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Skeptouchoi: A New Look at the

Homeric Scepter*
ABSTRACT: This article examines how the Homeric scepter is used, and
why it serves as the pre-eminent symbol of authority in epic. Contrary to the
long-held view that it is used as a “talking-stick” and passes from speaker
to speaker, in virtually every Homeric assembly, the scepter is held by
only one man: the man who convened it, and whose concerns the assembly
will have to address. Nor is the scepter a mystical talisman—rather, at its
simplest level it is a cudgel, a symbol of the ruling class’ power to inf lict
humiliating punishment on their inferiors.

I. Introduction
The rulers of Homeric communities have few physical symbols
of their authority. There are no crowns, no robes of office, no special
clothing at all.1 There are thrones— θρόνοι —but these are simply
fancy chairs, and are not reserved for any specific person. 2 Some
have even seen this lack of distinctive emblems as evidence that the
Homeric poems know of no permanent political authorities. 3 But one
emblem of authority is in fact recognized in the Homeric world: the
σκῆπτρον, the scepter or staff. Scepters are carried by priests and
prophets, by heralds, by judges in court, and, most frequently, by the
basilees, the ruling class of Homeric society.4 The symbolism of the

I wish to thank Bonnie MacLachlan and Patricia Unruh for their helpful
comments on several versions of this paper; I am also grateful to many of the par-
ticipants of the 2010 Classical Association of the Pacific Northwest conference for
their comments and suggestions.
Some high-ranking individuals are depicted as owning purple-dyed cloaks
(e.g., Nestor at Il. 10.133, Odysseus at Od 19.225, and Telemachus at Od. 4.115; see
H. L. Lorimer, Homer and the Monuments [Oxford 1950] 373, and S. Marinatos,
Archaeologica Homerica, Band 1: Kleidung, Haar und Barttracht [Göttingen 1967]
A 9), but there is no evidence that these are formal regalia as opposed to expensive
luxury goods.
A. G. Geddes, “Who’s Who in ‘Homeric’ Society?” Classical Quarterly, 34.1
(1984) 17–36.
Prominent advocates for this position have been A. G. Geddes (above, n.2),
J. Halverson, “Social Order in the Odyssey,” Hermes 113.2 (1985) 129– 45, and B.
Qviller, “The Dynamics of Homeric Society,” SO 56 (1984) 109–55. In this examina-
tion, I follow the model of Homeric society advocated most clearly by H. van Wees,
Status Warriors (Amsterdam 1992), P. Carlier, La Royauté en Grèce avant Alexandre
(Strasbourg 1984), and W. Donlan, “The Social Groups of Dark Age Greece,” CP
80.4 (1985) 293–308. Brief ly, Homeric communities are ruled by a hereditary elite
known as basilees “rulers,” “chiefs,” or “princes.” One lineage of basilees is con-
sidered basileuteros (“more princely”) than the others (Od. 15.533), and the head of
this family is considered basileutatos (“the most princely,” Il. 9.69) This individual
is the overall ruler of the community and is often referred to in English as “the
king.” I should clarify, at this point, that this study focuses almost entirely on the
world of the poems and is agnostic on how far this ref lects actual Iron Age practice.
For a small amount of discussion of “real world” scepters, see nn. 19 and 29 below.
Priests: Chryses carries “the ribbons of far-shooting Apollo, wrapped around
a golden scepter” at Il. 1.15, and the ghost of Teiresias has one at Od. 11.91. Her-
alds: Most frequently, we hear of heralds giving scepters to basilees; on the shield

280 Daniel Unruh
scepter and the protocols surrounding its use have been the subject
of debate for the past century or so. Most studies have, however,
focused only on narrow aspects of the scepter’s use, and do not take
into account all the available evidence. As a result, there exists no
clear consensus as to the scepter’s meaning and usage, and even as
basic an issue as who owns which scepter, remains confused. In this
discussion, I focus on two basic questions. I will first delineate the
main areas in which scepters are used: during the ἀγορή , the delib-
erative assembly; in “diplomatic” contexts, during embassies; and in
“judicial” situations involving oaths and judgments, and discuss how
scepters function in each case. Second, I discuss the symbolism of
the scepter—what makes a length of decorated wood the preeminent
symbol of authority in the Homeric world?

II. Scepters in Assembly

Scepters are most prominent in the ἀγορή , the Homeric general
assembly. During the first assembly in the Iliad, Achilles swears “by
this scepter,” which he shortly afterwards dashes to the ground (Il.
1.234, 245); In book 2, Agamemnon opens an assembly holding the
ancestral scepter of the rulers of Mycenae (Il. 2.101). In the second
book of the Odyssey, Telemachus begins his speech to the Ithacan
assembly after receiving a scepter from Peisenor the herald (Od.
2.37–38). Scepters, then, play an important role in the deliberative
assembly. But what role exactly? Despite the prevalence of scepters
in assemblies, the poems give little information about how and when
they are used. Over the past century or so, scholars have attempted
to reconstruct “rules of order” for the scepter. Though several differ-
ent models have been proposed, none has ever managed to account
for all the evidence available. The oldest, and most long-adhered-to
theory sees the scepter as essentially a “talking stick” 5: each orator
holds the scepter when it is his turn to speak; when he finishes, a

