The Iliad: The Matters of War
Within Homer’s The Iliad, he mirrors the Greek society that existed centuries ago that spun galactic tales of vengeful gods, legendary war heroes, and famous Greek tragedies. Achilles and Hector, are the two main heroes that portray the tragic tale of the Greek society battling the Trojan War. Their characteristics each embody a Greek society that praised and admired war and their heroes. While each encompassed their culture of war they were they were two starkly contrasting types of Greek tragic heroes. Achilles showed characteristics of a brave, brash, and emotional warrior, Hector was a combination of a Greek champion with a kindness that was reflected in his love for his family. Both characters are infamous throughout history and have personified the beliefs and rituals that the Grecian society celebrated.
War within The Iliad was a mirrored representation of what was going on within the Greek society. At the time many wars and battles were being waged in order to conquer more land, riches, and slaves for their empires. Homer’s epic poem is based on the last days of the Trojan War between, King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles. Many of these wars were waged between the Spartans, Athenians, Thebans, and other Greek tribes. The wars were so deeply embedded that the culture bred family development to train the male children at young ages to be warriors. “Forthwith Ajax, son of Telamon, slew the fair youth Simoeisius, son of Anthemion, whom his mother bore by the banks of the Simois, as she was coming down from Mt. Ida, where she had been with her parents to see their flocks.” (Homer 30) The families were taught this as a way of life, as when they were needed their husbands and sons would be called away and may not return. “The wives and daughters of the Trojans came running towards him to ask after their sons, brothers, kinsmen, and husbands…” (Homer 57) The men were trained in combat, swordsmanship, champions, and even savagery. Victor Alonso said it best, “Greek Civilization begins with a great poem celebrating war, the Iliad. This work’s strength and beauty emanate largely from the fact that Homer does not hide the terrible face of the conflict between Achaeans and Trojans.” (Alonso 219) At that time the two were engage in ongoing war, warfare in general has played a consistent and pertinent role in the development of Greek culture.
The militaries and warriors were both idolized and emphasized in Greek stories, artifacts, and other important relics. Warfare was so central to Greek society that government created laws that placed warfare as their main focal point. Sparta was a great example were those that were a part of the military were valued as citizen better than the other caste members of the state. “Thus, excellence on the battlefield was an essential part of a leader‟s right to rule his people.” (Lowrey 3) They’re religion or idealology heavily influenced their daily rituals and their purpose to conquer each other as they often prayed to Zeus who was in control, but they prayed especially to Ares, the God of war for strength, and Athena, daughter of Zeus, to help guide them in war. (Magaraci) Lowrey details that in Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Jeager explains their importance by labeling the arête was the ideal the Greeks strove for, ” the strength and skill of a warrior or athlete, and above all his heroic valor” and that the idea of arête included not only excellence on the battlefield but also excellence of the mind and speech.” (Lowrey 3)
Greek education in the more war prone states such as Athens and Sparta placed great value learning about becoming a warrior. This mentality was largely carried out not only within the homes but also throughout the state as the education taught was centered on learning the fundamentals of fighting. “This was accomplished through athletic training in the form of “fitness exercises, jumping, wrestling, throwing the discus and javelin, and boxing.” (Magaraci) There importance to the Greek society is numerously echoed as Homer details their admirable characteristics within his poem. “In ancient Greek myth, heroes were humans, male or female, of the remote past, endowed with superhuman abilities and descended from the immortal gods themselves.” (Nagy 3) Their characteristics are shown as brave, ruthless, savage, warriors, champions, heroic, and unmovable.
