Sunday, 16 December 2007

Homeric Heroics

What are the problems with the term “heroic code?”

Before we can examine the problems with the term “heroic code,” we must first seek a definition. Perhaps this itself is the first problem, as “heroic code” is a complex and multi-faceted term. It describes a series of laws or guidelines for behaviour which are, by definition, unwritten, as they are assumed to be understood by those to whom they apply. This makes it difficult to pinpoint an exact definition. Generally, though, the guidelines of the “heroic code,” concerning what is acceptable and praiseworthy behaviour for the Homeric warrior-kings, are centred on notions of justice and masculinity. The nearest modern equivalent of some aspects of the Homeric code concerning justice would perhaps be our own unwritten codes of what we might call “fair play” or “common decency,” like those written down in the Geneva Convention. Less formalised examples would be “don’t kick a man when he’s down,” or even “don’t kick a man in the balls.”[1]

The “heroic code” is much more complex than this, however, and this complexity can present problems. The Homeric “heroic code” is obsessive about notions of masculinity. This is apparent on examination of the Greek text: as Clarke writes, “The Homeric equivalent to our word ‘heroism’” would be agēnoriē literally meaning “having abundant or excessive manhood.”[2] The antithesis of this in the Iliad is the character of Paris. Not only does he break the code by running off with Menelaus’ wife, his effeminacy is constantly mocked. A key example of this is his duel with Menelaus in Book 3: his exotic dress[3] seems to be linked with his losing the fight.

The “heroic code” is also concerned with piety and reverence for the gods. Agamemnon breaks the code when he insults Chyrses, Apollo’s priest, by refusing to return his daughter. This rejection of a supplication is duly punished with a plague. Diomedes, on the other hand, upholds the code by refusing Sthenelus’ suggestion of retreat in Book 5: not only does he display courage in battle but he honours his commitment to Athene. Silk affirms that the heroic ideology is “celebrated and affirmed by the poem, in that it is what the heroes in general live by, while the poem unquestionably celebrates them.”[4] I disagree that the heroes of the Iliad are always celebrated: Agamemnon, for example, causes all sorts of trouble by refusing to give up Chryseis and then taking Briseis from Achilles. The heroes are only condemned, however, when they break the code, so it is undoubtedly true that the code itself is endorsed by the Iliad.

Several problems with the term “heroic code” are of a temporal nature. In a sense, the term is archaic: the “heroes” to whom it applies are warrior-kings who were obsolete in Homer’s time. They are largely a product of Homer’s contemporaries’ belief in the decline of mankind, and their looking back to a so-called “golden age.” Silk goes so far as to say that the Homeric heroes “are not men like us” but are “remote from ordinary humanity” and “mightier.”[5] Unlike Homer’s contemporaries, “they have the opportunity, the ability and the courage” to risk their lives for glory.[6] While Homer’s contemporaries seem to have aspired to the values of the “heroic code,” it was not something that they had a notion of explicitly. Paradoxically, then, the term “heroic code” is simultaneously archaic and too modern, because it is an invention of modern scholarship.

The term’s being essentially a modern one is deeply problematic because there is a danger of its being interpreted according to modern ideas of heroism. Modern heroism is largely concerned with the “greater good:” it carries connotations of individual sacrifice to benefit other people. The Homeric heroes’ going off to fight the Trojan War clearly does not fit in with this concept: such a war would have had enormous social and economic consequences for all nations involved. It would result in a tremendous number of bereaved families and a plethora of widows and unmarried women, which would later cause a dramatic decrease in population. The Homeric heroes do not fight to benefit others, but rather to gain spoils from war and glory for themselves. As Clarke writes, they are essentially “driven to action by a need for social validation: status, respect, honour in the eyes of other men.”[7] The Homeric “hero” is not a hero is modern terms at all: Clarke describes him as “defined as such by one thing alone: his membership of a specific generation or race of men, belonging at a particular point among the scale of human history.”[8] Perhaps, then, a better name for the “heroic code” would be the “Homeric warrior code.”

To prove this point further, I have chosen three examples from the Iliad, in which a character behaves in a way which would seem to a modern reader to be breaking a code upholding ideals of heroism, but in which the character actually upholds the Homeric “heroic code.”

