Honour in 'The Iliad' Essay

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When looking at the similarities between all of the great Greek characters, one stands out the most, the idea of honor and glory. During this period, these heroes were viewed as celebrities in their society, where they were forced to live life with honor and glory. This great idea of honor and glory is what caused an epic war where many men would die and would change the way we see this idea now. The goal of the Greeks in this war was to gain fame that would last an eternity and would not let anything or anyone stop them from this. Every step taken in this war was not done so without the thought of the honor of that one person and their kinship. Even though there was a war between two opposing enemies, there was one goal in mind between both, to strive for honor and glory.

When looking at the motivations of the various heroes in Homer’s Iliad, you must first understand the idea of honor and glory. For an individual to gain glory, one must commit multiple actions that were seen as heroic among their peers. These actions are mainly seen in different battle settings. Honor was seen very similarly to the public but is very different compared to glory for the person. One man keeps account of his honor, whether or not this was the same as the honor that the outside public was seeing. The honor was not only gained through heroic actions within a battle but multiple other ways as well. The other ways were through leadership, such as making rallying speeches, being loyal to your men, and having other noble qualities. By gaining honor and glory, one would gain many other social privileges, such as just gaining outright influence amongst their people. This is shown in the Iliad during an argument over whether or not the Greeks should retreat. Thersites, a common man who was not known in the Greek army, advised Odysseus to have the army retreat. He was met with a reply by Odysseus, who was a known fighter in the army, saying that it is “disgraceful to wait long and at the end go home empty-handed” (Homer 2.297). This response was met with much pleasure among the Greek people opposed to the suggestion by Thersites. The power that Odysseus has because of his battle successes is shown here because his idea of not retreating was met with a much more positive response than the advice Thersites gave. This shows that the amount of respect and influence increases with the amount of honor and glory one has attained.

In ancient Greek culture, social status was not a fixed system, this made gaining honor and glory very important. Although having a high social status was associated with the amount of power one has, it did not fully determine it. Ordinary men could raise their status in society by great amounts by accomplishing heroic actions which would acquire them more honor and glory. This ability to gain power is shown in one of the biggest scenes in the play when Achilleus disobeys Agamemnon and chooses to not fight in the war because Agamemnon took his prize away. Also seen throughout the Iliad are groups of respected fighters making the decisions in the war as opposed to the leader, such as Agamemnon, of the respective army. This is shown in book nine when the Greeks have been pushed back to their ships by the Trojans. Agamemnon called a group of the army’s leaders together and said they should “run away with our ships” before they lose any more men (Homer 9.27). But, this proposal was rejected by the group and Diomedes went on the state, “If in truth your own heart is so set upon going, go… yet the rest of the flowing-heart Achaians will stay here until we have sacked the city of Troy”(Homer 9.42). This shows that Agamemnon’s role as the leader can easily be stripped and given to another respected individual. This means that one’s status could be taken away at any moment so it made it even more important to maintain honor and to continue to gain more honor.

To gain honor and glory is much more complicated than it seems because there are so many ways to obtain more and there are many different views on what constitutes an honorable action. The main method that is shown in the Iliad is bravery and success in battle. Hektor and Achilleus are said to be great fighters, some of the best, and they can affect a battle by themselves. So when Achilleus decided to not participate in the fighting after being disrespected by Agamemnon, this had a great effect on the war. It even caused the Greek army to believe they were going to lose. Hektor, who was seen as the bravest fighter ever for the Trojans, also showed tremendous bravery and will to fight by constantly wanting to participate in the fighting even though his job as leader of the Trojans drew him to the city for various tasks (Homer Book 6). However, his brother Paris, who was the cause of the war, had to be forced to go fight in the battle which was shown to hurt his status, and very shameful things were said about him.

Another show of status was what goods you possessed. But, not only was what goods you had important, but what goods you could give was even more important. This was shown during the funeral games that were held for Patroclus (Homer Book 23). This event did not just honor the winners of the war and Patroclus, but also Achilleus who did not spare any expense when choosing the prizes. Along with the possession of goods, the possession of women was also crucial to a man’s status. This show of status is what caused the war, because Paris, brother of Hektor, stole Helen from Menelaus, striking a huge blow to his honor. Menelaus happened to be the brother of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, who would attempt to forcefully take Helen back from Paris and bring respect back to Menelaus. In this situation, many people chose to sympathize with Menelaus, especially the Greeks, who agreed to help win her back. The theft of Helen from Menelaus is what allowed the war to happen, and the war would only intensify when Achilleus’ significant other was taken by Agamemnon to be given back to her family, causing Achilleus to sit out of the war.

