By Thomas Van Nortwick
Finally, Hector’s time has come. He is going to die soon. He knows it and we know it. Achilles has been looming on the edge of our vision while Hector pondered and now arrives as the elemental force that Priam first saw from the walls of Troy:
Those were his thoughts as he waited, and Achilles drew near,
like the god of battle, helmeted and ready for war,
shaking the Pelian ash spear over his right shoulder,
menacing; and the bronze blazed around him
like a burning fire or the sun rising.
The pathos that has been building around Hector since Book Six, around his heroism and its terrible price, come to a climax in this moment. He chooses to die nobly, as we expect.
But then he runs. To have this enormously sympathetic character lose his nerve at this moment seems a huge risk for the poet. Don’t we admire Hector precisely because he is willing to die to preserve the heroic principles that have cost him so much?
The artistic vision that produced this turnabout defies easy explanation, and the risk of oversimplifying is great. We might condemn Hector as a coward. After all, Odysseus stood his ground when surrounded by Trojans in Book Eleven, and even Agenor seemed ready to wait for Achilles (21.550–580). Menelaus did give way while trying to guard the corpse of Patroclus (17.89–113), but help was close by, and his decision seems both plausible and in character. Understanding Hector’s choice is much harder precisely because Homer’s portrait of him is so much richer and more intimate than that of any other warrior in the Iliad. We have seen into Hector’s heart, in his frustration with Paris, his struggle to honor his parents, and especially his wrenching encounter with Andromache and their son in Book Six. All these charged moments come to fruition in his monologue, as we hear his innermost thoughts and fantasies of escape. So, while we may condemn him for his failure to stand and face certain death, we may also find that running only makes him more accessible to us. We see behind the heroic gestures a fully-formed, complicated human being.
The contrast with Achilles is instructive. Achilles is the principal hero of the Iliad. His story forms the backbone of the poem’s plot. His decisions and actions are the vehicle for the artistic resolution of the poem that occurs in Book Twenty-Four. But he is always apart from other heroes by virtue of his semi-divine heritage and the extreme nature of his response to its challenges. In the last third of the poem, we see him ranging further and further away from ordinary human experience, at once more divine and more bestial. There is something mysterious, even repellent about Achilles. Hector, on the other hand, becomes more accessibly human to us as the story progresses, and this contrast holds the key to understanding how the poet is using these two characters to tell his story. Achilles, as powerful and vivid as he is, plays a role that parallels protagonists in other versions of the common Mediterranean myth of the hero’s separation and return: Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Orpheus, Aeneas (see Introduction, “The Second Self Motif”). The shape of that narrative pattern allows exploration of important questions about the place of human experience in the larger cosmic order. Hector, on the other hand, must be Homer’s invention, the character whose presence draws us in and makes the story so emotionally involving.
Now the chase begins. Having Hector run allows Homer to stretch out the final moments before the duel, to hold the dramatic climax a little longer. At the same time, scale usually marks importance in the Iliad, so the poet expands the chase in various ways. Elsewhere, as in the case of Aeneas’s lengthy genealogy in Book Twenty, we may feel that we are being teased, but not here. Every element of the narrative from now until Hector’s death is charged with meaning, drawing on what we know of both heroes, who they are and what they’ve done. First, a simile: Achilles as a hawk, swift and deadly, preying on Hector, the trembling dove. Then the focus shifts, pulling back so we can see the two men racing under the walls, by the look-out point and the wild fig tree, surely the same one that Andromache urged Hector to make a stand beside in Book Six (6.433). Again, as at the end of his monologue, when things look darkest for Hector the poet draws our thoughts back to those last bittersweet moments of peace by the Skaian Gates.
Following the wagon path the two arrive at two “sweet-running well springs” (147) fed by the river Skamandros. Homer pauses to let us see more of the springs. One spouts hot water and steam, the other runs cold, like hail, snow, or ice. Next to them are the stone basins where Trojan women used to wash clothes, “before when there was peace, before the sons of the Achaeans came” (155–156). In these fleeting images, we might recognize a familiar element in Homer’s battle narratives, the poignant biography of the loser, with vignettes from the life about to be ended. The difference here, apart from scale, is that the impending death will not be of one man only, but an entire city. The connection between Hector’s fate and Troy’s, already established by Book Six, will continue through the rest of the poem.
