Which of the heroes of the lliad best embodies the 'heroic code'? Give reasons for your choice.
Author: N. De Carteret, Elizabeth College, Guernsey.
One hero in the Iliad stands out in particular as the epitome of the ‘heroic code'. It is Achilles. the one hero only who is fighting for pure heroics so to our minds he is a cruel, selfish and even hateful young man. but there is no doubt that he is a hero. Diomedes and Hector prove good contrasts.
Heroic work in Homer's day was measured in fighting pure and simple. Prowess on the battlefield was ranked supreme, high above any considerations of morality. Nestor, for example, tells Agamemnon and Achilles that he has known much "better men than them" meaning men who are better at fighting. Achilles refuses Lycaon clemency because Patroclus. who is dead. was a much better man than he is by far i.e. a much better fighter. Achilles urges Hector to show his "worth" and fight like a man: "worth" means simply ability to fight.
By this criterion Achilles ranks second to none. He is an immensely talented fighter and he considers himself a "prince among men". It is a reflection of his ability that the action speeds up rapidly on his return to the battle after Book 16 and Patroclus' death. Two thirds of the epic arc slow and tedious: on Achilles' return the last third is fast and moves most speedily. Achilles' unstoppable battle madness surpasses without doubt that of the other heroes in the lliad. He is brave, vicious and powerful. He splits the Trojans and drives them back without difficulty at all.
Moreover, his bravery is not restricted to humans. He is angry with Apollo for deceiving him and his battle with the river god Xanthus ends in more success than Diomedes' attempts against the gods in Book 5 (although he admittedly has much divine support).
The heroic code was recognised as a desire to excel. For the heroes 'excellent' was the norm. It was not enough to do well or simply to assist other to excellence: one had to shine. Thus Nestor tells of how Peleus instructed Achilles to excel , to aim to outshine all other fighters. Diomedes suggests to Sthenelus that they should attack Aeneas with the hope of 'covering ourselves in glory': they want to eclipse all of their companions in arms.
This desire is more apparent in Achilles than in anyone else. He will not let even Patroclus. his loved friend. diminish his glory. He warns Patroclus not to be too successful while wearing his armour. In the York Notes is a useful description of how Achilles' motivation for fighting is a pure and simple embodiment of the heroic code. In all of the other heroes it is complicated or diminished by their characters in some way: in Agamemnon , for example, it is inseparably linked to a desire for revenge and to reclaim what is his: in Diomedes it is moderated and restrained: in Odysseus and Nestor it is amenable to practical and political considerations: in Aias it is largely unconscious to the extent that it is comic brute force: in Paris it is set aside for a desire for pleasure: and in Hector it is complicated by the needs of others.
Thus Achilles is the only character with a great love of battle and glory. He is just about the only great hero who is on the trip for heroics.
His decision to return and fight and accept early death, moreover, is most admirable, rather than stay out of the battle and live long. In the heroic world life expectancy was much shorter than it is today. Of course , especially in the world of fighting ( "death waits in many forms" , says Homer). There was no real afterlife except the gloomy existence of Hades and there was no reward of Heaven to look forward to. Thus a hero's attitude was that he should make the most of his life while he had it! Since it was not really worth attempting to preserve his life the hero tried to secure everlasting fame and glory and thus reputation was all important. Hector says that he wants to secure his fame forever; Glaucus and Sarpedon want to bring glory and honour on their name to the Lycians. Thus Achilles' decision is most admirable and worthy of the heroic code.
Surely. however, it could be argued. Hector is altogether a more heroic man than Achilles. Achilles it could he claimed is a cruel and vicious man; he is motivated by hate not love and he is proud and arrogant and selfish. Hector on the other hand is a good and caring man. He loves his wife and son (one could not imagine Achilles participating in the tender emotional scene in Book Six). He loves his father as much as Achilles hates his. He is not at all hostile to his brother and there is clearly great brotherly love and comradeship between them. He forgives Paris and praises him as often as he rebukes him. Helen comments that Hector was the one Trojan who was kind to her and who did not make her feel guilty. Achilles is bitter and unforgiving towards Agamemnon and Menelaus. We note that Hector cares about his men very much: it is Sarpedon's death which motivates him to kill Patroclus ( the latter is indeed the only person for whom Achilles shows any real love, apart from himself. He is uncaring for Thetis and is unnecessarily hostile to Aias, Odysseus and Phoenix in their embassy. Moreover he regards Briseis as a possession (although he claims to love her). Hector is thus a complete antithesis of Achilles and perhaps the more admirable man of the lliad.
All of this is true. and indeed to our eyes Hector is the more heroic, noble man but to the Greeks it would have been a different matter. Hector is less of an embodiment of the heroic ideal than Achilles because he is fighting not primarily for honour but to protect his family. He is worried that Andromache will become a slave if Troy is captured. His name 'hektor' means 'mainstay' and this is what he is - but this had no hearing on the Greek heroic code.
It is important to note that he is equally as brave as Achilles; he knows deep down that he is going to die. His pitiful flight from Achilles in Book 22 serves only to highlight his bravery not to denounce it; he puts up a good fight in the end. and does not die shamefully. He is almost as good a fighter as Achilles, he is an excellent swordsman with skilful dexterity, he is calm, equable. a good tactician, good to his men and a brilliant leader. But Achilles is the more determined.
If Hector's subsidising of desire for glory to desire to protect his loved ones is to denounce his worth then perhaps Diomedes is a more reasonable alternative to Achilles as an embodiment of heroic worth, if Achilles' morality is off putting. We shall now investigate him.
Nobody could accuse Diomedes of being without desire for glory. His excitement and jubilation for battle is clear and indeed he is the only hero who serves to make war look glorious in Book Five. There is a far more sombre note to the later aristeiae of the other heroes. Diomedes is young and happy and loves seeking glory very much.
Ultimately , though, perhaps Diomedes is too uncomplicated and trivial to be considered as an embodiment of the heroic worth. Most of the other heroes have strong character traits, but Diomedes is a little flat in his characterisation; he has no really strong emotions.
Besides, in considerations of morality and heroic worth, I feel that Achilles is the one hero who emerges ultimately as morally and heroically noble, ahead of Diomedes. Diomedes' heroic and moral worths are tainted by the Dolon episode; in a cool and cruel piece of treachery, Diomedes neatly chops off Dolon’s head while Dolon is begging for mercy. To our minds this is a most sadistic piece of work, and even in the Greek heroic code the killing of an unnamed suppliant was usually considered beneath the dignity of a hero.
Achilles, however, (who previously we have seen as 'immoral') is the one hero who is associated with taking slaves and saving lives. Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Diomedes and others all kill unarmed suppliants; Achilles is the only one we hear of who saves any lives (he claims that he often felt disposed towards saving Trojan lives before Patroclus' death). This gives him a greater nobility than all of the others, he alone understands the heroic code.
Therefore Achilles best embodies the heroic code. He is a greater fighter than everyone else and, despite his selfishness, emerges as the most admirable hero, at least to the Greek mind.
Examiner's comment: "An epic answer - strong argument and knowledge of the text. A+ 22/25