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The Male Ethic

The primary characters in the Homeric poems are aristocrats, who are expected to live up to a demanding code of values. The men are mainly warriors, like the incomparable Achilles1 of the Iliad. This poem tells part of the famous story of the attack by a Greek army on the city of Troy2, a stronghold located in northwestern Anatolia. Although it is commonly assumed that the Trojans were a different people from the Greeks, the poems themselves provide no definitive answer to the question of their ethnic identity. In the Iliad's representation of the Trojan War, which the Greeks believed occurred about four hundred years before Homer's time, Achilles is, in the language of the poem, “the best of the Greeks3” because he is a “doer of deeds and speaker of words4” without equal. Achilles' overriding concern in word and action is with the glory and recognition for all time that he can win with his “excellence” (the best available translation for Greek arete 5, a word with a range of meanings). Like all aristocrats, Achilles feared the disgrace that he would feel before others if he were seen to fail to live up to the code of excellence. Under the aristocratic code, failure and wrongdoing produced public shame.

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