Homeric restitution

I spent much of the weekend listening to The Iliad, which I’m enjoying immensely. I had recently read that Homer’s epic is appreciated not just as a work of literature but also as a set of clues for historians. The story is filled with details about the culture of prehistoric Greece — if not the culture of Agamemnon and company, then at least the culture of Home and his audience a few centuries later. One such detail is something I’m surprised I’ve never heard any libertarians mention (by which I mean radical libertarians who are better read and more educated than I am): Agamemnon has insulted Achilles and Achilles has withdrawn from the war in protest. (I’d describe Agamemnon’s offense as theft, but that would require acknowledging property rights in other human beings: the warlord Agamemnon “steals” the sex slave of his best warrior, Achilles.)

Ajax and Achilles

The war goes very badly while Achilles is on strike, and Agamemnon relents, recants, says mea culpa, and offers Achilles very generous restitution, including the return of “the girl” whom Agamemnon swears he never touched, and a boat load of gold — literally, Achilles can fill his ship with as much gold as it can carry. Agamemnon sends Achilles’s most beloved comrades to deliver the apologies and give the details of what is, in essence, a verbal contract for the two warriors to forgive each other. Achilles tells his friends just where Agamemnon can stick his boat load.

At this point, Ajax scolds Achilles for being unreasonable:

Ajax son of Telamon then said, “Ulysses, noble son of Laertes, let us be gone, for I see that our journey is vain. We must now take our answer, unwelcome though it be, to the Danaans who are waiting to receive it. Achilles is savage and remorseless; he is cruel, and cares nothing for the love his comrades lavished upon him more than on all the others. He is implacable — and yet if a man’s brother or son has been slain he will accept a fine by way of amends from him that killed him, and the wrong-doer having paid in full remains in peace among his own people; but as for you, Achilles, the gods have put a wicked unforgiving spirit in your heart, and this, all about one single girl…

There is is, stated quite starkly: murder wasn’t a crime against the king or the state; it was a crime against the murder victim and his family; once restitution was paid, that settled the matter.

I figured someone has to have written about this, but I’ve only found one brief mention so far, and I found it at StephanKinsella.com/texts (thanks, Kinsella!):

  • Schafer, Dr. Stephen, Restitution to Victims of Crime, 1960 (selected chapters)Download PDF


…neither the adherents of restitution nor its opponents can be indifferent to the fact that restitution to victims of crime is an ancient institution, has had an established position in the history of penology, and for a long period was almost inseparably attached to the institution of punishment.

The historical origin of restitution, in a proper sense, the so-called system of “composition,” lies in the Middle Ages, and can mainly be found in the Germanic common laws.

Earlier sources do not offer clear information. There are some sporadic references. The death fine in Greece is referred to more than once in Homer; thus, in the 9th Book of the Iliad, Ajax, in reproaching Achilles for not accepting the offer of reparation made to him by Agamemnon, reminds him that even a brother’s death may be appeased by a pecuniary fine, and that the murderer, having paid the fine, may remain at home, free among his own people.

Having examples in famous literature strikes me as far more helpful to us than assertions about little-known tribal law among ancient Celts and Vikings, or even recent Indonesians.

Does anyone have any other examples?


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