By Thomas Van Nortwick
Achilles returns to the forefront of our attention as Andromache recalls how he wiped out her entire family, mother, father, and seven brothers. But this is a different Achilles from the one we have come to know. He killed Andromache’s father, but did not strip off his armor to keep as a trophy, the standard practice in poem’s battle scenes. Instead, he “respected him in his heart” (417), burning Eëtion’s body with his armor and piling up a funeral mound over it. He killed all of her brothers, as they were tending flocks on a hillside, then took her mother as a war prize, but later sold her back for ransom, allowing her to die a gentle death at home. We are reminded that the world was not always a place without pity, that Achilles, though relentless as a warrior, once recognized limits. A serene vignette from Eëtion’s burial captures the fleeting change in mood:
And nymphs from the mountains, daughters
of aegis-bearing Zeus, planted elm trees all around the grave.
Burial scenes, as opposed to the battles that necessitate them, are moments of rest in the Iliad. The terrible strain of battle subsides in death’s aftermath, when single combat gives way to communal suffering and the prospect of healing. This fleeting moment of peace foreshadows the string of burials, of increasing importance to the poem’s meaning, in Books Sixteen through Twenty-Four, as Sarpedon, Patroclus, and finally Hector are laid to rest.
Andromache’s memories are for us, since Hector presumably knows about her past life. Now we know that the stakes for Hector are even more personal than we thought. As if to drive that point home, Andromache ratchets up the pressure on her husband yet more:
Hector, you are my father and my revered mother
and my brother; you are my young husband.
The viselike grip of Hector’s responsibilities tightens as Andromache drives home her utter dependence on him. Using this emotional leverage, she crosses into his world by giving him tactical advice. Why not pull back to the most defensible place on the city walls? That way he can protect his family while staying near them. The advice seems sensible. Apparently the Greeks, led by the best of their warriors, have tried unsuccessfully three times to breach the wall at that spot.
Hector will not even consider this promising plan, for reasons that take us to the heart of his torturous dilemma:
My dear, all these things are a care to me also, but I would be
deeply ashamed before the Trojans and the Trojan women with trailing robes,
if like a coward I were to shrink back from battle;
nor does my heart so urge me, since I have learned to be brave
and always to fight in the forefront of battle with the Trojans,
winning glory for myself and for my father.
Hector is not going to argue tactics with his wife. There may, in fact, be more than one way to defend the city and its people, but for him this is about something much more personal. To retreat to the city would be a betrayal of his very identity as a man. Avoiding shame by winning glory, and thus the admiration and approval of one’s fellows, is the strongest imperative in the masculine code of conduct that informs the Iliad. Hector cannot stay with the people he loves most and still think of himself as a man.
The word ἐσθλός (443) carries tremendous weight here, encompassing the whole complex of masculine heroic values, the need to separate from the mother and come to terms with the world of the father, understanding your identity as the product of imposing your will on the world outside yourself, becoming the person you are supposed to be by working your will in the world (see Introduction: The Hero’s Return and the Gift of Life). Achilles is the most egregious example of this code in the poem, but Hector’s words and actions here place him squarely in the same arena. What makes his story so painful is that unlike Achilles, whose arrogance and willfulness blind him (until the very end of the poem) to the suffering he is visiting on himself and others in pursuit of these goals, Hector knows the consequence yet still feels he must carry on.
As if following this line of thought out to its inevitable conclusion, Hector now affirms what we already know: one day, Troy will be destroyed and along with it, Priam and his people. Not only do we know that Troy is doomed, but Hector knows it too. From now on, everything he says and does will be in the shadow of his impending death. In this sense, Hector’s story is the essence of a tragic narrative, showing us an admirable man doing his best against the backdrop of the inevitable fact of human mortality. In this crucible, the impact of every act is intensified, pointing us toward a richer understanding of the meaning of human existence.
Just such an intensity seems to invest Hector’s mind now, as he looks ahead to the world he will leave behind in death. No loss is as painful for him to contemplate as the specter of Andromache, a captive of some Greek warrior, under a κρατερὴ ἀνάγκη, “powerful necessity” (458), a polite way to describe sexual slavery. His next words are revealing:
And then someone, seeing you weeping, would say,
“This was the wife of Hector, who was the bravest fighter
of the horse-taming Trojans, when they fought around Ilion.”
Even as he contemplates the most wrenching of all his losses, the thought of what someone else will say about him surfaces. Such is the grip of the heroic shame culture. He ends his dismal vision with the now familiar wish to be buried before he can hear her screams as she is dragged away. Burial, at least, would bring rest.