of Achilles, the judges hold “the scepters of/from the clear-voiced heralds” (Il.
18.505), Menelaus takes up a scepter from a herald during Patroclus’ funeral games
(Il. 23.568), and in the Ithacan assembly the herald Peisenor puts a scepter into Te-
lemachus’ hands (Od. 2.37). Heralds are themselves seen using scepters in book 7
of the Iliad, when the Trojan and Greek heralds interpose their scepters between
the two combatants to halt the duel (Il. 7.277). σκῆπτρον can also be used in its
basic sense of “something to lean on” to describe a beggar’s walking-stick (e.g., Od.
13.437, 17.199). For a good summary of the different contexts in which scepters are
found, see G. S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Cambridge 1985) 128–29.
The thirteenth-century Byzantine scholar Eustathius explains that Telemachus
receives the scepter in book 2 of the Odyssey: οὐ γὰρ ἦν θέμις ἄλλως δημηγορεῖν
τοὺς βασιλεῖς. ὡς οὐδὲ κήρυξι θεμιτὸν ἄνευ κηρυκείου προϊέναι. διὸ καὶ ἐν τῇ ἐπιταφίῃ,
Μενέλαος διαπληκτιζόμενος πρὸς Ἀντίλοχον ὡς ἐν δίκῃ, σκῆπτρον χειρίζεται (“since it
was not proper for kings otherwise to speak publicly. Likewise, it was not proper for
a herald to come forth without his herald’s staff. On this account Menelaus, during
the funeral games, when arguing with Antilochus as if in a trial, took a scepter in
his hand”). W. Leaf asserts that the scepter held by Achilles in book 1 of the Iliad
“does not belong to Achilles, but is that which is handed by the herald to the speaker
as a sign that he is ‘in possession of the house’ ” (The Iliad, Edited With Notes and
Introduction [London 1886] 21).
Skeptouchoi: A New Look at the Homeric Scepter 281
herald takes it to the next man who wishes to speak. Holding the
scepter indicates that that speaker “has the f loor” and cannot be in-
terrupted until he chooses to relinquish it. This explanation initially
seems reasonable. Many cultures do indeed use “talking sticks” in
this fashion, 6 and it is clear that speaking in turn and respectful
listening are proper behavior in Homeric assemblies.7 But on closer
examination, this model of “scepter etiquette” finds little support
in the Homeric text. Not a single scene depicts such a procedure. 8
Speakers hold scepters. Heralds put scepters into speakers’ hands.
But never once does a herald take a scepter from one speaker and
pass it on to another. Only once is a scepter transferred between
speakers at all: when Agamemnon’s test of the army in book 2 of
the Iliad precipitates a headlong rush for the ships, Odysseus, on
Athena’s orders, steps in to bring them in line:
αὐτὸς δ᾽ Ἀτρεΐδεω Ἀγαμέμνονος ἀντίος ἐλθὼν
δέξατό οἱ σκῆπτρον πατρώϊον ἄφθιτον αἰεί·
σὺν τῷ ἔβη κατὰ νῆας Ἀχαιῶν χαλκοχιτώνων.
(Il. 2.185–187)
Going up to Agamemnon, son of Atreus, he received
from him the ancestral scepter, eternal and imper-
ishable; with it he went down to the ships of the
bronze-clad Achaeans. 9
This is far, however, from the kind of orderly transfer the trad-
itional theory imagines. To begin with, we may question whether
the assembly can be considered to be still in session—after all, the
majority of its participants have abandoned the meeting ground in
their haste to cast off. Moreover, Odysseus takes the scepter not to
address the people, but to inf lict corporal punishment on individual
members of the lower classes (Il. 2.199, 2.265). This transfer rep-
resents a breakdown of normal procedure, not an instance of it.10
The second argument against the “talking stick” theory is that it
undermines the drama of Homeric assemblies. In the ἀγορή, speakers
react swiftly and spontaneously to each other, and the f low of the

This includes Native North American peoples—see L. E. Donaldson, “Writ-
ing the Talking Stick: Alphabetic Literacy as Colonial Technology and Postcolonial
Appropriation,” American Indian Quarterly, 22.1–2 (1998) on the Mi’kmak talking-
stick—as well as peoples of the South Pacific: Leaf (above, n.5) 21 reports that
the inhabitants of Ellice Island “preserved an old worm-eaten staff which in their
assemblies the orator held in his hand as the sign of having the right to speak.”
Agamemnon (Il. 19.79–82) tells the assembled Achaeans that, ἑσταότος μὲν
καλὸν ἀκούειν, οὐδὲ ἔοικεν / ὑββάλλειν· χαλεπὸν γὰρ ἐπιστάμενον περ ἐόντα. / ἀνδρῶν
δ᾽ ἐν πολλῇ ὁμάδῳ πῶς κέν τις ἀκούσαι / ἢ εἴποι; βλάβεται δὲ λιγύς περ ἐὼν ἀγορητής
(“It is good to listen to the man standing up, and it is not fitting to interrupt: that
is hard even for a skillful man. In a great and noisy throng, how can anyone hear
what he says? Anyone would stumble, no matter how fine an orator”).
See R. Mondi, “ΣΚΗΠΤΟΥΧΟΙ ΒΑΣΙΛHΕΣ: An Argument for Divine King-
ship in Early Greece,” Arethusa 13.2 (1980) 203–15.
All translations are my own.
See F. M. Combellack, “Speakers and Scepters in Homer,” CJ 43.4 (1948) 209–17.
282 Daniel Unruh
conversation does not admit pauses required for a herald to take the
scepter from one speaker to another. Consider this exchange between
Achilles and Agamemnon:
νῦν δ᾽ εἶμι Φθίηνδ᾽, ἐπεὶ ἦ πολὺ φέρτερόν ἐστιν
οἴκαδ᾽ ἴμεν σὺν νηυσὶ κορωνίσιν, οὐδέ σ᾽ ὀΐω
ἐνθάδ᾽ ἄτιμος ἐὼν ἄφενος καὶ πλοῦτον ἀφύξειν.
τὸν δ᾽ ἠμείβετ᾽ ἔπειτα ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων·
φεῦγε μάλ᾽ εἴ τοι θυμὸς ἐπέσσυται, οὐδέ σ᾽ ἔγωγε
λίσσομαι εἵνεκ᾽ ἐμεῖο μένειν· πάρ᾽ ἔμοιγε καὶ ἄλλοι
οἵ κέ με τιμήσουσι, μάλιστα δὲ μητίετα Ζεύς.
(Il. 1.169–175)
“Well now I’m going to Phthia, since that is much
better, to go home with my curved ships, and I don’t
intend, being dishonored here, to draw up wealth and
riches for you.” Agamemnon, lord of men, replied
to him: “Run then, if your spirit urges, and I won’t
beg you to stay for my sake! There are others with
me who will give me honor, and most of all Zeus
the Counselor!”
This exchange, like many others in Homeric assemblies, is rapid-
fire and free-f lowing. Agamemnon fires off his response the moment
Achilles finishes speaking. To imagine him waiting patiently for a herald
to collect the scepter from Achilles and pass it to him would break up
the f low of the argument and greatly reduce the drama of the scene.
Despite its long pedigree, the “talking stick” theory has not
gone unchallenged. In 1948, Frederick Combellack argued that the
scepter is not a regular element of the assembly. Rather, only occa-
sionally does a speaker take up a scepter “to indicate clearly to the
speaker’s audience that he is about to make remarks of particular
solemnity and importance” (210). Basilees, Combellack maintains,
commandeer a scepter whenever they wish to accentuate the grav-
ity of their words. So, for example, when Menelaus, in book 23 of
the Iliad, accuses Antilochus of cheating, he takes a scepter from a
nearby herald “to make it apparent to all that what he is about to
say differs in character from the preceding and following speeches”
(210). Likewise, when he swears on the scepter, “Achilles himself
did not hold a scepter at the beginning of the speech, but paused
momentarily after line 232, signaled to the herald to hand him the
scepter (always kept in readiness at meetings in case a need should
arise) and held it during the rest of his speech . . .” (211).
Combellack is to be applauded for his willingness to break with
such a long-unquestioned tradition. Unfortunately, his argument also
fails fully to convince. To begin with, it suffers from some of the
same f laws as the theory it rejects. His proposed procedure seems
equally at odds with the dramatic rhythm of the debates. Combellack’s
suggestion that Achilles, for example, must have paused during his
speech to grab a scepter is forced—once again, such an action would
break the momentum of his speech, depriving it of much of its force.
Skeptouchoi: A New Look at the Homeric Scepter 283
The second, and to my mind, the greatest difficulty with Combel-
lack’s thesis is the vagueness and subjectivity of its central premise. He
argues that scepters signal that one’s words are “solemn and important,”
but gives no definition of what makes one statement more solemn or
more important than another. Why, for example, does Achilles’ oath
to stop fighting require a scepter, but not Agamemnon’s decision to
appropriate Briseis? Why does Telemachus hold the scepter to demand
the suitors leave, but Antinous omit to do so when demanding that Te-
lemachus dispose of Penelope? In the end, it seems, Combellack’s only
criterion for the solemnity of a statement is whether the speaker takes up
a scepter when uttering it, making the argument more or less circular.
More recently, Hans van Wees has suggested that all senior
basilees own scepters, and take them from their personal heralds
whenever they have cause to address the assembly. This theory ele-
gantly explains why basilees have scepters, and fits almost every
instance of the scepter’s use. There is, however, one major obstacle to
this interpretation, for which van Wees fails satisfactorily to account:
When swearing on the scepter, Achilles describes it as one which
“the sons of Achaeans, the judges” carry (Il. 1.237–238). Clearly,
Achilles expects that different basilees can hold the same scepter.
This would be impossible in H. van Wees’ scenario, in which each
basileus has his own ancestral scepter, used by no one but himself.
Van Wees attempts to get around this difficulty by asserting that
When he swears “by this scepter,” Akhilleus may be
taking an oath on “the princely scepter” rather than
merely on the concrete scepter which he is holding—
just as one might put one’s hand on a particular copy
of The Bible in order to swear on the The Bible as
an abstract entity. 11
This explanation also seems forced. Whereas “The Bible” could
refer to bibles in general, if someone were to hold up a bible and say
“this Bible, printed under the auspices of the Church of England, on
which witnesses place their hands and swear,” there is a strong bias
toward that particular book. Achilles likewise refers emphatically to
τόδε σκῆπτρον (“this scepter”) and describes its manufacture. While
the qualities of that scepter may well apply to others, Achilles wishes
to highlight the specific object to underscore his oath—indeed, he
will shortly throw the scepter down in a graphic representation of his
abandonment of the community. Van Wees’ theory, while compelling
in many ways, fails to deal adequately with this important objection.
What has gone unnoticed until now is that in virtually every
Homeric assembly, only one person is depicted as holding the scepter:
the man who convened it.12 In book 1 of the Iliad, for example, it

