THE HEROIC CODE

A hero is one who willingly and eagerly confronts death; three Greek words embody the heroic code: aristos, arete, and aristeia.
 

Aristos is being the best at what ever is called for by the situation: in wartime, killing; in peacetime, husbandry; in seamanship, steering.

 

Aristeia--exploits which gain for the warrior prestige in the eyes of his comrades merit.

 

Arete, merit, can only be bestowed by others, not by self. In the world of the Iliad, what the world thinks of you is far more important than what you think of yourself. Indeed, it is what you think of yourself.

 

Kleos, fame and glory, can only be achieved through action.

This is why the withdrawal of Achilleus from battle is such a devastating decision: without exploits he has no identity and can only sit in his shelter singing about fame and glory instead of achieving it. Achilleus is no longer aristos, the best of the Achaians, when Agamemnon succeeds in depriving him of Briseis.

Sarpedon's speech to Glaukos in Book 12 is the clearest expression of what it means to be a hero. He wonders aloud: Why are we given the best places at the banquet table, served the best meat and wine, given the choicest land, and why do men look upon us as being immortal? We deserve these benefits because we show our bravery by fighting in the forefrontof the battle. If we were able to live forever, to be immortal, then there would be no need to fight in order to win glory. Now, however, the battle is upon us, we cannot escape it, so let us plunge in and win glory for ourselves or, by dying, give it to the enemy. (348-69)

Glory, eternal fame, kleos, can only be achieved by killing or being killed in battle; either way one becomes a subject of epic poetry and lives forever in song.

This inflexible heroic code does not permit choice, and the fact that Achilleus chooses distinguishes him from most of the other characters and makes him the hero of this epic. Knowing that he is endangering his status as aristos, the best, he chooses to disengage himself from battle and retire to his shelter. Odysseus tells Achilleus of Agamemnon's offer of gifts if he will return to battle. In response Achilleus rejects the heroic code once again. We are all going to die, he says, both the brave and the weak, so it matters little if you do a great deal or nothing. Look at me, how I've fought harder than anyone, and how I have nothing. And what was I fighting for, why are the Argives fighting the Trojans? For Helen? What is so special about Helen?

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