Aristeia and philotimia

Two key concepts of the ancient Greek world

In this article, we explore two important concepts of the warrior ethos that was at the heart of ancient Greek culture.

Eugenia Russell

The Greeks of the classical period were the inheritors of the values of the heroic warrior cultures that were handed down to them through myth and legend, including the writings of Homer and other early Greek poets. Life was still turbulent, with struggles for supremacy between rival Greek city states and the threat from larger powers such as Persia and, later, Rome.

Being a citizen meant also being a warrior and in this male dominated society the two noblest attributes that a citizen could aspire to were courage and honour. These key concepts were embodied in the words aristeia, which meant prowess in war, or military virtue, and philotimia, the love of honour.

Interestingly, aristeia could be summed up in one core meaning while philotimia has at least three or four different interpretations in literature. This may be because there was a general consensus about what bravery in war looked like but the same was not the case when it came to the pursuit of distinction more generally. We will look at examples for both concepts in turn.

The concept of aristeia

The template for the notion of aristeia comes from Homer. It described the bravery of a hero, and remained an ideal that was pretty much unchanged in ancient literature. This idea is akin to the notions of similar warrior societies or groups built around elite fighters and can be associated to our notions of gallantry and valour which derive from Medieval chivalry.

For educated Greeks, the primary sources for codes of conduct were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Alexandrian philologists of the third and second centuries BC are thought to have been responsible for the division of the Iliad and the Odyssey into twenty-four books, each with a letter of the Ionic alphabet. To the first book, which introduces the anger of Achilles, they gave the name “Anger” (menis).

They named the fifth, sixteenth, and twenty-first books of the Iliad, Aristeia: a reference to the displays of excellence in battle by Diomedes, Patroclus and Achilles, respectively. This attribution of aristeia is associated with a series of victories by the hero in single combat. Other commentators added to these the “prowess” (aristeia) of Agamemnon (book 11) and Menelaus (book 17).

Herodotus (ca. 484–ca. 425 BC) had already referred in his Histories to this attribution of aristeia to the section of the Iliad dealing with the bravery of Diomedes. In his description of the travels of the Trojan prince, Paris (called by him by his alternative name, Alexander) he says, “ἐπιμέμνηται δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐν Διομήδεος ἀριστείῃ” (Hdt. 2.116.3), i.e. “and this is mentioned in the aristeia of Diomedes”.

He then quotes a passage from the epic (Hdt. 2.116.3). As an aside, it has been noted that the story of Diomedes follows a similar arc to that of Achilles in the early part of the poem in his conflict with the gods, his protection by Athena and deception by Apollo; except that he fails where Achilles succeeds.

On this detail from an Attic red-figure krater, Diomedes (right) attacks Aeneas (centre). Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Aphrodite, is shown at the far right. In the Iliad, Diomedes doesn’t kill Aeneas (as he’s fated to survive), but does manage to inflict a wound on Aphrodite. Currently in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Herodotus’ Histories deal with the Greeks’ wars with Persia and it was during this period that Sophocles turned to the themes of the Trojan War in his play Ajax, performed around 442 or 441 BC to explore the notions of the “hero”. In the play, which is based on source material that is now lost, Ajax is slighted when the armour of the dead Achilles, the supreme hero, is awarded to Odysseus in his stead.

By right Ajax has now taken the mantle of greatest Greek warrior and refers to the kratos aristeias (“the supremacy of bravery”) in the belief Achilles would have awarded his weapons to him (Sophocles, Ajax 443):

καίτοι τοσοῦτόν γ᾽ ἐξεπίστασθαι δοκῶ:
εἰ ζῶν Ἀχιλλεὺς τῶν ὅπλων τῶν ὧν πέρι
κρίνειν ἔμελλε κράτος ἀριστείας τινί,
οὐκ ἄν τις αὔτ᾽ ἔμαρψεν ἄλλος ἀντ᾽ ἐμοῦ.

In translation, “and I know as much as this: if Achilles were alive and was to award these weapons for supremacy in bravery, no one would have seized them before me.”

When the weapons are given to Odysseus, in a fit of rage Ajax’s anger turns to vengeance and he kills the cattle and herdsmen taken as spoils of war from the Trojans. Coming to his senses he is filled with remorse and shame and commits suicide.

In real life as in art, the historian Thucydides (ca. 460–ca. 400 BC) followed the example of Herodotus. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides was influenced by earlier narrative techniques, singling out the Spartan general Brasidas, in the manner of Homer, and giving him extended heroic aristeia chapters.

The early life of the philosopher Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/7BC) was spent under the shadow of the conflict between the Greek city states. Writing in his later years in the aftermath of the war, he took a more dispassionate view of aristeia in his Laws, a dialogue in which he discusses the ethics of government. Here he analyses tas aristeias tas kata polemon (“excellence in the battlefield”) as a skill in the context of military training, not as an achievement, even going as far as to recommend instruction in dance as a way to achieve such a goal (Plato, Laws 942d).

