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The Heroic Code

In Epic poetry in general, and in the Iliad in particular, the theme of the Heroic Code is centrally
important. This is the code of behaviour according to which all Homeric heroes are expected to
comply. It is concerned with Shame culture. Above all, it is the aim of the hero to avoid Aidos -
shame - both to himself and his family. An example of this occurring is at the beginning of Iliad book
1, where Agamemnon takes Achilles' prize, Presais, away from him in an attempt to bring shame to
Achilles. Achilles' sense of shame is further heightened by the fact that Agamemnon does this in
front of the whole Greek army; not only is he shamed, but he is seen to be shamed. As a result of
this, Achilles withdraws to his tent and refuses to fight. The means by which a hero avoided shame
was in achieving Time - honour - and Cleos - fame. This was achieved, in turn, by the hero displaying
Arete - personal excellence. A hero could display Arete in a number of ways; by giving wise advice,
and speaking in the assembly (e.g. King Nestor, who was too old to fight but is still an important
Greek hero due to the advice he gives); also in hunting and athletic contests; but most importantly,
on the battlefield, where the greatest heroes achieve honour and renown. On the battlefield, a hero
showed his Arete by means of his Aristaia, his finest moments in fighting (e.g. when the Greek hero
Diomedes drives the Greek god Ares in book 5, or when Achilles kills Hector in book 22). The word
Aristaia would appear to be a combination of two Greek words - Aristos, 'the best', and Ares the god
of war. Finally, for a hero to achieve honour and renown, it was very important that his actions,
especially in war, were seen an admired by others, and reported to others.

Socio-historic Background to the Iliad
It is generally thought people composed the Iliad in the second half of the 8th century BC, or the
second part of the 7th century BC, about events that were supposed to have happened in Bronze
age Greece in the 12th century BC. In the 8th Century BC, Greece was emerging from the so-called
"Dark Ages", after the Dorian invasions. This was the time when writing began to develop, the time
of the emergence of the 'polis' or the city state and the growing aristocratic class that controlled
these cities. The major heroes were members of an aristocratic class, many of them being kings in
their own right, e.g. Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, Priam and princes such as Hector and
Patroclus. In would appear then that, apart from the purpose of storytelling, Homer intended the
Iliad to have a didactic purpose, that is giving instruction by means of the actions of the heroes of
the Iliad to this rising aristocratic class that was beginning to control the emerging city states in the
8th century BC. The stories of the battles contained in the Iliad would further serve as examples to
these hot white armies as to how they should behave in warfare. Finally, this was the time to
establish colonies throughout the Aegean on the west-coast of Asia Minor and in southern Italy and
Sicily, resulting in the development of trade throughout the Mediterranean. It would appear, then,
that Homer composed the Iliad for the dual purpose of giving instruction, as well as for the purpose
of entertainment and storytelling. The Heroic Code serves as a model for how the emerging
aristocratic class of the 8th century should behave as well as a model for the soldiers in the emerging
Hoplite armies. Moreover, the heroic code of the Iliad would also serve as a model for behaviour in
5th century Greece, as the city states of Greece were being attacked during the Persian Invasions.