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Ancient Legacy Works by UHP Students


The True Hero of the Iliad

by Caitlin Fahey

The virtue "courage" kept popping out as a recurring theme while I was reading the Iliad. During the Trojan war, courage appeared to be prized above life itself. A man's courage often counted more than if he was honest, or faithful to his wife. Examining only the topic of courage, however, seemed a bit restrictive. I wanted to look more comprehensively at the characters of two very different people to see how they matched up. Achilles, King of the Myrmidons, and Hector, prince of Troy, struck me as the most sharply contrasted characters. I found that Hector had more bravery than Achilles. Not only am I arguing that Hector displayed more courage, but that he was the better man all around. In my opinion, Hector is the hero of the epic.

While Achilles and Hector are both leaders of their people, Hector seems to lead with more maturity. His men respect him because he, in turn, is respectful of them. Hector is a man of action, he leads by doing. His men are inspired to fight because they see their captain doing the same. Hector has more self control, while at times Achilles behaves like a two year old who flies into a rage at the drop of a hat. Achilles appears respected and revered only through the fear that he instills. People are terrified of his incredible tantrums and therefore allow him to do as he pleases.

Within the first book of the poem, we read that Achilles is considered by many to be "god-like". (King Agamemnon, Book 1, line 154) When someone says "god-like", the mind of the modern day reader may conjure up a picture of an individual who is close to perfection: all-seeing, all-knowing, fair, just, kind, and powerful. At first glance, "god-like" makes sense, because Achilles is descended from the immortals. As the book progresses, Achilles seems to drift as far away from the definition of "god-like" (as a beneficent being) as one can get. However, after considering the behavior of the gods/goddesses in Homeric times, I've come to the conclusion that maybe "god-like" really is the correct description of Achilles. His ability to kill effortlessly and watch people die without mercy is in keeping with many of Olympus' inhabitants. His fickle disposition is very "god-like" as well. The introduction to the Fagles translation describes a god as someone who is completely wrapped up in their own power, who sees other's natures as obstacles to be overcome, and someone who is unable to question or criticize themselves. This is Achilles in a nutshell.

Killing seems associated with being similar to a god. Hector is referred to as "godlike" only when he is triumphing over the corpse of a fallen Greek soldier. I found it interesting that the gods assist both Achilles and Hector in their respective battles. I would think that the gods would help Hector more, because he was a just man, but Hector is handed victory by Zeus only for a short time, while Achilles always appears to have divine intervention. This seems unfair, as Hector is the more "godfearing" of the two. He has more respect for the gods/goddesses, as we see when he returns to Troy and his mother suggests that he offer wine to Zeus: "... I'd be ashamed to pour a glistening cup to Zeus with unwashed hands. I'm spattered with blood and filth- how could I pray to the lord of storm and lightning?" (Book 6, line 15) Achilles is not as fearful of the gods and therefore less respectful. He commands respect through fear, so why should he respect the gods if they don't instill fear in him?

Achilles seems to appeal to the gods only when he needs something, for instance when he asks his mother to avenge Agamemnon's wrongdoings: " Come, grant the Trojans victory after victory fill the Achaean armies pay my dear son back, building higher the honor he deserves!" (Thetis, Book 1, line 607) Achilles challenges the gods and angers them. Perhaps this is because he resents the gods for being immortal- after all, he is a man "doomed to the shortest life on earth." (Book 1, line 603) Achilles tights the river god Scamander in Book 21 and then has the audacity to chase Apollo around the walls of Troy in Book 22. Even when Apollo reminds Achilles that there really is no point in trying to catch him, Achilles responds in an arrogant tone: " ... You've blocked my way, you distant deadly Archer, deadliest god of all-...Now you've robbed me of great glory, saved their lives with all your deathless ease. Nothing for you to fear, no punishment to come- Oh I'd pay you back if I only had the power at my command." (Book 22, line 18 8-) Achilles is aided by gods, yet doesn't appreciate it. Hector remains loyal to the gods up to his death, even though, essentially, they desert him.

As leaders of their armies, Achilles and Hector have huge responsibilities. Achilles is the deciding factor in the war, the only man who can give the Argives victory, and he knows it. Hector is "the lone defense of Troy" (Book 6, line 478), he has every Trojan depending on him. How both men handle their responsibilities reveals a lot about their moral character and maturity level. Achilles' refusal to join the battle until the very end is due mainly to his squabble with Agamemnon. An underlying reason may be the fact that he knows he will die. Just as a god refuses to hear a prayer, so also does Achilles selfishly remain deaf to the cries of the soldiers and the pleas of his comrades. Hector, too, knows that his death is a possibility, yet his loyalty and sense of duty will not allow him to stay home. An indicator of Hector's selflessness is that he is fighting for his brother in a war that his brother began! At times, one reflects on the injustice of it all, yet Hector doesn't seem to complain. Helen says in Book 6, "You are the one hit hardest by the fighting, Hector, you more than all- and all for me, whore that I am, and this blind mad Paris." (line 421)

Both Hector and his wife Andromache know that death is imminent: "Reckless one, my Hector- your own fiery courage will destroy you!" (Book 6, line 482) Despite all this, Hector valiantly confronts his fate: " ... Who knows if I will ever come back to them ( his family) again?- or the deathless gods will strike me down at last at the hands of Argive fighters." Granted, not being certain of the outcome may make Hector more willing to fight, so Achilles faces a more difficult decision in that respect. Each man is "shackled fast by his deadly fate." (Book 22, line 6)

In addition to the issue of responsibility, Hector and Achilles come to terms with the dilemma of honor. Both have devotion to honor, for example, Hector says, "But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes if I would shrink from battle now, a coward." (Book 6, line 523) Achilles speaks of his two fates - "if I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies... true, but the life that's left me will be long, the stroke of death will not come on me quickly." (Book 9, line 500) Both men know that cowardice may equal long life, but it also equals dishonor. Hector accepts this fact more readily than Achilles.

