Honour and Shame in Homer
When I started thinking about honour and shame in the 1980s, the predominant view of
honour was one drawn from studies of modern Mediterranean societies.1 On this view,
honour was a scarce non-material commodity, pursued mainly by men and in small-scale,
face-to-face communities in more or less aggressive forms of zero-sum competition. For
men, honour was intimately bound up with assertive, traditional forms of masculinity,
and so was fundamentally related to female chastity, the source of such honour as women
possessed and a crucial conduit through which men’s honour was vulnerable. This model
was felt to be typical of traditional Mediterranean societies, both Christian and Muslim;
and this was a model in which all the emphasis was on the standards of society, of the
audience of one’s actions. As Bourdieu puts it (1965: 211): ‘The point of honour is the
basis of a moral code of an individual who sees himself always through the eyes of
others, who has need of others for his existence, because the image he has of himself is
indistinguishable from that presented to him by other people.’ On this view, then, honour
has very specific normative characteristics; it belongs with values of a specific sort; it is
characteristic of some forms of social organization, and not others; and it is associated
with certain specific types of action, motivation, and personality.
This general approach to Mediterranean sociology has been criticized on many grounds,
and no longer seems to enjoy much currency in its own field (cf. Jill Dubisch’s
contribution to this symposium). But the view of honour that it promulgated lives on. An
article in a 1998 volume on shame illustrates this.2 The authors do admit that there is a
general sense in which honour is a concern in a wide range of different societies, but
propose to use the term in a restricted sense with reference to paradigmatic ‘honour
societies’, cultures of violence based on masculinity and control of women. Their prime
examples are inner-city gangs in particular and the southern United States in general. The
importance of ‘honour’ as an attachment to ideals of aggressive masculinity in the South
explains southern states’ high rates of violence, but also their characteristic politeness and
See esp. Peristiany (1965), Gilmore (1987). In Classics, see Walcot (1970).
Cohen, Vandello, and Rantilla (1998); see further Nisbett and Cohen (1996).
civility (a precaution and defence against others’ acute sensitivity to perceived
An egregious example of the tendency to associate honour with a very specific set of
values and behaviour is the 2006 book by James Bowman. Here, honour is an essentially
primitive phenomenon; fundamentally a matter of ‘bravery, indomitability and the
readiness to avenge insults . . . for men’ and ‘chastity for women’ (p. 21). It is ‘always
intimately related’ to manhood (p. 22). It involves identification with a specific group,
and requires aggressive retaliation when the honour of that group is impugned or
attacked. This kind of honour, which Bowman calls ‘primitive honor’, persists (he
claims) unchanged in modern Islamic societies, because those societies themselves ‘have
hardly changed or developed for millennia and remain different only in detail from the
“primitive” cultures studied by anthropologists’ (p. 40). In the West, on the other hand,
the notion of honour has gone through a series of transformations: in the Homeric poems,
it exists in something like the primitive form still found in Muslim societies, but a
tradition of ‘scepticism’ about honour arose in classical Greek and Roman thought, and
Christianity exerted a strong pressure to moralize the notion that became increasingly
strong in the Renaissance and reached its zenith in the nineteenth century, when honour
had at its core an attachment to Christian morality, to personal integrity, to ideals of fair
play, to good manners, and to patriotism. All this was fatally undermined by World War I
(regarded in retrospect as having been fought for reasons of national honour), and finally
destroyed by the 1960s and the Vietnam War. Honour is now the motive that dare not
speak its name, to the extent that (in the US) attachments to ideals of honour now survive
only in counter-cultural contexts such as inner-city gangs (pp. 265, 286), where people
are excluded from or do not aspire to join the dominant anti-honour culture of
mainstream society. As a result, US leaders were unable to acknowledge what was in fact
the true motive for the second Gulf War (that America needed (a) to restore its national
honour after 9/11 by attacking a nation that, though uninvolved, could plausibly be
regarded as sympathizing with that atrocity; and (b) to demonstrate a will to do what it
takes to deter further aggression). Instead, a moral reason for going to war, weapons of
mass destruction, had to be supplied. This (you will gather) is a state of affairs that
Bowman deplores, leaving America vulnerable, as it does, to the threats posed by ‘two
primitive honor cultures, one Islamic and military and the other native or immigrant and
criminal, which challenge its hegemony in ways that may require it to do something more
than denounce them as unenlightened’ (p. 287; cf. p. 323). Bowman thus urges his fellow
Americans to recover their sense of national honour, their nation’s virility. This requires
‘a new acceptance of old forms of inequality’ as a means of encouraging merit (pp. 312-
13); but the real challenge, Bowman thinks, will be turning back the tide of women’s
rights (pp. 317-23) as a way of giving free play to that masculine pride that is
fundamental to ‘patterns of dominance not only between men but between nations’ (p.
