Below is an extract from one of the Iliad’s most famous scenes, taking place at end of Book 6. Hector speaks to his wife and child after returning from battle and although he does not know it yet, it is to be their last meeting before he is killed by Achilles. It is a memorable moment, in which Hector displays a heart-breaking affection for his wife and son, alongside a tragic understanding that he will ultimately be unable to protect them.
Hector’s wife Andromache makes a 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. Hector however is a hero in a warrior society and to stay behind the battle would mean disgrace for himself 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.”
How you are perceived by others is an important tenet of heroism in Homeric society and crucial to a hero’s self-worth. Yet his compulsion to fight has tragic consequences for Hector, who in Book 22 is slain in battle by Achilles. Troy is doomed to fall, and so Hector cannot succeed either as a husband and father nor as defender of the city. Hector is aware of this, and knows that he fights to protect those he loves in vain. He accepts his death heroically, mourning only for the fate of his wife as a slave to the Greeks.
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, but the audience knows that this prayer will never be fulfilled. When the Greeks sack Troy Astynax is thrown from the walls of the city.
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. It is a moment of great tenderness in the bloody epic.
Hector’s failure to protect his family does not make his love for them worthless. Tender moments like this are precious, and are made even more so by their precariousness. This provides a great contrast to the portrayal of the immortal gods in Homer who are capricious in their loyalties and insincere in their tenderness. They are not driven to snatch these quiet moments, because they are not haunted by the knowledge that few such moments are left to them. It is one of the most striking lessons of the Iliad that human mortality gives our life depth and 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).