Whilst reading the Iliad you’re naturally inclined to follow the plight of the great Greek hero Achilles as he tears through Trojans and further advances his powerful reputation. Half god, he invites the favor of many powerful beings on his pursuit to win both the war and glory for himself. The reader is engaged by Achilles opposing desires for honor and for safety and many pages are devoted to his heroism. But as heroic as Achilles is made out to be, I read the story differently. In my view, Hector is the true hero of the Iliad, much more so than the proud and vain Achilles and indeed far more human.
That said, the initial interpretation is wholly understandable – the poem spends more time on Achilles than Hector and it’s natural to think of him as the hero. That’s not to say that Achilles isn’t heroic, quite the opposite. His obsession for heroism and pride encapsulates nicely the importance Grecian society placed on reputation. Respect is all a man has, and Achilles is determined to gain it.
That being said, the means in which he achieves honor aren’t always the fairest, often relying on supernatural power or fate to win a battle. Hector, by contrast, had no such convenient circumstance to turn his fate and advise his choices. He was forced to make decisions directly and honestly, regardless of the risk at play.
It would seem that at every turn Achilles is getting off only by the skin of his teeth due to divine intervention. In book 21 line ~360 we see Achilles slaughtering Trojans as usual, including Lycaon, son of Priam. He throws so many Trojans into the river that he angers the river itself, who’s sided with Troy. The river, with all its might, nearly kills Achilles before Hera sends the god of fire, Hephaestus, to boil the river until it relents. This is the first of many examples where Achilles life was saved by a god; is it fate or is it favoritism?
From the very beginning Achilles was fated by the gods to die in glory. In the introduction of the Iliad we see Thetis, Achilles mother, asking Zeus to turn the tides of the war in the Achaeans favor such that Achilles may win honor. By doing so the poem very early on establishes Achilles’s role as the favorite child, and in a way demeans his accomplishments to that of godly favor.
Beyond divine intervention Achilles often acts with stubborn pride and anger, even to his own detriment. From the very first line we’re told that the poem will be about the “ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles.” The poem opens after that with a perfect example of his blind rage and selfishness: the Achaean ransacking of a Trojan-allied town and capturing of two beautiful women, Chryseis and Briseis. When Chryseis’ fathers begs Agamemnon for his daughter back and gets denied, he prays to Apollo who sends a plague to the Greek camp. Upon finding out the cause of the plague, Agamemnon flies into a rage and claims he’ll only give Chryseis back if Achilles will give him Briseis as compensation. This seemingly blas© demand for what (from their perspective) belongs to Achilles humiliates him and risks his reputation in the army that he oversees. Achilles would’ve killed Agamemnon had Hera not interfered, but what he ends up doing instead is even worse for the Achaeans. Achilles, through his mother Thetis, convinces Zeus to turn the scales of fate back in favor of the Trojans. In doing that Achilles seals the fate of many of his friends and fellow Achaeans, but he doesn’t seem to mind so long as it appeals to his hubristic intentions.
In contrast to these flagrant displays of egotism and rage, Hector has always acted honorably and unselfishly up until his fated death. His life as a prince of Troy has been exhaustive, laden not only with the princely duty to protect his city but also with his moral attachment to his wife Andromache and infant son Astyanax. Our first time meeting Hector in book 3 shows his immediate devotion to his cause, criticizing his brother Paris for his dishonorable cowardice in his battle for Helen of Troy.
A cursory read of the poem could see an observation of Hector as overtrustful to a fault and fearful of public disgrace, even at the cost of his life. But his story is not one simply of a one-dimensional hero, rather it’s the more complex story of a human and his best attempt at doing what he thinks is right. Hector surely didn’t want to leave his wife and son to face the killing machine Achilles in the height of his rage, but what choice did he have? Who did Paris turn to when he could not defeat Menelaus? Who did Priam turn to when Paris slunk back in disgrace at his failure? Who did Helen ultimately rely on, even more than her own lover? Hector couldn’t relent; how would the rest of the Trojans react seeing their greatest champion fearfully hiding and running from the enemy? If Hector, the greatest prince of Ilion, doesn’t dare to face the Achaeans, how could any other Trojan soldier? Doubt by itself is difficult enough to overcome, but for a prince it can also bring doom upon your army, city, and country.
Hector, breaker of horses, did not become who he was because he was too afraid to plunge into battle for what he believes in. He was a prince, not a farmer or craftsman, and being a fearless warrior is required of a prince during a time like this. The only way Hector could prove his courage, earn his glory, and show his bravery, was to face the wrath of Achilles.
Hector’s fight with Achilles was doomed from the start with Zeus’ golden scales tipping against him. But before he dies Zeus takes pity on him and allows him a few moments of glory in book 17 when Hector seizes Achilles’ armor off Patroclus’ body. Aware of his impending doom, Zeus grants Hector great power as he strikes down Achaeans raising the moral of his spectating army and giving him a final hurrah before his battle with Achilles.
Hector had no misgivings about his fight with Achilles either, as the poem describes him waiting for Achilles who “was looming near as a snake by its hole in the mountains waits for a man, having eaten evil poisons, and a deadly anger comes upon it, and it shoots a stinging glance, coiled by its hole, so Hector keeping his spirit unquelled did not retreat..” Hector was faced with the insurmountable foe of Achilles, enraged after having lost his best friend. He could’ve easily stepped inside the walls for supposed protection, with his family and friends begging his presence, but he didn’t.
More than any other Trojan he knows the risk he’s taking. His wife will be raped and his son will surely be among the first to die. Death or slavery to all the rest his friends or family to say nothing of the destructive toil the rest of Ilion is sure to endure. His city will be looted and burned to the ground, and this once happy and prosperous society reduced to ruin. And yet, facing all this, he still chooses to stay outside the gate.
That single act of bravery embodies the heroism of the Iliad. It’s not the murderous tirades and presumptuous conceit of Achilles that makes a hero, it’s the tragedy of Hector and his attempt to live a principled and honest life that makes him the real hero of The Iliad. Hector, whose name is derived from the Greek word ???, to hold, is truly the holder and protector of Troy and of honor as we know it.
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