van Wees (above, n.3) 279.
To convene an assembly, it should be noted, does not simply mean to give
the order to call the people together. In all Homeric assemblies, the convener sets
the agenda for the meeting. Homeric assemblies are not simply freewheeling fora for
284 Daniel Unruh
was Achilles who called the Achaeans together. For nine days, the
poet tells us, the Achaeans were victims of Apollo’s plague:
ἐννῆμαρ μὲν ἀνὰ στρατὸν ᾦχετο κῆλα θεοῖο,
τῇ δεκάτῃ δ᾽ ἀγορὴνδὲ καλέσσατο λαὸν Ἀχιλλεύς·
τῷ γὰρ ἐπὶ φρεσὶ θῆκε θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη·
(Il. 1.53–55)
For nine days the god’s arrows rained down upon the
army, on the tenth day, Achilles called the host to
assembly, for white-armed Hera put it into his mind.
Only Achilles is described as holding a scepter during this as-
sembly. We do not hear how he received it, and once he throws it
down, we hear nothing more of it—certainly, no one else is said to
pick it up. The most economical explanation is that Achilles received
the scepter when the assembly began, and kept it until throwing it
to the ground, where it remained for the duration of the assembly.
Likewise, the assembly in book 2 of the Iliad was convened by
Agamemnon, and once again we see the king address it holding the
ancestral scepter of his lineage (Il. 2.101). Agamemnon has his scepter
again in the assembly in book 7, after the Trojan herald Idaeus reports
Priam’s offer of a truce, Agamemnon accepts and swears to abide by
it. To do so, he “raised the scepter up to all the gods” (Il. 7.412). We
hear nothing about who called this assembly: Idaeus arrived at the
Greek camp to find the warriors already gathered (Il. 7.382). However,
since Agamemnon is the leader of all the Achaeans, and since we are
told that the army gathered by his ship (Il. 7.383), we may assume that
he convened it, and held the scepter to symbolize this fact.
The clearest demonstration that only the convener holds a scepter
comes in the second book of the Odyssey. When the Ithacans are called
to assembly, the elder Aegyptius speaks first to ask who has called the
assembly and why. According to the traditional “talking stick” theory,
he should be the first to receive the scepter, but we hear nothing
about it at this point.13 Telemachus then rises, and it is to him that the
herald first gives the scepter (Od. 2.36). He then identifies himself as
the convener of the assembly and launches into his condemnation of
the suitors. He too throws down his scepter at the end of his speech,
and once again we hear nothing more of it thereafter. Telemachus was
the convener of the assembly (Od. 2.6–7), the first man to receive a
scepter, and, as far as we hear, the last to hold it. Telemachus receives
the scepter not simply because he is an orator, or because he has
“something important” to say, but because it signifies his specific role
as convener of the assembly and decider of its agenda.14

discussion; rather, each assembly is called to address only the issue the convener
raises, and breaks up once that issue has been exhausted.
See Combellack (above, n.10). 214.
So H. Hayman, The Odyssey, Edited with Marginal References, Various Read-
ings, Notes and Appendices (London 1866) 36: “σκῆπτρον: this was the badge of public
office. Telem[achus], having summoned the assembly, it was his ex officio to address
it . . . the previous speaker here accordingly had it not, being a mere private person.”
Skeptouchoi: A New Look at the Homeric Scepter 285
The previous examples represent almost all the assemblies in
which scepters are depicted. In three of them, the holder of the
scepter is undoubtedly the assembly’s convener, and in the fourth
he most likely is. In all but one, the convener holds the scepter
until he decides to relinquish it; the one exception is a scene of
such chaos and confusion that it cannot be considered normal pro-
cedure. Scepters are thus not “talking sticks,” passed from speaker
to speaker, nor merely dramatic props, to be taken when something
“solemn” or “important” has to be said. Rather, they are emblems
of a specific function, allowing one to identify on sight the man
who convened the assembly and whose concerns will be the subject
of its deliberations.15