It is possible to take a different view. Frank Henderson Stewart (1994) not only gives a
multifaceted account of the variety of forms, senses, and manifestations of honour (with a
particular emphasis on its appearance in the law codes of a range of different societies),
but also demonstrates, in his account of the institutionalization of honour among the
Bedouin of the Sinai, the historical development, complexity, and sophistication of the
notion of honour in at least one set of Muslim communities. Sharon Krause (2002)
attempts a rapprochement between honour and liberal democratic politics that goes back
to the prominence of honour in the political theory and ethics of the Enlightenment.
Alexander Welsh (2008) offers a wide-ranging account of the pervasiveness of honour as
a significant issue in the literature and thought of the West from Homer to the present
day. Welsh in particular makes a number of important points, some of which I’d like to
• He defines honour as ‘the respect that motivates or constrains members of a peer
group’ (pp. xv, 10). It thus follows that, as the values of groups differ, so honour
will relate to whatever norms or values the group holds dear. Though he does on
occasion (pp. 163, 190) talk in a prescriptive way about something called ‘true
honor’, Welsh is much less inclined to limit honour to a specific range of values
and behaviours. The wide range of evidence he cites bears out his contention that
the values to which honour relates vary with the nature of the group to which one
belongs (e.g. p. 189).
• Welsh sees the attachment to honour as a function of socialization in a wide range
of groups and societies (esp. p. 97); it develops as the obedience to the standards
inculcated by parents is replaced by emulation of the standards of the peer groups
to which a person belongs as s/he comes of age.
• With this relation to group standards, honour’s relation to morality is not
something that develops in particular (unusual) historical circumstances, but a
central function of the individual’s identification with the group.
• This identification, however, is not just a matter of prudent accommodation to
other people’s standards. Becoming a full member of the group entails
subscribing to those standards, achieving an identity in which self-respect is
formed and informed by the respect of others. Since all identity is social, there is
no absolute dichotomy, but rather a continuum, between heteronomy and
autonomy (see p. 131). We see the evidence of this in the way that attachment to
notions of honour is (in literature reviewed by Welsh) typically a feature not of
slavish conformists, but of proud, independent figures, people who, having made
standards of group their own, feel able to use their position to counsel, cajole, and
even defy the group.
Most of Welsh’s evidence comes from the literature and philosophy of the Renaissance
and Enlightenment periods (precisely those in which Bowman alleges that the
moralization of honour was at its height); but he himself is in no doubt that what he is
describing is what Adam Smith saw as the natural desire of all human beings for the
esteem of their fellows.3
This view is supported in a fascinating book by an economist and a philosopher, Geoffrey
Brennan and Philip Pettit (2004). Their notion of an ‘economy of esteem’ is not a mere
metaphor; on the assumption that the esteem of others is a good that most human beings
desire, they construct a series of abstract models that show how variations in the supply
of and demand for this good exhibit the characteristic features of an economy, in which
individual actions produce aggregate patterns that feed back into individuals’ choices ‘in
Smith (1759/1976) 116; cf. Welsh (2008) 18: we need to ‘demystify honor and treat it
as one kind of motivation that all are subject to’.
[a] distinctively self-organizing manner’ (p. 66). There is too much to summarize in
detail; but one point in particular caught my eye. Brennan and Pettit acknowledge that
some scholars believe that concern for honour or esteem is not a feature of all societies or
of all levels of a society (that it is found only in small-scale, face-to-face societies, that it
is purely aristocratic, or that it is a feature only of marginalized counter-cultural groups),
but regard this as ‘a grievous error’ (p. 8). In particular, they provide a model that
explains how the concern for esteem that pervades a whole society can produce
concentrations of esteem-seeking behaviour in socially marginalized groups. By virtue of
the diminishing marginal utility of all goods, esteem will mean ‘more to people who have
less of it’; ‘So other things being equal, an agent will work harder to avoid disesteem that
to gain positive esteem: shame is the stronger force for anyone who cares about esteem’
(p. 156). Those who have considerable reserves of esteem will be most concerned to
avoid the risks of losing it, while those who have little or none will be risk-takers. In
addition, because a basic condition for esteem is that our actions (even our existence)
should be recognized, those at the bottom have significant incentives to seek recognition
even by means of activities that do not, in the eyes of the mainstream, provide esteem (p.
