Hector of Troy: The Battle for Peace and the Wrath of Achilles
Homer’s epic Illiad tells the mythical story of the legendary 10-year Trojan War between the Trojans and the Greeks, which erupted after the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus, was taken by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy. In classical mythology, Hector was a heroic super-warrior, who tried to protect his city from the havoc caused by his brother’s actions, all the while dealing with the meddlesome gods who took sides and intervened at will.
Most of what we know about the peace-loving Trojan hero comes from Homer’s epic poem in which Hector defends Troy as its greatest warrior. The Iliad also portrays Hector as the ideal warrior, not only in terms of his fighting prowess, but also in his moral character. In spite if all this, Hector meets a tragic end, as he is used by Zeus to bring the Greek hero Achilles back into battle.
The Trojan War was instigated by rage and the desire for revenge after the abduction of Helen by Paris, the son of Priam and brother of Hector. Hector of Troy had to then defend his city from the infuriated Greeks. ( Public domain )
The Peace-Loving Warrior: Hector and His Battle for Troy
Hector was the oldest son of Priam, the King of Troy, and his wife Hecuba. According to some later accounts, Hector’s true father was actually the god Apollo. This is because in the Iliad, Hector is depicted as a favorite of this god, who provides him with divine aid on numerous occasions. As the eldest son of Priam, Hector was heir apparent to the throne of Troy. The hero was married to Andromache, and the couple had an infant son, Astyanax, known also as Scamandrius.
Although Hector was Troy’s greatest warrior, he did not approve of the war with the Greeks in the first place. Indeed, Hector was a man of peace. Nevertheless, Hector took up arms when his homeland came under siege. According to Gaius Julius Hyginus, a Latin writer who lived between the 1 st century BC and 1 st century AD, Hector is reputed to have killed the first Greek warrior in the Trojan War, the first Greek casualty being Protesilaus. Although this warrior was Hector’s first victim, he was certainly not his last. Troy’s greatest warrior went on to slay many of his Greek enemies as the war dragged on.
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Returning to Protesilaus, in his Fabulae Hyginus reports that an oracle had prophesized that the first Greek to step on the shores of Troy would also be the first to die. Protesilaus, originally known as Iolaus, was the son of Iphiclus and Diomedia. He was the first Greek to disembark form the ships, and was immediately killed by Hector, thereby fulfilling the prophecy. Since he was the first to set foot on Troy, and also the first to perish, Iolaus became known as Protesilaus ( protos meaning “first”).
Legend has it that when Protesilaus’ wife, Laodamia, heard of her husband’s death, she was overcome by grief and prayed to the gods to allow her to speak to her husband. The gods took pity on Laodamia, and granted her request. Laodamia spoke to her husband for three hours, after which his shade was led by Hermes back to the underworld.
Hector mocked his brother Paris for his cowardice and convinced him to fight a duel with Menelaus in the hope that the war would finally come to an end. (Folger Shakespeare Library / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
As Paris Faces Menelaus, Hector Hopes for Peace
Still, Hector genuinely desired peace, and this is evident, for instance, in Book 3 of the Iliad. Here, Hector is shown mocking his brother, Paris, for his cowardice. Paris had challenged the Greeks heroes to mortal combat, but fled back to the Trojan lines as soon as Menelaus appeared. Hector’s taunting had its desired effect, and Paris agreed to face Menelaus in a duel. The winner of the duel would gain Helen and all her treasures. More importantly, the duel would end the war:
“The rest will seal in blood their binding pacts of friendship.
Our people will live in peace on the rich soil of Troy,
our enemies sail home to the stallion-land of Argos.”
When Hector heard this, he was immensely pleased, as peace would soon be achieved, whatever the outcome of the duel. Therefore, Hector approached the Greeks to announce Paris’ challenge. He did so whilst risking his own life, as the Greeks began firing arrows at him when they saw him walking towards them.
Agamemnon realized that Hector was coming with a message, and therefore commanded his men to stop firing at the Trojan hero. The duel was fought, and Paris was easily defeated. Through Aphrodite’s intervention, however, Paris was rescued, and brought back to the city of Troy. It was also through divine intervention that the truce was broken, and the war between the Greeks and Trojans continued. Thus, the hope for peace was dashed.