III. Scepters and Diplomacy

Only one scene in the Homeric corpus seems not to fit this
paradigm. During the teichoscopia in book 3 of the Iliad, Antenor
recalls how Odysseus had held the scepter stiff ly and awkwardly
during his negotiations with the Trojans (Il. 3.218–219). If, as seems
likely, this was during a Trojan assembly, why did Odysseus hold a
scepter? As ruler of Troy, Priam likely convened the assembly, so
shouldn’t he have had the scepter? The answer lies in the fact that
the scepter Odysseus holds is not the scepter of the convener of the
assembly. Rather, it represents his status as an ambassador from
the Achaean alliance. Louise-Marie Wéry has shown that Homeric
ambassadors are the highest type of “diplomat”; they are always
distinguished aristocrats and are accompanied by at least one herald,
who, as a herald, likely holds a scepter.16 Odysseus, then, would
have taken his scepter from the herald who accompanied him and
Menelaus to Troy, and holds it as a symbol of his diplomatic status.
Priam, if he convened the assembly, would presumably also have a
scepter of his own.

IV. Judicial Scepters

Scepters are also intimately associated with judicial proceed-
ings. The most dramatic evidence of this comes, of course, from the
shield of Achilles. The shield depicts a trial, in which “the elders,”
seated in a circle, are preparing to arbitrate a dispute between two
litigants:17 in their hands, they hold “scepters from the clear-voiced
In discussion at the CAPN conference, it was pointed out that Odysseus’
seizure of Agamemnon’s scepter means, in effect, that Odysseus is taking over as
convener, borne out by the fact that, following Thersites’ beating, a herald (actually
the disguised Athena) calls for silence and Odysseus, not Agamemnon, addresses
the reassembled people.
L.-M. Wéry, “Le fonctionnement de la diplomatie à l’époque homérique,”
Revue internationale des driots de l’Antiquité 14 (1967) 169–205. Ambassadors are
distinguished from heralds by their function: a herald can only relay a single message
verbatim, while ambassadors speak ex tempore, and have the power to negotiate (190).
Precisely who these “elders” are is not made explicit; elsewhere in Homer,
gerontes are the most senior of the basilees: see for example the γέροντας ἀριστῆαις
Παναχαιῶν whom Agamemnon summons at Il. 2.404, who consist of the most honored
286 Daniel Unruh
heralds” (Il. 18.504).18 When Odysseus encounters the ghost of Minos
dealing justice to the dead, the monarch also holds a golden scepter
(Od. 11.569). Finally, Achilles explicitly identifies the scepter as held
by “judges who uphold the decrees of Zeus” (Il. 1.238). Scepters,
then, serve to identify those presiding in judicial matters. It is this
principle that underlies Menelaus’ taking up a scepter during Pa-
troclus’ funeral games. Following a chaotic chariot race, Menelaus
accuses Antilochus of cheating:
τοῖσι δὲ καὶ Μενέλαος ἀνίστατο θυμὸν ἀχεύων
Ἀντιλόχῳ ἄμοτον κεχολωμένος· ἐν δ᾽ ἄρα κῆρυξ
χειρὶ σκῆπτρον ἔθηκε, σιωπῆσαί τ᾿ ἐκέλευσεν
Ἀργείους· ὁ δ᾽ ἔπειτα μετηύδα ἰσόθεος φώς·
Ἀντίλοχε πρόσθεν πεπνυμένε ποῖον ἔρεξας.
ᾔσχυνας μὲν ἐμὴν ἀρετήν, βλάψας δέ μοι ἵππους
τοὺς σοὺς πρόσθε βαλών, οἵ τοι πολὺ χείρονες ἦσαν.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄγετ᾽ Ἀργείων ἡγήτορες ἠδὲ μέδοντες
ἐς μέσον ἀμφοτέροισι δικάσσατε, μὴ δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀρωγῇ . . .
εἰ δ᾽ ἄγ᾽ ἐγὼν αὐτὸς δικάσω, καί μ᾽ οὔ τινά φημὶ
ἄλλον ἐπιπλήξειν Δαναῶν· ἰθεῖα γὰρ ἔσται.
(Il. 23.566–580)
Among them, up stood Menealus, grieved at heart,
implacably angered with Antilochus. Into his hand
a herald placed a scepter, and bade the Argives be
silent. Then the man equal to a god spoke: “Antilo-
chus, so prudent before now, what have you done,
having defiled my excellence and struck my horses,

Achaean commanders; see P. Carlier (above, n.3) 145, 150. If this holds true here,
then this would be a high-profile case indeed. That the gerontes who judge cases
are also basilees may be reinforced by Hesiod’s condemnation of the δωροφάγοι
βασιλῆες who have perverted justice in his community (Op. 39).
Combellack’s assertion that it is the litigants, not the elders, who hold scepters
(215) is unconvincing. The relevant passage reads:
. . . δύο δ᾽ ἄνδρες ἐνείκεον εἵνεκα ποινῆς
ἀνδρὸς ἀποφθιμένου· ὁ μὲν εὔχετο πάντ᾽ ἀποδοῦναι
δήμῃ πιφαύσκων, ὁ δ᾽ ἀναίνετο μηδὲν ἑλέσθαι·
ἄμφω δ᾽ ἱέσθην ἐπὶ ἴστορι πεῖραρ ἑλέσθαι.
λαοὶ δ᾽ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἐπήπυον ἀμφὶς ἀρωγοί·
κήρυκες δ᾽ ἄρα λαὸν ἐρήτυον· οἳ δὲ γέροντες
εἵατ᾽ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοις ἱερῇ ἐνὶ κύκλῃ,
σκῆπτρα δὲ κηρύκων ἐν χέρσ᾽ ἔχον ἠεροφώνων·
(Il. 18.498–505)
Two men were contending over the blood-price of a slain man; the
one claimed he would pay it all, declaring it to the community; the
other refused to receive anything. They had both gone to the arbitra-
tor to obtain a judgement. The people, clustered about, urged on one
or the other; the heralds held back the people. The elders sat upon
polished stones in the sacred circle; they held scepters of/from the
clear-voiced heralds.
The elders are the nearest antecedents of the verb ἔχον, while the litigants have not
been mentioned for five lines. It is thus most natural to take the elders as the subject
of ἔχον, in the absence of anything suggesting the contrary.
Skeptouchoi: A New Look at the Homeric Scepter 287
pushing your own forward, who were much inferior?
But come now, leaders and counselors of the Argives,
judge indifferently between both of us, and not in
partiality . . . or else let me judge it myself, and I
say that no one else of the Danaans will rebuke it.
For it will be straight.”
By taking up the scepter, Menelaus signals his intention to trans-
form an athletic event into an impromptu tribunal. From a private
dispute, he tranforms his quarrel with Antilochus into a public trial,
of concern to the entire Achaean leadership. To impress upon his
audience the gravity of his charges, he takes up the scepter, here
serving as the symbol of judicial authority. The scepter’s judicial
function also extends to oaths: a basileus may choose to swear an
oath while holding a scepter to increase the force of his words, as
Achilles does in book 1, Agamemnon in book 7, and Hector in book
10 of the Iliad (Il. 10.328).
Scepters, then, are held by basilees when performing communal
duties. Deliberative assemblies, diplomatic missions, and judicial
proceedings all concern the entire community. To preside over such
events confers both great prestige and great responsibility, and the
scepter serves as a visible mark of that distinction. Heralds, as ser-
vants of the community, keep the scepters in trust and can even use
them themselves when the need arises,19 but they surrender them to
any basileus who has a communal function to perform.