One of the most powerful moments in the book is when Hector returns home to see his family. In the midst of all the carnage, we see another side to the brave Trojan warrior. He smiles and laughs, he speaks lovingly to his wife and admires his infant son. Homer may have revealed this "softer" side of Hector as a way of making Achilles more appealing to his Greek audience. After all, a "real man" or "real hero" would never leave the battlefield just to see his family! However, when reading the book in modern times, Hector comes across as the more valiant, well-rounded and noble of the two men.

Hector, I believe, appeals more to the modern reader also because of his willingness to admit his mistakes. He attributes the retreat of the Trojan army to his hotheadedness: "Now my army's ruined, thanks to my own reckless pride." (Book 22, line 124) Achilles, even when he agrees to fight, does not forget his hurt pride. He makes sure that everyone is aware of his anger and that he is only fighting to avenge Patroclus' death. Again, as he used the quarrel with Agamemnon as an excuse not to fight, here he uses the death of his friend as the excuse to fight. In both circumstances, he does not have to back down from his stand-off, thus preserving his pride. In fact, all of Achilles' battles seem to be for personal conquest and borne out of individual anger. As the introduction states, "Not to avenge Patroclus by killing Hector would be a renunciation of all that he stands for and has lived by, the attainment of glory, of the universal recognition that there is 'no man my equal among the bronze-armed Achaeans."' (Book 18, line 124- Robert Fagles translation, p. 53) Achilles rage is centered on one man, the man who killed his beloved friend. Hector's rage is more broad, focused on the whole of the Achaean army He is a man fighting for his people, not just for his personal honor and glory When Polydamas warns Hector to heed the bad omen of an eagle sent from Zeus, Hector replies: "Bird signs! Fight for your country- that is the best, the only omen!" (Book 12, line 280)

Hector's courage is even more admirable when one considers the culture from which he came. Troy was a peaceful civilization and the people were not war-faring by nature. From the introduction: "Unlike Achilles, he is clearly a man made for peace, for those relationships between man and man, and man and woman, which demand sympathy, persuasion, kindness, and, where firmness is necessary, a firmness expressed in forms of law and resting on granted authority. He is a man who appears most himself in relationships with others." (Fagles translation, p. 33) Hector remains steadfast in his beliefs and decisions, never wavering. Achilles, coming from a more violent culture, does not possess the "people skills" or rationality of Hector. He acts on impulse, violence is his native element. He is inconsistent and contradicts himself.

An excellent analogy would be to compare Hector and Achilles to animals. Achilles would be a carnivore while Hector would be an omnivore. The carnivore kills and eats the chicken, for instance, without pity. The omnivore may eat the chicken, but, then again, he might show some sympathy and eat the broccoli instead. Achilles often behaves like an animal, as evidenced by his treatment of Hector's body once he kills him. He guards the corpse as if his very life depends on it. Hector originally fights for the body of Patroclus, but then returns it out of respect. For the better part of the book, Achilles' warrior nature presides over his emotions, squelching out any rays of warmth or sympathy for others. Hector, too, has this warrior nature, but counterbalances it with compassion.  

One feels true sympathy for Hector when he is debating whether he should reason with Achilles: " I must not go and implore him. He'll show no mercy, no respect for me, my rights-he'll cut me down straight off-stripped of defenses like a woman once I have loosed the armor off my body." (Book 22, line 146) As the reader knows, (and as Hector soon discovers), Achilles truly is as bloodthirsty as a carnivorous creature: "There are no binding oaths between men and lions- wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds- they are all bent on hating each other to the death. So with you and me. No love between us. No truce till one or the other falls and gluts With blood." (Book 22, line 309) 

Some intriguing ideas occurred to me when I read about the fight between Hector  X and Achilles in Book 22. Hector is wearing Achilles' old armor when he is killed. Soon after we begin to see a change in Achilles, possibly for the better. Perhaps this is symbolic of Achilles battling his old self, trying to free his new, improved self. Or, maybe this indicates that Achilles is ready to do away with his old behavior and "try on a new suit of armor". Hector might also embody Achilles' alter-ego, whom Achilles is trying to resist. After all this speculation about death, etc., maybe the only thing Achilles really fears are his feelings.

Hector was the only character whose death truly had an impact on me. Without him, the doom of  Troy is sealed. Throughout the entire book we are shown examples of his courage. Achilles only manifests these qualities at the very end, and I even then he still appears disgusted with how "soft" he has become. The introduction points out that the name Hector means "holder'. Hector was the holder of Troys well being and that is Why he deserves to be called the true hero of the Iliad.  


This paper is published electronically by the UHP Legacy Project with the permission of the author. These works are published here to encourage students to read each others work and to think about the ideas of others in relation to their own thoughts. Using any of these papers without properly acknowledging the source is considered plagiarism, which may result in suspension or dismissal from any university. In addition, be aware that these papers are the property of the author and violation of these property rights may have legal consequences.

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© 1999-2004 Legacy Project of the University Honors Program
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