The Greeks also had small ways of showing their status besides these personal and physical shows of honor. Society in many of Homer’s writings was very much based around a community, which is shown in the group rule that is shown throughout this war. However, this system sometimes goes against the individual interests of many of the characters. Through the Iliad, there are a variety of examples where options where one’s honor was chosen over what was best for the group. The obvious main example is when Menelaus and Agamemnon chose to start a war over their problem, which cost a plentitude of lives. Also, there were many times when the option of retreating from the battle or just giving up was brought up, but the ideas were shot down after being deemed cowardly and then the fight continued.

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One of the main plots throughout the war was the struggle between two of the most powerful men in Greece, Agamemnon and Achilles, who both tried to keep their honor intact to the public. Achilleus called out Agamemnon, on his thought that his honor was more important than that of his army, by saying “wrapped in shamelessness, with your mind forever on profit” (Homer 1.149). Also, both of these men view their women as a sign of high status, but the idea of giving this symbol up for the army does not cross either of their minds. Many of the other respected men, such as Odysseus, try to persuade Agamemnon to return his prize, his woman, but he thinks he is being treated cheaply. But in the end, he agrees to return her. In this case, what was best for the army outweighed his interest and honor. But Achilleus feels as if he was treated even worse than Agamemnon in this situation. He goes on to decide to not participate in the battle and says, “I am minded no longer to stay here dishonored and pile up your wealth and luxury” (Homer 1.170). In this situation, Achilleus decides to preserve his honor even though he could have gained much more public honor if he had stayed in the battle.

Another version of honor that is present in the Iliad is that of family honor. This is placed in between personal and community honor but is seen as most similar to community honor. An example of this is when Menelaus asks for help from his brother, Agamemnon, in retrieving Helen from the Trojans. Not only does he call upon his family, but also the whole Greek community, who indeed join in and fight. Not every family member has the same viewpoints, just like that in a community, and this may cause issues in deciding what to do in any situation. This happens to Patroclus and Achilleus, who although are not brothers, grew up as if they were brothers. When Achilleus chose to sit out of the battle, many of the people did not like this decision, however, Patroclus was able to respect his decision, even though it did not coincide with his ideals. Patroclus decides to fight in the fight for his honor, and Achilleus shows his respect and support for this by letting Patroclus don his armor, intimidating the Trojan forces.

The relationship between Paris and Hektor shown in the Iliad provides another view into family honor. Paris is shown to be a bit of a coward, almost hiding from the fight. This is very ironic however because Paris stole Helen from Sparta, sparking this war. This brings great dishonor to his family because of these cowardly actions. This is unfortunate for his brother, Hektor, who is seen as a very honorable and respected man in his community. It was said in the epic, “learned to be valiant and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans, winning for my own self great glory, and for my father” (Homer 6.444). The entirety of Hektor’s importance in the city was shown after his death when the whole city and even the gods mourned his passing. Even though he created a great name for himself and acquired much honor, he is still ashamed of his brother's weak actions and for the dishonor he brings their family. Hektor went on the scold and force Paris to join the battle so the harm to their family name would stop.

An individual's honor does not stop after they die, their story and impact would continue through death. This is shown through the retrieval and burials of both Hektor and Patroclus, two well-respected and honorable men. The loved ones of these two, Achilleus and Priam, went through a difficult journal to get back the bodies of both men. Achilleus took a great risk in saving Patroclus’ body, where he could have died. He shows his love for Patroclus and the respect that he deserves because Achilleus initially did not fight in the battle after he felt he was disrespected by Agamemnon, but chose the honor that Patroclus had earned to be an important enough token to go back into battle and retrieve his body and avenge his death. He also promises to kill Hektor, who killed Patroclus, and to mutilate the Prince’s body even though Hektor offered various gifts during his dying moments to have his own body returned to Troy (Homer 22.338). But, Achilleus refused to return the body and went on to commit a “shameful treatment for glorious Hektor” (Homer 22.395). This mutilation of Hektor’s body was Achilleus trying to dishonor the fallen Trojan hero.

In a very similar fashion, Priam, Hektor’s father, went to retrieve Hektor’s body. He would beg Achilleus for the return of his son’s body, saying “I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children” (Homer 24.505). This shows how death does not end one’s honor that he had obtained in his lifetime. Priam begs for the body with thoughts of his own family’s honor, so feels no shame in doing so. This was viewed as very honorable at this time.

The idea of honor and glory were at the forefront of Greek culture at the time of the Iliad, because everyone realized that it did not stop once you were dead, your legacy would carry forever. This caused the goal of great honor to be the motivation for all Greek people, and they would protect that honor at all costs. Great honor was the goal in life for everyone in this period and in the Iliad.

Works Cited

    1. Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press, 2011. 

 

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