Hector and Ajax being separated by Talthybius, a Greek herald, and Idaeus, a Trojan herald. ( Public domain )
Hector vs. Ajax: Toxic Masculinity and Battles Orchestrated by the Gods
The duel between Paris and Menelaus is not unique, as one-to-one combats between a Greek and Trojan hero is a recurring motif in the Iliad. In Book 7, for instance, Hector engages in a duel with the Greek hero Ajax. According to Homer, it was Athena and Apollo who orchestrated this duel. Just before Hector and Ajax fought in single combat, the Trojans were gaining the upper hand in their battle against the Greeks. Athena, who supported the Greeks, saw this, and descended from Mount Olympus, intending to bring aid to the Greeks.
Apollo, on the other hand, supported the Trojans, and did not want Athena to turn the tide of battle. Therefore, he proposed to temporarily halt the battle between the Greeks and Trojans by having Hector duel with one of the Greek champions. Athena accepted Apollo’s proposal, and relayed their plans to the mortals through Helenus, one of Hector’s brother.
Helenus, who was divinely inspired by Athena, suggested to Hector that he should challenge one of the Greeks to mortal combat. Hector was pleased with this idea. Even though the duel would not end the Trojan war , it allowed temporary respite for the men on both sides. The Trojan prince walked to the middle of the battlefield, and issued his challenge to the Greeks. The terms set by Hector were as follows:
“If that man takes my life with his sharp bronze blade,
he will strip my gear and haul it back to his ships.
But give my body to friends to carry home again…
But if I kill him and Apollo grants me glory,
I’ll strip his gear and haul it back to sacred Troy
and hang it high on the deadly Archer’s temple walls.
But not his body: I’ll hand it back to the decked ships.”
Well-aware of Hector’s reputation as Troy’s greatest warrior, the Greeks were “ashamed to refuse, afraid to take his challenge.” The silence of the Greeks caused Menelaus to admonish his men, and the Spartan king prepared to face Hector himself, knowing that he was no match for the Trojan champion. The other Greek commanders stopped Menelaus by physically seizing him, and Agamemnon, his brother, convinced him not to face Hector in single combat.
Once Menelaus had yielded to his brother’s counsel, it was Nestor’s turn to taunt the Greeks. As a result, nine warriors volunteered to accept Hector’s challenge – Agamemnon, Diomedes, Ajax the Great, Ajax the Lesser, Idomeneus, Meriones, Eurypylus, Thoas, and Odysseus. Ajax the Great was chosen by lot to fight Hector.
Before the duel itself, a description of Ajax’s famous shield is provided. The shield was made by Tychius, whom Homer calls “the finest leather-smith by far,” and consisted of seven layers of ox hide topped off with an eighth layer of bronze. Ajax’s shield was so sturdy that it was able to stop the spear hurled by Hector:
“that awesome seven-layered buckler, right on the eighth,
the outside layer of bronze that topped it off,
through six hides it tore but the seventh stopped
the relentless brazen point.”
Ajax in turn hurled his spear at Hector, which went straight through his shield, ripped through his breastplate, and tore his war-shirt. The spear would have pierced through Hector’s side, had he not swerved aside. The two warriors then then engaged in melee combat. At one point, Ajax hurled a huge rock at Hector, which not only shattered his shield, but also knocked him off his feet. Apollo, however, quickly intervened, and picked Hector up.
The two men were about to attack each other with their swords, when they were stopped by Talthybius and Idaeus, the former a Greek herald, and the latter a Trojan herald. The two heralds urged Ajax and Hector to stop fighting, on account of the onset of night. The two heroes agreed to end their duel and exchanged gifts. Hector gave Ajax his sword, whilst Ajax gave Hector his girdle. Ironically, these gifts would later be connected with the deaths of both heroes. Ajax would commit suicide by plunging Hector’s sword into his breast, whereas Hector’s corpse would be attached by Achilles to his chariot with Ajax’s girdle.
Achilles beside the body of Patroclus as his mother brings him armor to avenge his death. The relationship between Patroclus and Achilles has historically caused speculation. ( Public domain )
Incurring the Wrath of Achilles: The Death of Patroclus
Indeed, it was Hector’s fate to perish at the hands of Achilles, and once more the gods had their part to play in the events that unfurled. At the beginning of the Iliad, we learn that Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, decided to withdraw his support for the war effort, following a dispute with Agamemnon. Without Achilles, the Greeks were eventually forced back to their ships by Hector and the Trojans. Still, Achilles would not budge. Even the delegation, led by Odysseus, was unable to bring the hero back to the field of battle.
Although the desperate situation of the Greeks had no bearing on Achilles, it affected his companion, Patroclus, who pleaded with the great hero. Achilles was moved by his companion, and permitted him to lead the Myrmidons into battle. Therefore, Patroclus put on Achilles’ armor, and led the Greeks against the Trojans. Patroclus, disguised as Achilles, succeeded in forcing the Trojans away from the Greek ships, and in the process, killed many of the enemy’s warriors.
