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THE DEATH OF KING RHESUS OF THRACE

20/05/2012

A MONUMENT OF MILITARY INCOMPETENCE.

Any reference to Homer’s works brings to mind the heroic ideal. Yet Homer is not squeamish to describe his heroes’ feats of stealth and cunning. The tenth rhapsody the “Iliad” is a almost a blue print of how special operations were conducted at the time of the Trojan War and its principles hold true even our high tech era.

Rhapsody nine tells us that the Greeks, hard pressed by the Trojans retreated to their fortified camp. But they appointed two heroes Antilochos and Mereones to be in command of detachments posted outside the camp perimeter. (Note: active security and early waning system). The Trojans elated by their victory pitch camp in the field among the dead of the battle, posting sentries but make no attempt to create a defensive perimeter.

Boar tusk helmet and Mycenean chariot.

In rhapsody ten Agamemnon the Greek commander in chief decides to get intelligence about the enemy’s activity and intentions. He asks for volunteers and his vassal Diomedes, king of Argos accepts the mission but, he says it’s better if he goes not alone.  (Note: even today scouts and snipers are better operating in pairs). Diomedes who is recognized by his peers an active a fighter tales Odysseus, king of Ithaca as his second.  He says that a man with active intellect is always a good companion. The two heroes who undertake the mission of an active night patrol are the ideal combination of aggressiveness and ingenuity, which is even today sought in Special Forces groups.

In the Trojan camp Prince Hector who commands Trojans and their allies learns that king Rhesus of Thrace has come as his ally. Euripides and not Homer give the details here. Hector is angry that the Thracians did not cam earlier but just in time to finish off the Achaeans and demand portion of the spoils. Rhesus says that he had to secure his borders from the Scythians first.

Replica of a 13th century BC bronze sword. Courtesy of Anestis Christanis

Hector does not want to cause more trouble and receives the Thracians as allies and tells them to camp at the side of the Trojans and not to worry about night watch as the Trojans stand guard. Rhesus accepts and the Thracians pitch camp. The Thracian king makes a fatal mistake. He posts no sentries! In a close distance to the enemy and with suspicious allies his decision was to be fatal. Elementary rules of security were simply ignored!

Hector too wishes to gather intelligence about the intention of the Greeks. He asks for volunteers.  A guy named Dolon steps forward. Homer is not flattering in his description of him.He tells us that Dolon was the only son of a wealthy family, which had five more female children. In a subtle way he tells that a spoiled brat undertakes a delicate mission. The fact that he asks the horses of a demi-god (Achilles horses), as a reward is the poet’s way to tell us that he overestimates himself and his ability. He decides to go alone so as not to share the prize with anyone. Hector who gets irritated by Dolon’s arrogance, instead of planning the mission carefully, he sends him alone. From that Trojan side the night patrol starts poorly executed from the start.

Dolon crawling on all fours in his wolf skin. Louvre_CA1802

From both sides the volunteers do the sensible thing. They discard heavy equipment and they wear animal skins.  The Greeks carry swords probably short to ease movement and bear non-metallic helmets . Diomedes wears a bull skin helmet and takes also a javelin. Odysseus wears a boar’s tusk helmet and curries also a bow with arrows. Dolon gets a javelin and a bow with arrows.

Odysseus and Diomedes capture Dolon

The Greeks realize the Trojan’s presence first. They play dead, letting him pass by, so as to be between them and the Greek camp. When the Greeks rush at him Dolon panics and he runs wildly without knowing where he goes. His fear paralyses him and instead of taking evasive action he surrenders. Intimidated by Diomedes he reveals the night watch password and the Thracians position. Fearing that he might escape even if tethered and not wanting to compromise their mission the Greeks kill the poor wretch ignoring his offers for ransom. They approach the camp of the Trojans without being challenged. The Trojans either have posted no pickets or they are afraid of the dark.

Diomedes killing Rhesus. Malibu. J.Paul Getty Museum 96.AE.1. © J.Paul Getty Museum

The Greeks approach the sleeping Thracians not believing the their senses when they realize that there are not sentries! The aggressive Diomedes starts killing the Thracian royal bodyguards while Odysseus draws the corpses aside to clear a way as they worry that Rhesus horses will make noise if they smell blood. Diomedes controls his blood lust (Homers says that its Athena goddess of strategy that advises him) and tells Odysseus to take the horses and flee. The heroes tether the horses to the chariot and Odysseus uses his unstrung bow as a whip – a good example of  “adapt, improvise overcome”- and they ride back to their own camp.

Odysseus (wearing the pilos hat) and Diomedes stealing the horses of Thracian king Rhesus they have just killed. Apulian red-figure situla by the Lycurgus Painter, ca. 360 BC. Stored in the Museo Nazionale Archaeologico in Naples.

Euripides says that when the Trojan sentries challenge the Greeks, they simply offer the password that they stole from Dolon. In the morning a heavily wounded Thracian accuses Hector of treason and double-dealing. Hector quashes the issue and does not punish the night watch, realizing he is also responsible for this mess.

The Greeks returned triumphantly to their camp and the moral of their comrades is restored. The Thracians  either dessert or sent home, as the trust among the allies has been broken. Their absence will be felt in the renewed bitter fighting. The Greeks have the psychological advantage because the showed the Trojans that they “own the night” because their enemies poor conduct in the night watch and in night patrolling.

Sources

Homer “THE ILIAD”

Euripides “RHESOS”

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