187). Further (pp. 223-6), individuals who see themselves as excluded from mainstream
sources of esteem (and whose demand for esteem can thus be predicted to be especially
high) can be expected to join forces with like individuals in their contempt for the culture
that rejects them. In such counter-cultural groups the sole source of esteem is the group
itself, and these will thus be groups in which peer-pressure is most intense. The abstract
model itself predicts that the violence and anti-social behaviour of inner-city gangs, far
from representing the isolated survival of a concern for honour that no longer pervades
the rest of society, are in fact a function of a wider economy of esteem in which all
members of a society are implicated.4
Cf. Marmot (2004) 102, Wilkinson (2005) 222, 226; Wilkinson and Pickett (2008) 134,
The empirical evidence that this is so comes from the work of epidemiologists such as
Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson.5 Marmot was first alerted to the effects of status
on health by his extensive longitudinal studies (Whitehall I and II) of UK civil servants.
The UK civil service is a very hierarchical organization; within its ranks, ill health (esp.
coronary heart disease) and mortality rates are closely correlated with one’s position in
the hierarchy. Differences in lifestyle (smoking, alcohol, etc.) do not explain (all of) the
difference, which Marmot attributes (with clinical data) to the chronic stress induced by
lack of control over one’s work and the sense of being regarded as inferior to others
further up the hierarchy.
Marmot’s findings exist against the background of a wider phenomenon. One important
feature is the so-called epidemiological transition, by which, in the developed world, the
diseases and conditions which were once confined to the rich (obesity, type-2 diabetes,
cancer, heart disease) become more prevalent among the poor as absolute poverty and its
associated ills (e.g. malnutrition) are eradicated. Marmot and Wilkinson are perhaps the
most prominent among a number of scientists and scholars who have related this shift and
the prevalence of the diseases concerned to income inequality. It is now well established
that rates of morbidity and mortality in developed economies are very closely correlated
with income inequality. But ill health and early mortality are not the only social ills of
which this is true: also correlated with income inequality are homicide rates, the
incidence of teenage motherhood, mental health, drug abuse, educational performance,
prison populations, the extent of communities’ social capital, and self-reported levels of
happiness or satisfaction. The societies with the smaller discrepancies between the
highest and lowest earners do better on all these measures in a pattern that is much
stronger than chance and cannot be attributed to other factors. The same patterns on the
same measures are seen among US states, and the international and internal US data
provide valuable mutual confirmation of the relation between income inequality and
social problems. Two points are worth noting: (i) the effects of inequality are discernible
at all levels of society – the more equal societies do better at the top and at the bottom of
Marmot (2004); Wilkinson (2005); Wilkinson and Pickett (2008). For the data, cf.
the scale (i.e. the best outcomes in more equal societies are consistently better than the
best outcomes in the less equal, and so on at all levels, though the gap is smaller at the
top of the scale than it is at the bottom); these are not things that only affect the
(relatively) poor or that depend only on the number of relatively poor people in a given
society. (ii) In developed economies, in which absolute poverty is rare and even those on
less than half the average income have access to the standard commodities of consumer
society (TVs, cars, fridges, videos, etc.) income inequality is a matter of status (not
material deprivation), a matter of what your wealth and the things you can buy with it say
about your standing relative to others, and a matter of the extent to which you can
participate in the social contexts in which esteem is achieved.
