighted these issues through silence. The Iliad’s horrendous violence against men moves forward from both Agamemnon and Achilles valuing a woman above the lives of thousands of men. No heroic twisting of words is necessary to recognize that gross injustice. Yet few throughout history have been willing to speak of it.

Drawing upon his own personal experience, the marginalized, twelfth-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes directly addressed gynocentrically driven injustice against men. Tzetzes as a young man had been in the employment of Isaac Komnenos, governor (eparch) of Berroia. Isaac’s wife sexually harassed Tzetzes. When he rebuffed her advances, she apparently accused him of attempting to rape her.[8] Tzetzes inserted into his recounting of the Trojan epic an angry condemnation of Isaac, his wife, and men who willfully embrace being cuckolded:

the wretched one had welcomed me before hiring me, the murderous Isaac along with his greedy, petty wife, who feared my display of eloquent words. Foolishly indeed they honored all those who were bodily deformed, lepers, bald men, idiots, men deep in the muck, men who furtively obeyed Isaac’s wife in their marriage beds. But others refused, paying no heed to the cost of refusing. Although they were righteous, virtue didn’t pay. But justice will ultimately aid them. The adulterers in many beds will be destroyed, and so too the husbands with golden horns, who don’t see what they should do and have obeyed their deceitful, snake-like wives and who have been proud of their wives’ secret lovers. They are lepers, idiots, men deep in the muck. [9]

As a result of Isaac’s wife’s false accusation, Tzetzes was fired from his job, had his horse confiscated, and was forced to serve in the army as a foot-soldier. Tzetzes lamented:

the deceitful wife of Isaac caused me great hardship, but provided great favors to the lepers, who did everything that she desired. But I did not obey her. I was not seduced, even if it would have been to my own great profit. … my tongue, from the will of the deceitful wife of Isaac, lacks bread and is not singing [10]

Drawing upon biblical precedents, Tzetzes used lepers as an allegory for sinners. Like Palamedes, Tzetzes suffered great hardships from a false accusation and men’s favoritism toward women.[11]

Tzetzes vigorously praised Palamedes and identified with him. Tzetzes referred to the “wise Palamedes,” “intelligent and most inventive,” “that most wise Euboian most versed in generalship.” Tzetzes stressed Palamedes’s civic spirit and his proto-Christianity:

Palamedes himself, the most wise heart,
being gentle and sociable, and humble before everyone,
loving everyone like himself, was loved by all;
he was honored by everyone in many ways:
as a nobleman, a general, a doctor, a seer,
a builder of siege machines,
for having invented letters, tallying with pebbles, backgammon,
marshaling the army in the crush of war;
in short, he was an inventor of all sorts of useful things. [12]

Tzetzes described Palamedes as being too busy with public affairs to take time to wash his hair. Tzetzes poignantly claimed for himself a similar appearance to Palamedes, including dirty hair.

Relative to Palamedes, Tzetzes regarded Odysseus as a word-twister who scarcely made useful contributions to public life. Tzetzes described Odysseus as “pale and pot-bellied, with plain hair, a twister of meanings, bitter and long-nosed.” Odysseus was jealous of Palamedes’s wisdom. In “anger and wickedness” Odysseus hated Palamedes as his rival and an enemy. The “treacherous Odysseus” continually plotted death for Palamedes “in every way.” Alluding to his own costly virtue in resisting Isaac’s wife, Tzetzes suggested that Odysseus may have slept with the Trojan Queen Hecuba in order to escape from Troy after spying there. According to Tzetzes, Odysseus compared to Palamedes was:

like darkness against light, sickness against health,
a most foul-smelling excrement compared with an Indian perfume. [13]

Odysseus today is widely known as the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Most persons today have never heard of Palamedes.[14]

Homer’s epics don’t merely celebrate gynocentrically driven heroes of violence against men. Ancient auditors and readers of Homer’s epics knew of Palamedes. They would have questioned the wisdom of Agamemnon and Achilles in devaluing men’s lives so much relative to the lives of a few women. They would have associated Odysseus’s guile with his false accusation of Palamedes and the unjust execution of Palamedes.[15] They would have considered embracing truth and rejecting gynocentrism. Humane civilization depends on sustaining that range of critical thinking.

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[1] Phillips (1957) p. 271. Clua (1985) provides a more recent review of Palamedes. Aitken & Maclean (not dated) noted the under-appreciated importance of Palamedes as a hero:

Of particular interest and worthy of further investigation is Protesilaos’s emphasis on the tales of Palamedes (Her. 21.2–8; 33.1–34.7; 43.11–16) and Philoktêtês (Her. 28.1–14), both of whom figure prominently in the Cypria and the Little Iliad.

[2] The oath is known as the oath of Tyndareus. Tyndareus was Helen’s step-father. Helen’s suitors, who included Odysseus, took the oath. Tyndareus administered it. On the oath of Tynareus, see e.g. Hesiod, Catalogue of Women, Berlin Papyri, No. 10560, ll. 89-100.