This Greek heroic ideal lived on in the Hellenized Roman world. Plutarch (AD 46–120), in his Parallel Lives, a series of comparative biographies of Greeks and Romans, tells us that Pyrrhus of Epirus, “εὔξατο τῷ Ἡρακλεῖ ποιήσειν ἀγῶνα καὶ θυσίαν ἀριστεῖον” (Plutarch, Pyrrhus 22.5). That is, “he prayed to Hercules vowing that he would create games and sacrifices with a distinguished prize for victory”). In this sense, to aristeion (singular) meant the prize for bravery.

Appian of Alexandria (AD ca. 95–ca. 165), the Greek historian of the Roman Empire, uses aristeia in numerous instances. One example from his Foreign Wars is a description of a procession in which those honoured for bravery take part; this is in the context of Scipio’s Triumph against the Carthaginians, “οἱ δὲ ἀριστεῖς καὶ τὰ ἀριστεῖα ἐπίκεινται” (Appian, The Foreign Wars 9.66): “and those who had excelled and their spoils had prime position”. The term ta aristeia (plural) in this example refers to the prizes of bravery, i.e. the spoils.

The concept of philotimia

In contrast to the relatively pure notion of aristeia, philotimia has a more complex cluster of meanings. Honour in ancient Greece meant worth or the respect of one’s peers. Philotimia, then, normally meant the love of honour or distinction, thus having connotations of ambition.

In the Iliad, glory could be achieved through heroic deeds and combat in view of your comrades. It is in a closer sense to the Homeric ideal that the Athenian rhetorician Demosthenes (384–322 BC) uses philotimia as honour itself: not just the love of honour but honour itself achieved.

This distinction due to honour was given to the Athenian naval commander Conon in an inscription bearing his name, in which Conon is hailed as the liberator of the allies of Athens. Demosthenes discusses the inscription in the following example: “ἐκείνῳ μὲν φιλοτιμία πρὸς ὑμᾶς αὐτούς, ὑμῖν δὲ πρὸς πάντας τοὺς Ἕλληνας” (Dem., Against Leptines 20.69), i.e. “to you it is an honour attributed to him; but to all Greeks (it is an honour) towards all of you”. The point Demosthenes is making is that the achievement of the citizen is reflected on the city. In this example, philotimia does not denote striving for honour, but the distinction of having attained it.

In Homer, honour was a matter of the perception of self-worth that could be demonstrated to others by heroism in battle, but also through speechmaking, loyalty, and noble conduct. Maintaining one’s honour was important because it conferred respect and therefore status and leadership. If it was questioned it could lead to the loss of these. In the time of heroes, the achievement of honour was inevitably combined with action, but the love of honour or ambition could have dangerous consequences.

Detail of a fresco from Pompeii. Iphigeneia is carried to the sacrifice (centre), while the seer Calchas (right) looks on. Her father Agamemnon (far left) covers his head and looks away. Currently in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

The danger of the love of honour is central to Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides (ca. 480–ca. 406 BC), his last extant play performed in 405 BC. Once more the tales of the Heroic Age and the Trojan War provide the setting in which ideas of correct conduct can be explored.

The tragedy concerns the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon of Mycenae and Menelaus of Sparta and their expedition to retrieve Menelaus’ wife Helen from Troy. They have learnt from the seer Calchas that to expedite the fleet’s safe journey Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia must be sacrificed to appease the goddess Artemis.

Having assembled the troops it is now a matter of honour to continue, but is the sacrifice justified? Achilles takes the other side, prepared to defend Iphigenia by force. Underlying the arguments for and against this course of action is the brother’s fear of philotimia. Agamemnon, speaking specifically of the mystic Calchas remarks that “τὸ μαντικὸν πᾶν σπέρμα φιλότιμον κακόν” (Iph. 527), i.e. “the whole seed of foretellers is an evil for its ambition.”

During the same conversation, Menelaus says of Odysseus that he is motivated by his love of honour “φιλοτιμίᾳ μὲν ἐνέχεται, δεινῷ κακῷ” (id.): “for he is bound by his love of honour, a terrible evil.” In consequence, the two brothers fear him all the more, moving them to go ahead with the sacrifice of Iphigenia rather than disobey Calchas’ oracle, thinking that Odysseus’ own love of honour would motivate him to question them and ultimately destroy them. Iphigenia solves the dilemma by deciding that the heroic thing to do is to offer herself in sacrifice.

Plutarch uses this meaning of philotimia in his Parallel Lives, when he portrays the character of the Athenian commander Themistocles, whom he credited as the man most influential in saving Greece from the Persians. In his portraits, Plutarch tried to combine physical appearance with moral stature. Each biography had a parallel between a Greek and a Roman man of distinction.

