Our understanding of what qualifies a man to be an ancient Greek hero is defined in old epics such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. They were descended from the gods, therefore granting superhuman – like abilities. They completed astounding feats on epic journeys that displayed their skills as a hero. Hercules was the strongest, Achilles was the greatest warrior, Odysseus was the most cunning, and so on. After their deaths, heroes lived on through kleos, or what the Greeks called “eternal glory”. In the Iliad, Achilles is given a choice to choose kleos, a short life with eternal glory, or immortality, and a long life without remembrance. By killing Hector as brutally as he did, he chooses, making him a hero worthy of kleos in the Greek’s view. A summary of the importance of this choice is stated in Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours: “Achilles will choose the glory of epic song, which is a thing of art, over his own life, which is a thing of nature. The thing of art is destined to last forever, while his own life, as a thing of nature, is destined for death.” Achilles is, in terms of remarkable heroic acts and abilities, the definition of a Greek hero. He made the right choices of that time’s mindset to ensure his legacy would last forever. Now, the definition of a hero has vastly changed. Creating a legacy is no longer the most important thing a hero can do. Heroes are remembered by their acts for others, as opposed to acts for themselves or their ability to be extraordinary in battle or on journeys. Achilles may have been a hero to the Greeks, but it is important to remember that his heroism came from the romanticized idea of war and battle that the Greeks held. Every action or inaction preformed by Achilles can be traced to his undeniable thirst for everlasting honor and glory, rather than sentiment and realization of the right thing to do for his civilization. If Achilles were to be judged by today’s standards, he would not be a hero, he would be a criminal. “Looked at from one point of view, then, the insult-sensitive anger of the hero seems to serve and protect society by protecting the values, such as stable patrilineal families, that are at its core. Yet, at the same time, that anger is potentially destructive of the very society it seems to be protecting.” (Reeve 2). Achilles’ anger, though motivation for his actions in battle, is also motivation for his actions that condemn his heroism.
Many times in the Iliad, Achilles’ wrath is used as an almost a excuse for his conflicts on and off the battlefield. Sung by the Muses in the first stanza, his rage is stated to have cost many lives of others, not just enemies, but of his own men. “Rage: Sing: Goddess, Achilles’ rage, Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls Of heroes into Hades’ dark, And left their bodies to rot as feasts For dogs and Birds, as Zeus’ will was done.” Achilles’ anger causes him to act unlike a hero, and this instance is not heroic even in ancient Greek standards. He kills Hector, denying him the proper burial and traditional honoring usually given to respected warriors. Yet, this is overlooked as the gods and goddesses sympathize with Achilles sadness and rage. A true hero, in today’s ideals, does not dishonor the traditions that a society holds to a high importance.
Another terrible act Achilles performs is the rape of the woman Briseis. He claims her as a prize of war, which was accepted at that time, and treats he as an object of his own. But he loves her because she is simply a part of his high honor and status. Achilles’ feelings toward his prize of war is alloyed with his love for honor and for himself. This calls his morals into question. His every actions in the Iliad, as said before, can be seen as coming from a greater desire to be honored and remembered. His morals and alignment are not explained as being true to anyone but himself, and can be inferred to be driven by personal gain. Even when Achilles is at his most vulnerable, weeping after the death of Patroclus, the death itself comes from Achilles’ absence on the battlefield after a disagreement with King Agamemnon. His moment that can be seen as humanizing is overlooked when it is clarified to have resulted from his own decisions. Achilles cause the events that lead to further pain and suffering for not only himself, but others. The moral implications and consequences in the Iliad is shown through Achilles. “The moral he is going to present is that anger, the cankered fruit of pride, is destructive and that it has devastating consequences, not merely for Achilles, the prideful man, full of wrath, but on countless other people, the innocent victims of Achilles’ sin.” (Pearce 1). The “hero” of the Iliad is, although godlike, said to have been human, and therefore susceptible to morality and immorality.
Homer’s idealized demigod may have won a place in history, but it is up to the values of the modern reader to determine whether Achilles is to be praised or condemned. The ancient stories that tell of old heroes can still be relevant in today’s society and ideals by showing the contrast between old and new interpretations of a hero. The concept of kleos, and eternal honor and glory, is not prominent in most public figures or what the average person would consider a hero. Today’s heroes focus on helping others, or using their famous name for good causes. Achilles, a hero in ancient times, is no longer famous in modern times for his heroism, but is instead a name that is remembered as being an important character in Greek myth and epics that shows us their cultural values and history.