|Slaughter of the Suitors via Wiki Commons (public domain)
We know some of their names, of course, and even who their fathers are. We know that they seem to have some pretty poor manners, and as guests and suitors they have overstayed their welcome to an extreme degree (though it seems Penelope is in part to blame for not sending them away, herself, perhaps, too.) But. Who are they in the greater scheme of Ithaca's kingdom and community, post Trojan War?
Presumably, Odysseus took a majority of able-bodied men with him to Troy to fight. We know these suitors are the sons of now-old men, noble houses of Ithaca who were part of Odysseus's assembly. The sons of men who are now too old and weak to rule them -- much like Laertes is too old and weak with grief and sorrow to guard Penelope and Telemachus from the suitors, or even to engage in Ithaca's assembly to any degree. Had they been younger men, the fathers of these suitors would have left 20 years earlier with Odysseus to fight, right? And if the suitors had been older men themselves, they also would have left, for the most part, 20 years ago to fight with Odysseus.
So are these Suitors second or third or fourth sons (of second wives, perhaps)? Not quite so young as Telemachus, clearly, who was an infant when Odysseus left, but old enough to see their brothers sail off in his company, and just a shade too young to follow? Old enough to grieve for their brothers who never returned home? Are they acting out, taking back what they lost in some way, by pillaging Odysseus's stores in his absense and courting his wife?
During Telemachus's assembly in book two, Mentor says:
"Think: not one of the people whom he ruledIs he accusing the Suitors themselves of not knowing or remembering Odysseus, suggesting that perhaps they were too young to have really engaged with him in any meaningful way? Accusing the old men of the Assembly of forgetting the kindness of their king, or betraying the kindness that Odysseus showed them by not standing against the abuses of the suitors?
remembers Odysseus now, that godlike man,
and kindly as a father to his children!" (Fagles, p 100)
It seems likely that reinforcements came to support the Greeks (generic national identity used loosely, here), so why didn't these suitors travel to Troy to fight at some later point in the war? Or had they not yet quite come of age, even then? Say they were only 5 or 6, and hadn't quite reached manhood before Troy was sacked? But that would make them only 26 to Penelope's mid thirties, at the youngest, assuming she was in her early/mid-teens when she married Odysseus and bore him Telemachus, now nearing 20.
Odysseus mustered 12 ships when he initially sailed to Troy with the army, according to Homer's Catalogue of Ships, and in the Odyssey, Odysseus claims to have begun his journey from Troy with a dozen ships, still. twenty to thirty oars per ship would mean a minimum of 240 to 360 men -- none of which returned home, save Odysseus himself. Could resentment for the loss of so many have fueled the blind eye that these old men turned to their youngest/younger sons who lived? Or simply the desire to spoil them, because they had not been lost when so many others had been?
Honestly, I'm kind of shocked that upon his return Odysseus is allowed to keep his crown, after losing so many men -- hero-kings have been thrown out of power for less, after all -- but perhaps it is the slaughter of the suitors that secures his power in the end. The old men, after all, clearly don't have the strength to stand against him when they cannot stand against their own sons. And with the suitors' deaths, an entire generation of Ithacans, ultimately, is wiped out -- leaving Odysseus with no one to challenge him at all.
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