The findings of these studies with regard to homicide rates are particularly relevant.6
Homicide’s main catalyst is disrespect, and it is above all committed by young men: the
distribution curve (in terms of gender and age of perpetrators) is the same for all
societies, showing a sharp rise in males at ages 10-14, followed by a peak at ages 20-24,
and falling off sharply thereafter. But the annual rates per million follow very closely the
levels of income inequality: the rate for the city of Chicago is over 30 times higher than
that for England and Wales. These findings confirm Brennan’s and Pettit’s predictions: in
societies in which discrepancies in esteem are large, those at the bottom of the range, for
whom a little esteem matters most, will take the biggest risks, even of their own lives and
liberty, to gain the respect of their peers and the recognition of society. The existence of
sectors within society in which perceived disrespect may provoke extreme levels of
violence and mayhem is not a sign that these groups care about something in which the
rest of society has lost interest; the level of violence attributable to these groups is one of
the effects of the status competition that pervades the rest of society. The ‘honour’ of
allegedly paradigmatic ‘honour societies’ such as inner-city gangs is related to a wider set
of phenomena rooted in human sociality and reflexivity, to a general human attachment
to esteem that is capable of taking a wide variety of forms.
See Wilkinson (2005) 145-67; Wilkinson and Pickett (2008) 129-44; cf. Daly and
Wilson (1988), Cronin (1991).
This means that the concern for honour and shame in ‘Homeric society’ is not a
phenomenon that we should approach as if we were outsiders. Though honour-words are
clearly attached to different ideals in different societies, and though honour (and its
analogues in English and other languages) may take on specific senses at different
periods and in different contexts, still there is a general sense in which what mattered to
Homer’s heroes is a reflex of something that still matters to us. We need to pay attention
to the particular, but to avoid letting particular differences obscure general similarities.
This is what makes possible studies like Ruth Scodel’s Epic Facework,7 a work that
applies tools of sociology and pragmatic linguistics originally developed for
contemporary Western societies to the fruitful elucidation of Homeric society. We need
to look at honour both more closely (what it really is) and more widely (beyond the
salient and paradigmatic cases in the ghetto, the Mafia, and the Mediterranean).
The study of honour and shame in Homer needs to be informed by the study of honour as
a cross-cultural phenomenon, but should also in its turn inform that study. In particular,
developmental or teleological views of ‘honour in the West’ and primitivist views of
honour as a limited and highly specific phenomenon should be precluded by an
appreciation that in the Homeric poems, too, honour is a complex, dynamic, and inclusive
‘Honour’ is a stock translation of the Greek time, which denotes both one’s ‘value’ in
one’s own and others’ eyes and the esteem conferred by others. The ‘value’ of an
individual may rest on a wide variety of qualities.8 Equally, esteem may be expressed in a
wide variety of ways: e.g. in the form of material goods, such as the gera (marks of
distinction) awarded from the spoils of war to successful and high-ranking warriors; the
choice cuts of meat, full cups of wine, and grants of land mentioned by Sarpedon (Il. 12.
E.g. prowess in warfare (Il. 9. 319, 12. 310-21, etc.), rank (Il. 1. 278), wealth (Od. 14.
205-6), noble birth (Il. 9. 237-9), age (Il. 9. 160-1), special skill or profession (Od. 8. 480,
Il. 5. 78, 16. 605), kinship (Il. 13. 176), being a good wife (Od. 7. 66-9), being a good
slave (Od. 1. 432), philotês (‘friendship’, Il. 9. 630-1, 17. 576-7, 22. 233-5, Od. 19. 247-
310-14); or gifts and prizes in general. But non-material forms of deference are more
common, and the showing of respect is a fundamental feature of Homeric etiquette in all
its forms.9 The set of honourable qualities and the range of honorific behaviour are thus
The same is true of the subjective sense of honour (in Greek aidos). Aidos has two related
but none the less distinct senses in Homer.10 First, it is the emotion which focuses on
actions and states of affairs which are ‘ugly’, unseemly, or which are said to excite
others’ indignation (hence ‘shame’). The range of these categories is wide: it includes
personal failure, especially in battle, but also failures in one’s obligations to others. In its
second sense (‘respect’), aidos can directly express these obligations: to say ‘I feel aidos
for you’ is a way of saying ‘I honour you’.