The first concerns Achilles’ withdrawal from the fighting and his refusal to return until the war is almost over. Although this is not due to cowardice, it seems to the modern reader essentially unheroic because Achilles is willing to allow hundreds of his comrades, and even Patroclus, to die without his intervention. Achilles’ refusal to accept Agamemnon’s bounteous compensation in Book 9 is likewise seen as breaking the “heroic code” by Ajax. Crotty explains that Ajax perceives Achilles to be breaking the aspect of the “heroic code” for which the Greek term is aidōs. Crotty describes aidōs as connected with shame and “the willingness to compromise and to accommodate others.”[9] He writes that it “curbs the individual’s egotistic demand that his merit be acknowledged and rewarded.”[10] This leads us, however, to the perspective from which we see that Achilles, in fact, keeps the “heroic code” in refusing to fight. Homer’s culture was founded on reciprocity, a system of honours and rewards. Achilles agreed to risk his life in someone else’s war in exchange for material and intangible tokens of respect. Agamemnon withheld both of these in his abduction of Achilles’ favourite and “prize,”[11] Briseis, as compensation for his own loss of Chyreis. The word “prize” in Greek is geras: booty publicly allocated and a sign of respect and worth. We can see in Achilles’ reply to Agamemnon’s offer his belief that Agamemnon has broken the code and he, Achilles, is upholding it in his subsequent refusal to co-operate with him: Achilles claims that “there was no gratitude given / for fighting incessantly forever against your enemies,”[12] and so Agamemnon, whom he describes as “wrapped forever in shamelessness,”[13] has “swindle(d)” him.[14] Silk summarises Achilles’ attitude perfectly: he refuses “not out of anti-heroic disaffection with heroic combat itself, but in heroic protest against the dishonour done to him.”[15] Achilles, then, is upholding the “heroic code” without behaving in what a modern reader would describe as a “heroic” manner.

Similarly, in Book 22, Hector’s insistence on duelling with Achilles, in spite of his parents’ pleas may not seem heroic to a modern reader. As Priam says, many people will grieve for Hector’s death, [16] and Priam himself, who has suffered so greatly, will suffer still further.[17] In this light, Hector’s decision seems selfish, and he himself seems cold-hearted. Both Priam’s tearing his hair out and Hecuba’s weeping[18] “could not move the spirit in Hector,” a phrase which, repeated, makes Hector seem even more unfeeling. The fact that Achilles is clearly stated to be more powerful[19] also makes Hector’s decision to fight him seem fairly stupid to a modern reader, but he is actually upholding the Homeric “heroic code.” As Crotty writes, “the code of the warrior” dictates that “whether he is to be victorious or defeated must have no effect on the dedication of his fighting or the intensity of his effort”[20]

Hector’s keeping of the “heroic code” again seems somewhat unheroic to the modern reader in Book 6. Andromache begs Hector not to fight, as he may well leave her a widow, when she’s lost all other family, and her son fatherless. [21] Again, in Andromache’s case, the cost of war is emphasised: her grief in Book 22 takes up over 60 lines. [22] Felson and Slatkin claim that, in this scene, “Homer gives priority to marital devotion over even filial or warrior bonds.”[23] I disagree: although Hector is presented in this scene as the “family man,” he still leaves his family to an uncertain fate and goes off to fight. This proves that, in Homeric warrior society, responsibility to war overrides responsibility to family. Although the thought of Andromache’s suffering after his death “troubles”[24] Hector and his prayer for his son[25] is deeply moving, Hector’s concerns for his family are overridden by the fact that he’d feel “deep shame”[26] if he didn’t fight. To a modern reader, this seems selfish, but in terms of the “heroic code,” it would be seen as noble. Crotty writes that this shame, aidōs, was a social pressure, “intended to ensure that members of the warrior society behave in accordance with that society’s codes.”[27]

Another instance of the inadequacy of the word “heroic” to describe the code because of its modern interpretation lies in the fact that heroism can be displayed by women just as much as men, and yet the “heroic code” applies only to men. It is thus extremely limited, as it applies generally only to a war situation and excludes not only women but the gods also, who live according to their own rules. Women are portrayed in Homer primarily as victims of war, as with the grief of Hecuba and Andromache in Book 22, and with Briseis’ lament for Patroclus, in which she recounts losing three brothers and her husband.[28] As Crotty writes, women are “powerless”[29] in the face of war. They share the greatest intimacy with the Homeric warriors because they do not present competition. The Homeric woman is merely “a part of the warrior’s tragic conception of himself.”[30] Andromache, for example, exists in the Iliad only in respect of how she relates to Hector: she is described in Book 6 as “his perfect wife.”[31] The nearest the Homeric woman gets to a “heroic code” is a code concerning notions of honour and fidelity. Fundamental to this is the character of Helen: she has transgressed this code in running of with Paris. Attitudes to her in later Greek writers are varied but treatment of her in the Iliad is surprisingly positive. Her behaviour is certainly not condoned but the reader is encouraged to join with Priam in blaming the gods[32] and she is portrayed as suitably repentant: she misses Menelaus,[33] reproaches herself[34] and calls herself a “slut.”[35] In Book 24, she declares: “I should have died before I came with (Paris).”[36] When Aphrodite calls her to sleep with him, she says it would be “too shameful”[37] (though she does, for fear of Aphrodite’s anger[38]). It is clear, then, that although women in the Iliad have their own codes of behaviour to keep to, they are excluded from the “heroic code,” which renders the term confusing to a modern reader, since women are as capable of heroism as men are.

My final problem with the term “heroic code” lies not in its name but in the concept it describes. This code of behaviour amongst the Homeric warriors, because it is unwritten and essentially undefined, is subject to interpretation: even within the Homeric definition of “heroic,” one man’s keeping it is another man’s breaking it. I have chosen two examples from the Iliad to demonstrate this.

