Widely regarded as one of the finest works of literature ever produced, Homer's Odyssey has earned its place among the classics. In the Odyssey, Homer reveals ancient Greece, with its distinct conceptions of hospitality, battlefield glory, and the importance of family and home. A fascinating aspect of the Greek tradition is seen in the contrasting treatment of characters found in the Odyssey. Every character Homer speaks well of is also a character of royal descent. They may be introduced as exalted, disguised, or downfallen, but Homer only portrays those of noble birth as heroic, and they alone are worthy of honor.
Odysseus, the son of royal Laertes, is the first and more obvious example of heroism. Of him Menelaos declares, "How I loved the man / And how he fought through hardship for my sake!" Time and again, Odysseus is praised for his cunning, clear thinking, and wisdom. His heroism is evident as he captains a loyal crew and decisively leads his men through hazardous conditions. Similar instances of Odysseus's royal heroism appear throughout the Odyssey. Whether recounting his experiences in the Trojan War, or regaling an audience with tales of his current trials, Odysseus is portrayed as godlike among men.
Telemakhos, son to Odysseus and grandson to Laertes, provides a second example. This hero is commended throughout the Odyssey, just as his father is. In the form of Mentor, Athena tells Telemakhos,
The son is rare who measures with his father,
And one in a thousand is a better man,
But you will have the sap and wit
And prudence--for you get that from Odysseus--
To give you a fair chance of winning through.
The son of Odysseus is called "clear-headed Telemakhos;" his prudence and resolution repeatedly win him favor. From the court of the celestial aristocracy on Mount Olympus to the court of Menelaos, the "red-haired captain," the good name of Telemakhos is constantly praised.
The tendency towards portraying royalty as inherently noble is especially intriguing in light of the fact that, in the Odyssey, contemptible persons are lowborn. Sharply contrasting with the innate greatness of Odysseus, Homer portrays the ravenous beggar Iros as a "public tramp," rotten through and through. He was "a by-word for his insatiable swag-belly / feeding and drinking, dawn to dark."
The contrast between royalty and peasantry is even more striking because Homer juxtaposes the two "beggars." One, with obvious temperance and respect, happens to be Odysseus. He responds to Iros's...