If a proper sense of honour requires the limitation of one’s own claims out of respect for
those of others, there is thus an expectation that legitimate claims to honour will be
recognized: references to allotted shares of time or to the time that one ought to receive
show that time may be a prerogative or entitlement; people complain indignantly when
denied the honour they feel they deserve; and failure to show honour where it is due is
condemned (e.g. as hybris).11 This entitlement to honour is widely distributed. A prime
category is that of one’s philoi (members of a co-operating group). But the entitlement
can also be extended to outsiders, such as strangers, beggars, and suppliants, all of whom
fall under the Odyssey’s category of aidoioi (‘respectworthy’).12 The degree to which a
Non-material deference: e.g. gazing in admiration (Od. 2. 13, 17. 64; as one would at a
god, Il. 12. 312, Od. 7. 71, 8. 173), verbal greetings (7. 72), the best seat at table (Il. 12.
311), carrying out an order (Od. 16. 304-7).
See Riedinger (1980), Cairns (1993).
Allotted shares (Il. 1. 278, 9. 608, 15. 189, Od. 5. 335, 8. 480, 11. 302, 338); due timê
(e.g. Il. 1. 353, 23. 649). Complaints of those of feel themselves dishonoured (e.g. Il. 23.
571, Od. 2. 55-67), condemnation of those who do not honour others (Od. 22. 414-15, 23.
65-6). Illegitimate dishonouring as hybris (Agamemnon, Il. 1. 203, the Suitors, Od. 1.
368, etc.). Cf. Stewart (1994) on honour as a right.
Distribution of right to time: in-group (e.g. Il. 9. 630-2, 640); strangers, beggars, and
suppliants: e.g. Od. 7. 165, 9. 271, 15. 373; cf. 14. 56-8.
community honours its obligations to such people is regularly presented as an index of its
Finally, the obligations to behave honourably and to respect the honour of others can be
internalized and generalized: characters regularly observe that you should not do what
you criticize in others,14 and the nemesis (indignation) that individuals feel over others’
shameful behaviour can also be directed at the self.15
Let us now look at some salient situations. First, Iliad 1. 245-53 and 275-84. The first
thing you notice here is the care with which both the poet and Nestor himself establish his
right to give advice (245-53; I use Lattimore’s translations and orthography):
Thus spoke Peleus’ son and dashed to the ground the sceptre
studded with golden nails, and sat down again. But Atreides
raged still on the other side, and between them Nestor
the fair-spoken rose up, the lucid speaker of Pylos,
from whose lips the streams of words ran sweeter than honey.
In his time two generations of mortal men had perished,
those who had grown up with him and they who had been born to
these in sacred Pylos, and he was king in the third age.
He in kind intention toward both stood forth and addressed them:
This right to advise is a function of Nestor’s status (i.e. his honour); it derives not just
from his age, but from the wisdom and eloquence that his experience has given him. This
status gives his words authority and allows him to pronounce upon the quarrel of Achilles
and Agamemnon with impartiality. Nestor is upholding group values to which
Agamemnon and Achilles should subscribe and his authority derives from the honour in
which he is held by the group, but that authority in itself allows him the independence of
mind to tell two powerful figures what neither of them wants to hear. In honouring Nestor
as a councillor, this independence, the willingness to speak out and persuade others that
they are wrong, is precisely what the group wants; this is why he is valued (honoured).
Od. 9. 175-6, 188-9; cf. 17. 487, 19. 333-4.
Il. 23. 494; Od. 6. 286, 15. 69-71.
Il. 16. 544-6, 17. 254-5, Od. 1. 119-20, 2. 64, 4. 158-9.
Next, notice Nestor’s diagnosis of the grounds of the quarrel (275-84):
‘You, great man that you are, yet do not take the girl away
but let her be, a prize as the sons of the Achaians gave her
first. Nor, son of Peleus, think to match your strength with
the king, since never equal with the rest is the portion of honour
of the sceptred king to whom Zeus gives magnificence. Even
though you are the stronger man, and the mother who bore you was immortal,
yet is this man greater who is lord over more than you rule.
Son of Atreus, give up your anger; even I entreat you
to give over your bitterness against Achilleus, he who
stands as a great bulwark of battle over all the Achaians.’
Behind the dispute over women-as-prizes, i.e. over the marks of the esteem in which
Achilles and Agamemnon are held by the army, lies a deeper dispute over the claims to
precedence of incommensurable qualities, rank versus prowess. This is a society which
entertains a plurality of claims to honour. In refusing to reduce the competing claims of
Achilles and Agamemnon to a single criterion of value, Nestor is urging each to give the
other’s claims their due. This idea, that there are entitlements to honour that it is right to
acknowledge is specifically identified as an aspect of ‘justice’ by Odysseus at the
resolution of the quarrel in Book 19 (181-3):
‘And you, son of Atreus, after this be more righteous [dikaioteros] to another
man. For there is no fault when even one who is a king
appeases a man, when the king was the first one to be angry.’
