The Odyssey, 10 Years in 10 Days: ‘Blow on Mortal Blow’

Day 1: City of Ismarus. Who: The Cicones, ordinary Greeks who are minding their ordinary business. What: Odysseus and the flowing-haired Achaeans, in a fleet of 12 ships fresh from the victory Troy, land out of the blue and sack the city.

It’s an appalling orgy of sex and violence that Homer dispenses with in not quite two lines: “There I sacked the city, killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder, that rich haul we dragged away from the place.” It is a fine introduction to our hero. Apparently, to Odysseus, raping and pillaging is just what you do when you are on your way home.

Unfortunately, the quick and easy success makes Odysseus’ men loath to leave — “there was too much wine to swill,” as Homer puts it. And as will happen time and again, clever, brave Odysseus is nowhere near clever or brave enough to shift the wine-soaked Achaeans off their duffs and into their ships. This gives the Cicones time to rally a counterattack — which is astoundingly successful.

In other words, lounging around after an easy victory is probably the ancient equivalent of teenagers’ posting videos of a petty crime on Facebook.

In a furious clash, Odysseus and his men are routed from the city — “me and my comrades doomed to suffer blow on mortal blow” — beaten to their ships and are lucky to escape with (most of) their flowing hairs intact.

Talking point: It should have been a slam dunk, as far as city-sackings go, but poor leadership leads to disaster. Death toll: Most of the male inhabitants of Ismarus; 72 of Odysseus’ men.

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