Throughout The Iliad, the heroic characters make decisions based on a definite set of principles, which are referred to as the “code of honor.” The heroic code that Homer presents to the reader is an underlying cause for many of the events that take place, but many of the characters have different perceptions of how highly the code should be regarded.
Hector, the greatest of the Trojan warriors, begins the poem as the model of a Homeric hero. His dedication and strict belief in the code of honor is illustrated many times throughout the course of The Iliad. An example of this is presented in book three of the poem, where Hector reprimands Paris for refusing to fight. He says to Paris, “Surely now the flowing-haired Achaeans laugh at us, thinking you are our bravest champion, only because your looks are handsome, but there is no strength
in your heart, or courage” (3:43). Hector believes that it is against the heroic code for a person to abstain from fighting when his fellow men are in the battlefield. Hector faces a moral dilemma when dealing with Paris. By being Paris’ brother, Hector is supposed to protect and honor his decisions, but he believes that Paris is wrong in his actions, and feels it necessary to make that known to him.
Another place where we see Hector’s strict belief in the code of honor is in the events that take place during his return home in the sixth book. Hector returns to Troy in order to have the queen and the other women make a sacrifice to Athena, hoping that she will help the Trojans in the war. After arranging that act he visits Paris, with the intention of convincing him to fight. Visibly upset, Hector scolds Paris, telling him that “The people are dying around the city and around the steep wall as they fight hard; it is for you that this war with its clamor has flared up about our city. You yourself would fight with another whom you saw anywhere hanging back from the hateful encounter,” (6:327). Paris agrees that he has been dishonoring himself, and tells Hector he will return with him to fight. Hector then goes to find Andromache, who is standing by the walls outlining the battlefield with Astanax, their son.
When Andromache pleads with Hector to stay home and cease fighting, Hector refuses, telling her that he would feel deep shame in front of the Trojans if he were to withdraw himself from the war. Hector then tells Andromache that the thought of her being dragged off by the Achaeans troubles him, but he is relieved by the knowledge that she will be looked at as “the wife of Hector, who was ever the bravest fighter of the Trojans, breakers of horses, in the days when they fought about Ilion,” (6:460). This causes Andromache to shed tears. On the one hand, she understands Hector’s beliefs and deep sense of morality, but on the other feels it is just as honorable to stay home and care for one’s family. This is a second place in which Hector feels torn between two conflicting responsibilities.
A character’s social status was mainly based upon his performance in the battlefield. Achilles is a tragic figure who believes strongly in social order, but questions the idea of fighting for glory. When Aias and Odysseus are sent by Agamemnon to plead with Achilles’ to fight for the Greeks, Achilles denies them, saying “There was no gratitude given For fighting incessantly forever against your enemies. Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard” (9:316). This statement shows that Achilles is an individual, and does not conform to the ideas of the others. Achilles is portrayed as a fatalist, believing that there is no point in fighting, because the end is the same for everyone. In book nine, when Agamemnon admits he is wrong and offers Gifts, Achilles still refuses to join his army in battle. He does not see Agamemnon’s gifts as a reconciliation attempt, but rather as an insult. Achilles believes that Agamemnon’s offerings are selfish and boastful, and he denies them to in order to show Agamemnon that his loyalty cannot be bought.
Later in the poem, Achilles revenges Patroklos’ death by killing Hector. It is customary and proper to return a dead body to its home so it can be given a proper burial, and it is against the code of honor to perform acts of excessive cruelty. Achilles is so distraught by his friends’ death that he contradicts both of these conditions. First, he refuses to return Hector’s body to the Trojans, and then proceeds to drag it behind his carriage by the ankles. Achilles’ deliberate mutilation of Hector’s body shows the reader that he does not hold the code of honor in high regard.
Nestor is the character in the poem that best convinces the others to diligently follow the code of honor. There are many instances in which the social order of The Iliad is disrupted, and Nestor comes forth to help restore the order. Although they are thought by the reader to be somewhat pointless, Nestor’s stories always have a deeper meaning behind them. In book seven Hector challenges the Achaeans, asking which of them is willing to fight against him. When none volunteer, Nestor tells them the story of his victory against Ereuthalion, emphasizing that at the time he fought he was the youngest among the warriors. He says to the troops, ” If I were young now, as then, and the strength still steady within me; Hector of the glancing helm would soon find his battle. But you, now, who are the bravest of all the Achaeans, are not minded with a good will to go against Hector,” (7:157). This speech compels nine of the Achaean’s to volunteer, showing Nestor’s power to influence the warriors to stick to the heroic code. Later in the same book, Nestor again stresses the importance of the code of honor when he suggests that the Greeks retreat from fighting and bury their dead, because it was believed that the funeral shows the social status of a warrior. Nestor also wants the warriors to subside from fighting in order to build a wall to protect them. He convinces them by saying, “We must dig a deep ditch circling it, so as to keep off their people and horses, that we may not be crushed under the attack of these proud Trojans,” (7:341).
Nestor realizes that the Trojans have the upper hand, and does not want the Greeks to lose without a putting up a respectable fight. He feels that for the Greeks to turn around and leave would be a great dishonor, and does everything in his power to keep them in the battle. Nestor’s advice, finally, challenges the Achaeans to live up to the honorable precedent set by the book’s fallen heroes.
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The characters in The Iliad base many of their actions on the code of honor. The warriors believe that the most dishonorable thing someone can do is refrain from fighting with his fellow soldiers, whereas Achilles disagrees. Although a “code of honor” is present in the Iliad, many of the characters interpret and maintain it in different ways.