Kleos in the Iliad When we consider the Hero in ancient Greek culture, we must forget our notion of what a hero is. The ancient Greek concept of a hero was different from our own culture’s. The motivation for any Homeric Greek is glory, or “Kleos”, that is to be honored and respected among their people. Not only does kleos imply being honored and respected, it literally means ‘to be heard. ’ Achieving kleos entails that your tale and ultimately you will live on forever. Kleos is essential to the Greeks and life would not be worth living without it.
When a warrior or hero is advised to avoid risking their life in battle it almost drives them even further towards the deed. It is better to be killed in action rather than to live and be thought a coward. By our rational standards one would certainly not be thought a coward if they didn’t rush into battle to almost certain death, the Greeks however, live by a different set of rules, a different set of standards and a different set of goals. In The Iliad, Homer explores the ancient Greek struggle for mortal men to attain immortality through glory in battle, and even death.
Those who achieve great kleos in battle are respected and loved by their families and kinsmen, while those who turn away from it are scorned. When faced with inevitable death, the epic heroes of The Iliad choose war so they may realize immortality in their deaths. The idea that kleos is such an integral part of ancient Greek culture can be shown through a comparison of the young Trojan princes, Hector and Paris. Paris, who is essentially blamed for the instigation of the Trojan-Greek war, fails to appear on the battlefield to defend his home.
Paris has chosen instead to stay at home with his bride Helen, for whom the Trojan armies fight. However, as Helen describes to Paris’ brother, Hector, “I wish I had been the wife of a better man, someone alive to outrage, with withering scorn of men” (Iliad VI. 415-417) that even she finds herself disgusted in Paris’ cowardice. Conversely, Hector is honored and loved by his family as he wars with the Greek armies and attains glory, not only for himself, but for all of Troy.
Even as his wife Andromache pleads “Pity me, please! Take your stand on the rampart here before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow” (Iliad VI. 511-512) to persuade him to stay at home, he chooses kleos over his family. Hector is described by Helen far differently than she speaks of her own husband. “But come in, rest on this seat with me, dear brother, you are the one hit hardest by the fighting, Hector, you more than all – and all for me, slut that I am, and this blind mad Paris” (Iliad VI. 421-423).
Helen embraces Hector for his bravery and honor, and asks even that he rest from battle. Her polar opinion between the two brothers serves as an important facet for dissecting the importance of kleos even within a family. Homer shows Helen’s shame and contempt for her husband as he does nothing to defend her or his home against her love for Hector as he fights so gloriously for Troy. Hector fights for his own kleos and for the glory of Troy, and leaves his family behind for it. His desire to leave his legacy behind is greater than his love for family.
However, he realizes that there is more than one way to leave a legacy behind. Despite leaving his family behind, he hopes that his son will supplant him praying to Zeus “Zeus, all you immortals! Grant this boy, my son, may be like me, first in glory among the Trojans, strong and brave like me, and rule all Troy in power and one day let him say, ‘He is a better man than his father! ’ – when he comes home from battle bearing the bloody gear of the mortal enemy he has killed in war – a joy to his mother’s heart” (Iliad VI. 568 – 574).
The Greek’s ultimate goal was to achieve immortality despite being mortals. Hector tries to achieve this by fighting for his kleos, and by praying that his son will achieve his very own kleos as well. While Hector fights to protect his country so that he and his son may one day achieve kleos, Achilles is much more selfish. He fights only to quell his own rage. While a Greek’s ultimate goal was to achieve immortality, Achilles postpones this quest because of Agamemnon. The Iliad starts with the word ‘menin’ which means cosmic rage.
This cosmic rage is so powerful that even the gods themselves feel it. This menin is so powerful that it even overpowers Achilles’ desire for his kleos. Despite his rage, Achilles still acknowledges kleos; he states “that two fates bear me on to the day of death. If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies…” (Iliad IX. 500-502). Achilles’ rage for Agamemnon is only surpassed by his rage when Patroclus is killed by Hector. Achilles’ rage goes from being directed from a Greek to the Trojans.
Through this change in rage, Achilles returns to battle and ultimately reclaims his kleos. Achilles has to choose between nostos (homecoming) and kleos. When Achilles first experiences menin, he chooses a nostos. After the shift in his menin, he shifts from choosing a nostos to choosing his kleos. As important as kleos is to a Greek, menin takes precedent over it. This is evident when Achilles chooses to abstain from achieving his kleos because of his rage. Ultimately though, Homer shows the importance of Kleos to the Greek when Achilles achieves it.
He also demonstrates the importance in his description of Hector. Helen speaks more fondly of Hector than his brother Paris. Although Hector and Achilles have different motives for trying to achieve kleos, they both ultimately crave it for immortality. Hector is trying to achieve his kleos so he can protect his country and so that his son may have the chance to achieve it also. Achilles, on the other hand is trying to achieve it solely for selfish reasons, his own immortality. s