Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Honor in Homer's The Iliad

As I mentioned in my post on Monday, The Iliad begins when military commander Agamemnon takes Achilles' slave woman to be his own companion. Achilles flies into a rage and refuses to continue fighting in the battles against Troy.  Reading The Iliad with the eyes of a modern person, Achilles' action makes him seem childish or petty, sulking in his tent and being quite the drama queen. But Homer intended for his readers to take away a deeper message.

In order to understand the why Achilles got so angry, it is necessary to understand a little about ancient Greek culture.  Greek military society revolved around the polar concepts of honor and shame.  Men were taught to value their position in society and to make sure that they did nothing that would bring on the condemnation of others.  In our modern culture, we tend to emphasize the more internal emotions of pride and guilt, but the Greeks believed that what other people said about you was an indication of your true worth.  If one's honor is impugned, one's entire identity can be lost.

Briseis, the slave woman, was an honor-reward for Achilles--a prize meant to express Agamemnon's approval of the young soldier's heroism in war.  Removing her from his tent was seen by Achilles as an act meant to shame him.

In the case of Achilles, the story gets even more complex.  He knew that his great prowess as a soldier meant that he was fated to die in war.  The gods had promised that his death would be rewarded with fame and honor that would last through the generations.  Achilles fought because this bargain was his fate, not out of patriotic commitment.  When  Agamemnon retracts the reward Achilles has been given, the young soldier sees that the divine bargain has broken down.  Since he is not receiving the honor, he believes he should not have to die.  In other words, Achilles refuses to fight not because he doesn't like being insulted but because his entire reason to fight in the first place has just been removed.

The Greek military prized a hierarchical system of command that did not allow subordinates to challenge those in charge.  Achilles felt he had the right to stand up in opposition to his commander--that is, to be insubordinate--only because he felt that Agamemnon had violated proper adherence to the system of honor-rewards ingrained in the culture.

Achilles begins to transcend this rage only by rejecting the system of honor and shame that lay at the heart of Ancient Greece.  After the death of his beloved friend Patroclus, Achilles reenters the war against the Trojans--this time for vengeance rather than for honor.  He is no longer acting out of a willingness to follow the dictates of fate.  He is no longer acting out of a desire to be a hero. Achilles picks up his shield because his heart is broken.  He feels guilt for not protecting Patroclus, his Myrmidons, and all of the Greeks.  Although as a pacifist I am horrified by the violent anger of Achilles, I am nonetheless moved to tears by this reconnection to community, to connection, to his human self.


  1. This article makes a great deal of sense over something that doesn't make any sense at all within our modern day thinking. I've always disliked Achilles because I saw him as nothing but, as you put it, a drama queen! But, as you say, honour, in our day, does have a different connotation to the days of the ancient Greeks. I was reminded of A Few Good Men, the movie, where at the end the character Tom Criuse plays, tells the cadets who have just been stripped off their uniform with no honour, that they don't need a medal to be honourable or be considered men of honour...

  2. On a grander scale, the whole of the Trojan War and the carnage that ensued was caused by the shame of Menelaus when Paris steals away his bride, Helen. The whole expedition was an attempt to expiate the shame and recover his perceived honour.

    There is another similar confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles at Aulis, when Agamemnon decides to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to appease Artemis and lures Iphigenia to Aulis on the pretext that she is to marry Achilles. Again, Agamemnon agrees to sacrifice his daughter to preserve his honour as Greek commander and Achilles is enraged at being used as a pawn by Agamemnon.

  3. Risa: Fascinating how different things are, isn't it? The vestigages of the honor system are everywhere, perhaps most prominant in the military. I've never seen the movie, but it sounds here like it explores the line between the two systems. Thanks for bringing it up!

    Falaise: How cool. Yes, the fact that the Paris/Helen honor story is the reason for the battles may be why Achilles seems to be so uninvested in the war. If it were about state safety of something, thing might be quite different.

  4. Yes, this makes sense - I remember most vividly the dreadful scenes of Hector being dishonored.... Powerful stuff arousing very complex emotions in modern day society. Although that being said, shame remains a huge vexed issue in the West - it's the prime weapon of the media, and yet considered almost too harsh to be used by parents on children.

  5. Great post. With this information in mind, I think that I would greater appreciate the work. You've inspired me to bump it up on my reading list.


    P.S. I nearly bought Gilgamesh after reading all your posts on the Epic. The book was tattered, otherwise it would be at home now. I wouldn't have even saw it if not for your great posts. Keep it up.

  6. litlove: The whole Hector story is so sad! I'll be talking about that soon. And yes, I'm afraid you are right about shame--especially when it comes to children. It is true for a great deal of mainstream parents in the States. And I was just hearing something about the Tiger Mother book--and it sounds like honor and shame are at the core. (Haven't read the book and the author may be saying something very different, but this is the way it is being portrayed in a lot of media.)

    EI: You could give me no greater compliment. I hope you'll read these books and enjoy them as much as I have. (Do try to get a translation of each that you like!)

  7. Thank you again for a fascinating post.

    While in college, I read excerpts of the Iliad for a political philosophy course. The focus in class was on the honor culture of ancient Greece.

    I was also (at the time) reading a book on the history of the American South by the historian C. Vann Woodward. I started to notice many parallels between the Iliad and the honor culture of the Old South as described by Woodward. I suppose the comparison isn't so startling, but at the time I was quite amazed at the realization.

    That's one of the reasons I was hooked a couple of years later by Fadiman's idea of the 'great conversation' (although I wouldn't limit it to Western literature, as he did).


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