Is There a “Heroic Code” That Guides the Decisions of the Characters in The Iliad?
In Homer’s famous epic poem The Iliad, the actions and interactions of the characters are guided by their motivation to uphold an unspoken heroic code. While the characters of Hector and Achilles are imperfect, their actions are driven by a heroic code that dictates that honor must be achieved above all else.
According to the code of the Homeric hero, honor must be achieved above all else. In order to obtain honor, a hero must display courage even in the face of certain death. His honor is judged by his ability to triumph in battle and achieve social status. Both Achilles and Hector are flawed heroes, but both are driven by the heroic code that exists in Homer’s world.
Achilles exhibits the qualities of the hero in his ruthless attack of his enemies in battle. His treatment of Hector might seem cruel, but a Homeric hero does not exhibit mercy toward his enemy. While it may appear that his initial abandonment of his army in the face of Agamemnon’s slight is selfish when considering the hero’s code of Homer’s epics, personal honor and glory are more important than patriotic glory. In other words, Homer pursues the road of the hero by acting on his own behalf, even if it appears selfish to the unknowing eye.
Hector also follows the heroic code in his pursuit of honor. Hector is a brave warrior and a respected leader to his people, but his upholding of the heroic code can best be seen in his final fight against Achilles. At first, Hector does avoid the confrontation, but since he is an honorable figure who is living by a heroic code, he eventually faces his foe.
While it is understood that Hector’s chances of victory are slim, he still faces Achilles because it would be dishonorable to hide from his opponent, and he will gain more honor and glory by being killed by Achilles than hiding from him.
The heroic code that men in the Iliad live by does not make them good or bad men based on our modern definitions of the word. The current code of conduct that we live by today is different from the heroic code that motivated Homer’s characters. Achilles and Hector, although flawed, do live by the heroic code of their time. The do so by perusing personal honor above all else.
Homer. The Iliad. 1964.Trans. W.H.D. Rouse. 1937. Reprint. New York: Mentor.