Homer’s Iliad Book 22: The Tragedy of Hector

In my previous post I looked at Hector’s farewell to his wife and child in Book 6. Book 22 recounts the hero’s death. Hector has killed Patroclus, Achilles beloved comrade, and Achilles’ rage is violent and terrifying. He has resolved to kill Hector no matter what.

While there is life, there is hope. And when Achilles’ first javelin throw misses, Hector is briefly triumphant. However, when he then misses his own shot, he is left unarmed and completely isolated outside the gates of Troy. He understands now that he is about to die. All that is left for him is the hope that he will die in a manner worthy of remembrance:

‘But let me not die without a fight, without true glory, without some deed that men unborn may hear.’

As in Book 6 it is what other people think that defines heroism for Hector. In ancient Greek thought there was a strong link between great deeds and poetry. Heroes are remembered through poetry, it is through epics like the Iliad that they live on. Hector is concerned with his ‘undying glory’, for the songs of the poet are the closest a mortal man can get to immortality.

The glory of war and the desire for a glorious death are important themes in the Iliad. However, it is interesting that the actual depictions of death are extremely graphic and often grotesque. In no way does Homer glorify the cost of war, and Hector’s death and the mutilation of his body is humiliating rather than glorious. Achilles’ rage is terrible, and even with his enemy dying at his feet his revenge is not satisfied.

Then Hector of the gleaming helm replied, in a feeble voice: ‘At your feet I beg, by your parents, by your own life, don’t let the dogs devour my flesh by the hollow ships. Accept the ransom my royal father and mother will offer, stores of gold and bronze, and let them carry my body home, so the Trojans and their wives may grant me in death my portion of fire.’

But fleet-footed Achilles glared at him in answer: ‘Don’t speak of my parents, dog. I wish the fury and the pain in me could drive me to carve and eat you raw for what you did, as surely as this is true: no living man will keep the dogs from gnawing at your skull, not if men weighed out twenty, thirty times your worth in ransom, and promised even more, not though Dardanian Priam bid them give your weight in gold, not even then will your royal mother lay you on a bier to grieve for you, the son she bore, rather shall dogs, and carrion birds, devour you utterly.’

Achilles’ reply is shockingly brutal and unyielding. The desire to eat Hector raw is an inhuman wish. Rage fills Achilles with an animalistic violence. Likewise, burial rights were hugely important to the Greeks, and to be denied them is paramount to sacrilege. It is the ultimate dishonour, a disgrace against the gods themselves.

Despite the odd intimacy of the scene, in which the final words of the dying man create a terrible bond between the slain and his slayer, both heroes are being watched by many audiences: the Greeks held back by Achilles, the Trojans watching anxiously from the city walls, the gods from above like spectators at the games, and of course the readers of the poem and the poet himself. Hector’s death is not a private matter, it seals the fate of many men. The whole world is watches as he falls to the ground and begs for a final act of mercy. They are both actors on a stage going through the final motions of a piece written long ago by fate. Mortals are helpless to control their destiny, and even Achilles is fated to die soon at Troy.

Achilles then fulfils his refusal of Hector’s last words. He drills holes in Hector’s heels and binds him to the chariot. He then drives around the walls of the city in triumph, dragging Hector behind him for all of Troy to see. It is a dreadful image, and Homer strongly emphasises the contrast between what Hector was in life, and what he is now in death.

Dragged behind, Hector’s corpse raised a cloud of dust, while his outspread hair flowed, black, on either side. That head, once so fine, trailed in the dirt, now Zeus allowed his enemies to mutilate his corpse on his own native soil.

The triumph of achilles by Franz Matsch (died 1942). The original is a fresco from the Achilleion at Corfu.

The triumph of achilles by Franz Matsch (died 1942). The original is a fresco from the Achilleion at Corfu.

Meanwhile, in Troy the grief is absolute and unrestrained. First we see Hector’s aged mother and father weeping for their son. In a striking image, their grief is said to be no less than if the city were in flames. Hector’s death and the fall of Troy are made one and the same. Hector has failed as protector of Troy and at his death we are given a vision of what is to come.

Seeing her son’s hair fouled with dust, Hecabe, his mother, gave a great cry, plucked the gleaming veil from her head and tore her hair. His father Priam groaned in anguish, and a wave of grief spread round them through the city, no less than if all of lofty Ilium were on fire.

However it is Andromache’s reaction that is the most pitiful. Her reaction is delayed and so highlighted. She is pictured at home, oblivious to what has happened. With a tragic irony she anticipates her husband’s return. The preparation of the hot bath is doubly ironic because not only will Hector never enjoy his homecoming bath, Andromache will not even be able to wash her husbands body, the duty of a wife, for it is kept by Achilles.

Hector Taking Leave of Andromache by Angelica Kauffmann (1768). 'Hector of the flashing helmet' is a common Homeric epithet for Hector. In both paintings notice how symbolic his helmet is. In Matsch Hector's helmet is held aloft as a sign of Achilles' triumph over the warrior prince. In this painting Hector wears his helmet as he is called away from his family to fight.

Hector Taking Leave of Andromache by Angelica Kauffmann (1768). ‘Hector of the flashing helmet’ is a common Homeric epithet for Hector. In both paintings notice how symbolic his helmet is. In Matsch Hector’s helmet is held aloft as a sign of Achilles’ triumph over the warrior prince. In this painting Hector wears his helmet as he is called away from his family to fight.

But Andromache, Hector’s wife, as yet knew nothing, no one had even told her that her husband had stayed outside the walls. She was at work in an inner room of the lofty palace, weaving a double-width purple tapestry, with a multicoloured pattern of flowers. In all ignorance she had asked her ladies-in-waiting to set a great cauldron on the fire so that Hector would have hot water for a bath, when he returned, never dreaming that far from all thought of baths, he had been brought low by Achilles and bright-eyed Athene. But now the cries and groans from the wall reached her, she trembled and the shuttle fell from her hand.

She called to her ladies-in-waiting: ‘Two of you come with me. I must know what is happening. That was my husband’s noble mother I heard, my heart is in my mouth and my legs are numb. Some evil afflicts the House of Priam. May such news stay far from me, but I fear to my sorrow lest great Achilles has cut brave Hector off from the city, and quenched the fatal courage that possessed him, for he would never stay safely in the ranks, but must always charge ahead, yielding to none in daring.’

She then runs to the walls, repeating her actions in Book 6 where Hector finds her at the city gate fearing for his safety. Only this time Hector is not there to reassure her, rather she sees his body being dragged through the dust.

Griffin, J. Homer on Life and Death (1980)
Richardson, N. The Iliad: A Commentary: Volume VI (1993)
Taplin, O. Homeric Soundings (1992)

Translations by Kline, A.S. (2009).


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