Aidōs, the Ancient Greek word for ‘shame’, was a pervasive element of Greek society. Heavy emphasis was placed on the qualities of heroism and honor in Ancient Greece, and the fear of shame, being the antithesis of the qualities, was thus a powerful motivator and influence for the Ancient Greeks. The concept of shame and the consequences of shaming actions are explored and demonstrated throughout the heroic epic The Iliad. Both of the heroes the epic centers on, Hector of Troy and Achilles the Greek, are influenced by their fear of shame, and respond to shame in important ways which will have large consequences on the course of events.
The Iliad begins with Achilles and Agamemnon, a Greek king and the leader of the Greek siege of Troy, at odds with each other over Agamemnon’s refusal to return his prize girl to her father, the Apollo priest Chryses of Chryse. In response to Achilles’ demands that he return the girl, Agamemnon says that he will do so but will take Achilles’ prize girl, Briseis, to replace her. This taking of his rightful prize is a shaming action on Achilles, who says that Agamemnon “failed to honor the best Greek of all” (pg. 113, line 259) and then refuses to fight for the Greeks any longer. This wrongful shame that Achilles feels at having his prize taken from him whips him into a fury, and his anger and resulting refusal to fight for the Greeks is not placated later by massive offers of gifts and other women from Agamemnon. A consequence of Achilles’ refusal to fight is that his closest friend, Patroclus, goes out to fight in his place and is killed in battle by Hector. Patroclus’ death is an even greater shame to Achilles, who blames his refusal to fight as the reason for Patroclus’ killing. Achilles recognizes that he was unable to protect Patroclus in battle for he “just squatted by my ships, a dead weight on the earth…” (pg. 161, line 109), and the shame he feels for the irresponsibility and pride that caused Patroclus’ death motivates him to do what Agamemnon’s gifts and entreaties could not. He decides that he will go out to fight in battle and kill Hector, despite knowing that, as his divine mother Thetis tells him, “Hector’s death means yours” (pg. 151, line 100). Thus, the shame that Achilles felt was the most powerful influence in his decisions. It first contributed to his decision not to fight for the Greeks in response to the wrongful shame of having his prize taken from him, and then in deciding to fight and kill Hector from the shame of not preventing Patroclus’ death.
Hector, Prince of Troy and the leader of the Trojan defenders, must also grapple with the issue of shame, and his fear of shame contributes to choices of his which will have dramatic consequences. Fighting the Greeks is a dangerous undertaking, and Hector could very easily be killed while in battle. Knowing this, Andromache, Hector’s wife and mother of his infant son, pleads with Hector to stay away from the fighting for her sake and the sake of his child. She begs him to “show some pity and stay here by the tower, Don’t make your child an orphan, your wife a widow” (pg. 129, line 453). Hector refuses, however, responding that “I worry about all this myself, but my shame before the Trojans… would be too terrible if I hung back from battle like a coward. And my heart won’t let me” (pg. 129, line 463). Hector’s fear of the shame cowardice would bring prevents him from staying away from battle, even though his death would have dire consequences for his family. Later, as Hector goes out to face Achilles in mortal combat, his parents try to dissuade him from fighting but are unable. As Hector waits, he briefly considers returning behind Troy’s walls, but decides that he “can’t face the Trojan men and women now… hear some lesser men say, ‘Hector trusted his strength and lost the army’… I’ll be much better off facing Achilles, either killing him or dying honorably before the city” (page 176, line 120) Hector’s fear of shame, both from not fighting Achilles and from contributing to the Trojan army’s defeat, is too strong to allow him to shrink from the battle, even though all know that Achilles is more likely to emerge the victor. Indeed, during the fight Achilles manages to overcome and kill Hector. Hector’s sense of shame, and his great fear of it, was influential enough to force him to face a stronger foe, and in doing so lose his life. The powerful nature of shame is demonstrated in Hectors decisions, for he made them despite knowing that his death would bring grief upon his family and tragedy upon Troy.
As demonstrated in The Iliad, the perception and influence of shame in Ancient Greece was a powerful one, and the consequences of actions taken because of the fear of shame had dire consequences for the heroes of the epic. Shame contributed to Achilles rage and decision to refrain from fighting; it alone contributed to his decision to go out again and fight. The fear of shame prevented Hector from accepting his family’s petitions, forced him to face Achilles in the field, and would, as a result, ultimately lead to his demise.