The term areté is widely used to describe one of the key values in ancient Greek culture. Most often it is translated to mean “virtue,” but in essence areté simply means “excellence.” Areté can be used to describe anything, and it often was in Greek literature. For example, the areté of a bull is not the same as the areté of a man, and the areté of a song is different than that of a bull.
Of all the literary works in Greek culture, two were used as the foundation of Greek education; both belong to Homer. The Iliad is a powerful epic based on the last few weeks of the ten-year Trojan War. Homer had a captivating way to describe war, a rather bleak situation, and a myriad of beautifully illustrated characters demonstrating their own areté. From the Greek and Trojan warriors “rejoicing in battle” (Sayre, p. 47) to Achilles refusing the war, both were able to demonstrate their areté in different ways; the warriors by being in the thick of the battle and Achilles by his inflexibility. Achilles is eventually overcome by the pressure and kills the Trojan warrior Hector, but has another chance to demonstrate his areté by cleaning up, dressing, and turning over the dead warrior’s body to his father, Priam.
Homer’s second epic, the Odyssey, is much different than that of his first. It follows another ten-year journey, but the similarities end there. The main character, Odysseus, is making his journey home from the Trojan War. While en route, Odysseus happens upon several enchanting characters and worlds, but what he truly wants is to see his wife, Penelope. Over the span of 20 years Penelope demonstrated her areté by staying true to her husband, despite having many suitors who insisted that her husband would never return home.
The Iliad and the Odyssey both illustrated areté in varied ways. Since these epics were used as a primary teaching tool for Greek education, it is safe to assume that areté was more than just a value to the...