The death of King Rhesus of Thrace: A Homeric example of military incompetence

Special forces operators can learn lessons learned by the ancient Greeks, from nearly 4,000 years ago.

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. Museo Nazionale - Naples

Any reference to Homer’s works brings to mind the heroic ideal. Yet Homer is not squeamish to put describe his heroes’ feats of stealth and cunning. The tenth rhapsody of the Iliad is a almost a blueprint of how special operations were conducted at the time of the Trojan War. 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.  In other words, an active security and early warning system. The Trojans, elated by their victory, camp in the field among the dead of the battle and post sentries but make no attempt to create a defensive perimeter.

In rhapsody 10, Agamemnon - the Greek commander in chief - decides to obtain intelligence about the enemy’s activity and intentions. He asks for volunteers. His vassal Diomedes, king of Argos, accepts the mission but says it is better if he does not go alone.  (Note: even today scouts and snipers are better operating in pairs). Diomedes, who is recognized by his peers an active a fighter tails Odysseus, the 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 is sought in special operations.

In the Trojan camp, Prince Hector who commands the Trojans and their allies, learns that king Rhesus of Thrace has come as an ally. Euripides, not Homer, gives the details here. Hector is angry that the Thracians did not come earlier but just in time to finish off the Achaeans and demand a 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 the Living History Association “KORYVATES“)


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

Hector also wishes to gather intelligence about the intentions 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.  So, in a subtle way, he tells that a spoiled brat is undertaking a delicate mission. The fact that he asks for the horses of Achilles - a demi-god - as a reward is the poet’s way to tell us that he overestimates himself and his abilities. Dolon decides to go alone so as not to share the prize with anyone. Hector who becomes irritated by Dolon’s arrogance, instead of planning the mission carefully, sends him alone. Because of this, the night patrol from the Trojan side is poorly executed from the start.

From both sides the volunteers do the sensible thing. They discard heavy equipment and wear animal skins.  The Greeks carry short swords, probably for ease of movement, along with non-metallic helmets . Diomedes wears a bull-skin helmet and takes also a javelin. Odysseus wears a boar’s tusk helmet and also carries a bow and arrows. Dolon, for his part, arms himself with a javelin, as well as bow and arrows.


The Greeks detect 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 runs wildly without knowing where he is going. His fear paralyses him and surrenders, instead of taking evasive action. Intimidated by Diomedes, he reveals the night watch password and the Thracian 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 of 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.

The Greeks approach the sleeping Thracians, not believing their senses when they realize that there are no 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 it is Athena - goddess of strategy – who advises him) and tells Odysseus to take the horses and flee. The heroes harness 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.

Euripides says that when the Trojan sentries challenge the Greeks, they simply offer the password that they obtained from Dolon. In the morning, a severely 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 morale of their comrades is restored. The Thracians either desert or wander homeward, as the trust among the allies has been broken. Their absence will be felt in the renewed and bitter fighting. The Greeks have the psychological advantage because they showed the Trojans that they “own the night,” because of their enemies' poor conduct during the night watches and patrols.

Spero columnist Stefanos Skarmintzos writes on military and classical history, and resides in Athens.

Sources

Homer “THE ILIAD”

Euripides “RHESOS”

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