|Achilles and Patroclus, from a red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC|
Nothing captures areté better than the characters in Homer’s Iliad. Its characters champion “reaching your highest potential.” The story revolves around Achilleus, the great Achaean warrior who undergoes an internal struggle to find a reason to die. Everybody is going to die eventually, and each character is aware of this, as is the rest of Greek society. Because all humans have to die, however, they should earn a noble death. Society will then remember them with honor. Those individuals who give their life for what they value become institutions, immortals, and heroes.
Having withdrawn from the Trojan War, Achilleus allowed his good friend Patroklos to enter battle wearing his personal armor. During the battle, however, the Trojan prince Hektor killed Patroklos. The death of his dear friend at the hands of the Trojans drove Achilleus into a rage. He now had something for which to die. Achilleus could now fight and die for Patroklos, as Protoklos fought and died for him. In doing so, Achilleus could now live gloriously—fight with all his might against the Trojans. He declared, “Now I shall go, to overtake that killer of a dear life, Hektor; then I will accept my own death, at whatever time Zeus wishes to bring it about, and the other immortals.” When Achilleus arrived on the battlefield, Athene circled his head, from which came a great blaze of fire. Homer writes, “There he stood, and shouted, and from her place Pallas Athene gave cry, and drove endless terror upon the Trojans. As loud as comes the voice that is screamed out by a trumpet by murderous attackers who beleaguer a city.” Achilleus became the best he could be on the battlefield. He was full of life and glory, something that only came with the death of his best friend. With that newfound sense of life, Achilleus won the war for the Achaeans.
The Greeks not only loved Homer’s characters, but also internalized timé. Such was the case during the Greco-Persian Wars. When Persia invaded Greece, Athens was in grave danger. If conquered, the Athenian people would fall under the tyranny of Persia. And so, the Athenian soldiers met their enemy at the shores of Marathon for a final stand. They were ready to die for their families and their polis. When the battle began, the Athenian hoplites charged the Persian troops at full speed. According to Herodotus, “The Persians, therefore, when they saw the Greeks coming on at speed, made ready to receive them, although it seemed to them that the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction.” The Athenians were indeed “bent upon their own destruction,” since they were ready to die. That day, the Athenian hoplites “fought in a manner worthy of being recorded.” The Greeks found their reason for living, the preservation of their city-state. These hoplites believed that if they were going to die, they might as well do so with a sense of timé. At Marathon, because the Greeks were willing to die for their families, their polis, and for each other, much like Achilleus did, they were able to push the Persians out of Greece.
Ἀreté, as defined by the characters of Homer’s Iliad, and internalized by the Greek soldiers was what gave many Greeks meaning. If the Greeks could find those things most precious to them, then they could live (and die) gloriously.
1. Richard Hooker, "Areté," Washington State University, http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/GLOSSARY/ARETE.HTM
2. I used the Lattimore translation, which uses Achilleus, as opposed to Achilles. For the evolution of the name, see Herbert Jordan at http://www.iliadtranslation.com/homeric_names.html
3. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richard Lattimore, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 18.114-116.
4. Ibid., 18.204-220.
5. Herodotus, The Persian Wars, trans. George Rawlinson (New York:, 1942), 6.112.