May 16, 2023
Notes on the Iliad Book 22: The Death of Hector
Book 22 of the Iliad centers around the intense confrontation between Achilles and Hector, two major heroes in the epic. Achilles, the mighty Greek warrior, represents the embodiment of wrath and seeks revenge for the death of his comrade Patroclus. Hector, the noble Trojan prince, embodies courage and acts as the defender of his city. Their clash highlights the contrast between their characters, motivations, and fates.
The intervention of the gods, particularly Apollo and Athena, plays a significant role in the events of Book 22. Apollo, the patron god of Troy, supports Hector, providing him with brief bursts of strength and guiding him in his initial confrontation with Achilles. In fact, Apollo led Achilles away from the retreating Trajans at the end of book 21, so they could find safety behind the walls of Troy. Athena, however, aids Achilles, helping him to maneuver and eventually overpower Hector. The gods’ involvement showcases the ongoing struggle between divine favor and mortal agency, emphasizing the interconnectedness between the mortal and divine realms.
As Hector stands alone outside the gates of Troy, his thoughts reflect a profound inner struggle. He faces the conflict between his personal desires as a husband and father, yearning to return to his family’s embrace, and his duty as the champion of Troy. Despite his love for his wife Andromache and their young son, Hector feels compelled to face Achilles to protect his city and preserve his honor. This internal conflict highlights the complexity of human emotions and the weight of responsibility in times of war, felt by Hector through the epic.
The concepts of timē (honor), kleos (glory), and arete (excellence) are central to the events in Book 22. Timē, the concept of honor, is a driving force behind Hector’s actions in this book. As the defender of Troy, Hector feels a deep sense of duty to protect his city and his people. His commitment to timē is evident in his decision to face Achilles in single combat, fully aware of the risks and the potential outcome. Hector’s pursuit of honor motivates him to confront his formidable opponent, demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice his own life to uphold the honor of his family and city.
Hector's pride is an integral part of his timē and adds complexity to his character. As a warrior and prince, Hector carries the weight of his reputation and the expectations of his people. He fears that if he continues to evade his duel with Achilles, others will view him as a coward and question his ability to lead:
“No way out. If I slip inside the gates and walls,
Hector’s timē compels him to confront Achilles and live up to the standards of honor and valor expected of him.
Initially, Hector’s decision to flee from Achilles is not a sign of cowardice or a lack of timē. Instead, it stems from a strategic consideration of his own survival and the preservation of his city. Hector understands the immense power and skill of Achilles, recognizing that he is outmatched in direct combat. By avoiding a face-to-face confrontation, Hector seeks to preserve his life and maintain his capacity to protect Troy.
However, Athena's intervention by disguising herself as Hector’s brother Deiphobus changes the dynamics. She manipulates Hector’s perception, convincing him that he now possesses the support and strength to face Achilles head-on. This manipulation leads Hector to abandon his initial strategy and engage in combat with Achilles, driven by a renewed sense of timē and the desire to prove himself worthy of his heroic reputation.
The shift in Hector’s behavior speaks to the complexities of his character and the pressures he faces. His initial flight from Achilles demonstrates a thoughtful consideration of self-preservation and strategic thinking. However, his subsequent decision to face Achilles, influenced by Athena’s trickery, reveals the extent of his pride and his willingness to engage in a battle that is likely to result in his own demise.
Hector's actions reflect the intricacies of his timē, combining the need to protect his honor, fulfill his duty, and navigate the demands of the war. His character arc in Book 22 highlights the internal conflicts and external pressures that shape his decisions, showcasing the multi-faceted nature of his heroism.
Also at stake is Hector’s glory. Kleos, the idea of achieving glory and being remembered through one’s deeds, is also a key element in Book 22. Hector seeks to secure kleos by facing Achilles, a renowned warrior, in battle. He knows that by challenging Achilles, he has the opportunity to achieve everlasting glory, even if it means meeting his own demise. Hector’s pursuit of kleos aligns with the heroic ideals of the epic, emphasizing the desire for immortality through heroic deeds.
Arete, often translated as excellence or prowess, is another concept present in Book 22. Hector embodies arete through his exceptional skills as a warrior and leader. His aristeia—moment of greatest achievement—occurs when he makes the brave decision to confront Achilles and meet his fate bravely. This display of excellence showcases Hector’s exceptional valor and prowess on the battlefield. Hector’s arete reinforces his status as a noble and heroic figure, admired for his exceptional qualities and achievements.
I have often considered Hector the true hero of the Iliad, and his bravery and fortitude in his final confrontation with a berserk Achilles underscores his humanity. While Achilles is portrayed as a mighty warrior driven by rage and vengeance, Hector embodies a more multifaceted heroism. He exemplifies the ideals of honor, glory, and excellence, displaying a deep sense of responsibility and self-sacrifice for the sake of his people. Hector’s decision to face Achilles, fully aware of his fate, showcases his heroic nature and his willingness to confront his own mortality for the greater good. At his final moment, Hector is the more human of the heroes, suggesting a truly tragic end for this hero which will be emphasized by Andromache’s speech that closes the book.