V. “Royal” Scepters
There remains one further usage of scepters to consider. In all the
previous categories, basilees took up scepters only when performing
a definite function; there are, however, a small number of scenes in
which a basileus holds a scepter apparently without carrying out any
specific duty. On the shield of Achilles, Hephaistos depicts a royal
estate at harvest time. Amid the reapers, we see the basileus standing
in the furrow, “holding his scepter and rejoicing in his heart” (Il.
18.556–557). In the same vein, the poet of the Odyssey is careful to
mention the scepter when describing Nestor sitting in state in Pylos:
ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
ὤρνυτ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐξ εὐνῆφι Γερήνιος ἱππότα Νέστωρ,
ἐκ δ᾽ ἐλθὼν κατ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἕζετ᾽ ἐπὶ ξεστοῖσι λίθοισιν,
οἵ οἱ ἔσαν προπάροιθε θυράων ὑψηλάων,
λευκοί, ἀποστίλβοντες ἀλείφατος· οἷς ἔπι μὲν πρὶν
Νηλεὺς ἵζεσκεν, θεόφιν μήστωρ ἀτάλαντος·
ἀλλ᾽ ὁ μὲν ἤδη κηρὶ δαμεὶς Ἄϊδόσδε βεβήκει,

Almost every time a speaker receives a scepter, he does so from a herald—
Menelaus at 23.568, Telemachus at Od. 2., the judges on the Shield of Achilles (Il.
18.505)—strongly suggesting that when not used by basilees they are in the heralds’
safekeeping. Heralds can also use the scepters themselves, as when Talthybius and
Idaeus interpose their scepters to halt Ajax and Menelaus’ duel (Il. 7.277).
288 Daniel Unruh
Νέστωρ αὖ τότ᾽ ἐφῖζε Γερήνιος, οὖρος Ἀχαιῶν,
σκῆπτρον ἔχων. (Od. 3.404–412)
When early-born, rosy-fingered Dawn appeared, the
Gerenian Horseman Nestor arose from his bed, and
coming out, he sat upon the polished stones which
were just in front of his high threshold; they were
white, gleaming with oil. Long ago, Neleus sat on
them, a counselor to rival the gods. But, subdued by
death, he had gone down to Hades, and now Gere-
nian Nestor sat upon them, defender of the Achaeans,
holding his scepter.
Finally, of course, there is Agamemnon’s hereditary scepter,
passed down through his family for generations (Il. 2.101–108),
which he keeps by him in his quarters (Il. 2.46). None of these
basilees are, as far as one can see, performing any kind of public
duty. They are simply “holding court,” making themselves visible
to their followers. In such situations a ruler will apparently hold
a scepter simply to indicate his rank and status. 20 It may even be
possible that such scepters are not the “public” ones kept by the

The association of the scepter with rulership seems to hold from the Bronze
Age onward. A clay seal-impression from Khania shows a male holding a long staff
standing atop a large, complex structure, likely a palace or city (O. Pelon, “Royauté
et iconographie dans la Crète Mionenne,” R. Laffineur and W. Niemeer eds., Politeia:
Society and State in the Aegean Bronze Age, vol. 2, [Heidelberg 1995] 310–20). The
“Chieftain Cup” from Aghia Triada shows a young, well-muscled man holding a staff,
before whom stands a shorter figure armed with a sword and some sort of curved
object. These scepterd figures stand in similar poses, and both are elevated by the
artist: the figure on the seal stands atop a high structure, relative to which his size
is vastly exaggerated (J. L. Crowley, “Images of Power in the Bronze Age Aegean,”
Politeia 475–91); the scepter-bearer on the cup is a head higher than his companion.
The remains of scepters have been uncovered in the shaft graves at Mycenae (K. Kil-
ian, “The Emergence of Wanax Ideology in the Mycenaean Palaces,” OJA 7[3] [1988]
291–302, and G. Graziado, “The Process of Social Stratification at Mycenae in the Shaft
Grave Period: A Comparative Evaluation of the Evidence,” AJA 95.3 [1991]). From the
opposite end of the Mycenaean era comes the famous scepter-head from Kourion on
Cyprus, an exquisitely decorated ball of gold and enamel topped by two birds of prey
(E. Goring, “The Kourion Scepter: Some Facts and Factoids,” C. Morris ed., Klados—
Essays in Honour of J. N. Coldstream [London 1995]). A Late-Geometric amphora from
Athens shows a male figure, draped in a fringed cloak, holding a scepter before him.
H. van Wees (“Greeks Bearing Arms: the State, the Leisure Class and the Display of
Weapons in Archaic Greece,” N. Fisher and H. van Wees eds., Archaic Greece: New
Approaches and New Evidence [London 1998] 333–75) calls the object a “spear,” but
it seems to me to be tipped by an oblong knob, not a point). The eagle f lying over
the man’s shoulder suggests that he may in fact be Zeus, making his staff a symbol
of cosmic authority. An early sixth-century lekanis shows King Priam of Troy receiv-
ing his son Antenor and holding a long, thin staff (Beazley 58.119, 681); the famous
“Arcesilas Kylix” depicts King Arcesilas II of Cyrene holding an elaborately topped
scepter (CVA Paris, Bibl. Nat. I, Tables 20–22). The few monarchies of the classical
period seem to have retained the scepter: a two-meter-long rod of gold-wrapped wood
was found in the Tomb of Philip at Vergina (E. N. Borza, “The Royal Macedonian
Tombs and the Paraphernalia of Alexander the Great,” Phoenix 41.2 [Summer 1987]
105–21, and N. G. L. Hammond, “Arms and the King: the Insignia of Alexander the
Great,” Phoenix 43.3 [Autumn 1989] 217–24).
Skeptouchoi: A New Look at the Homeric Scepter 289
heralds, but the hereditary possession of the basileus himself, like
Agamemnon’s σκῆπτρον πατρῃον ἄφθιτον αἴει (Il. 2.46). Nestor’s
scepter does, after all, appear in a passage emphasizing the her-
editary nature of his status, although the focus is on his polished
stone seats and not his scepter. 21 If this is so, then there may exist
two distinct classes of scepter: the “public” scepters kept by heralds
and available to all basilees, and “personal” scepters owned by the
most powerful basilees and passed down through many generations.
In any case, it is clear that the scepter can serve as a symbol, not
just of specific functions, but of rank, serving to identify the most
exalted member(s) of the society. 22

