A Greek’s status as a hero and leader rests on his prestige. Although the average Greek can’t explain prestige, he understands it on a visceral level, and nothing is more important. A leader who loses his prestige also loses his status as a leader in the eyes of his men.
A hero’s military effectiveness, heroic deeds, and reputation establish (or destroy) his prestige. Prestige can also be bolstered by gifts, and heroes are expected to give generously, not only of gold, silver, and jewels but also of prestige goods.
Prestige goods can include prizes won in athletic contests such as the Olympics, gifts with storied histories given by other heroes, and loot seized in battle. They may include such things as armor, weapons, valuables, trophies from monsters, chariots, horses, and women. Monetary value is not important to prestige goods; history is important. For example, a set of gem-encrusted iron armor commissioned from a master smith is not a suitable prestige good, but a set of battered bronze armor seized from a mighty hero is. Similarly, an item passed down from an ancestor or gifted by a famous man is a suitable prestige good, even if it has never seen battle. Prestige goods should have history, antiquity, and mystique; there should be stories associated with them, all of which should be known in detail by the bearer of the item. Receiving prestige goods brings prestige, but giving them brings even more—so long as they are given in a worthy manner to a worthy bearer.
Odysseus’s bow is a good example of a valuable prestige good. It was given to Odysseus by the hero Iphitus, who inherited it from his father, the renowned archer Eurytus. (Iphitus was later killed by Heracles, which enhanced the value of his gifts.)
When Greeks meet, they assess each other to determine the social standing and prestige of each. Although reputation is the primary factor in prestige, bearing and demeanor also play a role. Prestige is not static and in fact is constantly changing; heroes gain or lose prestige continuously. If a hero’s prestige declines, heroes who now stand above him will no longer be willing to follow him, and his status in the command structure (his “rank”) will decline. If he loses his prestige altogether, common warriors will refuse to follow him, and he may even become an outcast. Also, loot is divided according to the relative prestige of the warriors involved, providing high-prestige warriors the ability to bolster their prestige through gifts. Success breeds success.
Thus, loss of prestige goods, or failure to acquire them when expected, threatens a hero’s standing in the community.