In contrast, Achilles’ actions in Book 22 reveal a darker side of his character. His merciless treatment of Hector’s body, denying him a proper burial and dragging his corpse behind his chariot, reflects a lack of empathy and a dehumanization of the enemy. While Achilles may possess immense power and skill, his actions stand in stark contrast to the ideals of honor and compassion upheld by Hector.
While Achilles is undeniably a formidable warrior, his unyielding rage and thirst for vengeance overshadow his capacity for compassion and empathy. His relentless pursuit of Hector is driven by a consuming desire for retribution and the need to assert his dominance. This unchecked rage compromises his humanity, blinding him to the moral implications of his actions and the consequences they entail.
Achilles’ relentless pursuit of Hector and his refusal to show mercy or grant him a proper burial speak to his lack of arete in this particular context. Arete, or excellence, encompasses not only physical prowess but also moral virtue and the ability to exercise self-control. Achilles’ inability to temper his rage and exhibit restraint contrasts with the ideal of arete. Instead of embodying the qualities of an exemplary hero, he succumbs to his base instincts and allows his anger to govern his actions.
Denying Hector a proper burial has profound implications within the cultural and moral framework of the ancient Greek world. Proper burial was considered a fundamental duty and a mark of respect for the deceased. It was believed that denying someone a proper burial would lead to their restless spirit haunting the living and bringing divine wrath upon the perpetrators. By desecrating Hector’s body and denying him a dignified burial, Achilles shows a lack of regard for these cultural and moral norms. His actions demonstrate his complete disregard for the sanctity of life and the customary rites associated with death. This act of dehumanization reflects the depths of Achilles’ rage and his willingness to abandon the values of honor and compassion that are traditionally associated with heroism.
The implications of denying Hector a proper burial extend beyond the immediate consequences within the epic narrative. It highlights the erosion of moral boundaries and the erosion of Achilles’ humanity in the face of his all-consuming rage. This act also serves as a reminder of the far-reaching consequences of unchecked emotions and the potential for individuals to descend into cruelty and inhumanity in the pursuit of their personal vendettas. The inhumanity of Achilles is evident in his treatment of Hector’s corpse. After Achilles defeats Hector, he denies him a proper burial and instead desecrates his body, dragging it behind his chariot. This act showcases the extreme dehumanization and lack of respect for the fallen enemy, highlighting the brutal and merciless nature of war.
The True Victims
Andromache's speech in Book 22 of the Iliad serves as a poignant and powerful reflection on the tragic consequences of war, particularly for the innocent victims caught in its wake. Her words shift the focus away from the valorized heroes on the battlefield and instead shed light on the plight of the women and children who will suffer in the aftermath of the conflict.
Andromache speaks from a deeply personal and empathetic perspective. She expresses her anguish and despair, fully aware of the impending doom that awaits her and her son, Astyanax, as the Trojan forces face imminent defeat. Her speech captures the universal pain and grief experienced by countless women throughout history who have endured the ravages of war.
By emphasizing the fate of the women and children, Andromache exposes the often-overlooked human cost of war. She vividly portrays the dire consequences that await the defeated side, particularly the women who will be subjected to enslavement, loss of loved ones, and the destruction of their way of life. Her words highlight the systemic violence and suffering inflicted upon the innocent, illustrating the harsh reality of war beyond the glorified heroics on the battlefield.
Historically, the aftermath of war for women and children on the losing side has often been a tragic and traumatic experience. They become vulnerable to the ravages of violence, exploitation, and displacement. Women are frequently subjected to sexual violence, enslavement, and the loss of autonomy, while children face the disruption of their families, loss of homes, limited access to resources and opportunities, or immediate death.
The consequences for the defeated side extend beyond immediate physical and psychological harm. They often face social, economic, and political marginalization, with their voices silenced and their agency diminished. Their stories and experiences remain largely untold and overshadowed by the narratives of triumph and heroism associated with the victors.
Andromache’s speech serves as a poignant reminder of the far-reaching impact of war on the most vulnerable members of society. It challenges the romanticized notion of war and highlights the urgent need to consider the human cost in conflicts. Her words resonate across time and cultures, reminding us of the ongoing plight of innocent victims in the wake of war, and the importance of empathy and compassion in understanding the full ramifications of armed conflict. By expanding the perspective beyond the battlefield, Andromache's words prompt us to consider the profound and long-lasting impact of war on innocent lives, challenging us to seek ways to prevent and alleviate their suffering.
- Homer (1990). The Iliad. Translated by Fagles, Robert. New York: Penguin. pp. 544–545.