The iliad and greek heroes

The Iliad is an epic tale of war and hero’s within the Greek way of life. A
predominant and consistent theme of honor and glory reside throughout the poem. The
motivation for any Homeric Greek is glory, or “Kleos”, that is to be honored and
respected among their people. Emphasis is put on living by the heroic code. Honor is
essential to the Greeks and life would not be worth living without it. When a warrior or
hero is advised to avoid risking their life in battle it almost drives them even further
towards the deed. It is better to be killed in action rather than to live and be thought a
coward. By our rational standards one would certainly not be thought a coward if they
didn’t rush into battle to almost certain death, the Greeks however, live by a different set
of rules, a different set of standards and a different set of goals. The objective of attaining
Kleos was the centerpiece of life. Kleos could only be attained beating your opponent,
it could not be won if it’s offered voluntarily or as a dowry . On the flip side of the
pursuit of glory and respect, is the avoidance of shame and humility for not taking part in
war or not risking your life. To be shamed in life is far, far worse than to be killed in
battle.
A Homeric warrior would be greatly shamed if he were to turn his back on a
battle or confrontation even if he is certain that if he fights, he will die. To you and I, this
seems ridiculous and outright offensive to common sense and logic but such thoughts
didn’t exist in those days, it was all about glory, it was all about respect. If you ran from
battle you might as well keep running because you will be looked upon as a failure, as a
scab, as an embarrassment to the native land and your family. You could be disowned,
you could be exiled, or you can even be killed. It’s unfortunate in fact that such high
standards were placed of the hero’s in this poem. Many great men perished during the
Trojan war because it was not in their wishes to conceive defeat and fall back, they had to
fight to the death, it was the only way. The hero often finds himself in “kill or be killed”
situations where they are fighting their opponents will and desire for glory and their
loathing and unacceptability of shame. When a battle took place, it was one on one. One
hero vs. another, one man and his resume of victories vs. another’s. This is how the
Homeric Greeks kept tallies. To the victor went the spoils, thus they kept their
adversaries’ armor from the battle in a symbolic showing of their great feat. It would be
brought back to the homeland and displayed as a sign of power; this is how Kleos was
attained, and how respect was earned.
To the victor went more than the battle armor. They would regularly take their
pick of the local women to take back with them and “lay in bed together”. This became
one of the centerpieces for the conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon, when a
quarrel arose and Achilleus was asked to allow Briseis, a prize that he won in battle, to go
back to her land. It is common to keep your female prizes as your own; however,
Achilleus felt that his ego was tested when he was asked to return her. This went hand in
hand with the honor factor, it would be shameful for him to oblige and give back what he
rightfully won. After all, she was a symbol of Kleos, by giving her back he was losing
something which he strived so hard to attain. The Greek warrior was very selfish, there
was no sense of community on their foremost mind, and it was about the self and their
status among others. The warrior who was most feared was the warrior that got the most
respect and admirations from the generations that would follow. The poem is after all
about Achilleus, a great warrior that fought hard and attained much glory in doing so.
The shame that one would feel from avoiding battle is evident in many cases
throughout the poem. When Hektor is advised by his own wife not to go to battle he
makes it very clear that its not an option, he cant fathom any deed which may lead to him
being thought a coward or a less than honorable hero. He makes specific mention of the
shame he would feel if he did so” ..yet I would feel deep shame before the Trojans,
and the Trojan women with trailing garments, if like a coward I were to shrink aside from
the fighting..” (Book 6, line 441). The avoidance of shame and the pursuit of Kleos is
what drives these hero’s to battle. Now it’s obvious that these people live by a different
set of ideals and moral truths than we do now. But you have to consider the time and way
of life that was the trend in those ancient times. They didn’t have television, they didn’t
have the internet, it wasn’t like these heroes had day jobs, so they had to fight. For an
every day American the choice between taking your men into battle and invading Canada
or sitting on your couch and watching Seinfeld would seem to be an easy one. It would be
just as easy for the Homeric Greeks, yet it doubt that they would pick the same option.
Call us cowards, but hey, at least you can call us. We don’t risk our lives for random
rewards of glory and respect as the cost of possible death. Our moral obligations lay to
our family and loved ones as opposed to our ego and eternal honor.
However, it may also be possible that the positive reinforcement from such deeds
as the Greeks performed would be far smaller in our contemporary and civilized world
today. Risking your life in battle and toppling a great warrior of the opposition may only
grant you a medal, a commendation from the army and a guest spot on Larry King Live
today. In contrast, the Greeks always remember their hero’s and would respect and honor
that warrior for the rest of their lives. A Homeric hero wins glory by performing great
deeds, the memory of which will outlive him For instance, an athlete in ancient times
would be taken care of and all his basic needs met if he were to win a medal in
competition. Hunting was another way for someone to achieve Kleos, however no
methods were greater and looked upon with more respect than defeating your enemies in
battle. Achilleus felt some shame in letting his good friend Patroclus die in battle while
wearing his armor. He refused to eat or drink and deprived his body of any satisfaction
until he got a chance to avenge his loyal friend’s death. He finally did so by risking his
own life and taking on Hektor in the great individual battle.
Hektor had the chance not to risk orphaning his son, but Hector knew that fighting
among the front ranks represents the only means of winning his father great glory, he
says. Paris, on the other hand, chooses to spend time with Helen rather than fight in the
war; accordingly, Homer and the other characters treat him with less respect and honor.
The characters prize so highly the inherited values of honor, noble bravery, and glory that
they willingly sacrifice the chance to live a long life for the opportunity to attain Kleos
and their desperate desire to avoid Shame. Burial rights are taken especially seriously in
Ancient Greek times, and Hektors family would feel particular shame if he was not to be
taken back to his homeland and cremated properly. They went to great length and
expense to retrieve his body after Achilleus allowed it.
Shame and Kleos ran their lives, and the lives of those around them. These heroes
pledged to a life long ambition to bring honor to themselves and avoid any smearing of
their good name. The moral values were based on this acceptance and the society
adapted. There was nothing more important than these two aspects of life; it was all that
was important, and all that was on the agenda. This is how the Ancient Greeks and
Trojans fought this war; by the very fabric of their lives they would do what they deemed
necessary to satisfy their need for glory. And thus, a select few, till this day have their
name sketched in history books as great warriors, and great men. That is precisely what
they hoped for, and precisely what they got.


To the victor, go the spoils.

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