VI. The Symbolism of the Scepter

Having established the manner in which scepters are used, it
is now time to investigate their meaning: why is the skeptron the
symbol par excellence of authority in Homeric poetry? Most of the
explanations heretofore proposed have focused on the scepter’s sup-
posed sacred or mystical qualities. It has been seen as the earthly
embodiment of Zeus’ thunderbolt;23 as a traveler’s staff indicating that
the basileus is the gods’ messenger;24 as “a magic wand that rendered
the speaker inviolate.” 25 Yet, for all these interpretations, apart from
a few statements about Agamemnon being given his scepter by Zeus,
there is little or no supporting evidence in the poems themselves. 26
Polished stones are the other major symbol of authority in Homer: at the
opening of book 8 of the Odyssey, Alcinous and Odysseus sit on them while attending
the Phaeacian assembly; on the shield of Achilles, the elders sit on a “sacred circle”
of polished stones (Il. 18.504).
Witness the frequent formula σκηπτούχοι βασιλῆες: “scepter-holding basilees,”
generally applied only to the rulers of communities or the most senior aristocrats.
R. Mondi (above, n.8).
E. Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions Indo-Européennes, Vol. II:
pouvoir, droit, religion (Paris 1969) 31–32.
M. I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (London 1977) 80.
At least one theory is, in addition, demonstrably incorrect. The σκῆπτρον is
not a magic wand: the word for wand in Homer is ῥάβδος ; these are carried only
by gods, and are used to bring about magical transformations of the physical world
(Hermes has a wand that can “charm the eyes of men” [Il. 24.343], Circe uses her
ῤάβδος to turn Odysseus’ men into pigs [Od. 10.238], and Athena uses hers to make
Odysseus appear to be a gnarled and filthy beggar [Od. 13.429]). No mortal is ever
depicted with a ῤάβδος. By the same token, there is only one instance in all of Homer
of a god with a σκῆπτρον (Il. 18.416); since the god in question is Hephaestus, it
seems likely that this σκῆπτρον is simply a walking stick rather than a ceremonial
staff. The ceremonial σκῆπτρον, in Homeric usage, is reserved for mortals alone.
Benveniste’s theory rests on the etymology of the word σκῆπτρον which is le nom
d’ instrument du verbe skēptō ‘appuyer sur’; c’est un objet sur qoi l’on s’appuie, le
bâton (“The instrumental noun of the verb skepto, ‘lean upon’; it is the object on
which one leans, a cane”) 32. The verb σκήπτω, Benveniste finds, means not merely
to lean upon but “to place all one’s weight.” The scepter, therefore, is le bâton sur
lequel on pèse et qui vous retient de tomber (“the staff on which one supports oneself
and which keeps you from falling”). Finally Benveniste asserts that un seul type de
bâton répond à cette destination, c’est le bâton de marche (“Only one type of staff
accords with this function: the traveler’s staff ”). Benveniste’s conclusion here is not,
however, entirely convincing either; σκῆπτρον in Homer is a generic term for any
290 Daniel Unruh
Given that the poems ignore any sacred meaning the scepter
might or might not have had, it seems wiser to explain the scepter’s
symbolism not from putative sacred origins, but from the way it
is actually used and discussed in the epics. To put it another way,
any possible prehistoric symbolism of the scepter might have had
is less relevant than what the Homeric poet, his characters, and
(presumably) his audience understood it to mean. Scepters, we have
seen, are used when the bearer is engaged in a public activity and
specifically activities involving authoritative speech— μῦθος . 27 The
convener of an assembly must explain his cause clearly and persua-
sively; an ambassador must speak well on behalf of his leader and/
or his community; a judge must take care to express “the straightest
judgment” (Il. 18.508). The scepter, then, symbolizes one’s right to
express such authoritative speech.
So why should a length of wood symbolize the power to speak
with authority? The answer to this can be found in a scene that
combines scepter, speech, and the basileus’ authority in a highly il-
luminating manner: the end of the assembly in book 2 of the Iliad.
The meaning of scepter we find here is very far from anything sacred
or magical. At its most basic, the scepter is, quite simply, a length
of wood with which to hit people—in short, a cudgel.
When the assembly disintegrates after Agamemnon’s disastrous
test of the army, Odysseus seizes the commander’s scepter and goes
among the troops to restore order. While he speaks reasonably to
other basilees, he is brutal with the common soldiers. In addition
to calling them cowardly and worthless, he “harried them with the
scepter” (Il. 2.199), reminding them that it was to Agamemnon that

