Achaeans of Homer as a society with a certain set of values
“Rage: Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage, / Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks / Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls / Of heroes into Hades’ dark, / And left their bodies to rot as feasts / For dogs and birds” (1.1-6) This opening line of The Iliad vividly recounts the atrocities that Achilles, supposedly “the best Greek of all,” brings upon his own people through his childish rage and selfish indifference (1.259). As a representative of his people, a hero is supposed to embody the values most important to his civilization. This characterization is not initially true of Achilles. An analysis of the most influential Achaean ideals reveals that Achilles does not consistently and flawlessly model the values esteemed by his peers, but his ability to mature emotionally and morally secures for him the title of best of Achaeans.
Summarizing the value system of a complex civilization into a few basic ideas presents immediate problems, especially when the ideology of the civilization is presented through a literary medium such as The Iliad. Despite this complexity, the search for kleos—honor, fame, glory—serves as the inherent basis for the Achaean value system of the army at Troy. Specifically defining kleos and the actions that warrant it is difficult because of the frequency with which the ideal is evoked. However, the aspiration to embody the ideal of kleos is often sought on the battlefield through agathos actions. To many Achaeans, exhibiting bravery, even to the point of death, is the greatest way to earn kleos. “When a young man is killed in war, / Even though his body is slashed with bronze, / He lies there beautiful in death, noble” (22.80-82). While the plot of the epic centers around, to modern readers, brutally graphic battle sequences, this sense of noble bravery undeniably colors the warriors actions. Warriors commonly choose to evaluate how their actions will be viewed by later generations. Hector, while obviously not a member of the Greek army, shares this value and summarizes it thusly:
[S]omeone in the generations yet to come
Will say as he sails by on the darkening sea,
‘That is the tomb of a man long dead,
Killed in his prime by glorious Hector.’
Some will say that, and my fame will not die. (7.90-94)
In the original Greek text, Hector’s thought is expressed using the word kleos. Hector believes that the noble bravery he exhibits through challenging the best of the Achaean army will make his kleos everlasting among men.
In the minds of the Achaean warriors, bravery on the battlefield is indistinguishable from moral uprightness; Both qualities contribute to kleos . Therefore, the necessity to be sophos—wise and clever—is conveniently intertwined within the greater idea of kleos on the battlefield. While the ability to triumph at battles requiring only brute strength is highly prized, so too is the ability to succeed through cunning when the situation is unfavorable. Nestor, while speaking with his son about the upcoming chariot race, proclaims plainly that “[s]trategy makes a better woodcutter than strength” (23.339). Beyond the idea of being merely wise in counsel and clever in races or on the battlefield, the sophos ideal extends partially into the realm of relationships. Briseis, a Trojan women taken captive after the sacking of her city, refers to her “poor Patroclus” as someone who was quite “dear” to her (19.335). This aspect of the sophos ideal places marked importance on winning over the hearts and minds of captured women through wise advice and pleasurable companionship, not simply holding them by force.
Most interpersonal interactions, however, are governed by the powerful philos ideal. It is expected that true warrior heroes maintain loyalty to their family and friends, be that by making their fathers proud, avenging the death of a close companion, or showing family devotion. Various relationships are governed under this principle, but the most important one is undeniably that between father and son. Great heroes are commonly introduced, not simply by their own name, but also by that of their father. Even the great Achilles is remembered as the “son of Peleus,” despite his own personal achievements (1.335). Other relationships, specifically that between husband and wife, are significant but of secondary importance. This philos ideal is inextricably intertwined within the concept of bravery and noble behavior that is already expected of any hero.
While these highly ingrained values clearly govern the actions of heroic Achaeans, respect for the gods and fate plays an important role in Greek society. Finding it unnecessary to offer sacrifices to the gods on Olympus, or even simply forgetting, often leads to the negative interference of certain deities at crucial moments. During an archery contest against Teucer, Meriones fails because of Apollo’s displeasure. “He let fly an arrow, a strong shot, / But he failed to vow to the Archer / A sacrifice of a hundred firstling lambs. So he missed the bird—Apollo grudged him that” (23.88-91). Teucer, more cognizant of the respect demanded by the gods, promises the sacrifice and hits the target that Meriones missed.
