Homeric Heorism Essay, Research Paper
The Iliad is essentially the epic of Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors and, at the same time, the most complex and unlikable of the many personalities of the Trojan War. Homer redefines the essence of heroism in delineating the character of Achilles, a demi-god that quarrels with his commander-in-chief over the division of spoils who sulks and pouts in his tent when he does not get his way. In the end, of course, Achilles triumphs over his arch-rival Hector and redeems the honor of the Achaians, but in this conclusion Hector emerges as the greatest tragic hero of the story, while Achilles remains a deeply flawed figure whose imperfections cannot be masked by his victory. In this essay, we will examine the Homeric conception of the epic hero, in order to show how Hector reaffirms to traditional model of the soldier-hero, while Achilles points the way toward a new, more complex model of the champion in battle.
In the traditional model of Greek heroism, great prowess in battle is combined with arete, the almost mystical conception of honor which includes among its necessary qualities chivalry, inner strength, personal courage, and nobility of bearing and speech. this ancient model, strangely enough, developed partly out of the traditional rivalries of the Greek herdsmen, who gloried in raiding cattle from each other and who satisfied their honor by the exchange of tributes or the theft of prizes. Achilles, however, explains indignantly to Agamemnon that he will not exchange his girl for Chryseis, since he is not at Troy on a matter of honor:
I for my part did not come here for the sake of the Trojan Spearmen to fight against them, since to me they have done nothing. Never yet have they driven away my cattle or my horses for your sake, o great shamelessness, we followed, to do you favour, you with the dog s eyes, to win your honour and Monelaos from the Trojans. (Lattimore, 1967:63)
Achilles threatens to return home, since he is not being awarded his fair share of the prizes and resents his leader taking the booty and demanding his own girl, Briseis, as a substitute for the girl demanded by the oracle of Apollo.
By the end of the first book of the epic, Achilles has retired to his tent to sulk, leaving the dispirited and war-weary Achaians to struggle against the Trojans, now aided by the favor of Apollo and Zeus. Rather than join in this struggle, he continued to waste his heart out sitting there, though he longed for the clamor and fighting. (Lattimore, 1967:72) Achilles behavior stands in stark contrast to that of Hector, the champion of the Trojans, who soldiers on in spite of premonitions of his own death and the destruction of Ilion. There is nothing childish or sulking about hector, who combines the qualities of a great warrior with those of a gentle husband and loving father. Honor demands that he face the invincible Achilles in single combat to avenge the deaths of his brothers and fellow Trojans, yet he also feels the pain his death will inflict on Andromacho and his family: All these things are in my mind also, lady; yet I would feel deep shame if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting; and the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans. (Lattimore, 1967:165)
These contrasting attitudes perfectly illustrate the two models of heroism found in The Iliad, with Achilles unashamed to sulk and hand back for the sake of a petty quarrel, and Hector nobly advancing in to battle in spite of compelling motives to save himself and his family. Hector is a true leader in the traditional mold, inspiring by personal example and encouraging his men with stirring speeches. In all of this heroic behavior, there is nothing false or selfish, since Hector legitimately glories in the honor that comes from selfless leadership. As he exclaims to his soldiers while outlining the plan to cut off the Greek retreat to their ships, Oh, if only I could be as this in all my days immortal and ageless and be held in honour as Athens and Apollo are honoured as surely as this oncoming day brings evil to the Argives. (Lattimore, 1967:196)
Hector s devout wish to be immortal and ageless is ironic in its contrast with Achilles, who is in fact almost immortal, being half-god and half-man, but whose sense of honor and loyalty seem notably deficient throughout the major battles which ensue (Books 11 through 18). It is only when his friend Patroclus, after borrowing Achilles armor and striking terror in the Trojans with the illusion of invincibility, is killed by Hector, that Achilles returns to battle. The return of Achilles is a decisive event for the battle, for he is the supreme warrior, but his change of heart is only for the sake of Patroclus, his lost armor, and the shame of his friend s death; he cares little for the honor of the Greek cause and scorns a reconciliation with Agamemnon.
Clad in the newly-forged armor provided him by the god Hephaistos, Achilles sallies forth once more against the Trojans, slaying one after another of their greatest soldiers before coming face to face with Hector. The confrontation between Achilles and Hector is in many ways the high point of the conflict between the two codes of honor we have described, with Achilles taunting the Trojan hero and Hector returning his insults with calm admonitions: it may be that weaker as I am, I might still strip the life from you with a cast of the spear, since my weapon too has been sharp before this. (Lattimore, 1967:416) Achilles is invincible in battle, however, and he sweeps through the Trojan ranks like an inhuman fire with his spear like something more than a mortal harrying them as they died, and the black earth ran blood. (Lattimore, 1967:417)
Hector, we have seen, is noble and pure of motive, while Achilles is, in many ways, ignoble, his heart bent upon evil actions and destruction for its own sake. The fate of these two great warriors has already been decided by the gods, but even in death Hector would redeem the honor of his mourning parents, wife and children. For their part, even Hector s family appear to have accepted the inevitability of his death, and they hope only that they might be able to keep his body, so as to honor him and administer the burial rites, rather than see his corpse torn apart on the battlefield and fed to the dogs. This privilege, unfortunately, is to be denied them by Achilles, who is to mean-spirited to grant them this small comfort.
In the grisly aftermath of Achilles’ destruction of Hector, the treatment of the vanquished warrior’s body again illustrates the difference in the characters of the two heroes. Achilles abuses and insults Hector even as he is dying, while the noble Hector entreats him to return his body to his people for the sake of his honor. Achilles, however, cannot be magnanimous in victory, and he sneers at Hector’s warning of a curse from the gods before tying the Trojan hero’s body to a chariot and dragging the body in defilement across the battleground.
In drawing the characters of Hector and Achilles in such an obvious and intentional contrast, Homer underscores the contrast between the old and the new heroic codes. Hector is a traditional, if quite mortal, hero; he is noble in bearing and fearless in battle, yet gentle and loving with his family. His pessimism and calm determination mark him as a great but ill-fated leader of men, and his death is the proper tragic fate of all the greatest warrior heroes. Yet it is Achilles, the spoiled man-god, who redefines the old heroic code in the end. Homer’s Achilles is a creature of the passions, jealous at one instant, vengeful the next. Achilles may not be a sympathetic or noble figure, but it is his inhuman anger and passion that drive him onward in battle, vowing to settle the score for Patroclus. In the final analysis, Achilles’ least admirable qualities are those in which he most resembles the gods: jealousy, spite, anger and venom. The new heroism of Achilles marks a decline in the traditional values and nobility of the warrior, as exemplified by the noblest hero of the Homeric epic– Hector.
Lattimore, Richmond, translator. The Illiad of Homer. Chicago,
Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1967.