Homer’s narrative style can be leisurely, sometimes frustratingly so, as he pauses along the way to contemplate all kinds of details that might seem trivial. But a closer look often shows a thread of meaning connected to the poet’s larger purposes. So we note that the hot spring sends up steam, as if from a “blazing fire,” πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο (150), the same phrase used just fifteen verses earlier to describe the flash from Achilles’ armor, with one small change in the form of the case ending of the adjective to accommodate the meter (πυρὸς αἰθομένου, 135). Once the fire of Achilles is in our minds, the cold death coming for Hector rises from the other spring. Nothing is wasted.
Next come two more similes, of a foot race and a horse race, foreshadowing the extended description of athletics as denatured warfare that will take up much of Book Twenty-Three. Here the similes serve to pull us back again from the idyllic setting by the springs to a position like Priam’s earlier, watching Achilles and Hector from afar. Then Homer zooms yet further away, to Olympus, where Zeus and the other gods look down at the desperate foot race. The “divine audience” is a recurring motif in the poem (see 4.1–72, 16.431–461, 20.288–320), inviting us to take a more detached view of the events below. This change in perspective has multiple effects here. Our sense of time changes, as the two figures shrink, and their progress looks slower, something like what happens when a film goes into slow motion. As the action slows, we can stand back from the furious immediacy of the moment and ponder its meaning. And as we assume a divine perspective, the drama of human life and death becomes less charged. In the world of the gods, nothing can change, and no harm is permanent. To a divine audience, there is in one sense no difference between athletic games and Hector’s race for his life.
But precisely because the gods are invulnerable to permanent change the poet can also use them to explore human relationships from a detached position. Here Zeus contemplates saving Hector, since he has always provided the gods with excellent sacrifices. Athena replies firmly: You can do it if you want, but if you do, none of the other gods will approve of you. The dynamics of this exchange appear in two other places in the Iliad, at 16.431–461, when Sarpedon faces his fated death at the hands of Patroclus and Zeus ponders whether to intervene and change fate and save his mortal son; and 20.288–308, when Poseidon considers saving Aeneas from what looks like certain death at Achilles’ hands.
We seem to have examples of another Homeric type scene, “god ponders whether to rescue a favorite mortal,” like the besieged-warrior scenes we discussed earlier. The outcomes are different—Sarpedon is allowed to die, Aeneas is saved, and Hector will be left to his fated death—but the central dynamic is consistent: an all-powerful being contemplates changing fate to please himself. While we might look in these passages for some definitive answer to the question of the relationship between divine will and fate in the poem, in each case, the god is dissuaded by an argument with a distinctly human resonance. In the case of Sarpedon, as here, Hera admits that Zeus can change fate and save his son, but he will risk disapproval from the other gods. In Book Twenty, Hera says that she and Athena have been forbidden by Zeus from intervening in the battle, but Poseidon is free to act as he pleases. Instead of stepping downstage to clarify a large metaphysical question, Homer shows us the omnipotent gods entangled in the same messy interpersonal dilemmas that face humans.
There is a crucial difference, since, however annoyed the gods may be about the interference of other deities, finally nothing can change their perfected existence. They cannot grow old, get sick, or die. The stakes for mortals are much higher, and so the moral import of their decisions is much greater. To put it simply, the gods in their own world are necessarily trivial. But when they intervene in the mortal world, their actions can be devastating. So, when Homer creates a situation where a god is contemplating whether to cross the boundary between divine and mortal existence, he prompts us to think about the question that lies behind all Greek tragic literature: What does it mean to be human?
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Griffin, J. 1980. Homer on Life and Death, 112; 179–204. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Van Nortwick, T. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 2–14. Praeger.