Greek Literature carries some of the most influential messages and lessons of any grouping of writing in history: The Iliad, an epic poem, and Medea, a Greek tragedy, supply examples of literature that do so. The Iliad, written by the infamous Homer, tells a story centered around the gods, mortals, and war, set in the Trojan war. Through its ongoing depiction of the disputes between Agamemnon and Achilles, the poem carries messages of fate, love, mortality, forgiveness, and more. Additionally, the Greek tragedy, Medea, written by Euripides’ was a play that carried revolutionary and progressive pro-female attitudes. The plot follows Medea and her reaction to discovering her husband’s disloyalty. This play also carries strong messages of femininity, revenge, and betrayal. Both The Iliad and Medea illustrate themes of honor, justice, and revenge, which can be traced throughout their plots; however, those in The Iliad are more driven by honor and the afterlife, while in Medea they are driven by a desire for vengeance and validation.
In ancient Greece, honor was far more than just a virtue or trait: it defined the lives of individuals and deemed them respect, privilege, and status. Through comparison of The Iliad and Medea, this is clearly evident, as honor is often the main force that drives the actions of individuals. In The Iliad, the ongoing dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles demonstrates the strength of honor on one’s decision making. Agamemnon takes the woman that was gifted to Achilles, Briseis, which begins this feud, as it was seen as extremely disrespectful to Achilles that Agamemnon had taken his “prize”. The epic reads: “I will be there in person at your tents / to take Briseis in all of her beauty, your own prize- / so you can learn how much greater I am than you” (Homer 1.217-219). By attesting that this was a plea to demonstrate his greatness, Agamemnon takes a stab at Achilles honor and practically strips him of it in public. This brings the wrath of Achilles to the forefront of the plot. This event leads to Achilles leaving the army and refusing to fight for the Achaeans, Zeus getting involved, and much more. Both of these men were attempting to maintain their egos and the honor that comes with doing so. Agamemnon was not known as a very strong leader to his army, while Achilles was known as one of the greatest fighters, thus there was bound to be tension between the two. The fact that this decision to take Briseis from Achilles was made shows that honor has the power to completely dry the actions of an individual in Greek culture, or at least that of The Iliad. Honor is also a theme within Euripides’ Medea but in a slightly different form. The theme of honor shines through as more of an expression of feminism and empowerment, as Medea is a female character. The plot revolves around Medea and her quest for justice and revenge, yet there are tones of honor throughout. A lot of what Medea does is motivated by proving that men are no stronger than women both physically and mentally. Often times throughout the play the Chorus acts as a medium for these messages to be passed along. At one point, the chorus says, “Men’s minds are deceitful, and nothing is settled, not even oaths that are sworn by the gods. The tidings will change, and a virtuous reputation will grace my name. The race of women will reap honor, no longer the shame of disgraceful rumor” (Euripides 422-426). This can be seen as a borderline expression of an early feminist revolution, as far as it was concerned in Greek culture. Knowing the climate of society at this time, this would have carried many implications as a written act. Women mostly had power in Greek society through their husbands, and with that in mind, this commentary is immensely suggestive about Medea’s motivations to prove that women can be powerful too. This play was revolutionary with its views of females in society, although the plot is questionable in its expression of Medea’s sanity. These two examples of Honor — both Agamemnon and Achilles feud, as well as Medea’s expression of her motivation — shows that honor was a prevalent motivator of individuals in ancient Greece; however, these two examples do have their differences. In The Iliad, the feud is strongly motivated by honor in pertinence to recognition and reputation, as those were seen as extremely valuable in view of an afterlife. On the other hand, Medea carries connotations of feminism and female empowerment, as Medea felt strongly that she needed to defend herself against her unloyal husband. Overall, the impact of honor on these plots suggests that it was so important in a culture that it had the power to drive these conflicts, although they are manifested in different ways.
