By Thomas Van Nortwick
Hector’s monologue expresses everything we have learned about him: his bravery and fears, his determination and regret. Yet in a way that is peculiar to Homeric poetry it is both an extraordinarily revealing portrait and the realization of a recurring type scene, “the lone fighter surrounded by enemies.” The usual elements of the scene are:
- a warrior finds himself facing an overpowering force, either a group of soldiers or one superior fighter, prompting the exclamation, ὤ μοι ἐγὼν, “ah me”
- a monologue in which the besieged man debates with himself the merits of flight and resistance and chooses one or the other, the decision marked by the verse ἀλλὰ τί ἤ μοι ταῦτα φίλος διελέξατο θυμός, “but why does my heart within debate these things?”
- a simile characterizing the choice, and
- the action that follows
There are three other examples of the pattern in the Iliad: Odysseus surrounded by Trojans (11.401–420); Menelaus defending the body of Patroclus (17.89–113); and Agenor debating whether to fight Achilles (21.550–580).
Though structured around a common set of elements, each of these passages tells us something about the besieged warrior. In the Iliad Odysseus is not primarily the clever trickster we encounter in the Odyssey. His persuasive speech-making is mentioned in Book Three (3.189–224) and displayed in Book Ten, when he convinces the hapless Dolon to reveal information about the Trojans (10.400–411). Otherwise he appears as a no-nonsense soldier. When Agamemnon’s botched strategy sends the Greeks running toward their ships in Book Two, it is Odysseus who picks up the scepter and herds them back into the assembly (2.169–210). Later, alone and surrounded by Trojans in Book Eleven, he has a brisk talk with himself:
Spear-famed Odysseus was left alone; none of the
Argives stood by him, since fear had seized them all.
Troubled, he spoke to his own great-hearted spirit:
“Ah me, what is happening to me? It will be a great evil
if I run in fear of this crowd of enemies, but worse still
if I am taken alone; the son of Kronos has routed the other Greeks.
But why does my heart within debate these things?
For I know that cowards hang back from fighting
and he who would distinguish himself in battle must
make a powerful stand, being killed or killing another.”
This is the least elaborate version of the motif, befitting Odysseus’s straightforward character in the poem. He deliberates, decides, and acts. The shame that would attach to him for running finally outweighs his fear of being killed. The Trojans close in, prompting a simile comparing Odysseus to a wild boar cornered by hounds. Odysseus is wounded and withdraws from the field, but not before taking down one more Trojan (11.411–471).
In the scene where Menelaus guards the corpse of Patroclus (17.89–113) the familiar elements are there again. Like Odysseus, he weighs the cost, to himself and others, of running. Menelaus, however, reaches a different conclusion. There would be shame in running, he admits. But fighting a warrior (in this case, Hector) whom some god is backing would bring μέγα πῆμα, “great misery” (99). So none of the Greeks will blame him for abandoning the body to look for help. He begins to back away but keeps turning around toward Hector and his troops. The rare participle ἐντροπαλιζόμενος, “turning back again and again” (109), which we saw applied to Andromache in Book Six (6.496), leads into the simile, this time of a bearded lion, slowly giving way before hunters. Menelaus eventually finds reinforcements and returns to guard the body. His sensible decision to avoid death by finding help fits with what we know of him. He is a good fighter, but not among the best; when he volunteers to fight a duel with Hector in Book Seven, others dissuade him, and he gives way to Ajax.
Agenor is the least illustrious hero of the group. Homer calls him, ἀμύμονά τε κρατερόν τε, “blameless and strong” (21.546), a standard set of epithets for warriors in the poem. All the usual elements of the type scene appear. He acknowledges Achilles’ superior force, but toys with the idea that he might be able to run away from the city and hide in the bushes until nightfall. But no, Achilles might see him trying to escape and run him down. Better to make a stand in front of the walls. He is a mortal, after all; maybe a spear can wound him. His resolve to stay and fight reminds Homer of a leopard emerging from her lair to fight hunters. She is over-matched but refuses to budge. Agenor’s death will follow shortly, we feel, but Apollo has other plans for him, whisking him away in a cloud and taking his place, then running from the city to draw Achilles away.
