Appendix 3. The Heroic Self

I will begin by considering the heroic self, with the Iliadic Achilles as my case in point. What are the salient characteristics of Achilles’ individual distinctiveness and uniqueness in terms of psychological states, his physical presence, or bodily states? We are told of his beauty (which is, however, a quality of all Iliadic heroes), [1] his training as an exceptional warrior, and his capabilities as a rhêtor in the army’s assembly (again, characteristics shared by many heroes in the Iliad). The Achilles of our Iliad is mostly famous for his anger, which erupts at the opening of the Iliad and results in his withdrawal from battle for most of the narrative time of the poem. He only rejoins the fray in Book 19. Achilles’ anger constitutes a re-reading of the Trojan War by Homer; our Achilles (the image of him borne in our communal consciousness) is the Homeric Achilles. [2]
However, this intense emotion, instead of being an introspective reflection of the inner soul of the hero, is expanded by the poet to its collective dimension. From the very first moment of this eruption of anger, we are told about the consequences for others of this bout of emotional turmoil and ensuing withdrawal from the fighting. Homer describes the bleak consequences of Achilles’ anger for the Achaeans and the Trojans, for the dead and the living, for the gods and the mortals, even in the celebrated proem of the epic. These dire repercussions are aggravated by Achilles asking his mother to extract the promise from Zeus to favor the Trojans until “many will die” and his comrades in arms come beseeching his assistance. In doing so, he flouts the system of values of the heroic society of which he is so prominent a member and traduces every possibility of remaining an exemplar to his peers. In the Embassy of Book 9, he is criticized heavily by his fellow-warriors and friends, who expound upon the appalling damage his self-obsession has wrought on the Achaeans. The ideal of behavior in the heroic community is epitomized not by Achilles but by Hector, who dismisses his beloved wife’s advice to stay within the city walls and organize the defense of Troy from within, to preserve his life. His reply is cast in the following celebrated lines (Iliad 6.441-446): [3]
ἦ καὶ ἐμοὶ τάδε πάντα μέλει γύναι· ἀλλὰ μάλ’ αἰνῶς
αἰδέομαι Τρῶας καὶ Τρῳάδας ἑλκεσιπέπλους,
αἴ κε κακὸς ὣς νόσφιν ἀλυσκάζω πολέμοιο·
οὐδέ με θυμὸς ἄνωγεν, ἐπεὶ μάθον ἔμμεναι ἐσθλὸς
αἰεὶ καὶ πρώτοισι μετὰ Τρώεσσι μάχεσθαι
ἀρνύμενος πατρός τε μέγα κλέος ἠδ’ ἐμὸν αὐτοῦ.

Yes, Andromache, I worry about all this myself,
But my shame before the Trojans and their wives,
With their long robes trailing, would be too terrible
If I hung back from battle like a coward.
And my heart won’t let me. I have learned to be
One of the best, to fight in Troy’s first ranks,
Defending my father’s honor and my own.
Hector, above all, cannot disdain battle and stand shamed before his fellow citizens, as he has been raised from birth to fight in the vanguard of the Trojan line as the foremost defender of the city. This formulation of duty overriding self-interest has often been conceptualized in terms of cooperative vs. competitive values. Arthur W. H. Adkins in his classic book Merit and Responsibility of 1960 formulated this distinction and conflict of values. However, we need to make some amendments before embarking on the specific arguments about the particularity and accountability of the Homeric heroes—that is to say, before balancing the unique characteristics of a person with his public persona.

