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Heroic Code in Homer’s Iliad

Homer’s Iliad is somewhat unique among the ancient tales because of its tendency to include human features in its heroes. Although it displays the same sort of adherence to the early ‘heroic code’, the heroes in this tale retain many of their human frailties and concerns. Each character displays a desire to win glory in battle, but each also displays unique differences regarding personal strengths and weaknesses as the action of the story moves forward. Two prime examples of the human side of characters can be found in the characters of Achilles, who fights for the Greeks, and Hector, who fights for the Trojans. As leaders of their people and key figures in the war, both men tend to cast their personal values back upon those they lead, thus presenting a generalized conception of how the Greeks and the Trojans differed in their overall worldview. For this reason, it is helpful to examine these two characters in particular to gain an impression of how these two people differed from one another. In their approach to battle, in their adherence to the code, and in the way that they each violate this code, the two men demonstrate that the differences between their people are really little more than a gloss of locality.

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Both Hector and Achilles can be seen to struggle with the heroic code as they prepare themselves for war.

Each character has received relatively reliable information that they will be killed in the battle – Achilles through his mother, the goddess Thetis who tells him that he will not die as long as Hector lives, Hector through the pleadings of his wife who urges him to fight from the walls. While Achilles withdraws from the battle on the pretext of a feud with Menelaus, Hector spurns his wife’s pleading to honor the heroic code that insists a true warrior should not hide behind the walls of a fortress rather than stand tall on the plain.

Andromache provides him with a moment of foresight as she tells him, “your valor will bring you to destruction; think on your infant son, and on my hapless self who ere long shall be your widow – for the Achaeans will set upon you in a body and kill you” (Book VI).

It isn’t until after Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles’ most devoted friend, who is wearing Achilles’ armor, that Achilles is finally driven to re-enter the war. “Hector’s words following this action show that he does not realize his own limitations and that he could never have been so successful without the help of Zeus” (Lefkowitz, 2003, p. 66) and the other gods.

However, while Hector is fighting to win the war for Troy, killing whom he believes is Achilles as a means of removing one of Greece’s most formidable combatants, Achilles fights merely to exact vengeance upon Hector, ignoring in the process the danger this would pose to himself.

Book 22 of The Iliad presents the meeting between Hector and Achilles and again highlights their differences in attempting to reconcile their adherence to the heroic code with their personal human beliefs. Hector, at first, determines to stand tall upon the plain as a means of encouraging his men, who remain mostly within the protection of the city’s gates despite the urging of his father Priam, who can see the advancing force of Achilles’ army.

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Hector cannot back down from this stance without losing face in front of his men, thus pride and honor are important elements in his decisions to stand firm even as he demonstrates a fierce adherence to the heroic code which dictates he must stand and boldly face his destiny. However, as he watches Achilles, full of battle rage, vengeance, and fully armed in all his splendor, come upon him, Hector finds his human heart incapable of merely accepting that this man is come to kill him and flees the scene with Achilles hard on his heels. Achilles, appearing to all intents and purposes the epitome of a Greek hero, nevertheless acts in a very unheroic fashion, dealing Hector a painful and slow death and then allowing himself and his followers to desecrate the body now unable to defend itself belying the heroic appearance and revealing his human ugliness. This is in stark contrast to Hector’s previous attempt to deal with Achilles honorably and heroically by agreeing that once death overtakes one and armor is stripped, the body should be returned to the family for proper burial.

Despite the continuous conflict seen in each character between human inclination and adhering to the heroic code, each character displays that element of the code that coincides with human inclination within their final major decision. When Hector finally stops running and faces Achilles, he does so believing he has a second to back him up by handing him fresh weapons in much the same way that Minerva helps Achilles by returning his thrown spear.

Despite feeling he has an edge in facing his opponent, Hector nevertheless attempts to make a covenant with Achilles regarding what will be done with the body of whoever is slain.

Through Hector’s attempts, it can be seen that this sort of covenant is typical within the heroic code of the Trojans as a means of both honoring the prowess of the opponent and of reducing the harm caused to innocent others such as family members who have remained at home.

Acting both honorably according to the heroic code and humanly as one man truly concerned about the welfare of another, Hector’s dying breath warns Achilles to be careful of his own fate as a result of the actions he visits upon Hector’s body. For his part, Achilles, wild in his battle lust and pursuit of revenge, follows his own Greek-inspired heroic code that insists vengeance must be complete and horrific. The human element of rage and revenge is thus given vent through the heroic code of his elders, insisting that an enemy must be completely destroyed and denied an honorable burial of any sort if vengeance is to be total.

Once the battle rage subsides, though, Achilles violates the hard aspect of the code he’d been attempting to follow in favor of the gentler aspect demonstrated to him by Hector as he chooses to return Hector’s body to Troy. While Priam is pulling on the human feelings of compassion and concern for others to accomplish this return, Achilles’ decision to acquiesce reveals the ability of an individual to change and to understand a more civil and appropriate code of honor than the barbaric slaughter of the ancients. Both Achilles and Hector struggle to reconcile their human emotions with the strict letter of the heroic code throughout the story.

Hector must battle with his desire to live happily and peacefully with his wife and small son while still honoring a code that insists he must continuously place himself in harm’s way for war. Achilles finds it possible to lose his human side within the code on a temporary basis but ultimately proves himself to be admiring the more civil and compassionate ideas expressed by Hector. By comparing the actions and thoughts of these two characters, it can be seen that while neither society has a perfect conception of a heroic code that allows for full human expression, movement can be made toward a more human and civilized aspect of living that is ultimately more satisfying to each society.

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Works Cited

Homer. The Iliad. Place of publication of your copy: Publisher name, Date of publication.

Lefkowitz, Mary. Greek Gods, Human Lives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

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