ThemesThe Problems of Heroism
To see the Iliad, as many have done, as a straightforward glorification of war and the role of the hero is to neglect many of the complex aspects of the poem and to overlook the fact that its most heroic character ends the poem utterly disillusioned at his own, and his fellow men's, position within the cosmos. On the other hand, to see it as a damning indictment of war and its consequences is to misunderstand the world of Homer and the demands made upon individuals within that world. We must, therefore, find some middle ground between these two polarised views. The question that the poem poses and which the more reflective of the leading players battle with is 'what is it to be a hero?'.
Acceptance of the heroic code
The choice that Achilles is given explicitly and which is emphasised throughout the poem is the choice that implicitly every heroic character has to face, namely between a life that is short yet glorious and a life that is long yet obscure. That Achilles, in Books 1 and 9, questions whether his exertions are worth their results is not a rejection of the heroic code per se, but rather a situational dilemma. It is not that he is averse to the heroic lifestyle, which demands that he risk his own life in the pursuit of glory, but that he feels that he is not being rewarded sufficiently. Agamemnon is disrespecting him by threatening to confiscate the gifts and prizes that he has won, the material possessions by which his heroism is manifestly proven. In addition, he is dishonouring him in front of his fellow Achaeans by insulting him in such a way. Heroism in Homer is all about proving oneself to be better than anyone else, yet Agamemnon is seeking to outdo him through his rank rather than through his capabilities as a warrior and hence as a hero. To Achilles, a world in which the pay-off for being a hero is not fully realised is a world in which it is not worth being a hero.
Achilles' great speech to Priam in Book 24 (518-551), which has similarly been held up as proof of his rejection of the heroic code, is again no such thing. Certainly, Achilles is pained by the events that have led him to realise that his father Peleus will never see him again and that Priam is in a parallel situation with respect to Hector, but he never suggests that things might have been different. He accepts that this is the hero's lot and that endless grieving is of no use. Men must simply learn to endure the harsh realities of a life which requires heroes to be heroes in a world governed by divine and ultimately unchangeable rulers.
Individual versus Society
The difficulty for all the great heroes is in squaring the requirement to be better than anybody else with the need to protect their own people. The hero does not exist in isolation. Heroic status is conferred on him by the people who benefit from his acts of heroism. The requirements of the hero are succintly stated by Sarpedon when he urges on his fellow Lycian king, Glaucus (12.310-328). In order to justify the privileges they receive in peacetime, the two men must prove themselves in war. It is they who must provide the lead and perform the deeds that win the day. Problems arise, however, when the hero's character, which requires that sometimes he overreach himself to bring glory to himself or to avoid being shamed, brings disaster upon those he is supposed to be protecting. Agamemnon, in order not to lose face in front of the Achaean army, succeeds in insulting their greatest warrior with disastrous consequences. Achilles initially takes umbrage in Book 1 and then refuses to accept Agamemnon's offers of reconciliation via the embassy in Book 9, feeling that his honour has been irreparably damaged, and sees his best friend die the next day. Patroclus, seeking to gain greater personal glory, ignores Achilles' instruction to return to his hut after he has driven back the Trojans from the Achaean ships, and is subsequently killed. Hector rejects the advice of Poulydamas, in Book 18, to return to Troy that night, rather than camping on the plain, and sees the Trojans slaughtered the next day by the returning Achilles. He then refuses the pleas of his family and fellow citizens to retreat inside the walls of Troy, when Achilles is set on single combat, and consequently is slain, a death which, symbolically, marks the fall of Troy itself.
In all these cases, the hero is given the opportunity to relinquish his heroic position by the more pragmatic advice of another party. Every time he rejects it, in order to add to, or at least not detract from, his glory. Every time the consequence of that decision is fatal. And yet, if any of the heroes had decided upon the more pragmatic course of action, they would have abrogated their duty as heroes, which requires them
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