The link between honour, rights, and morality is not something that emerges only as the
putative Western notion of honour develops; it is right there, in the supposedly primitive
honour culture of Homer. Honour in the Iliad is not something a man can pursue without
limit; and the limit is imposed by the honour or respect that he owes others.
Let us now think about the case of Achilles. In Iliad 1, he becomes embroiled in a quarrel
with Agamemnon out of a desire to defend group values against arbitrary manipulation
by a powerful individual; he then finds the power of that individual turned, arbitrarily,
against himself. From that point on, his strategy involves a series of interlocking
negotiations of individual claims and group standards. On one level, Achilles’ stance
resembles that of Nestor: he uses his status within the group in an attempt to persuade the
group to see things his way. His withdrawal is in one sense a demonstration of his
independence, so that in Book 9 he can say, in response to Phoenix, that he doesn’t need
the time that the Achaeans can offer him, but can rely on the honour her derives from
Zeus (9. 607-8). But Phoenix has just pointed out (602-5) that the community can
withhold time even from a warrior who fights well, if that warrior does not fight on their
terms; and Achilles’ own appeal to Zeus is itself part of a strategy designed to achieve the
public acknowledgement of the status that Agamemnon failed to respect. Achilles’ view
of himself is most certainly not dependent on the view that others have of him; but he
does need others to endorse the view that he takes of himself, and this is what he attempts
to coerce the Achaeans to do. In this situation, both the individual and the group are
powerful, and there is no question either of an autonomy that excludes all notion of
others’ approval or a heteronomy that wholly determines the individual’s view of
Achilles’ complaints (in Books 1 and 9) turn on norms that are widely shared. His
complaint is not just about disrespect, but about a denial of due respect that negates the
reciprocity that should obtain among peers. There is principle as well as pride behind his
stance, and a notion of group standards that should apply equally to all. But of course it
matters enormously that he was the victim; not just because we all put a higher value on
social norms when we are the ones who suffer from their breach, but because achieving
glory at Troy is a fundamental part of what it is to be Achilles – this is the life he has
chosen (9. 400-16):
worth the value of my life are all the possessions they fable
were won for Ilion, that strong-founded citadel, in the old days
when there was peace, before the coming of the sons of the Achaians;
not all that the stone doorsill of the Archer holds fast within it,
of Phoibos Apollo in Pytho of the rocks. Of possessions
cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting,
and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,
but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted
nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.’
This apparently total identification of himself with the everlasting fame of martial glory
goes some way to explaining why Achilles sees Agamemnon’s actions as a complete
negation of his status – anybody who would put up with such treatment is a nobody (he
says at 1. 231, 293); Agamemnon has treated him like a rootless refugee, someone
completely without honour (9. 648). Agamemnon shows disrespect for all that Achilles
has invested, not just in the Trojan war, but in being Achilles. Achilles’ prodigious,
quasi-divine fury (menis) indicates his commitment to this identity: he really is someone
for whom kleos is definitive and who will go to enormous lengths to punish disrespect.
Because he is determined to demonstrate to all that Agamemnon cannot get away with
this (1. 239-44, 408-12), to make Agamemnon pay in full for the outrage (e.g. 9. 386-7),
Achilles decides that the attempt to make amends in Book 9 is not good enough. But
notoriously, the Ambassadors remind him of other aspects of Iliadic honour, in particular
of the honour he owes his friends (9. 630-1, 640-2):
‘He is hard, and does not remember that friends’ affection
wherein we honoured him by the ships, far beyond all others. . .
Respect your own house; see, we are under the same roof with you,
from the multitude of the Danaans, we who desire beyond all
others to have your honour and love, out of all the Achaians.’
Like King Lear, Achilles discovers that he has ‘taken too little care of this’ with the loss
of his best friend, Patroclus (18. 79-83, 88-104):
‘My mother, all these things the Olympian brought to accomplishment.
