Hector versus Achilles: Who’s the Hero?

Iliad war illustration

Who’s the hero of The Iliad? Is it Achilles or Hector? Or should they both be considered heroes?​

If we are to answer these questions, we need to know what is meant by heroism. We also need to know what Homer meant by heroism. Was the pagan Greek understanding of heroism different from ours? If so, how was it different and does this difference impact our understanding of Homer’s epic?

Although The Iliad has cast its shadow across the full expanse of western civilization, from Virgil’s epic, The Aeneid, to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the works of Shakespeare, its impact on modernity has largely been governed by the way that it was read by the so-called neoclassicists of the Enlightenment.

If we read Homer's epic from the perspective of those who have divorced themselves from all divinity, we are not reading it from the perspective of Homer.

In some sense, aesthetically and philosophically, neoclassicism can be seen as an attempt to leapfrog over the Christian middle ages in pursuit of an alternative to Christianity itself. This process had begun during the late Renaissance when the neopagan Muse turned to the Greek pantheon for inspiration, Venus replacing the Virgin as the new aesthetic ideal. (It was Ruskin, I believe, who lamented that Venice had metamorphosed from a medieval Virgin into a Renaissance Venus.)

The problem with our understanding of The Iliad is not, therefore, the shadow that it has cast over civilization but the shadow that neopaganism and neoclassicism has cast over it. It is this revisionist reading of the classics that has clouded our vision, preventing us from seeing Homer’s work as Homer himself would have seen it. This problem was summarized by C. S. Lewis who likened Greek paganism to a virgin awaiting the coming of the Bridegroom and modern neopaganism to a divorcee turning its back on the marriage. If we read Homer’s epic from the perspective of those who have divorced themselves from all divinity, we are not reading it from the perspective of Homer.  

The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy

The modern definition of hero is "a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities".

The difference between the “virgin muse” of the Greeks and the “divorced muse” of the moderns can be seen in the definition of the word hero. The modern definition of hero is “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. In this sense, we might consider Achilles and Hector to be equally heroic to the extent that they are admired and idealized for their courage and outstanding achievements. Since, however, Homer makes the pride and anger of Achilles the cautionary theme of his epic, showing its harmful consequences in the destruction of his friends and foes alike, it is difficult to see that Achilles can be seen as exhibiting “noble qualities”. Quite the contrary. Yet modern neopagan or atheist humanist readers of the epic, echoing the pride and anger of Nietzsche, admire and idealize Achilles’ prideful courage and his outstanding achievements as a peerless warrior. These are his “noble qualities”. It is his strength and valour that matters. He is a superhero. An ubermensch. 

But does this modern neopagan reading of the epic accord with Homer’s understanding?

A clue can be found in the older understanding of the word hero, which is presumably the meaning of the word that Homer would have known. Etymologically, the Greek heros means “protector” or “defender”. Can Achilles, by any stretch of the imagination, be seen as a protector or a defender? He withdraws from the fighting, betraying his friends and his people, and is directly responsible for the deaths of many Greeks, including his friend Patroclus. Can such a man be said to be a hero in the classical etymological meaning of the word? Hector, on the other hand, is shown as the protector and defender of his own wife and child, and of his people. 

One final piece of formal evidence can be given in support of Hector’s claim to true heroism. Since Homer opens his epic with the focus on Achilles and his destructive anger, it would have made formal sense to end it symmetrically with Achilles’ death, the final destructive consequence of his anger. Instead, he ends with a series of eulogies to heroic Hector. The Iliad begins with Achilles’ refusal to serve as a protector and defender of his own people, casting him in the role of an anti-hero, and ends with the heroic death and subsequent eulogizing of one who had laid down his life as a defender and protector of his wife, child and people. Reading The Iliad as Homer wrote it, there can be little doubt that Hector, not Achilles, is the true hero.

by: Joseph Pearce

Facebook
LinkedIn
X
Email
Achilles killing Hector
Achilles killing Hector

Do you want access to exclusive podcasts, essays, and updates written by Joseph Pearce personally and published every week?

Then join in the Inner Sanctum!

More of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful:

~ Books by Joseph Pearce

Recent Blog Posts:

Unsung Heroes of Poland, Saints and Sinners in Shakespeare, and Great Works of the Catholic Revival

Let us Know More About You!

We invite you to share more about yourself by completing our Rosary College Interest Form. Our faculty and staff would love to learn more about you, and a team member will be in touch soon after you submit the form.

Top
Rosary College Icon with no text
Rosary College Application
*Creating a Rosary College account allows for data privacy and retention.
Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Remember me

Already logged in? Resume to Application.

Note: If you have clicked "Save and Resume", check your email to resume where you have left. If you haven't received any email, please contact admissions@rosary.college.

Admission Form (Sample Only)

For viewing purposes only. Do not answer.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Personal Information - Step 1 of 5

 Candidate Profile

Name
Sex
Street Address
Indicate your Applicant Classification & Term of Study: Check all that apply.