Derivation of Iliadic Self-Identity through Heroic Code
Achilles Slays Hector, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-5
Above all, the code followed by Homeric Heroes is to achieve individual honor through fighting for a specific purpose. Their conduct is based on this code and their actions are dictated by what fellow fighters perceive. This is crucial because a hero achieves immortality through discussion and song by others years after his death. Heroic code is so strong that it may not be consistent with the actual values of the time (Long 2). In Homer’s Iliad, the life of a hero would be meaningless without honor and the prospect of becoming a legend (Dunkle). The longing of immortality is extremely desirable to a hero; so much that he would chose to give up his life in the present for the chance to be a part of the future.
Sarpedon (ally of Trojans, from Lycia) describes the heroic code to his comrade Glaukos:
“Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal, I would never fight on the front lines again or command you to the field where men win fame. But now, as it is, the fates of death await us, thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive can flee them or escape – so in we go for attack! Give our enemy glory or win it for ourselves!” (Iliad 12-374)
Battle may not seem like the best choice to many, yet it often seems like the only choice in order for heroes to retain their self-image. When a hero is advised to refrain from battle, the only choice he is left with is to fight (Dunkle). Hector’s wife, Andromache, plead for Hector not to fight anymore. All the men in her family were lost to battle, and she could not bear to lose her husband.
“What other warmth, what comforts left for me, once you’ve met your doom?” (Iliad 6-489)… “Take your stand on the rampart here, before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow?” (Iliad 6-511)
Although Hector loves his family deeply, he is not free to walk away from the war. His fear of unfavorable perception forces him to ignore the pleas of his wife and risk his life for the sake of honor. While fighting is not a guarantee to honor, refusing to fight is a guarantee for shame. He replied the following:
“I would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.” (Iliad 6-523)
No one alive is allowed to escape their own fate, neither brave man nor coward. Fate is born with you the day you are born. This implies that the fate of a hero is to be already dead when he takes the battle field. Thetis, mother of Achilles, also reached out to her son who was fated to die in battle.
“O my son, my sorrow, why did I ever bear you? All I bore was doom… Would to god you could linger by your ships without a grief in the world, without a torment! Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.” (Iliad 1.492)
The internal battle of Achilles of whether or not to fight is continued in book 9 of the Iliad. Achilles played the lyre and sang the famous deeds of fighting heroes. Achilles had to choose between a long simple life, and a short life with a “beautiful” death. When he returned to battle, he was creating the opportunity that he would be a legend, and would thus have songs sung about him in the future.
Achilles’ primary reason to fight was for his own honor, not for the Acheans. His entry back into battle was with great determination and strength, as depicted in the painting Achilles Slays Hector, by Peter. When many Homeric heroes head off into battle, they are fighting for themselves, and the honor of their countries is a secondary concern (Dunkle).
Honor is determined by courage and physical abilities more so than status and riches. The highest degree of honor is won on the battlefield. Hector speaks not of his desire to have his son be noble or intelligent, but to have him grow brave and glorious. He tells that it would be honorable for his son to come home from battle wearing bloody gear.
The stakes heroes fight for are high and failure to win often results in death. Not only must Homeric characters gain honor and respect, they must prevent themselves from being disgraced. Odysseus describes that losing a battle is spoken as being “humiliating” and cowardly.
“Cowards, I know, would quit the fighting now, but the man who wants to make his mark in war must stand his ground and brace for all he’s worth – suffer his wounds or wound his men to death.” (Iliad 11-483)
By fighting courageously, a hero achieves honor with others, resulting in honor for himself. Heroes would feel worthless and cowardly without this esteem. It is essential to the Homeric hero and is chosen above everything else. While battle may not immediately seem like the most desirable option, the chance to be immortal is too sweet for heroes to resist.
Dunkle, Roger. “Homer’s Iliad.”
The Classical Origins of Western Culture. 1986. http://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/netshots/homer/htm
(15 Feb. 2005)
Long, A.A. “Morals and Values in Homer”
The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 90. (1970), pp. 121-139.