Themistocles was twinned with Camillus, a fifth century BC soldier statesman honoured as the “second founder of Rome”. Plutarch says of Themistocles, “γὰρ ἦν τῇ φύσει φιλοτιμότατος, εἰ δεῖ τεκμαίρεσθαι διὰ τῶν ἀπομνημονευομένων” (Plutarch, Themistocles 18.1): “he was most ambitious in nature, as it is evident from the things said about him.”

And to show the extent of his ambition, Plutarch gives the example of how, when Themistocles was made admiral, he left all the tasks that had to be done and the scheduling of the meetings he needed to attend till the day of his sailing. This way his fellow citizens would see him being really busy as he was about to depart the city and assume therefore that he must be a person of great importance.

Away from the battlefield, philotimia was a way of describing generosity and public spirit. In the context of the civic life of Athens, the word took the meaning of one’s willingness to pay for a public service, as can be seen in the oration of Demosthenes Against Meidias, “οὐδὲ τὴν φιλοτιμίαν ἐκ τούτων κρίνειν, εἴ τις οἰκοδομεῖ λαμπρῶς ἢ θεραπαίνας κέκτηται πολλὰς ἢ σκεύη καλά” (21.159): “nor should one judge (his) public spirit (philotimia) from these things, whether he builds handsome houses, or whether he possesses many female helpers, or beautiful objects.”

Plutarch uses the word with a similar meaning in his life of Crassus. He says that through his hospitality Crassus showed philotimia towards his guests: “καὶ περὶ ξένους ἦν φιλότιμος ὁ Κράσσος: ἀνέῳκτο γὰρ ἡ οἰκία πᾶσι” (Plut., Crassus 3): “And also Crassus was generous (philotimos) to guests, for his was an open house to all”.

In some instances though, generosity could be seen in another light when for instance Demosthenes,in another work On the Crown (18.257), uses it in the sense of excessive and lavish spending in the service of the public interest: “μηδεμιᾶς φιλοτιμίας μήτ᾽ ἰδίας μήτε δημοσίας ἀπολείπεσθαι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῇ πόλει καὶ τοῖς φίλοις χρήσιμον εἶναι”, or: “not foregoing any indulgence, neither private nor public but being of service to both the city and my friends.”

A portrait bust of the Athenian orator Demosthenes (384–322 BC). Roman copy of the second century AD, based on a Greek original by Polyeuctus. Yale University Art Gallery.

When the pursuit of honour became a matter of vainglory, or a showy pride in one’s achievements, then the Greeks recognized its dangers. Herodotus was describing this aspect of philotimia where he writes, “φιλοτιμίη κτῆμα σκαιόν. μὴ τῷ κακῷ τὸ κακὸν ἰῶ. πολλοὶ τῶν δικαίων τὰ ἐπιεικέστερα προτιθεῖσι” (3.53.4): “philotimia is a shady object to possess; do not cure evil with evil. Many put the easier objectives before the just.”

Much later, for the Greek physician Galen (AD 129–ca.200/216) philotimia had come to be an impediment for a man to maintain good health. Galen gave two main reasons for ill health, akrasia, “excess”, and kenodoxia, “vainglory”: “ὑπὸ φιλοτιμίας, ἣν ὀνομάζουσιν οἱ Ἕλληνες κενοδοξίαν” (Galen, De Sanitate Tuenda, Book VI, 7.8.415). That is, “for love of honour, which the Greeks name vainglory.”

Aristotle’s synthesis

When the philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) brought the concepts of aristeia and philotimia together in his discussion of the nature of friendship (philia) in the Nicomachean Ethics, we are returning to the themes of Homer.

Perceptions regarding who is aristos (excellent in battle) and which friend will bestow honour upon the individual are at the centre of Aristotle’s writing. In his view, most people, because of philotimia, their love of honour, prefer to be loved than to love, something he finds unacceptable: “οἱ πολλοὶ δὲ δοκοῦσι διὰ φιλοτιμίαν βούλεσθαι φιλεῖσθαι μᾶλλον ἢ φιλεῖν” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1159a.10), i.e. “most people reckon that for love of honour they would rather be loved than love.”

Earlier in the same passage, he draws attention to what the expectation of people might be regarding who they might be friends with: “δῆλον δὲ καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν βασιλέων: οὐδὲ γὰρ τούτοις ἀξιοῦσιν εἶναι φίλοι οἱ πολὺ καταδεέστεροι, οὐδὲ τοῖς ἀρίστοις ἢ σοφωτάτοις οἱ μηδενὸς ἄξιοι” (id. 1159a.1). In other words: “this is apparent also when it comes to kings: neither do people much below them (i.e. in social order) expect to be their friends; nor do people of no merit expect the friendship of those who possess bravery of wisdom.”

Aristotle goes on to say that men cannot be friends with gods; implying that kingship, bravery (aristeia) and wisdom are as prohibitive for people who do not possess them in obtaining the friendship of those who do, as being immortal is for mortals. In conclusion, would somebody want their friend to become a god, a king, an aristos (decorated hero) or a philosopher if that stopped the distinguished individual from being their friend?