Hector, the real hero of the Iliad?
In returning to Troy to gather his mother and all the noble women to offer prayers to Athena, Hector approaches his brother Paris, and hurls insults toward him for his prolonged absence from the war.
Helen, the mistress of Paris and woman whom the Achaean and Trojans have spent years of agony and suffering for, seductively speaks to Hector, first lamenting that she is not the wife of a better man, then softly encouraging him to, “Come in, rest on this seat with me…You are the one hit hardest by the fighting, Hector.” Hector responds in noble fashion,
“Don’t ask me to sit beside you here, Helen.
Love me as you do, you can’t persuade me now.
No time for rest. My heart races to help our Trojans—
they long for me, sorely, whenever I am gone…”
Hector, as his name indicates, heroically demonstrates himself as the holder of the Trojan army; he is a warrior of courage, honor, and steadfast devotion to his polis. He is not a warrior who recklessly seeks his own honor and glory; rather he is a patriot, someone who seeks glory out of necessity in order to preserve his own life and that of his people.
As Bernard Knox indicates, “Hector is a man who appears most himself in his relationships with others.” In refusing Helen’s seductive advances he shows himself, in contrast to his brother, as one dedicated to the task before him; the task of defending Troy and it’s people from falling to the raging Achaean armies. Unlike Paris, Hector does not give into those “lovely gifts of Aphrodite.”
Troy is at war, thus Hector sets his priorities in the proper relation to the circumstances. While Paris is most at home in his palace in the arms of his mistress Helen, Hector is a man of his country or polis, and, naturally, is most at home standing up for and defending his country. This reality establishes Hector -as the holder of Troy. “On him falls the whole burden of the war.”
However, it would be an overstatement to say that war was Hector’s native element. After refusing Helen’s advances, Hector further responds by saying,
“…I must go home to see my people first,
to visit my own dear wife and my baby son.
Who knows if I will ever come back to them again?—
or the deathless gods will strike me down at last
at the hands of Argive fighters.”
As indicated above, Helen is the lady for which this entire Trojan War is fought. Her beauty is unsurpassed; the old chiefs of Troy even lament her appearance as “terrible beauty,” undoubtedly alluding to the seductive and powerfully destructive influence it can have on men.
Yet, Hector without hesitating dismisses her advances and not only declares his duty to the Trojan men but shows his faithful devotion to his own family. Hector primarily is a man of peace as well as devotion toward his family and polis.
This fact is demonstrated most prominently when Hector sees his wife, Andromache. He finds her with his son, “standing watch on the tower (walls), sobbing, grieving.” As she clings tightly to Hector’s hand and tears stream freely down her cheeks she says,
my Hector—your own fiery courage, will destroy you!
Have you no pity for him, our helpless son? Or me,
and the destiny that weighs me down, your widow,
now so soon?
…What other warmth, what comfort’s left for me,
once you have met your doom?”
As seen, Andromache laments the seeming inevitability of Hector dying in battle, and the resulting effect of his son being fatherless and her being further without family. Hector’s response demonstrates the immense struggle that is within his heart,
“All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman.
But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
…if I would shrink back from battle now, a coward.
…I’ve learned it all to well. To stand up bravely,
always to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soliders,
winning my father great glory, glory for myself.”
Here Hector shows himself a warrior dedicated to his polis, to his people. He continues by furthering realizing the inevitability of Troy’s fall, as he acknowledges it will one day come. But, just as you begin to think that he loves his polis more than his family he continues saying to his wife,
it is less the pain of the Trojans still to come
that weighs me down, not even…
the thought that my own brothers
in all their numbers, all their gallant courage,
may tumble in the dust, crushed by enemies—
That is nothing, nothing beside your agony
when some brazen Argive hales you off in tears,
wrenching away your day of light and freedom!…”
Hector then mightily and nobly proclaims, “No, no, let the earth coming piling over my dead body before I hear your cries, I hear you dragged away!”
Hector fights in order to protect his family, which shows Hector as one who does not find his identity in battle. In fact, “it is significant that (the) first view of (Hector) in action is not in combat but in an attempt to stop it.”
In book three, after Paris’ responds to Hector’s rebukes, Paris offers to prove himself in a fight with Menelaus in order settle the war. Hector announces this offer to the Achaeans as he moves forward in the Trojan ranks, “right in no man’s land…he strode gripping his spear mid-haft, staving men to a standstill…”
In doing this he leaves himself open to the Achaean archers, yet the leader of the Achaeans, Agamemnon, halts their attempts to kill Hector. As Knox describes, “It was a dangerous initiative and one that demanded immense authority, a force of personality recognized on both sides.”
Hector demonstrates himself as a brave, authoritative, courageous, and formidable warrior, who will fight to the death for the sake of his people, yet also as one who does not find his glory solely in the gruesome realities of war. He is willing to lay aside his own potential glory so that the war may come to an end.
In the end, Hector’s fate is seen as he falls to the man who is the most unlike himself—Achilles. From the outset, Achilles is a man of complete rage and anger, as seen in his refusal to battle with the Achaeans due to a disagreement with Agamemnon.
Although Hector is one whose native element is found not in war but peace and not in his own personal glory, but that of his people, Achilles identity is fundamentally found in his warrior mentality and his deep desire for himself to be glorified through victory in war.
It must always be remembered that “the Iliad is a poem that lives and moves and has its being in war, in that world of organized violence in which a man justifies his existence most clearly by killing others” Thus, when Hector becomes the object of Achilles rage, his death becomes inevitable.
However, this reality should not undermine the fact that in Hector we see “not only the devotion of a warrior who does his duty and fights for his people, even though he knows they are doomed,” but also one who is great husband and father, who places family above self.
The greatness of Hector is seen in the wholistic unity of his character. Hector is the only character that, in the face of immense adversity, shows himself as a complete man.