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Glorification of War

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The Iliad is an epic poem that glorifies the heroic ideals that war imposes on its men. War itself has a strange, deadly fascination for those who are involved. Although war is characterized as being dreadful and grim, it is also characterized as the way for glory (‘kleos’) to surface in man. Warriors are often seen as eager, yearning to leave their lives behind and fight for their fatherlands, willing to risk it all. The ultimate goal of the ancient Greeks, shown throughout the epic, is the immortal fame that lasts beyond death. The concept of glory helps to define what it means to be a hero and, as such, is fundamental in shaping everything that emerges in Homer’s Iliad.

Defeat and death are basically inevitable in battle, as the Iliad will show. This epic is a poem that lives and breathes and has its entire being in war – creating a world of violence in which man can justify his existence, most clearly, by defeating and killing others. The realities of war are not ignored; men die terrible and gruesome deaths, women are forced to become concubines and slaves, and cities are sacked for all they’re worth. Even the most honorable of warriors have their doubts and uncertainties; but even so, the war isn’t reflected as a being a waste of time or a waste of human life. Each side and each warrior is shown to have a justifiable reason to fight: immortal glory. Warfare is, then, depicted as being a reputable means of settling the long ten-year dispute. Kleos is the glory that could be achieved by heroes who gave up their lives to fight and die on the battlefield. To die a gruesome, violent, and dramatic death was to execute the greatest and most honorable of deeds: “Ah for a young man all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war, hacked to pieces under a slashing bronze blade – he lies there dead…but whatever death lays bare, all wounds are marks of glory. ” (Homer Iliad 22. 84-8, pp. 543-544). Only true heroes would be willing to consciously choose the path that would likely lead to their own demise. Sacrificing all that they have known and loved, these warriors strived for the honor and glory that would live on in their children and the generations to follow, beyond death, “Well let me die – but not without struggle, not without glory, no, in some great clash of arms that even men to come will hear of down the years!” (Homer Iliad 22. 359-62, pp. 551).

Warriors of ancient Greece were judged by their competence, their bravery, and their courage in battle – not just by other mortals, but also gods. Those who chose to not fight were seen as being weak and cowardice. For example, Diomedes yelled to Odysseus, “Where are you running, the royal son of Laertes cool tactician? Turning your back in battle like some coward!” (Homer Iliad 8. 108-110, pp. 234). Kleos must be sought out, but often at a great and personal expense. Time and time again, wives of warriors would beg their husbands to be cautious, for they too know the likely ending: Reckless one, my Hector – your own fiery courage will destroy you! Have you no pity for him, our helpless son? Or me, and the destiny that weighs me down, your widow, now so soon. Yes, soon they will kill you off… /What other warmth, what comfort’s left for me, once you have met your doom? /Pity me, please! Take your stand on the rampart here, before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow (Homer Iliad 6. 482-512, pp. 209-210). Andromache, Hector’s wife, begs him to cease the combat on the battlefield and, instead, use a defensive strategy and command from inside the walls of Troy. She, like many other wives of warriors, wished her husband to find a safer way to fight. Hector can acknowledge the suggestion; however, he cannot go forth with it. His reply reveals the tragic dilemma many warriors often faced when glory is at stake: All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman. But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes if I would shrink from battle now, a coward. Nor does the spirit urge me on that way. I’ve learned it all too well. To stand up bravely, always to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soldiers, winning my father great glory, glory for myself (Homer Iliad 6. 522-29, pp. 210). To be a great hero is to sacrifice it all for battle. Hector realizes the path he must choose in order to achieve eternal glory; to act as though he has no value for his own life and for his family’s. The Iliad, while it appreciates the obligations and the bonds that connect families together, ranks the respect for glory significantly higher. Heroes must choose between their beloved family and their great desire for kleos, and often pick the latter.

We see throughout the epic that Achilles has to choose which path of fate he will follow. His life has been predestined, as all lives of ancient Greece were, and must choose between two fates: “If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies…true, but the life that’s left me will be long, the stroke of death will not come on me quickly” (Homer Iliad 9. 501-05, pp. 265). When Achilles first retreats from battle, he is choosing to live a long, unglorified life, one of which he will not achieve heroic remembrance beyond death. After Hector kills Patroclus, however, Achilles has a change in heart, and seeks to avenge Patroclus’ death: “But now I’ll go and meet that murderer head on, that Hector who destroyed the dearest life I know. For my own death, I’ll meet it freely… /But now, for the moment, let me seize great glory!” (Homer Iliad 18. 136-145, pp. 471). To avenge Patroclus’ death means to choose a short life, however full of immortal and everlasting glory. While Achilles is determined to kill Hector, he will also do well in battle to honor Patroclus’ name. As such, Achilles’ kleos will extend to Patroclus, since he is using his own honor to bring glory his comrade.

While war itself is a gruesome and dehumanizing affair, there is emphasis placed on the retrieval of the body for proper burial. Those who heroically died in battle, regardless of who it is and what side they were for, must be treated with respect. In this case, kleos can be ensured to the hero if his body has been properly returned and honored, as told by Hector at the hands of Achilles, “I beg you, beg you by your life, your parents – don’t let the dogs devour me by the Argive ships! /but give my body to friends to carry home again, so Trojan men and Trojan women can do me honor with fitting rites of fire once I am dead” (Homer Iliad 22. 399-405, pp. 552). This notion that respect and fame remain beyond death further illustrates the struggle to achieve glory. The Greeks believed that glory and honor lasted far longer than anything physical of that of a person’s life, and the pursuit and protection of this notion was the powerful force behind what transpired in the Greeks’ lives. If kleos can be achieved by proper burial, then to not receive one would be dishonorable on the body and the family. Achilles wanted to exact his revenge by mutilating Hector’s body after he had killed Patroclus; he wanted to bring dishonor on the Trojan hero, his family, and his fatherland. When Hector begged for his body to be returned and carried home for proper burial, Achilles responded, “Beg no more, you fawning dog… /No man alive could keep the dog-packs off you, not if they haul in ten, twenty times that ransom… /Not even then will your noble mother lay you on your deathbed, mourn the son she bore…The dogs and birds will rend you -blood and bone!” (Homer Iliad 22. 407-17, pp. 553). After Hector had died and Achilles taunted his dead body, Hector’s armor had been stripped and his body gruesomely mutilated by the Achaeans. The desecration of the body is an effort to shame and dishonor the dead.

Kleos cannot only be interpreted as the means, but also as the medium, or the message. Since kleos has an immortalizing capability (ancient heroes would make great strides to be god-like, since an essential trait of being a god is being immortal), obtaining kleos would mean to obtain immortality, in a sense. The hero would be perpetually glorious, his name forever remembered and recorded as such for the rest of time; it was important to have witnesses to the achievement, so it could be shared and spread amongst others.

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