[3] For ancient sources for this story, Phillips (1957) p. 268, n. 8. This story is cited to the ancient Greek epic Cypria.

[4] Phillips (1957) pp. 269-71 reviews these and subsequent stories involving Palamedes and provides citations to ancient sources. Philostratus, Heroicus 33 covers many of them, as does Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prologomena, ll. 977-1053, in Goldwyn & Kokkini (2015) pp. 74-9. All references to Allegories of the Iliad are cited by line and page in id., which provides the Greek text on facing pages. Tzetzes wrote Allegories of the Iliad in Constantinople, probably in the 1140s.

[5] See, e.g. Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prologemena ll. 914-32, pp. 68-71. Briseis, daughter of Queen Briseus, is also called Hippodameia. On killing all the men and keeping women and children alive as captives as the gender structure of ancient war, see e.g. Iliad 4.237-40.

[6] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena l. 1112, and Philostratus, Heroicus 33.37.

[7] Virgil, Aeneid 2.81-85, from Latin trans. Fagles (2006) p. 77. The word vetabat is a form of the Latin verb vetō. Tribunes in the Roman Senate used the verb vetō to oppose objectionable measures. The English word veto is derived from it. Use of that word emphasizes that Palamedes’s opposition to the Trojan War was civic-minded, not narrowly personal.

[8] Magdalino (1993) pp. 348-9. The sources don’t make clear the specific charge of Isaac’s wife against Tzetzes. The context is sexual. Given the extremely broad meaning of rape today, I’ve called Tzetzes’s alleged offense rape for simplicity.

[9] John Tzetzes, Carmina Iliaca, Homerica ll. 142-56, from Greek my translation, drawing on Jacobs (1793) (Greek text), Braccini (2010) pp. 90-1 (Italian translation) and Untila (2014) (English translation). Other quotes from the Carmina Iliaca are done similarly. Untila (2014) is a rather rough English translation, but still a generous contribution to world culture.

[10] Tzetzes, Carmina Iliaca, Posthomerica 620-2, 754-5. On Tzetzes’s being deprived of his horse and forced to become a foot-soldier, id. ll. 284-8. Braccini (2010) p. 101 sees in Tzetzes’s scholia to Antehomerica l. 284 an allusion to his loss of his horse. Tzetzes, who grew up in a wealthy family, was thrown into impoverished circumstances:

In one letter, Tzetzes describes the three-storey tenement in which he lives, sandwiched between the children and pigs of the priest upstairs and the hay stored by a farmer on the ground floor.

Magdalino (1993) p. 121, citing Tzetzes, Epistles, ed. P.A.M. Leone (Leipzig, 1972) pp. 31-4.

[11] Braccini (2010) trivializes the sexual harassment of Tzetzes and obtusely deploys the gynocentric social construction of misogyny. Such an approach reflects dominant ideology. Nilsson (2004) and De Jesus (2016) point to greater appreciation for Tzetzes’s literary sophistication.

In addition to associating his appearance with that of Cato the Elder (Allegories, Prologomena l. 724, p. 55), Tzetzes displayed some of Cato’s silly traditionalism. Tzetzes declared that in the distant past wives didn’t sexually betray their husbands. Carmina Iliaca, Antehomerica 243-4. More importantly, Tzetzes, like Cato, appreciated men’s subordinate social position.

[12] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena ll. 968-76, p. 73. The previous short quotes are from id. l. 403, p. 31 (wise Palamedes); l. 872, p. 67 (intelligent and most inventive); l. 900, p. 69 (that most wise…). On the appearance and dirty hair of Palamedes and Tzetzes, ll. 724-30, p. 55.

[13] Tzetzes, Allegories of the Iliad, Prolegomena ll. 966-7, p. 73. The earlier short quotes in the above paragraph are from ll. 704-5, p. 53 (pale…); ll. 1054-5, p. 79 (anger and wickedness, plotting his death in every way); l. 1062, p. 81 (treacherous Odysseus). Tzetzes’s suggestion that Odysseus slept with Hecuba is in Carmina Iliaca, Posthomerica ll. 617-28.

Tzetzes’s view of Palamedes and Odysseus isn’t unprecedented. Philostratus in the third century provided in his Heroicus the account of a vinedresser:

in Ilion a farmer, such as I, who had been moved by Palamedes’ fate, and used to go to the beach on which the Achaeans are said to have thrown his body, and used to mourn him and offer the customary tomb offerings to his dust; he even chose the sweetest grapes and mixed him a bowl of wine, saying that he was having a drinking party with Palamedes when he rested from work. He also had a dog who was clever at fawning, and also at sneaking up on people; him he called Odysseus, and this {dog} Odysseus used to be beaten and reviled constantly for what had been done to Palamedes.

