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.