You Can Count on Odysseus

By Bob Blackman

When we first meet Odysseus, he's alone and naked. But as he tell his story to the Phaiakians, it becomes apparent that he's a very, very important man, a king in his own right, and a leader of men. But how many men did he lead? Was he a second rate leader, who just thought he was important?

  How can we go about estimating the size of his forces? Well, Odysseus gives us many hints, and if we do a little work, we can come up with a rough number. We don't have a good idea from the reading assigned what proportion of his men Odysseus lost at Troy. Our first real mention of numbers comes at VIII.39-61. Odyseus had enough men and ships to sack the city of the Kikonians, and after a fight on the beach, he lost "out of each ship six... companions" (VIII.60). We still don't know how many ships he had, but they had to be able to lose six men and still sail. However, the loss of six men seems, in context, to be a serious loss: Odysseus "would not suffer the flight of [his] oar-swept vessels until a cry had been made three times for each of my wretched companions^Å" (VIII.64-6). A 10% loss would imply 60 men per ship, a 20% loss would imply 30 per ship.

 Odysseus soon tells us that he has 12 ships (VIII.159-60) and that, when hunting, each ship took 9 goats as rations. Perhaps they were going to store some of the meat--there is no mention. Odysseus himself takes 10 goats! What this means, though, is that even with a loss of half a dozen men on each ship, they needed 9 goats for each ship to feed the crews. This makes it seem like there are at least 18 men left on each ship--but probably more. Odysseus then takes his own ship in to take a closer look at the isle of the Cyclopes. He chooses "the twelve best men" among his "companions" to explore (VIII.195). Again, this implies that he can take twelve men and still leave enough behind to protect the ship, and one presumes, to sail it. It would make little sense to leave few enough men that no one could escape to get help if Odysseus ran into trouble. This pushes the number on board above 18--the twelve Odysseus takes with him, the skeleton crew he leaves behind, and himself. Don't forget--these ships need to be rowed, and if they are large enough to carry 24 men, it would be hard work for  6 men to clear the ship from a beach and row it away. Perhaps Odysseus only took one-half of his ship's complement with him. That would make for 31 men on board (24 remanining, +6 killed by Kikonians, +Odysseus himslef). The Cyclopes eats six of Odysseus's men (see pp. 146-7). He's lost 12 men from his ship alone. It seems, perhaps, that the 20% loss at the city of the Kikonians was a good guess.   Odysseus's next time counting follows a disaster--it's his encounter with the Laistrygonians. He loses all of his ships but one, and makes no mention of saving survivors. In fact, he points out that the rest of his men were "speared^Å like fish" (IX.124). How many men escaped on his ship? Enough for Odysseus to divide "into two divisions," each with a leader, when they reach Circe's isle (IX.203-04). "Great-hearted Eurylochos" led a group to explore, and he took "with him two-and-twenty companions" (IX.207-08). Presuming that the divisions were equal (and since they relied on a game of chance to choose who would explore, this seems a reasonable assumption) that makes for 46 men in Odysseus's ship. Perhaps he had taken men from other ships to balance out his losses from the Cyclopes. Still,  this makes for 46 (left when Odysseus reaches Circe's isle)+6 (lost to Kikonians) =52, at least, men on his ship when he sails from Troy. Perhaps he had 58. This makes the initial guess that he lost 10% of his men to the Kikonians sound more reasonable than the guess that he had lost 20%. Even if we take into account some Homeric rounding of numbers (for a half-dozen men are killed from each ship by the Kikonians, and oddly, Odysseus loses a half-dozen to the Cyclopes), this means some 700 men sailed from Troy, if the ships were of roughly equal size and complements. Taking into account casualites, desertion, etc. during ten years of war with Troy, not to mention during the trip to Troy in the first place, it seems reasonable to put Odysseus at the head of over 1000 men when he left Ithaka. No wonder the families of the suitors were so angry with him! A great man indeed, who could raise over 1000 men and the ships to carry them, and keep them abroad for a decade. No wonder the Phaiakians gave him riches and a ride home. (By the way, Odysseus loses eight more men from his ship before Zeus finishes off the crew (XI.415-19). Elpenor, left behind on Circe's isle, falls to his death (X.551-60), Skylla eats six (XI.245-46), and the es" by the mast (XI.411-14.)