Likewise, the theme of justice and the quest for it was important to the plot of both of these plots, but unlike the acts of honor, the theme of justice is more congruous between the two. The epic of The Iliad is filled with examples of justice, following numerous characters’ quests for achieving it. One of the most influential instances of this was in Book 22 when Achilles kills Hector. Hector had killed Patroclus, Achilles’ cousin, and some would argue his lover too. From the death scene of Hector, Achilles says, “I smashed your strength! And you — the dogs and bird will maul you, shame your corpse while Achaeans bury my dear friend in glory!” then later, says, “Would to God my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat it raw … not even then will your noble mother lay you on your deathbed, mourn the son she bore” (Homer 22.408-416). The way that Achilles speaks to Hector on his deathbed shows that this was his vision of serving justice. Achilles continues to tell Hector that he would never die a hero, which was an extremely important part of the afterlife in Greek culture. Hector begs Achilles for a true burial, but Achilles refuses, proving how he believed that this was how Hector was to be served justice. However, we see that Achilles is overcome with emotion and begins to shave the border between justice and revenge, which is also seen within Medea. Achilles tells Hector that it was foolish to think that nobody would attempt to serve justice in the killing of Patroclus. Achilles finds final justice in defiling the corpse of Hector by sending him off in a chariot. The epic also shows other examples of searching for justice through instances like Zeus seeking vengeance on Odysseus’ men for killing the sun-god’s cows and others. Similarly, the plot of Medea is riddled with examples of justice in practice, the most prevalent one being the overall decision of Medea to seek vengeance on Jason. The plot of this play revolves around violations of natural law, in this case, Jason’s disloyalty and Medea’s decision to kill her own children. Medea searches for justice both to Jason, to seek vengeance for his actions, as well as justice for women as discussed previously. When Medea makes the decision to seek justice for the wrongdoings of Jason, she says, “If I should find some way, some strategy to pay my husband back, bring him to justice, keep silent. Most of the time, I know, a woman is filled with fear. She’s worthless in a battle and flinches at the sight of steel. But when she’s faced with an injustice in the bedroom, there is no other mind more murderous” (Euripides 265-271). Medea states that she plans to “bring him [Jason] to justice,” then proceeds to discuss how women are marginalized in Greek society, but empowers herself with the thought of her husband’s disloyalty. Justice is the driving force in her actions, as he has wronged her, and she wants to do him right for his actions. However, some may argue that in her quest for justice, she is overwhelmed by emotions of revenge. Jason has wronged Medea in ways that do call for justice; however, the way that Medea handles the search for justice was unlawful, and evidently she violates natural law herself. Medea is also inspired by the abusive treatment she receives from Jason, which justifies the need for justice even more. Jason says the following to Medea: “You hateful thing, O woman most detested by the gods, by me, by all mankind … I wish you would die … you’re a plague, betrayer of your father … You ruined me. You’re not a woman; you’re a lion, with a nature more wild than Scylla’s, the Etruscan freak… Get out of here, you filth, you child-murderer. For me, all that’s left is tears for my misfortune. I’ll never have the joy of my bride’s bed, nor will I ever again speak to my children, my children, whom I raised. And now I’ve lost them” (Euripides 1369-1398).
This example exhibits multiple topics for discussion: Jason was abusive to Medea, and Medea was successful hi hurting Jason. He says that he was “ruined” by her and that all that was left were his “tears of misfortune.” Thus Medea was successful in serving Jason with the suffering that she believed would bring justice to the situation. Additionally, the abusive manner that Jason speaks to her with, calling her “hateful,” “a plague,” and “filth.” This language supports the actions of Medea in her attempts to find justice; however, they can also be seen as border lined with revenge, rather than justice, which would be an attempt to make things right. In comparing the epic and the play, the situations are basically the same. Justice becomes entangled with revenge, and the search to right someone’s wrongs becomes a test of getting back at said person. Both The Iliad and Medea show how this is true through these examples of justice portrayal.
As discussed, revenge in these Greek stories becomes entangled with the idea of Justice, and this happens in both The Iliad and Medea. In The Iliad, revenge is motivated by upholding honor and pride, while in Medea it is more motivated by love and pure vengeance. In The Iliad, strong leaders like Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus treated revenge as a necessity, as it was the most direct way to gain back their honor and pride when it was taken from them. We see the motivation of revenge through the rage of Achilles when Briseis is taken from him. Achilles says: “Never again, I trust, will Achilles yield to you. And I tell you this- take it to heart, I warn you my hands will never do battle for that girl, neither with you, king, nor any man alive. You Achaeans gave her, now you’ve snatched her back. But all the rest I possess beside my fast black ship not one bit of it can you seize against my will, Atrides. Come, try it! So the men can see that instant, your black blood gush, and spurt around my spear!’ (Homer 1.347-355).
The second that a prize of honor is taken from Achilles, he begins to defend himself aggressively. He threatened Agamemnon for taking her from him, saying his blood will “spurt around [his] spear,” and that he will never “yield” to him again. He immediately moves towards violence, as it is the simplest form of revenge. Achilles is attempting to defend his honor, and this is seen similarly through Medea’s attempts to defend her honor as a woman and a respectable wife. Medea plans to take the lives of her own children in order to cause pain to Jason, as she believes that it would be sufficient revenge or justice. Medea has the following interaction with the chorus: “Chorus: ‘Will you have the nerve to kill your children?’ Medea: ‘Yes: to wound my husband the most deeply’” (Euripides 839-840). This demonstrates Medeas relentless desire to cause pain to Jason, and evidently gain revenge for what he has done to her. Revenge is the driving force for everything that Medea does, as her desire for revenge takes over her life. She also says that killing her children is “the supreme way to hurt [her] husband,” which further demonstrates how her hatred and anger towards Jason is so intense that she would do anything to hurt him back (Euripides 815). Overall, the two Greek stories demonstrate revenge through their characters and the way that they handle conflict. Medea and Achilles suggest that there was a strong entanglement of revenge and justice in Greek culture, as some thought that there was almost an “eye for an eye” motif to everything that was done wrong.
Overall, the themes of honor, justice, and revenge are prevalent in both The Iliad and Medea; however, they contrast in certain areas. Both of the implications of these themes in these stories carry strong suggestions of how Greek society operated. Themes of honor are about the afterlife and reputation in The Iliad, while in Medea it is more about maintaining the honor of women against men. Additionally, the concept of justice is practiced in a similar way through the two works: Achilles seeks to gain justice through killing Hector, and Medea does the same by trying to cause pain to Jason. However, these attempts at Justice certainly get entangled with motivations of revenge. Finally, revenge in Homer’s epic is centered around protecting those ideas of reputation through honor, while in Euripides’ tragedy it is more about protecting those rights and powers of women. Overall, there are consistencies between these two legendary Greek works, as they suggest things about the society of that time period and how situations like this were handles. The values of honor, justice, and revenge clearly play roles in the management of conflict, although they sometimes act in various ways.