R is for Rhesos

Published April 21, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Thracian king, ally of Troy, or potentially immortal juggernaut of destruction?

Rhesos plays a very small part in the Iliad, being massacred by Diomedes in his sleep.  Euripides wrote a play about him, but it was lost very early on, and the play that survives named Rhesos was written by someone else, though we don’t know who or quite when.  (It’s clearly not the one by Euripides, however, because it’s about half as long as his plays are, and it’s awful.  And a very different type of awful than, say, Euripides’ Orestes, which at least has moments that shine through as brilliant.  Even if they’re all at the beginning.)

I mentioned Rhesos before, when I was talking about Diomedes, but left out most of the details, so I could discuss them here.  Basically, what happens is that when Diomedes and Odysseus go on their night raid into the Trojan forces, they find a Trojan named Dolon, who’s on his way to spy on the Achaian forces.  (And whose reward for a successful venture was to be the immortal horses of Achilles!)  Well, they obviously couldn’t have that!  They capture Dolon and force him to talk before Diomedes dispatches him.  Through Dolon, they learn that Rhesos has arrived with reinforcements for the Trojans, and that Rhesos owns some magnificently beautiful white horses.  Between the desire not to let their situation get any worse (the Achaian army is suffering badly because of Achilles’ withdrawal, as I’m sure you recall) and their desire for those horses, they decide to go take care of these Thracians before the night is out.  And they do just that:  Diomedes kills Rhesos and a number of his men, while Odysseus (being, after all, the grandson of the master thief Autolycos) steals the horses.  Despite the rather cowardly nature of the act of killing sleeping men, this is treated as a great act of heroism.

We know from commentaries and scholia (and the surviving play, no matter who wrote it) that when classical authors tackled the question of Rhesos, they gave the story a bit more meaning and purpose than it had in the Iliad.  In some versions, Rhesos fights for one battle against the Greeks, and racks up such a kill count that they have to send the sneaky party to murder him in the middle of the night, because otherwise they fear they’ll all be annihilated.  (I’m reminded of the bit from A Knight’s Tale:  “How would you beat him?” “With a stick as he slept.  But with a lance, on a horse?  Impossible.”)  More popularly, though, they learn of a prophecy that if he–or, more commonly, his horses–should once drink from the River Scamander (or eat the grass on its banks), then Rhesos will become immortal/invulnerable, and the Achaian forces will thus be doomed.  Or sometimes it’s that Troy itself will become invulnerable.  Either way, the prophecy gives their mission an urgency that it doesn’t have in the Iliad, where it really doesn’t serve any function except to make the audience once again wonder why the Greeks need Achilles when they have Diomedes.  (And given that the purpose of the Iliad was to sing about the wrath of Achilles, that can hardly have been the intended purpose of that little side-story.  That’s most likely one of the major reasons some scholars view the night raid as being a later interpolation.)

I have to say, though, it would be interesting to imagine what would have happened to the war if Rhesos had gained invulnerability/immortality.  Would he have stopped at wiping out the Greek forces?  Would he have conquered his own ally, Troy?  Or maybe gone across the sea to conquer all the kingdoms of Hellas?  Or would he have just gone back to Thrace, proud of a job well done?  Or would his invulnerability have been like that of Cycnos, so that he could still be killed by strangulation?  Or maybe, if the waters of the River Scamander had made him invulnerable, they could also be his undoing, and he could be drowned in the very river that made him invulnerable?

It could make for some very interesting alternate reality fiction, I think.  Because that’s the way my mind operates.

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