The first concerns Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s corpse. The importance of the corpse in Homeric epic is apparent in the Iliad in Book 16, when Sarpedon’s corpse is teleported home, and in the effort made by Aphrodite and Apollo to protect and preserve Hector’s corpse. Achilles’ dragging the corpse behind his chariot, both in public and privately, is the greatest dishonour that Achilles can do to Hector and would have been seen by some as a breakage of the “heroic code.” Yet Achilles sees himself as keeping the code because it is his act of revenge for Patroclus’ death and therefore, in his eyes, a means of honouring his friend. We see this in Achilles’ speech in Book 23:

“All that I promised you in time past I am accomplishing,
that I would drag Hector here and give him to the dogs to feed on
and before your burning pyre to behead twelve glorious
children of the Trojans for my anger over your slaying.”[39]

A similar dual interpretation of the “heroic code” is possible in Book 10 with Diomedes’ and Odyseeus’ treatment of Dolon. Odysseus tells an implied lie with “let no thought of death be upon you,”[40] and Diomedes decapitates Dolon in the act of supplicating him.[41] Such behaviour seems in direct opposition to the values of the “heroic code,” and yet several devices are employed to soften this and even to present Diomedes and Odysseus as upholding the code. Dolon himself is portrayed as distinctly unattractive and unheroic: he begs to be spared and ransomed;[42] he betrays his comrades by providing information;[43] and he is described as physically ugly,[44] which is significant because the Greeks equated good looks with virtue. His fear of death is also emphasised, in such a manner as to inspire disdain rather than pathos:

“And Dolon stood still in terror
gibbering, as though through his mouth came the sound of his teeth’s chatter
in green fear.”[45]

It is also explicitly stated that Dolon’s death is necessary: Diomedes and Odysseus cannot risk leaving him alive if they are to prevent endangering their own men.[46]

In conclusion, then, the term “heroic code” is deeply problematic. This is partly due to the complex nature of the code itself, and the fact that it is assumed to be generally understood by those to whom it applies, rather than being written down. For this reason, it is extremely subjective. This subjectivity is rendered much more difficult by the application of the word “heroic” to describe the code, because the code can easily become confused with modern ideas of heroism. A modern understanding of heroism is centred on individual sacrifice for the benefit of others, which is different to and less complex than the system of values on which Homeric warrior society is based, and it is also more inclusive. Anybody can be heroic by the modern definition, while the Homeric “heroes” were a specific group of people. For this reason, I would like to repeat my suggestion that many of the problems with the term “heroic code” could be overcome if we replaced it with the term “Homeric warrior code.”


Crotty, K. (1994) The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Emilyn-Jones, C., Hardwick, L. and Purkis, J. (1999) Homer: Readings and Images, London: Gerald Duckworth and Co.
Fowler, R. (ed.) (2004) The Cambridge Companion to Homer, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lattimore, R. (trans.) (1951) The Iliad of Homer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Silk, M. (2004) Homer: The Iliad, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] James Templeman, in conversation.
[2] Clarke, “Manhood and Heroism” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p. 80.
[3] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 109. (Book 3, lines 330-7)
[4] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 84.
[5] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 62.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Clarke, “Manhood and Heroism” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p. 77.
[8] Clarke, “Manhood and Heroism” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p. 78.
[9] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 33.
[10] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 33.
[11] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p.64. (Book 1, line 185)
[12] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p.206. (Book 9, line 316, 317)
[13] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 208. (Book 9, line 372)
[14] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 208. (Book 9, line 371)
[15] Silk, Homer: The Iliad, p. 62.
[16] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 436. (Book 22, line 54, 55)
[17] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 436-7. (Book 22, lines 59-65)
[18] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 437. (Book 22, lines 77-81)
[19] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 436. (Book 22, line 40)
[20] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 42.
[21] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 164. (Book 6, lines 404-39)
[22] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 447-449. (Book 22, lines 451-515)
[23] Felson and Slatkin, “Gender and Homeric Epic” in Fowler, The Cambridge Companion to Homer, p. 100.
[24] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 165. (Book 6, line 454)
[25] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 165-6. (Book 6, lines 476-81)
[26] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 165. (Book 6, line 441)
[27] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 30.
[28] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 400. (Book 19, lines 291-4)
[29] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 86.
[30] Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, p. 86.
[31] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 163. (Book 6, line 162)
[32] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 104. (Book 3, line 164, 165)
[33] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 104. (Book 3, lines 139-40)
[34] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 104-5. (Book 3, lines 172-6)
[35] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 105. (Book 3, line 180)
[36] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 495. (Book 24, line 764)
[37] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 111. (Book 3, line 410)
[38] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 111. (Book 3, line 418)
[39] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 450. (Book 23, lines 20-24)
[40] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 228. (Book 10, lines 383)
[41] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 230. (Book 10, lines 454-7)
[42] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 228. (Book 10, lines 378-81)
[43] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 229-30. (Book 10, lines 412-445)
[44] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 226. (Book 10, line 316)
[45] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 228. (Book 10, lines 374-6)
[46] Lattimore, The Iliad of Homer, p. 230. (Book 10, lines 449-53)

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