Cooperative and Competitive Values; Questioning the Dichotomy

In Adkins’ view, the competitive values (promoting recognition of the individual through personal achievement) override the cooperative (or “quiet”) values ideally promoting cooperation at a communal level. Competitive values defeat co-operative ones because the latter attract less admiration from society. [4] In Adkins’ interpretive framework, not only are intentions irrelevant, [5] but martial prowess alone is paramount. [6] Following this reasoning then, Homeric heroes are impelled to pursue their personal timê and kleos at the expense of others’ timê and kleos, and this would be considered as a normal, and normative, ethos. In this respect Achilles, whose pursuit of his timê is the most egotistic and obsessive, could be seen as the prototypical hero, the measure of all others. [7]
In fact, however, Achilles’ behavior is not the norm in the Iliad, nor does it comply with the commonly accepted ethics of his fellow warriors, [8] as many incidents in the poem bear witness. He puts his heroic timê above the communal wellbeing of the Achaeans, and consequently spurns the battlefield. He does not act as is expected of him, which is evidenced by the strong disapproval of his friends of the Embassy (Book 9). Moreover, when he actually rejoins the fray, he violates all conceivable aspects of the heroic code in a cumulative frenzy of killing (Book 21) and finally treats Hector’s body in blatant defiance of both human and divine laws (Books 22–24). [9] Achilles violates the ethics of the Iliadic warrior, as upheld by heroes such as Ajax, Diomedes, Odysseus, Menelaus, Hector, and Aeneas; ethics he himself embodied before the outburst of his mênis. In her last meeting with Hector, Andromache describes how Achilles treated her father, whom he had killed, with honor by giving him an appropriate heroic burial and accepting the ransoms offered for her mother, setting her free. In addition, Achilles used to fight in the front rank to achieve both success for the Achaeans and his personal kleos (Book 1).
The combining of personal gain and collective cause while observing the warriors’ code of honor is the mode of fighting proper to an Iliadic hero, as Cairns illustrates in his book Aidos (1993). He offers a better insight into the Homeric ethics than the earlier dichotomy of Adkins: “to be concerned with one’s own honor is to envisage oneself as one among others, also bearers of honor; thus to limit one’s own claim to honor is to accept one’s status vis-à-vis others, to inhibit self-assertion is to recognize how this conduct would impinge upon the honor of others … .” [10] In this sense, “[the code of honor] integrates self-regarding and other-regarding, competitive and co-operative standards into a remarkably unified whole.” [11] This last idea is similarly put forward by Hammer: “Homeric society constructs the notion of action in such a way that the excellences to which Adkins points are tied to an issue of community maintenance. … although excellence appears to create a competitive individualism, it is an excellence carefully tied to the internal gradations of status and obligation within the community.” [12] This is exactly what the Iliad conveys to its audience. I subscribe to the view that the code of honor observes individual and collective interests and that the overvaluation of personal interests at the expense of the common wellbeing is rejected squarely in the Homeric society.


[ back ] 1. The exception of ugly Thersites proves the case of the highly attractive appearance of the Iliadic heroes, for he belongs to an inferior social class. He has an appalling physical appearance and he fails in public speech, both areas of excellence of the aristocratic warriors.
[ back ] 2. West 2011:44–46, 81.
[ back ] 3. Trans. Lombardo.
[ back ] 4. Adkins 1960:55; see also p. 36: “In comparison with the competitive excellences, the quieter co-operative excellences must take an inferior position; for it is not evident at this time that the security of the group depends to any large extent upon these excellences.” This idea is repeated again on p 46: “as soon as a crisis forces the essential framework of values into view, the competitive values are so much more powerful than the cooperative that the situation is not treated in terms of the quiet values at all; and as it is precisely with such crises that the concept of moral responsibility is concerned, it is evident that such terms as aidôs and aeikes, however useful to society in general, cannot affect the development of the concept of moral responsibility, for they are ineffective at the crucial moment.” In this framework of interpretation, the author claims that even when Agamemnon admits his wrongdoing against Achilles in Book 19 there is no moral responsibility for his actions (52); the only flaw of Agamemnon is that he “falls short in success of war” (51), which for Adkins requires only competitive values.
[ back ] 5. Adkins 1960:35–36, 49.
[ back ] 6. Adkins 1960:51–52.
[ back ] 7. Achilles as the archetypal warrior for his “self-awareness and for his wrath,” but he also oscillates between excellence and bestiality (best and beast): King 1987:228; he serves as a paradigm of a war hero for later literature (King 1987 passim). Many further studies have noted the peculiarity of his character and position in the Iliad; as the “best of the Achaeans” (Nagy 1999:26–41); as having an evolving character shifting from anger to pity (Schein 1984:89-167); withdrawing from suffering and receding to the politics of pity (Hammer 2002:207–229); representing an internal ambiguity of the heroic code consisting of values of cooperation and erosion (Zanker 1994:42); Muellner (1996) studies his mênis not in qualitative terms but as a driving theme of the Iliad (starting at book 1) and follows its teleology, which dissolves into philotês (Book 24).
[ back ] 8. Lloyd-Jones 1983:17.
[ back ] 9. This behavior is dictated by what I call “the second round of Achilles’ anger” (Books 19–24). I do not use the term mênis, since this is the technical term to describe the anger addressed against Agamemnon, which is officially denounced in Book 19 (μήνιδος ἀπόρρησις). It should be noted, however, that various verbal forms deriving form mênis are used by the poet to describe Achilles’ maniacal killing of the Trojans and the maltreatment of Hector’s body (observe the use of words ἐμμανής, μεμαώς).
[ back ] 10. Cairns 1993:13.
[ back ] 11. Cairns 1993:14.
[ back ] 12. Hammer 2002:79.