Agenor is only important because he is a surrogate for Hector. We have been waiting for the final showdown between Achilles and Hector at least since Book Nineteen. Agenor’s monologue comes shortly before Hector’s and plays its part in setting the stage for the final duel. Though he would have no chance against Achilles, he stays to fight, a decision that will be in our minds when Hector’s moment comes, if we are alert to the presence of the type scene.
In Hector’s version of the scene, the simile comes first. He waits, Homer tells us, like a poisonous snake coiled in his lair. The comparison might seem surprising, given that Hector has been cast as the one pursued by a menacing force. But defending his lair is exactly what Hector is doing. By putting this image here instead of later in the sequence, the poet keeps Hector’s role as the last defender of Troy vividly in our minds.
Though the monologue itself follows the familiar form of deliberation, decision, and action, it is anything but conventional. Drawing on the scenes from Troy in Book Six, sometimes explicitly, Homer completes an intimate portrait of Hector. As in the case of Odysseus, and to a lesser degree, Menelaus, avoiding shame is on his mind as he weighs up his options:
Troubled, he spoke to his own great-hearted spirit:
“Ah me, if I should enter the gates and walls,
Poulydamas would be the first to reproach me,
who urged me to lead the Trojans toward the city
on that dreadful night, when bright Achilles rose up.
But I would not be persuaded, though it would have been much better.
Now since I have destroyed my people with my rash folly,
I feel ashamed before the Trojan men and Trojan women with
trailing robes, that some lesser man would say of me:
‘Hector destroyed his people, trusting in his own strength.’
So they will say. And for me it would be much better
either to face Achilles, kill him and return,
or be killed by him gloriously before the city.”
Unlike the other warriors, Hector is specific about who will heap shame on him. Poulydamas plays the role of “wise adviser” to Hector in the story, twice urging restraint (12.210–229; 18.249–83). Hector scornfully refuses his counsel each time, with bad results. Now his regret makes the issue especially personal. His actions do not simply reflect the standards of the heroic shame culture, but more importantly, in his mind at least, they signify the cost of his personal failure to heed his fellow warrior. At the same time, in a way characteristic of him, he assumes responsibility for harming the entire city and its people. As he does so, his words echo verbatim the reply he gave to Andromache when she urged him to regroup inside the walls: αἰδέομαι Τρῶας καὶ Τρῳάδας ἑλκεσιπέπλους (22.105 = 6.442). The echo lingers through the next verse, with one telling change. At 6.407, Andromache predicts that Hector’s own strength will destroy him. Now he expands the thought to include all his people as victims of his overreaching. As he comes closer to death, we are reminded of everything we learned about him when he returned to Troy, but now, with Achilles drawing ever closer, the stakes are much higher.
Still searching for some way to escape, Hector imagines himself bargaining with Achilles. He could promise to return Helen, along with all the riches Paris brought back from Sparta. But he knows his enemy; it will not work. Instead, his wistful dream becomes a nightmare. There will be no pity, no respect, as he sees himself kneeling naked without his armor, “like a woman,” before Achilles, who will kill him. Then, even as he renounces all hope of escape, one last fantasy drifts into his mind:
There is no way, from an oak or a rock,
to chat with him, the way a girl and a boy do,
the way a girl and a boy chat together.
Better to close with him and fight as soon as possible;
we will see to whom the Olympian god grants glory.
The unusual verb ὀαρίζειν, which appears in the Iliad only here and at the end of Hector’s parting from Andromache (6.516), surfaces here in a telling way. As he foresees his humiliating death two images float before him: a naked woman, and children flirting. The former recalls his parents’ abject pleading, the latter his wife’s. The dilemma that has characterized Hector throughout the poem reappears for last time. His love for his family fuels his determination to protect them and all the Trojans, but his understanding of himself as a warrior and a man will not let him heed their voices.
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