Prior to the battle, Achilles had commanded Patroclus to withdraw once he had pushed the Trojan back from the ships. In his frenzy however, Patroclus did not obey Achilles’ command and continued his assault on the Trojans. It was due to this that Patroclus ultimately lost his life. Although he reached the walls of Troy, the city was defended by Apollo who stood on its ramparts. Patroclus charged the walls three times and was hurled back by the god each time.
On the fourth assault, Apollo shouted at Patroclus to back down and the warrior finally gave ground. In the meantime, Hector was debating whether to drive back the rout, or to rally his men within the ramparts. Apollo, taking the form of Asius, one of Hector’s uncles, persuaded the prince to go on the offensive. Therefore, the Trojans renewed their attack and Hector went for Patroclus.
Once they were out on the battlefield, Patroclus was struck by Apollo leaving him stunned. Then he was harmed by Euphorbus’ spear. When he encountered Hector, the Trojan warrior dealt him the final blow. As he was dying, Patroclus prophesized Hector’s death:
“you too, you won’t live long yourself, I swear.
Already I see them looming up beside you – death
and the strong force of fate, to bring you down
at the hands of Aeacus’ great royal son…
Achilles riding his chariot over the body of the slain Hector. (Antonio Raffaele Calliano / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Hector vs. Achiles: A Tragic End for the Trojan Hero
Once Achilles learned of Patroclus’ death, he was filled with grief, and prepared to return to the war. Since Hector had stripped his armor from Patroclus’ corpse, and was now using it himself, Hephaestus forged Achilles another set of armor on request of Thetis, the hero’s mother. Although the armor is a magnificent piece of work, Hephaestus is well-aware that it would not save Achilles’ life, as the hero would himself lose his life shortly after defeating Hector.
In any case, Achilles and Hector finally meet on the battlefield. When Hector first caught sight of Achilles, he lost his nerve, and for a moment he contemplated surrendering to the hero. As the Greek hero drew closer, however, Hector began to flee, and was chased by Achilles around the city walls. After running three times around Troy’s walls, Hector finally found his courage and faced Achilles. Athena too was there, disguised as Deiphobus, Hector’s brother, though she was there to delude Hector and to aid Achilles.
Although Hector tried to negotiate terms with Achilles, as he had done with Ajax, but the Greek warrior refused. After the duel began Hector was eventually killed outside the gates of Troy. Before his death, however, Hector prophesied Achilles’ impending death:
“But now beware, or my curse will draw god’s wrath
upon your head, that day when Paris and lord Apollo –
for all your fighting heart— destroy you at the Scaean Gates!”
Despite Hector’s pleas that his body be treated with respect, after slaying Hector Achilles lets loose his wrath on the dead Trojan hero. First he slit the hero’s heels, passed Ajax’s girdle through them, attached the cadaver to his chariot, and returned to the Greek camp where the corpse was dragged around Patroclus’ tomb three times. Despite all the mistreatment over twelve days, Hector’s corpse was kept intact by Apollo and Aphrodite, after which Priam visited the Greek camp and succeeded in retrieving his son’s body from the Greek hero. The Iliad ends with Hector’s lavish funeral.
Andromache lamenting the death of her husband Hector of Troy. (Sailko / CC BY 3.0 )
There is no doubt that Hector has been remembered as Troy’s greatest hero. Throughout the Illiad he is depicted as a noble figure, and in later literature and artwork, this reputation is reiterated. The Trojan hero is included amongst the Nine Worthies in the 14 th century romance Les Voeux du paon by Jacques de Longuyon. These nice legendary heroes were said exemplify the ideals of chivalry of the Middle Ages. Hector appears as one of the three pagans accompanied by none other than Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Additionally, in his Divine Comedy, Dante places Hector in Limbo, rather than in Hell, as he considers him to be one of the truly virtuous pagans.
Top image: Troy’s greatest hero, Hector has been remembered as a virtuous Trojan warrior. Source: Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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Bryan, V., 2019. “Hector (The Iliad)” in Classical Wisdom. Available at: https://classicalwisdom.com/mythology/heroes/hector-the-iliad/
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In many cultures War & Combat seems to demand rules of courtesy lest the conflict desend into depraved butchery which somehow defeats the goal of the conflict. And there are Heros both Mythical & Historical that try to bring some Humanity to bloody conflict. Homer’s Hector is one example of the Mythical & the semi-mythical El Cid is a historical example. It’s all quite a tight-rope to walk on & we keep falling onto the net of Beastiality.