This admirable characteristics are seen from one of the antagonist of the story, Achilles who serves as more prominent heroic attribute with his bravery and his unwillingness to compromise on what he rightfully believes. “To say that an epic like the Iliad is about the Greeks and what it is to be a Greek is not far from saying that the Iliad is about Achilles. We have seen how this hero, as the very first words of the song make clear, is the focal point of the Iliad.” (Nagy 31) Achilles first demonstrates this characteristic in Book I, as enraged that Agamemnon forcibly took Briseis, from Achilles, and thereby blatantly and publicly disrespected him. Achilles determines that he can no longer stand by Agamemnon. He beseeched the Gods to intervene against the Achaeans, and by subsequently deserting them in battle, Achilles tries to ensure that his revenge is exacted on Agamemnon for his wrongful and immoral actions. As ruthless as he is depicted to be his vengefulness is only heightened as he is shows emotion over news that Hector has killed his close friend, Patroclus. Achilles is horribly disturbed by the news. He pours ash and grime over his face and “took and tore at his hair with his hands” in mourning (Homer. 18. 25-27). He makes it his mission to extract revenge on Hector for the horrible deed of murdering Patroclus, leaving dead bodies in his wake. “It was situated at the margins of culture, in a natural state of brute force and simplicity, unmediated by cultural norms, and dominated by blind formlessness and moral chaos.” (Alonso 238) This is also evident when he drags Hector’s body and refuses to return it.
The characteristics of Hector are of a statelier person. Unlike Achilles he isn’t as strong or possess the combat expertise that Achilles does, however he is the indisputable champion of Troy and son of the King Priam, leader of Troy. He is, at the core, a soft person, as Homer endeavors to demonstrate by repeatedly referring to his wife, Andromache as “his beloved wife” (Homer. 495), as well as by including the account of an interaction between Hector and his son, Astyanax, and dialog between Hector and his wife. Hector shows his soft side by lovingly embraces his son before heading to battle, saying “Zeus… grant that this boy, who is my son, may be as I am… and some day let them say of him ‘He is better by far than his father’” (Homer. 6. 476-479). Homer is beloved by all those around him. In fact, even Helen, who is in Troy because she was kidnapped by Hector’s brother Paris, has only kind words to say about him, stating after his death that she never heard an insult or harsh saying from him and that she “mourn[s] for [him] in sorrow of heart” (Homer. 24. 773). Hector admirable characteristics as a warrior are shown through his bravery and steadfast to fight for his family and countrymen. “For a Homeric warrior, being physically attractive is an important characteristic, evidence of good breeding and noble status, whereas physical ugliness is associated with moral ugliness, evidence of ignoble status.” Hector personified good looks, good heart and of noble status. When it came to battle between the two heroes, Hector proved to be of no match for Achilles, falling to him by the spear. Although both men are portrayed as heroes only one triumphed over the other.
Achilles can be viewed as the fiery hero of battle, and Hector the beloved statesman, husband and father, or the hero of character. Achilles, the hero of the battlefield, adheres to classical Greek definitions of heroism. He is strong, gritty, cunning, relentless and bloodthirsty on the battlefield. He does not allow others to trespass on his honor, and strongly believes in such concepts as justice, revenge and destiny. The hero of the battlefield also must prevail in battle in order to remain a hero. Like Achilles, the hero of the battlefield is not looked upon to provide anything but courage and success. However, Hector personified Homer’s interpretation of a
hero of character that did not necessarily need to perform a majestic physical feet in order to gain peoples’ admiration, but with honesty, wisdom and kindness. Within the Greek culture during the Dark Ages, war ruled within the societies dictating class systems, government, education, medicine, art, etc. The warriors that served in were idolized as gods on earth, although mortal they live on through works of art such as the Iliad in order in order paint the Greek culture.
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Homer. Iliad. Project Gutenberg. N.d. Web. 12 July. 2013. http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=3274816&pageno=1
Lowrey, Belen. “The Hero as a Reflection of Culture.” Sabiduria Vol 1.1. n.d. Web. 12 July. 2013. http://www.palmbeachstate.edu/honors/Documents/belenlowrey.pdf
Magaraci II, Anthony F. “The Warrior Role in Greek Society.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. 1998. Web. 12 July. 2013. http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1998/3/98.03.09.x.html
Nagy, Gregory. “Heroes and the Homeric Iliad.” Greek and Roman Myths of Heroes. 1 Feb. 2002. Web. 12 July. 2013. http://www.uh.edu/~cldue/texts/introductiontohomer.html
Ransom, Christopher. “Aspects of Effeminacy and Masculinity in the Iliad.” Antichthon 45 (35-57). 2011. Web. 12 July. 2013. http://academia.edu/355314/Aspects_of_Effeminacy_and_Masculinity_in_the_Iliad