An unrelated but equally important concept is that of xenia—the sacred relationship between guest and host—that serves as the true cause of the Trojan War. This sacred trust, the Achaeans believe, is protected by Zeus. Paris’ utter disregard for Menelaus’ hospitality, as evidenced by his affair and subsequent flight with Helen, his host’s wife, sparks the epic ten year war between the Achaeans and the Trojans. The power of this ideal is demonstrated by Diomedes’ declaration during his confrontation on the battlefield with Glaucus.
We have old ties of hospitality!
My grandfather Oeneus long ago
Entertained Bellerophon in his halls
For twenty days, and they gave each other
Gifts of friendship…
So we can’t cross spears with each other
Even in the thick of battle. (6.221-225, 234-235)
From this exchange, it is evident that the relationship between host and guest is enough to prevent a skirmish between two opposing men, even when the tie is several generations in the past.
To expect one character to embody and emulate the entire value system of the Achaeans is unrealistic, especially if the character is required to do so consistently and without fail. Achilles begins the epic feuding with Agamemnon over his war prize Briseis, a confrontation that leads to Achilles’ disastrous withdrawal from battle. This ultimate act of selfishness, as well as smaller examples of moral transgression, portrays Achilles to be little better than an uncivilized warrior. However, the death of his good friend and foster brother, Patroclus, sparks a radical transformation within Achilles. When he is first informed of the death, his reaction is uncontrollable; “the sound of Achilles’ grief stung the air” (18.38). This emotional demonstration of the philos ideal sets into motion many other changes that allow Achilles to transform into a true representation of Greek culture. “My friend is dead, / Patroclus, my dearest friend of all. I loved him, / And I killed him” (18.84-86). Accepting responsibility for the death allows Achilles to overcome his petty argument with Agamemnon and return to the battlefield to seek kleos, not only for himself, but also to memorialize Patroclus. Achilles seeks out battle knowing that his own death is imminent, proof of his newly formed, or at least revived, agathos tendencies. That he fights valiantly, even against the great Hector, is to be expected of a warrior like Achilles. However, the wisdom shown by Achilles during the funeral games held in honor of Patroclus is unexpected. During the chariot race, Achilles initially proclaims his desire to award the skilled but unlucky last place finisher with the prize for second place. Antilochus, the true second place finisher, begrudges the prize that Achilles is “going to rob” from him (23.560). Instead of demanding that his decision is enforced, Achilles has the wisdom to revise his previous decree and choose a different prize for the last place finisher.
Achilles’ final maturation occurs when he releases Hector’s body to his father, Priam, after being prompted by the gods and persuaded by Priam’s emotional rhetoric. “My Hector. It is for him I have come to the Greek ships…Respect the gods, Achilles. / Think of your own father, and pity me” (24. 537, 539-540). This appeal to Achilles’ philos tendencies as well as his respect for the gods easily persuades him to relinquish the body of Hector. The ability of Achilles to empathize with Priam, so similar to his father, is a drastic reversal of his original attitude when, thinking only of himself, he chose not to join the other Achaean troops fighting against the Trojans. Compounding this outpouring of compassion is the fact that Achilles, unasked, offers to “hold back the army” until Priam and the other Trojans have had enough time to mourn their Hector (24.708). This noble concern for the man who killed his closest friend, although not immediately forthcoming, reflects, symbolically, the greater catechism of Achaean values.
While the intent of The Iliad is not to extol the unerring virtue of Achilles, his demonstrated ability to mature and develop morally distinguishes him from other prominent, static characters. Initially Achilles is far from embodying the lofty sophos, philos, and agathos ideals that govern the model Achaean warrior’s quest for kleos. Though his early decisions do not reflect the values lauded by his Achaean peers, time and reflection align his actions with those of a great hero.
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