In The Iliad, many of the male characters display heroic characteristics consistent with the heroic warrior code of ancient Greece. They try to win glory in battle, yet are often characterized as having a distinctly human side. They each have certain strengths and weaknesses, which are evident at many times throughout the conflicts described in The Iliad. Prime examples of such characters are Achilles and Hector. These two characters have obvious differences in their approaches to fitting the heroic mold to which they both try to conform. However, despite their differences and the fact that they are fighting for opposing armies and meet each other with hatred in battle, they also have numerous similar traits that logically lend themselves to a comparison between the two men. They both display behavior that could be described as heroism.
The first way in which Achilles, who fights for the Greeks, and Hector, who fights for the Trojans, act differently is how they approach war and the inevitable violence and death that accompany it. Although Achilles knows that he is fated to be killed in battle, when his faithful and devoted friend Patroclus is mercilessly and dishonorably cut down in combat, he puts aside his pride and chooses to temporarily forget about his previous feuds with Agamemnon that have, up until now, prevented him from participating in the war. He joins the fighting with a deadly and vengeful mindset that will likely play a major factor in the outcome of the war. Today, this lust for revenge might be considered a glaring character flaw. However, this passion for retribution undoubtedly conforms to the heroic code of Greek society. Meanwhile, Hector is full of indecision and reluctance about whether to take part in the war. He too believes that fate has dictated that he will be killed in battle. He spends much time with his pleading wife Andromache, who begs him not to go to war, both for his sake and for his family’s. He does not want to die and thus widow Andromache, leaving her at the loom of another man. Indeed, when he bids farewell to his young son Astyanax, clothed in his shining war gear with gleaming helmet complete with plume crest (the quintessential picture of a bold Greek soldier going off to battle, which today is a symbol of courage, bravery, and true heroism), Astyanax cries with fright, showing that bravery and heroism in war cannot coexist with the care and love that a father shows to his son. Thus, while Hector is indeed heroic is his departure for the war, his human side is overshadowed by this.
Another situation in which Hector and Achilles use different approaches to behave as heroes is in Book Twenty-Two, the main section in which Hector and Achilles and their separate personalities and character traits interact. Hector, now courageous as ever and boldly confronting his fate, decides to remain outside the ramparts of the fortified city, within which the rest of his supporters that might defend him are safely secure. Priam, Hector’s father, upon seeing the advancing Achilles, implores Hector to retreat behind the safety of the walls, but to no avail. Pride and honor play a role in preventing Hector from backing down. Hector’s fearless confrontation of his destiny is an extremely heroic action. However, then Hector flees from Achilles, behavior quite unlike that of a hero. One might infer that now Hector’s human instinct of survival is playing a role. This illustrates a seemingly-common conflict among characters who might be considered heroes: the internal contest between the heroic code within the character and the human emotions and instincts that sometimes present contradictory impulses to the heroic code. Each hero responds in a different manner to this conflict. Hector, in this case, decides to react upon his human impulses and flees from Achilles, who instantly gives chase. After a cunning trick by Athena which causes Hector to decide to stand his ground and fight, perhaps the most conspicuous contradiction between a warrior’s heroic code and the warrior’s human side is evident. Achilles, vengeful and bloodthirsty, kills Hector in a manner, which, by today’s standards, would be unnecessarily cruel and barbaric. He allows Hector to die a slow and agonizing death, after which he shamelessly desecrates the body, without caring in the least about the feelings of Hector’s family and supporters. These actions are undeniably consistent with the heroic warrior code of the Greeks, which puts tremendous value on valiance in battle and merciless retribution. Nevertheless, even the most valiant and stonehearted soldier must have a human side, which definitely must object to the savage and brutal killing that is ubiquitous in war.
On the other hand, when Achilles and his soldiers get some type of obscene pleasure and glee from repeatedly and grotesquely stabbing Hector’s lifeless and bloody corpse, another kind of human emotion is being displayed. This is the pent-up anger and hostility that builds up during one’s quest for revenge or simply battle, being directed towards the most apparent figure or symbol that represents the source of this hatred. So, it might be concluded that the heroic code and the human emotions might not conflict with each other after all.
When Achilles decides to return Hector’s body to his father, Priam, so that it might be honorably buried, he is violating the unfeeling and uncompassionate heroic code to which he earlier tried so hard to conform. He has decided to act upon the nobler human quality of pity and sympathy and another’s loss, even when the loss is that of a hated enemy. Truly, in this scenario, Priam had to simply draw on the common bond through which all humans feel linked, for no amount of rational thought would have swayed Achilles to make this compromise of principle.
Ultimately, this is an excellent way to end the narrative of The Iliad, for it shows that Achilles, the character with which the reader most often identifies, has exhibited his independence from the heroic code and that he is capable of making decisions that have no basis in precedence, and that he is able to choose his own destiny and live his own philosophy, and one who accomplishes this is truly a hero by anyone’s standards. A careful comparison of the actions and thoughts of the two characters provides the reader with a perhaps unexpected insight. It seems that while Hector is indeed possessive of a human side, in that he is afraid of dying in war, he loves his wife and family, and does not at first want to accept his fate, Achilles is, in fact, the more human one. He uses both his human emotions and the warrior code that he learned since childhood appropriately and in proportion, so that there is the least friction between the two and so that the resulting actions are indeed admirable and praiseworthy. He is able to construct a perfect formula containing both the heroic code and the human mind that presents the most ideal result. Achilles seems to have successfully navigated his way through the heroic progression in this manner. Thus, both Hector and Achilles behave as heroes throughout The Iliad. While they both try to win glory in war for their families, their country, and themselves, they both have certain strengths and weaknesses in their character that dictate their very different courses of action and their thoughts. They are both presented with conflicts and dilemmas throughout the story, the resolutions of which must be made using both their intuitive human side and their aggressive heroic side, and it appears as if Achilles meets with the most success in this difficult task. Therefore, the heroic warrior code and the human conscience present certain contradictions to which the characters must respond in order to survive and in order to achieve their goals.