Why Was Honour an Important Theme in Homer’s Iliad? Essay

Why Was Honour an Important Theme in Homer’s Iliad? Essay

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For the Homeric hero, honour was a code to live by, won on the battlefield, achieved through oratory discourse and attained via athletic ability. However, to understand why honour was an important theme in Homer’s Iliad, we need to look at how the heroes of the epic poem, such as Agamemnon and Achilles lived by this code, observing their behaviour and how they treated others throughout the story. With this in mind, we can establish the ideal conduct that warrants honour and the reality of what living by such a code meant to everyone involved.

Victories in battle gained the Homeric hero honour in the eyes of their fellow aristoi; however, this was not enough to exhibit their triumphs. ‘… [T]here appears to be a close equation between honour… and the possession of a ‘prize’… ’ (Block 1, p. 50), as success in battle could be forgot, the heroes materialised these victories within the prizes taken as the spoils of war. These prizes provided a lasting symbol of their achievements; therefore, their importance was immense. We see this importance demonstrated in the way Agamemnon is determined to retain Chryseis, his ‘trophy’, saying to her father, ‘The girl I will not give back…’ (Iliad, 1.29). She is the embodiment of his honour, manifested in the flesh. When forced to give her back to her father, Agamemnon’s symbol of honour is gone and his pride is wounded. This dishonour may even jeopardise his position as leader of the Greek army and explains why he demands another man’s ‘prize’.

The insistence of personal gain seems to shield the Homeric hero to the consequences that can befall not only him, but also those that are under his leadership. Agamemnon ignores the evidence that the girls father is a priest of the god Apollo, by dis...

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...re that guaranteed compliance with this code was how their fellow aristoi would judge them. The poem thus accentuates the nature of human beings and suggests that mortals should try to live their lives as honourably as possible, so that their memory will survive them. Therefore, the pursuit of honour in the Iliad is as Emlyn-Jones states, that it ‘…gives us an insight into the weaknesses of heroes as leaders…and the inherent instability of the social code by which they operate…’ (ECW, essay 2, 2006, p. 63).

Ancient sources:
Lattimore, R. (trans.) (1961) The Iliad of Homer, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, reproduced in Readings book 1 (2006) A219 Exploring the Classical World, readings 1.1-6, pp. 7-62, Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Modern Sources:
Emlyn-Jones, C. (2006) Experiencing the Classical World, Essay two, ‘The

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