But what pleasure is this to me, since my dear companion has perished,
Patroklos, whom I loved beyond all other companions,
as well as my own life. I have lost him, and Hektor, who killed him,
has stripped away that gigantic armour, . . .
As it is, there must be on your heart a numberless sorrow
for your son’s death, since you can never again receive him
won home again to his country; since the spirit within does not drive me
to go on living and be among men, except on condition
that Hektor first be beaten down under my spear, lose his life
and pay the price for stripping Patroklos, the son of Menoitios.’
Then in turn Thetis spoke to him, letting the tears fall:
‘Then I must lose you soon, my child, by what you are saying,
since it is decreed your death must come soon after Hektor’s.’
Then deeply disturbed Achilleus of the swift feet answered her:
‘I must die soon, then; since I was not to stand by my companion
when he was killed. And now, far away from the land of his fathers,
he has perished, and lacked my fighting strength to defend him.
Now, since I am not going back to the beloved land of my fathers,
since I was no light of safety to Patroklos, nor to my other
companions, who in their numbers went down before glorious Hektor,
but sit here beside my ships, a useless weight on the good land . . .’
Friendship, in Homer, is (as we saw) a matter of mutual respect, and Achilles now feels
that he has let all his philoi down. He says, almost in so many words, that the honour he
expected once his value as a warrior had been demonstrated now means nothing to him.
His life is now wholly invested in revenge, in reflexive honour: the honour that he will
attain in avenging Patroclus’ death (and thereby no doubt also assuaging his own sense of
shame and remorse) matters more to him than his own life. There is no suggestion here
that the approbation of others matters at all; what matters is Achilles’ own belated
realization of the duty that a man of honour owes his friends.
But this is not the end of the story. Achilles’ final Iliadic exploit is also explicitly a matter
of honour. Zeus himself says as much in proposing that Priam should appeal in person for
the return of Hector’s body (24. 109-10):
‘[The other gods] keep urging clear-sighted Argeïphontes to steal the body,
but I am going to attach this glory to Achilleus [i.e. of returning the body
And when it comes, Priam’s appeal is explicitly to Achilles’ sense of respect for the
institution of supplication. Priam begins and ends his appeal as follows (24. 486-7, 503-
‘‘Achilleus like the gods, remember your father, one who
is of years like mine, and on the door-sill of sorrowful old age . . .
Honour then the gods, Achilleus, and take pity upon me
remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful.’
In accepting Priam’s supplication Achilles honours an individual whose special status is
underwritten by the gods, but he also (on Priam’s encouragement) generalizes from the
duty of respect that sons owe their fathers. Because Achilles would hate to see his own
father suffer so, denied even the privilege of honouring his son with a decent burial, he
will not so dishonour Priam – a version of the Golden Rule, that we should not treat
others in ways in which we should not like them to treat us. We see here just how far
notions of mutual respect can go in support of universalizable moral values. By behaving
in this way, Achilles gets the kudos that Zeus promises at 24. 110. At every stage,
Achilles’ conduct reflects ideals and practices of honour; but at no stage is it simply a
matter of male competition for prestige. Ethical norms, themselves aspects of the
complex of honour, impinge from the outset, and the varieties of the respect that a man
owes others play as big a role as the esteem that he seeks for himself.
And finally Hector: if the Iliad is the tragedy of Hector (as well as of Achilles), then
much of that tragedy lies in the inclusivity of Homeric notions of honour. Hector could
defend Troy from the walls, as advised by Andromache in Book 6; he could return to the
city after an unprecedented day of success, as advised by Polydamas in Book 12; he
could save himself for another day and think first of those who most need his protection,
as advised by his mother and father in Book 22. But he does not – in all cases because of
his desire for honour and his sense of shame. He cares acutely for his honour and his
reputation, but he is self-willed, independent, and determined in doing what he thinks
Hector refers twice to the sense of shame that motivates him. In the first passage, he
rejects his wife’s advice to behave in a way that, though perhaps prudent, could be
construed as cowardly (6. 440-65):
Then tall Hektor of the shining helm answered her: ‘All these
things are in my mind also, lady; yet I would feel deep shame
before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments,
if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting;
and the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant
and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans,
winning for my own self great glory, and for my father.
For I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it:
there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish,
and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.
