“Death in ten thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude him; therefore, let us go forward and either win glory for ourselves, or yield it to another.”
– Sarpedon, Iliad, 12.310-28
We’re back to classical concepts this week, with another cast favourite. This week is all about glory, or Kleos as the Ancient Greeks called it. It’s a fascinating concept that really helps us to understand the world of the Iliad and Odyssey (and of the Batrachomyomachia)!
What is Kleos?
Κλέος (kleos) is often translated in English as “Glory” or “Renown”, but it’s roots are in κλύω (klúō) which is “I hear” in Ancient Greek, so in reality, Kleos means something more like “that which is heard”. No, this isn’t the original gossip girl; your Kleos is your everlasting fame and it is the ultimate drive for any Ancient Greek hero.
Ancient Greek Kleos…
Why is it important?
The desire for Kleos defined Greek society in so many ways. There is a school of thought that since life was short and hard, and death was ever present in the Ancient World, everyone had a very acute sense of their own mortality. The cure for mortality was in your Kleos. If you could do something that gained you fame and renown, people would write songs and stories about you and through those you would become, in a way, immortal. The best way to gain Kleos was by being a famous warrior. Nowhere is this more encapsulated than in the fate of Achilles.
Achilles is perhaps the only mortal ever given the choice of two fates – Thetis, his sea nymph mother, tells him that if he avoids the Trojan War, he will live to a ripe old age with a large family who will love and honour him, but after a few generations his name will be lost to the winds of time. However, by fighting before the gates of Troy, he will live a short and bloody life, become the aristos archaeon – the best warrior in the world – and die as a young man heaped with Kleos. It is a testament to Kleos’ allure that Achilles chooses the latter. But, after-all, we are still talking about him today, so maybe he made the right choice?
Elsewhere, the Iliad is incredibly self-aware of the power of Kleos; when the characters talk about their own mortality, it is with the knowing irony that they will live on forever in the poem. Helen tells Hector that
“Zeus gives us an evil fate, so we may be subjects for men’s songs in generations yet to come.” (Iliad VI. 442).
Other characters, like the Lycian king Sarpedon, openly admit that their prominent position in society comes from their willingness to stand in the front line of battle:
“Why in Lycia do we receive especial honour as regards our place at table? Why are the choicest portions served us and our cups kept brimming, and why do men look up to us as though we were gods? … one may say to another, our princes in Lycia eat the fat of the land and drink best of wine, but they are fine fellows; they fight well and are ever at the front in battle.” (Iliad IX. 320).
Kleos is so important to the Ancient Greek heroes that they were quite literally ready to die for it.
The Euphronios Krater showing the (spoiler alert) death of Sarpedon
So how do you get it?
Stuff was really important in Ancient Greece – actual physical stuff like tripods and sheep, gold cups and cloaks of the finest Tyrian purple. The heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey care about getting stuff so much that they take frankly ridiculous risks, even to the point of risking certain death just to gain more. Odysseus allows the Cyclops to eat 6 of his men just for the possibility of getting some presents, and Achilles begs the King of the Gods, Zeus, to make the Greeks lose the war – his own people – just because they took some of his precious stuff away from him! It all makes very little sense to a modern audience and many an undergraduate classicist has spent the first few years of their degree not really understanding why the greatest hero of the Greek world was a giant crybaby who kicks off about losing some stuff and causes a LOT of other people to die. But armed with a better understanding of Kleos, we now know that all this stuff is actually kudos and those heroes cared about that stuff so much because it represented their Kleos.
Some examples of Kudos
You’ve probably heard of kudos, right? As in “hey I heard you got that amazing new job – kudos!”. Well kudos is an Ancient Greek word too, and it is completely tied up with Kleos. Your kudoswas the physical manifestation of your Kleos– that is your worth and fame were literally measured in how much stuff you had (#earlyconsumerism).
So how do you get stuff in the Ancient World? Well battle is the best place. War can be incredibly lucrative if you’re attacking a rich settlement, and Troy was particularly rich. As it was placed in a fruitful position for trading with both the East and West, the city is described as “rich in horses” which are a traditional symbol of wealth and power and having “a shining diadem of towers”. Arguably, the Greeks attacking Troy had nothing to do with Helen and a lot more to do with the riches to be won – this is basically the plot of the 2004 blockbuster adaptation Troy.
The prizes from war were allotted to the heroes at the end of each day of fighting in accordance with how well they had fought. But there were other ways. For example, you could win sports competitions like the ones held during the funeral for Patroclus in Book 23 of the Iliad. The prizes for this included a slave woman (skilled in all the useful arts), talents of gold, horses and tripods worth an incredible 12 oxen (we’ve told you about this legit currency before!). At funerals the dead’s possessions would be distributed among his friends (check out this great story about Ajax killing himself because he didn’t get Achilles’ armour after he died), and gifts were also a traditional part of Xenia, which we wrote a whole blog post about that you can check out here!
So without writing a dissertation, I think we’ve just about covered Kleos. If you want to find out more, then we’d recommend reading literally any part of the Iliad, or if you are more of a film buff the movie Troy does actually do a decent job of showing how important glory was to the Ancient Greek warrior-heroes. If you have any burning questions or comments, feel free to tweet us with them, or really any other form of social media…we’re on Instagram here and Facebook here!