CHAPTER FOUR: Odyssean Cunning
I’ve noticed something funny about the names of minivans.
Car makers often market them with names that connote a sense of movement or journey, like the Caravan, Quest, Voyager, Relay, Venture, and the Windstar (to name a few). I assume that through consumer testing they have learned that names like this help a man get over the mental hump of trading in that 4Runner he’s been driving since college for something that looks and feels like a pair of cargo shorts on wheels.
I’m not sure that marketing worked on me (although good marketing is inherently subliminal so how would I know for sure), but I did trade in a Jeep Cherokee for a Honda Odyssey, so maybe there is something to the theory.
Like Quest and Voyager, Odyssey is a name that invokes movement and journey. But unlike the others it derives from a specific journey undertaken by a specific man—Odysseus, the warrior-king of Ithaca and chief architect of the Trojan Horse scam that brought down Troy.
Homer’s Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home from the siege of Troy (which also lasted a decade), and which itself is the subject of the Iliad. Like most kids, I had to read both Homeric epics in high school and don’t retain much of a specific recollection of either book forty years later.
But I do remember that Odysseus is not the only protagonist in the Iliad. There was also Achilles, and to a lesser extent Ajax. Achilles was a great warrior but was beset by anger and self-destructiveness. Ajax had tremendous physical strength and courage in battle but was a knucklehead.
Odysseus was a different kind of man. Although he was a skilled warrior and combat leader like Achilles and Ajax, he was also an emotionally disciplined diplomat and crafty military planner (to wit, his Trojan Horse stratagem). Most importantly, he was a family man, whose determination to return home to Penelope his wife and Telemachus his son drove the story of the Odyssey.
So, maybe when it came time for me to buy my own Family Truckster, I chose the Odyssey because it allowed me to identify in some small subconscious way with Odysseus rather than with an anonymous Levantine spice merchant riding astride a camel in a Caravan or a Hobbit on a Quest. Seems more manly, if only at the margin.
Although they adopted great swathes of Grecian culture, the Romans did not share the Hellenistic view of Odysseus as a warrior-king whose cunning was born of occasional and justifiable compromise with exigent circumstance. For them, he was dirus Ulixes, which means “Ulysses, the cruel and deceitful”. In theory, the Romans preferred the angry and direct Achilles to the crafty Odysseus/Ulysses.
I find that ironic, because the Romans in practice were far more observant of the Odyssean model of the compromised journeyman than they were of the damn the torpedoes style of Achilles. The Romans were crafty—they had to be to maintain an empire that far-flung for a thousand years. To do it, they were heavily reliant upon the centurion, a man possessed of true Odyssean cunning.
The rank system of the ancient Romans and modern western armies don’t quite match up, but a centurion was the rough equivalent to a captain or major in the American infantry. A centurion commanded a century within a legion, which was generally about eighty men, for whom (together with their families) he was completely responsible.
Unlike higher officers in the Roman Army, centurions were promoted from the ranks of the common soldier. They had to be at least thirty, literate and experienced. Most importantly, they had to have demonstrative leadership skills.
In De Re Militari (the fundamental manual of Roman military doctrine and strategy), Vegetius describes these qualifications succinctly:
The centurion in the infantry is chosen for his size, strength and dexterity in throwing his missile weapons and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield; in short for his expertness in all the exercises. He is to be vigilant, temperate, active and readier to execute the orders he receives than to talk; Strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers, in obliging them to appear clean and well-dressed and to have their weapons constantly rubbed and bright.
What Vegetius doesn’t say is that, like Odysseus, the centurion also had to be a cunning advocate of the best interests of family, his men, and his men’s families—even if that advocacy was not completely consistent with the national interest or the advancement of his own career. To be and do all that, the centurion had no choice but to compromise his journey.
Two illustrations of centurion compromise can be found in the New Testament. In the books of Matthew and Luke, a centurion in Capernaum approaches Christ to seek help for his dying servant. He is vouched for by the local Jewish leaders whose synagogue he had helped develop. In the book of Acts, it was a centurion to whom Peter was sent to receive the revelation that the Gentiles (not just the Jews) were to receive salvation through Christ. Afterwards, the man converts his entire household to Christianity.
These were not the type of activities that were within the remit of a centurion stationed in Judea during the reign of Cesear Augustus. The centurion’s job was to keep order amongst the unruly Jews so that the river of tax payments flowed unimpeded into the imperial coffers. Supporting their synagogues and seeking out their religious leaders for theological enlightenment was neither required nor consistent with that effort. In fact, it would likely have gotten them in trouble with their bosses. But they did it anyway—because they viewed them as necessary compromises.
It was through its cadre of centurions that the Roman Empire projected power and maintained order throughout its distant provinces. And yet, these men were not mere tools of the state. Loyal citizens of Rome that they were, they were also able to act independently, exert agency and make their own choices when faced with competing interests. Although they served at the pleasure of the emperor, they were subservient to a higher calling—something that would might cost them their career or life were it to become known. To pull that off, a man would have to possess the cunning of Odysseus and the capacity to compromise and persevere.
Like the centurions of ancient Rome, the Minivan Centurion is also a man on a compromised adventure who must survive on cunning to stay in the fight amidst the gathering storm.
On that score, nothing much has changed in two millennia.