The spirit of Palamedes visited that farmer:

The farmer realized it was Palamedes — its appearance suggested a hero of great size, beauty and courage, not yet thirty years old — and embraced him with a smile, “I admire you, Palamedes, because I think you were the most sensible of men, and the most just competitor in the contest of wisdom, and because you suffered a pitiable death at the Achaeans’ hands because of Odysseus’ plots against you—if his tomb were here, I would have dug it up long ago, for he was foul and more evil than this dog, whom I keep under his name.”

Philostratus, Heroicus 21.3,6, from Greek trans. Rusten & König (2014) p. 167.

[14] Scholars today tend to support the verbal guile of Odysseus, the man of twists and turns. One result is to ignore fundamental aspects of reality such as men’s deaths. Consider this review of literature on the Trojan War:

authors used the epics in a paradigmatic way to support their own preconceived political ideology. … we hope to prove that there is no Trojan War, only Trojan Wars, and that this eternal renewability, enriched by the symbolic weight of past tradition, will no doubt result in its continued use as a source of inspiration for aesthetic innovation and celebration and critique of contemporary individuals and society at large for millennia to come.

Goldwyn (2015a) p. 12. Similarly, Goldwyn (2015b). Reducing public life to nothing but preconceived political ideology signals today’s dark age of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition.

[15] In his Apollonius of Tyna, Philostratus addressed this issue with a question to Achilles:

How is it that Homer does not know about Palamedes, or if he does excises him from his account of you all?’ ‘If Palamedes did not come to Troy,’ he replied, ‘Troy did not exist either. But since that wisest and most warlike of heroes was killed by a ruse of Odysseus, Homer does not bring him into his poem to avoid celebrating Odysseus’s crimes.’ Achilles then lamented Palamedes as the greatest, handsomest, noblest, and bravest man, who surpassed all in chastity and made many contributions to the Muses.

Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyna 4.16, from Greek trans. Jones (2005) p. 355. The translation of F.C. Conybeare (1912) for the Loeb Classical Library is available online.

[image] Palamedes before Agamemnon; a history painting by Rembrandt, 1626. Item B 564 in the Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, Netherlands. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons. The scene appears to be based on Joost van den Vondel’s 1625 play, Palamedes, or Innocence Murdered. Gershman (2014) pp. 95-6.


Aitken, Ellen Bradshaw and Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean, ed. and trans. Not dated. Flavius Philostratus, On Heroes. Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University.

Clua, Josep Antoni. 1985. “El mite de Palamedes a la Grècia antiga: aspectes canviants d´un interrogant cultural i històric.” Faventia 7-2: 69-93.

Braccini, Tommaso. 2010. “Mitografia e miturgia femminile a Bisanzio: il caso di Giovanni Tzetze.” I Quaderni del Ramo d’Oro 3: 88-105.

De Jesus, Carlos A. Martins. 2016. “John Tzetzes and the pseudo-Aristotelian Peplos in middle-Byzantium. The testimony of the Matritenses 4562 and 4621.” Cuadernos De Filologia Clasica. 26: 263-283.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 2006. Virgil. The Aeneid. New York: Viking.

Gershman, Zhenya. 2014. “Rembrandt: Turn of the Key.” Arion – Journal of Humanities and the Classics. 21 (3): 79-108.

Goldwyn, Adam. 2015a. “‘That Men to Come Shall Know of It’: Theorizing Aesthetic Innovation, Heroic Ideology, and Political Legitimacy in Trojan War Reception.” Introduction (pp. 1-15) to Goldwyn, Adam J., ed. The Trojan Wars and the making of the modern world. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Graeca Upsaliensia: 22. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet.

Goldwyn, Adam J. 2015b. “John Malalas and the Origins of the Allegorical and Novelistic Traditions of the Trojan War in Byzantium.” Troianalexandrina. 15: 23-49.

Goldwyn, Adam J. and Dimitra Kokkini, trans. 2015. John Tzetzes. Allegories of the Iliad. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 37. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jacobs, Friedrich, trans. 1793. Ioannis Tzetzae (John Tzetzes). Antehomerica, Homerica et posthomerica (Carmina Iliaca). Lipsiae: In Libraria Weidmannia.

Jones, Christopher P., trans. 2005. Philostratus. Apollonius of Tyana. Loeb Classical Library 16. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Magdalino, Paul. 1993. The empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nilsson, Ingela. 2004. “From Homer to Hermoniakos: Some Considerations of Troy Matter in Byzantine Literature.” Troianalexandrina. 4: 8-34.

Phillips, E. D. 1957. “A Suggestion about Palamedes.” The American Journal of Philology. 78 (3): 267-278.

Rusten, Jeffrey S. and Jason König, trans. 2014. Philostratus. Heroicus; Gymnasticus ; Discourses 1 and 2. Loeb Classical Library 521. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Untila, Ana, trans. 2014. John Tzetzes. Carmina Iliaca: Antehomerica, Homerica, and Posthomerica. Sponsored by Mitologia em Português.