The Importance of being the Greatest in Homer’s Iliad: Achilles and Hector

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In Homer’s Iliad, there is a recurring theme surrounding the idea of being the ‘greatest.’ Both the Achaeans and Trojans have heroes whom they believe embody their ideal of the ‘greatest.’ For the Achaeans, this hero is Achilles, while for the Trojans Hector is their ideal. Each has different ideas on what makes a warrior great. Though having different ideas of greatness they do share a common desire to be remembered. Although the Achaeans consider Achilles the greatest hero, Hector is, in fact, better because he fights for his people making him more worthy of the title of great.

In the Iliad, we are first introduced to Achilles as the epitome of greatness in battle. He is mentioned by Homer as being godlike (p.1,1.08). Due to his past achievements on the battlefield during the Trojan War that Homer has provided him the title of closely resembling a god. In this epic a central theme continuously brought to attention is honor and the greatness received through the characters’ achievements. Known as one of the greatest warriors of all time, Achilles is quick to defend his name and keep his reputation intact. Agamemnon attempts to get Achilles to react in an unsavory manner in response to him taking Briseis from Achilles. He does this with the help of the god Athena so he can calm himself down (P.7, 1.226-28). Achilles then gives the response that he would not rise to such provocation and expose himself to being called names by the people over a prize (p.10,1.308-12). He is the warrior that the Achaeans rely on in battle but fails to fight for a short period towards the end of the Trojan War. During his absence on the battlefield, the Achaeans suffer heavy losses on the battlefield causing the generals on multiple occasions to try to persuade Achilles to join the fight. Each time he refuses and, in a speech made by Odysseus in book 9, Odysseus tries to convince Achilles to participate in the battle by claiming that he still has a chance to come to defeat the Trojans.

This would save countless lives in the Achaean army (P.167, 9.249-54). In response to Odysseus’ speech Achilles said that the insult against him was too great to be swayed by his words because they will all eventually reach the same fate no matter if they were a hero or coward (P.169, 9.326-29). Even the Trojans are familiar with his name and reputation. The thought of his presence on the battlefield drives fear into the heart of his enemies. This is presented when Patroclus in the Achilles armor confronts the Trojans and they flee (P.313, 16.285-89). Achilles’ attitude towards fighting with the Archaean’s changes after Patroclus’ death when he finds the will to rejoin the battle and avenge his friend’s death accepting his fate of this being his last fight and though he will die young he will be immortalized in history (P.358, 18.122-28). After avenging Patroclus’ death fueled by his rage Achilles defiles Hectors’ body (P.467, 24.25-30). The gods on the side of the Trojans take pity on Hector’s body while looking down on Achilles’ behavior. Apollo comments on the behavior of Achilles stating that he has no respect for the dead or the gods (P.468, 24.54-59). Furthering my thought that Achilles fights for selfish gain only changing with the death of his friend.

In the Iliad, Hector is the ideal Homeric warrior, ruled by his sense of duty towards his people and family. To live for his country of Troy, on multiple occasions in the epic Homer depicts how Hector continuously fights with the knowledge that he will one day die in battle but until that day refuses to leave his men behind. In book 6 when telling his mother, Hecuba, that the Trojan women should be pouring libations to the gods Hector refuses Hecubas’ offer of wine to calm his nerves due to the effect it might have on his body possibly to cause him the loss of his strength for the battle. Hector also refuses the invitation to participate in the offering of libations under the consideration that his participation might be perceived as an insult to Zeus due to his unwashed hands from the battle (P.119, 6.271-78). He worries that by pouring libations still dirty from the battle would anger Zeus and the Trojans would be penalized for it once back in battle. We see a similar exchange concerning Hector’s duty when Hector’s wife, Adromache, asks him to please fight within the walls and not to face the mighty Achilles who has slain members of her family in the past (P.124, 6.433-37). Hector refuses her request but does acknowledge her fears by sharing that he too worries over his life but the pain and humiliation of what his people might think of his for avoiding a battle pains him more than the thought of his death (P.125, 6.463-66).

Hector also acknowledged that even with his death, his memory would continue to exist. Even his sense of duty is amplified when Hector confronts Paris for his absence in the battle and war, he had a role in starting. Blaming Paris for the misfortune Troy is facing and not trying to right his wrongs in the eyes of Troy (P.121, 6.341-47). Hector later chastises Paris again for his lack of motivation to join the battle when their people mock his cowardice (P.127, 6.549-58). Later in book 22 when Hector is about to set out to confront Achilles his father, Priam, pleads with his son not to meet Achilles in battle for it will be his end. After this plea readers also read Hecuba’s plea to Hector not to feel ashamed if he decides to abandon the fight by retreating into the walls (P.423, 22.45-47). Hector’s response to their plea is that he cannot abandon the battle especially after being entrusted by the people to lead the Trojans back only to have failed half of the army he was meant to bring back. Not able to face the Trojan men and women because of this failure he believes the way he can restore his name is by facing Achilles with his full strength which will only have two outcomes either killing Achilles or dying honorably before his city (P.425, 22.114-25). To Hector, what those around him think of him and his actions are of the utmost importance.

Both Achilles and Hector believe that the man labeled the ‘greatest’ will leave a legacy that will follow even after their deaths. Homer provides an example of this when Hector is having a discussion with his wife and mentions to her that even after his death and her enslavement people will still refer to her as the wife of Hector (P.125, 6.484). The emphasis on how a character is remembered is a central theme in the Iliad during his speech to persuade Achilles back into battle Odysseus tells Achilles that if he put his pride aside and joined the battle that Greeks of all ages will remember and honor him (P.167, 9.257-63). Only after the death of Patroclus does Achilles finally choose between being forever remembered or going back home and dying forgotten (P.359, 18.130-36). Both heroes search for validation through their success in battle that will grant them respect and public esteem. They also strive to achieve the internal glory that will outlive them. In this epic poem, it seems that heroism and death go hand in hand. There is no heroism without glory, and it seems the only way glory can be obtained is through an honorable death. Hector and Achilles have accepted that the outcome of the war will be ultimately be their deaths, leaving them with only their memory to worry about. Both value different things in their lives as Hector is focused on the memory his fighting will leave while Achilles is dependent on his strength in battle securing the title and memory of great.

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