But it is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans
that troubles me, not even of Priam the king nor Hekabe,
not the thought of my brothers who in their numbers and valour
shall drop in the dust under the hands of men who hate them,
as troubles me the thought of you, when some bronze-armoured
Achaian leads you off, taking away your day of liberty,
in tears; and in Argos you must work at the loom of another,
and carry water from the spring Messeis or Hypereia,
all unwilling, but strong will be the necessity upon you;
and some day seeing you shedding tears a man will say of you:
“This is the wife of Hektor, who was ever the bravest fighter
of the Trojans, breakers of horses, in the days when they fought about Ilion.”
So will one speak of you; and for you it will be yet a fresh grief,
to be widowed of such a man who could fight off the day of your slavery.
But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I
hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.’
Hector is explicitly concerned with what people will say of his conduct, but the imagined
judgement of others wholly coincides with his own choice – his spirit will not let him
contemplate any other course; he has learned to be brave. Bravery, winning glory for
himself and his father, has become an end in itself, part of what it is to be Hector. Yet
Hector also realizes that the honour he craves entails an element of shame, that the glory
of bravery is only a second best if bravery fails to protect one’s dependants, especially
one’s wife. Society makes martial glory an end in itself for those who pursue it, but
inculcates that end as a means to its own protection. Hector realizes that this is something
that he will ultimately fail to provide. The tension between the simple norm that only
cowards retreat and its wider social implications is quite clearly not one between honour
and something else, but within the notion of honour itself.
A similar tension emerges in the second passage, where Hector confronts the fact that his
desire for military glory has led to a failure to protect his people; he had been advised (in
12) to retreat, and as in 6 had rejected the prudent course in favour of the prospect of
glory (22. 99-110):
‘Ah me! If I go now inside the wall and the gateway,
Poulydamas will be first to put a reproach upon me,
since he tried to make me lead the Trojans inside the city
on that accursed night when brilliant Achilleus rose up,
and I would not obey him, but that would have been far better.
Now, since by my own recklessness I have ruined my people,
I feel shame before the Trojans and the Trojan women with trailing
robes, that someone who is less of a man than I will say of me:
“Hektor believed in his own strength and ruined his people.”
Thus they will speak; and as for me, it would be much better
at that time, to go against Achilleus, and slay him, and come back,
or else be killed by him in glory in front of the city.’
Hector does not just regret his failure to prevail in battle; nor has he merely realized that
the pursuit of honour can be misguided. The shame that he feels focuses not (as in Book
6) on the imputation of cowardice, but on the duties of leadership and care that he owes
his people. As in the first passage, it is clear that Hector cares deeply about what people
will say; but these reproaches of the fantasy audience are hypothetical, and the pejorative
construction they place on Hector’s actions is his own (‘since by my own recklessness I
have ruined my people, I feel shame . . .’ 104-5). His projection of the fantasy audience is
an aspect of the way that he now views his own conduct – he knows he has failed, by his
own standards. And so the only life worth living is the short one in which he faces
Achilles and tries to redeem some of his lost honour by a noble death. As for Achilles,
Hector’s sense of honour is part of his very being, central to his view of who he is – so
central that it assumes a higher value than existence itself. But also as in Achilles’ case,
limited perspectives on honour are brought into explicit confrontation with wider aspects
of a more inclusive concept.
In the extreme cases of the greatest heroes, such as Achilles and Hector, honour is so far
from being just one external good among many that it can be regarded as preferable to
life itself. Each invests his being and identity in the pursuit of honour, yet each becomes
aware that honour is more complicated than he had thought, especially when the
individualistic pursuit of military glory is brought into relation with the reciprocal
negotiations of respect that characterize relations with others. Already in the earliest work
of European literature, tensions and contradictions in the notion of honour are being
probed – presumably to appeal to audiences for whom the life of honour not a simplistic
notion. Homeric honour (and therefore Homeric shame) involves complicated and multi-
faceted negotiations between individual claims and others’ recognition and invokes the
full range of norms and values by which Homeric society operates. There is considerable
evidence for self-assertive masculinity, but also for much else besides. The association
between honour and morality, identity, and integrity is there already in Homer. Yet,
though Homer’s heroes are proud and independent, their pursuit of honour implies a
community with the power to judge them. Individual identity is intimately bound up with
group membership. Self-esteem depends on the esteem of others. This is the only way it
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