kind of staff, from a beggar’s walking stick to a royal scepter. Etymology alone thus
cannot be used to establish the meaning of a specific kind of σκῆπτρον. Moreover, a
traveler’s staff is surely not the only staff upon which one leans all of one’s weight.
This could be equally true of an old man’s cane, or a spear in the hands of a weary
warrior (like Archilochus in fr. 2W, although there the verb is κλίνω). To make the
jump from “something to lean on” to “messenger’s staff ” seems unwarranted in the
absence of any evidence linking the scepter exclusively with this function. Granted,
heralds hold scepters, but, as we have seen, this may simply symbolize that they are
empowered to perform public functions. Mondi’s theory relies on the now mostly
rejected idea of the basileus as a semidivine weather magician who can control the
natural world: “We have embodied in the Homeric skeptron a dimming memory of
an archaic conception of kingship as endowed with a superhuman (divine, if you
will) ability to inf luence the natural elements” (211). While it is true that in Homer
a virtuous ruler is thought to guarantee good weather and crops (Od. 19.106 –114),
this effect is seen as the reward for his justice and piety, not the product of any
mystical powers. Moreover, Mondi’s insistence on deriving σκῆπτρον from σκήπτω
in the sense of “strike/fall upon” is questionable (209–211). All the instances of
these forms that Mondi cites are post-Homeric; in the Homeric poems, σκήπτω is
found only in the middle voice, and it always means “to lean upon.” The middle
participle form σκηπτούμενος occurs four times in the Homeric poems: once in the
Iliad (14.457; Richard Janko suggests that this line actually contains a pun on both
senses of the word: R. Janko, “The Iliad, a Commentary,” ed. G. S. Kirk, vol. 4
[Cambridge 1985]), and three times in the Odyssey, each time in the formula describ-
ing the disguised Odysseus leaning on his cane (17.203, 17.338, 24.158).
On μῦθος , see R. Martin, The Language of Heroes (Ithaca 1989).
Skeptouchoi: A New Look at the Homeric Scepter 291
Zeus gave that scepter as a symbol of his power (Il. 2.206). When
Thersites defies Odysseus and continues mocking Agamemnon, Odys-
seus displays the scepter’s full power as an instrument of punishment:
ὣς ἄρ᾽ ἔφη, σκήπτρῳ δὲ μετάφρενον ἠδὲ καὶ ὤμω
πλῆξεν· ὁ δ᾽ ἰδνώθη, θαλερὸν δέ οἱ ἔκπεσε δάκρυ·
σμῶδιξ δ᾽ αἱματόεσσα μεταφρένου ἐξυπανέστη
σκήπτρου ὕπο χρυσέου· ὁ δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἕζετο τάρβησέν τε,
ἀλγήσας δ᾽ ἀχρεῖον ἰδὼν ἀπομόρξατο δάκρυ.
(Il. 2.265–270)
So he said, and struck him with the scepter on the
back and shoulders, and Thersites doubled over and
tears poured thickly out of him; a bloody welt broke
out on his back from the golden scepter; he sat down
and trembled, and looking around stupidly in his pain,
he wiped his tears. The others, as troubled as they
were, laughed in delight at him.
In all these cases there is a strong emphasis on appropriate
and inappropriate speech. The commoners Odysseus encounters are
referred to as “shouting” ( βοόωντά , Il. 2.198), and he impresses on
them the need for silence and attention:
δαιμόνι᾽ ἀτρέμας ἧσο καὶ ἄλλων μῦθον ἄκουε,
οἳ σέο φέρτεροί εἰσι, σὺ δ᾽ ἀπτόλεμος καὶ ἄναλκις
οὔτέ ποτ᾽ ἐν πολέμῳ ἐναρίθμιος οὔτ᾽ ἐνὶ βουλῇ·
(Il. 2.200–202)
You fool, stand still and hear the speech of others:
they are better than you—you are unwarlike and
feeble, of no account whatsoever in war or in council.
Odysseus makes clear that commoners have no useful voice in
debate, and must therefore defer to the μῦθος of their superiors. Their
own role is to listen and be silent. With Thersites, too, Odysseus ac-
companies a beating with the scepter with a lesson on proper speech:
Θερσῖτ᾽ ἀκριτόμυθε, λιγύς περ ἐὼν ἀγορητής,
ἴσχεο, μηδ᾽ ἔθελ᾽ οἶος ἐριζέμεναι βασιλεῦσιν·
οὐ γὰρ ἐγὼ σέο φημὶ χερειότερον βροτὸν ἄλλον
ἔμμεναι, ὅσσοι ἅμ᾽ Ἀτρεΐδῃς ὑπὸ Ἴλιον ἦλθον.
τῶ οὐκ ἂν βασιλῆας ἀνὰ στόμ᾽ ἔχων ἀγορεύοις,
καί σφιν ὀνείδεά τε προφέροις, νόστόν τε φυλάσσοις.
(Il. 2.246–251)
Thersites, you incoherent babbler, however good a speaker
you are, control yourself! Don’t expect to strive alone
with basilees: for I say that there is no other mortal
worse than you of all those who came with Atreus’
son beneath Ilion. So don’t go making speeches with
basilees in your mouth and bring forward criticisms
against them, defending the thought of going home.
292 Daniel Unruh
Again, the application of the scepter is accompanied by a denial
that its victim has any standing to speak, or anything worthwhile to
say. In fact, the issue is not so much the content of Thersites’ speech:
what he says is not very different from Achilles’ words in book 1. 28
Rather, the issue is that someone like him even dares talk of such
matters. 29 The scepter signals that its bearer is empowered to utter a
μῦθος , because he can use it to compel the silence and attention of
those who are not.30 The scepter’s aggressive potential is confirmed by
the description of a basileus’ subjects as living “beneath his scepter”
(Il 9.156, 9.298)—Bellerophon is even described as “subdued” beneath
the scepter of Proitus (Il. 6.159). The threat of the basileus’ displeasure
hangs over his subjects, physically concentrated in the scepter.
The threat embodied in the scepter is not simply that of physical
pain. When Odysseus beats Thersites, he does indeed inf lict some
pain, but he also makes his victim a source of ridicule for the other
soliders. Possession of the scepter thus enables a basileus to deal
out humiliation on his inferiors. 31 The scepter is not a weapon like
a spear or sword, designed to kill or maim; it is an instrument of
social control, designed to damage the honor and prestige of its victim.

