Hector’s fate in the Iliad is perhaps western literature’s greatest tragedy. In some ways he is Homer’s most modern hero: a family man forced to fight in a war that is not his doing. And yet he is very much a product of Homer’s heroic society, and his understanding of the world is shaped by the epic values of a warrior.
The story of Hector cannot be summed up in one post. There’s far too much to say! However here I’ve copied a bit from the end of Book 6, where Hector speaks to his wife and child. Although the hero does not know it yet, it is to be their last meeting before he is killed by Achilles. It is one of the Iliad’s most memorable scenes, in which Hector displays a heartbreaking affection for his wife and son.
The scene starts with Hector returning from the battle, eager to see his wife Andromache and his baby son Scamandrius, nicknamed Astyanax. However his wife is not at home but is running around the city in a frenzy, fearful that her husband has been harmed in battle. Hector runs out and finds her at the city gates:
And with her there went a maid carrying at her breast their innocent child no more than a baby, Hector’s only beloved son, shining lovely as a star. Hector’s name for him was Skamandrios, but the other’s called him Astyanax, Lord of the City, because Hector was Ilios’ sole protection. Hector looked at his son and smiled in silence.
The description of an innocent baby cradled by his nurse is incredibly tender, and is striking in the midst of a bloody war epic. The imagery of a star suggests the bright beauty of a child, and Hector’s smile when he sees his son is the response of any doting parent. Yet there is also a great sadness in this description. Firstly in calling Hector the sole protector of the city, the role that will eventually bring about his death, and also in the nickname for the child: Astyanax. This nickname ironically reminds us both of Hector’s increasing inability to protect his city, and also of that fact that Astyanax, who is killed when the city falls, will never grow up to rule Troy.
His wife Andromache then makes an tearful speech to Hector, begging him to be more careful and stay behind the battlements more often. For with Hector gone she and her son will be alone in this world:
“But Hector you are father and honoured mother and brother to me, as well as my strong husband. Please feel pity for us, stay here on the battlements, so you do not make an orphan of your child and your wife a widow.”
Hector however is a hero in a warrior society and to stay behind the battle would mean disgrace for him and his family. His response to Andromache reflects this:
“Wife, I too have thought upon all this, but with what face should I look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward? I cannot do so: I know nothing save to fight bravely in the forefront of the Trojan host and win renown alike for my father and myself. Well do I know that the day will surely come when mighty Ilius shall be destroyed with Priam and Priam’s people, but I grieve for none of these- not even for Hecuba, nor King Priam, nor for my brothers many and brave who may fall in the dust before their foes- for none of these do I grieve as for yourself when the day shall come on which some one of the Achaeans shall rob you for ever of your freedom, and bear you weeping away.”
What other people think is an important tenet of heroism in Homeric society and crucial to Hector’s self-worth. As he says, he does not know anything else. Yet this has tragic consequences for our hero. In fulfilling his role as a warrior, he must abandon his post beside his family. Then in Book 22 Hector is slain by Achilles. He succeeds neither as a husband and father nor as defender of the city, ultimately his burden is too much for one man to bear. Troy is doomed by the gods to fall and in order for this to happen Hector its main defender must die. Hector is tragically aware of this, and knows that he fights to protect those he loves in vain. He accepts his death heroically, but mourns for the fate of his wife as a slave to the Greeks. As for his son, who is thrown off the city walls while still a baby, he never mentions this tragic fate. Perhaps he cannot bear to think of it.
There then follows one of the Iliad’s most famous scenes, where Hector reaches out to hold his child:
He stretched his arms towards his child, but the boy cried and nestled in his nurse’s bosom, scared at the sight of his father’s armour, and at the horse-hair plume that nodded fiercely from his helmet. His father and mother laughed to see him, but Hector took the helmet from his head and laid it all gleaming upon the ground. Then he took his darling child, kissed him, and dandled him in his arms, praying over him the while to Jove and to all the gods. “Jove,” he cried, “grant that this my child may be even as myself, chief among the Trojans; let him be not less excellent in strength, and let him rule Ilius with his might. Then may one say of him as he comes from battle, ‘The son is far better than the father.’ May he bring back the blood-stained spoils of him whom he has laid low, and let his mother’s heart be glad.'”
His prayer might seem odd to a modern audience, but for Hector’s society such achievements were the greatest a man could hope for. Hector prays for Astyanax to fulfil his own role as protector of the city, and to do it better.
A common epithet for the hero is ‘Hector of the flashing helmet’: he is remarkable for his armour which strikes fear into the heart of his enemies. However, while wearing his helmet he is alienated from his family, and his son is frightened by this unfamiliar warrior. This changes once the helmet is removed and Hector is recognised as a father. It is perhaps surprising to see Hector so familiar with his son in a society in which childcare is generally left to women. He handles his son confidently and playfully, and Andromache laughs through her tears with her husband. The three here form a family unit that is not dissimilar from the modern nuclear family. It is a moment of great tenderness, as the innocent infant is surrounded by the love of his family. The child lies at the centre of the Iliad, and amidst the bloodshed and tragedy he is for a moment safe and surrounded by love. However Hector must take up his helmet again and return to the war that will separate him from his family forever. Despite its emphasis on heroism the Iliad is fully aware of the cost of war, a cost that is symbolised in the fates of Astyanax and Andromache. And yet Hector’s failure to protect his family does not make his love for them worthless. It is tender moments like this which are precious in their precariousness. This provides a great contrast to the portrayal of the immortal gods in Homer who are not tender or loving. It is an important message of the Iliad that human mortality gives our life meaning, but ultimately this meaning is driven by tragedy.
Griffin, J. Homer on Life and Death. (1980)
Kirk, G. The Iliad: a commentary: Volume 2. (1990)
Pratt L. “Parental Ethos in the Iliad” in Hesperia Supplements, Vol. 41. (2007)
Redfield, J. Nature and Culture in the Iliad: the tragedy of Hector. (1994)
Translation are from Hammond, M. (1987) and Butler, S. (1898).