See J. P. Holoka, “Looking Darkly (ΥΠΟΔΡΑ ΙΔΩΝ): Ref lections on Status
and Decorum in Homer,” TAPA (1974–) 113 (1983) 1–16.
E. R. Lowry (Thersites: A Study in Comic Shame [New York 1991]) argues
that Odysseus’ attack on Thersites has no “political” connotations, and that striking
with a scepter is “a technique which marks shame-causing language” that can be used
on anyone (265). As evidence, he points to two passages in which leading Achaeans
are struck: Il. 13.58– 61, in which a disguised Poseidon strikes the two Ajaxes, and
Il. 24.247–248, where Priam strikes and castigates the Trojans who have gathered
at his door. Neither instance, however, is really equivalent to the Thersites passage.
Poseidon strikes the Ajaxes not to punish them, but to magically imbue them with
strength and courage, just as Athena strikes Odysseus with her ῥάβδος to change his
appearance (e.g. Od 13.429, 16.456). Priam, for his part, is beside himself with grief,
and lashes out impulsively at everyone; contrast this to Odysseus’ careful distinction
between those who can be struck and those who cannot. It is also significant that in
both passages the word used is not σκῆπτρον, but its diminutive, σκηπάνιον. While
the two could simply be metrical variants denoting the same object, it is equally
possible that a σκηπάνιον is something different from a scepter, perhaps an old man’s
cane rather than a ceremonial staff. If so, being struck with a σκηπάνιον will not
have the same symbolic force as with a σκῆπτρον.
In this the symbolism of the scepter is close, if not identical, to that of the
Roman fasces, a fact observed by Carlier (above, n.3) 191, whose birch-twigs were
originally used to f log, and axe to execute, disobedient citizens—indeed, the fasces
has been described by one critic as “a portable kit for f logging and decapitation” (A.
J. Marshall “Symbols and Showmanship in Roman Public Life: The Fasces” Phoe-
nix 38.2 [1993] 120 – 41). Like the Homeric σκῆπτρον, fasces are a device by which
holders of authority compel obedience, which comes to symbolize authority itself.
This analogy stands in opposition to the argument of A. Alföldi (“Hasta—Summa
Imperii: The Spear as Embodiment of Sovereignty in Rome” AJA 63.1 [1959] 1–27),
that the Roman ceremonial spear, the hasta pura, is the Latin analogue to the Greek
σκῆπτρον. A spear, however, is an offensive weapon, symbolizing the leader’s power
vis à vis other communities; the scepter, like the fasces, represents the ruler’s power
to keep order within his own community.
The specific association of cudgeling and humiliation has also been noted
by J. F. McGlew in Tyranny and Popular Culture (Ithaca 1993).
Skeptouchoi: A New Look at the Homeric Scepter 293
In a society as status-obsessed as that of Homeric epic, such a rebuke
would cause almost unbearable distress to the victim. 32 The scepter
thus displays the superiority of the basilees over their subordinates:
they alone have the right to deal out humiliation without fearing
retaliation. 33

VII. Conclusion
The Homeric people are not utterly silenced by the scepter.
Their participation in public assemblies is essential to preserve the
notion that basilees act on the community’s behalf. Their role in such
deliberations, however, is strictly circumscribed. Only basilees may
make speeches, formulate ideas, and propose courses of action; the
people are limited to inarticulate shouting to acclaim the words of
their favored speaker. 34 To step outside this narrow role, as Thersites
does, is to invite a painful and humiliating enounter with the scepter.
It seems unlikely that the poet wishes us to think that basilees
routinely go about striking commoners with their scepters; after
all, we only have one instance of such behavior in the poems. The
scepter had long since become a symbolic rather than practical ob-
ject, like a military officer’s ceremonial saber. But its ultimate origin
still remained implicit and could be reactivated in an emergency.
Possession of the scepter signaled the basilees’ right to discipline
anyone who dared to usurp or challenge their control of authoritative
μῦθος . The scepter is thus an emblem of the ruling class’ exclusive
right to public speech and decision-making. 35 Heralds carry scepters

The “touchiness” of Homeric characters regarding even comparatively small
slights is well attested throughout the poems; consider, for example, Odysseus’
impulse to kill Eurylochus for questioning his past judgment (Od. 10.431– 441), or
Patroclus’ statement that as a boy he had killed his friend over a game of knuckle-
bones (Il. 23.85). For more on status anxiety and its connection to violence, see van
Wees (above, n.3) ch. 3.
This interpretation of the scepter may shed light on later events in Greek
history. Aristotle reports that members of the Penthilid oligarchy went about strik-
ing Mytilinean citizens with clubs (Pol. 5.1311b). While these were not σκῆπτρα but
κορύναι , the Penthelids may nevertheless have justified their thuggery by viewing
themselves as Homeric-type basilees, dealing out justice to the unruly δῆμος . The
frequency of their attacks, in contrast to Homeric epics, suggests a deeply insecure
ruling class that felt a perpetual need to demonstrate its dominance. McGlew (above,
n.30) suggests that the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus armed his bodyguard with clubs
and not spears in order to present himself as a dispenser of justice and humiliator
of the unjust (75–77). Likewise, when Herodotus reports that the mad Spartan King
Cleomenes would “push his scepter into the face of any Spartan he met” (6.75.1),
he too could have been acting out the fantasy of being an epic hero confronting
innumerable Thersiteses.
See Carlier (above, n.3) 185. This role does, however, give the people one
legitimate means of protest: they can withhold acclamation to proposals they do not
approve, as when the laos remains silent at Agamemnon’s defeatist rhetoric at Il.
9.29. This hardly amounts to a veto, however, as basilees’ are still free to ignore the
people’s opinion, as Agamemnon does when the demos urges him to return Chryseis.
This is somewhat opposed to the view expressed in J. Griffin, Homer on Life
and Death (Oxford 1980) 11, that scepters represent “the authority of the community.”
294 Daniel Unruh
to indicate that they share, in a limited fashion, in the basilees’
possession of μῦθος; basilees themselves take up a scepter when-
ever they perform a public act like judging a case or convening an
assembly, to make clear that they are exercising their prerogatives.
The Homeric scepter is not some sort of mystical wand, nor is it an
abstract device to signal the “solemnity” of one’s words. Rather, it is
token of an inherited leadership in public affairs and of the right and
ability to enforce that leadership even on the bodies of subordinates.

King’s College, University of Cambridge Daniel Unruh

Classical World 104.3 (2011) dbu20@cam.ac.uk

If “the community” is defined as all the members of Homeric society, commoners

as well as basilees, this seems to be untrue. Although decisions are taken in their
name (although “the Achaeans” are said to have distributed the booty at Il. 1.118 and
1.299, we later learn this was actually done by Agamemnon [Il. 9.367]), the people
are not active participants in the process: few commoners speak in assembly, and
none ever holds a scepter. The scepter symbolizes the basilees’ authority over the
community, not the community’s own largely nominal power.


In honor of E. Adelaide Hahn, up to $6,000 will be awarded each
spring toward the cost of study in the summer session of the American
School of Classical Studies at Athens or the American Academy in Rome.
Applicants must have been CAAS members in good standing for two con-
secutive years prior to the year in which they apply; preference is given
to pre-college teachers, graduate students, and those who have not previ-
ously received this award. Fulbright awardees cannot receive the Hahn;
others can receive up to $4,000 if they have been given another award.
Winners are expected to make a report at the CAAS annual meeting in
October. For further information, contact Raymond Capra, Chair of the
Hahn Scholarship Committee, at: raymond.capra@shu.edu. To apply send
the following materials to the address below by February 10:
• the completed application and letters of recommendation for summer
study in Athens or Rome;
• proof of CAAS membership for the current year and the past two
consecutive years;
• a cover letter that lists all sources from which you are seeking fund-
ing, and agrees to an oral and written report at the October, CAAS
Raymond Capra
Program of Classical Studies, Fahy 231
Seton Hall University
400 S. Orange Ave.
South Orange, NJ 07079