Monday 30 October 2023

Who is the hero of the Iliad?

Every now and then an article about Homer pops up in my alerts and I’ll see if it’s worth sharing. This one isn’t. But maybe it’s a teaching opportunity. It’s a short piece about Achilles and Hector at The imaginative conservative, by Joseph Pearce, a writer and editor attached to a Catholic college in New Hampshire.

Worshippers at the altar of ‘western civilisation’ have to put in many hours denying that early Greek literature shows influence from Anatolia and Mesopotamia, or avoiding thinking about non-binary gender representation in the Odyssey. Today’s deflection is about Hector in the Iliad.

Hector, says Pearce, is the very model of a modern hero. He’s admirable, he has noble qualities, he protects and defends his family. He, not Achilles, is the ‘hero’ of the Iliad. Achilles is only a hero for ‘neopagan or atheist humanist readers’.

If you’ve read the Iliad, you’ll already know this is nonsense. It seems as if Pearce relies a little too heavily on Hollywood for his knowledge of Homer.

Hector genuinely does fight Achilles to protect his kin — in this version of the story. (Eric Bana as Hector, Brad Pitt as Achilles; Troy, 2004, dir. W. Petersen)

Hector may be a tragic figure, as Redfield has argued (1975). Some readers may even find him sympathetic. But he’s also obstinate, rude, and easily swayed by pride. He can’t take advice from others, he always has to be told where he’s needed, and most of all, he intentionally and wilfully chooses destruction, solely to save face.

Here’s what Pearce claims.

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.
Pearce 2023

And, for the record, here’s one of those ‘eulogies’, spoken by Andromache.

My husband, you were lost young from life, and have left me
a widow in your house, and the boy is only a baby
who was born to you and me, the unhappy. I think he will never
come of age, for before then head to heel this city
will be sacked, for you, its defender, are gone, you who guarded
the city, and the grave wives, and the innocent children,
wives who before long must go away in the hollow ships,
and among them I shall also go, and you, my child, follow
where I go, and there do much hard work that is unworthy
of you, drudgery for a hard master; or else some Achaian
will take you by hand and hurl you from the tower into horrible
death, in anger because Hektor once killed his brother,
or his father, or his son; there were so many Achaians
whose teeth bit the vast earth, beaten down by the hands of Hektor.
Your father was no merciful man in the horror of battle.
Iliad 24.725–729 (tr. Lattimore)

Hector did protect her in the past. But now he has left her high and dry: the Trojans have no defender or protector. Hector has consigned his wife, son, parents, and compatriots to murder, violence, and enslavement.

And make no mistake, this isn’t because Hector made a noble effort but failed. It’s absolutely and precisely his own choice. His parents beg him at length to withdraw to safety, to live and fight another day. His father Priam specifically points out to Hector that if he chooses to fight Achilles then his father’s corpse will be mutilated by dogs, his brothers killed, their wives raped, their babies dashed to the ground (Iliad 22.56–76). His mother begs him to continue defending Troy from inside the walls (Iliad 22.84–85).

But Hector is obstinate. (As he routinely is.) He’s fully aware of the consequences of his choice, but he chooses it anyway, because he can’t bear the prospect of someone else pointing out his mistakes.

So these two in tears ahd with much supplication called out
to their dear son, but could not move the spirit in Hektor ...
Deeply troubled he spoke to his own great-hearted spirit:
‘Ah me! If I go now inside the wall and the gateway,
Poulydamas will be first to put a reproach upon me,
since he tried to make me lead the Trojans inside the city
on that accursed night when brilliant Achilleus rose up,
and I would not obey him, but that would have been far better.
Now, since by my own recklessness I have ruined my people
I feel shame before the Trojans ...’
Iliad 22.90–91, 98–105 (tr. Lattimore)

This isn’t a ‘heroic death’. He’s a narcissist. Rather than get blamed for some deaths, he’d prefer that everyone die.

Mind, this isn’t to say Achilles is a saint. Pearce is right to point out his betrayal of the Greeks. But Pearce genuinely seems to believe that one of them has to be ‘the hero’ — that a reader has to choose between them. One of them has to be the good guy.

If you take a class on the Iliad, one of the first things covered is to avoid that kind of puerility. They’re all awful people — in all senses of the word. Homeric heroes aren’t people who are good, they’re people who have an extraordinary impact on those around them. They’re larger than life. They’re powerful enough that they don’t need to care what you think of them.

Hector and Achilles as depicted in Doctor Who, ‘The myth makers’ (1965): Hector (Alan Haywood, facing camera) as musclebound thug, Achilles (Cavan Kendall) as artful dodger.

Here’s another teaching moment. This time it’s about linguistics. Pearce puts a lot of weight on the linguistic origins of the word ‘hero’.

Etymologically, the Greek hḗrōs means ‘protector’ or ‘defender’.
Pearce 2023

Much of his argument hangs on this. It’s the basis for his conclusion, which I quoted above: Achilles refuses ‘to serve as a protector and defender’, Hector lays ‘down his life as a defender and protector’.

The etymology is entirely false. Pearce got it from Wikipedia.

The word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), ‘hero’ (literally ‘protector’ or ‘defender’) ...
Wikipedia, ‘Hero’ (version of 22 Oct. 2023)

This false claim was added to the Wikipedia article anonymously in 2007, along with the related claim (since removed) that the word is cognate with Latin servo. These falsehoods appear to have infected the Etymonline article too — and Wikipedia now cites Etymoline for the etymology. That is, the claim is now sustained by circular reporting.

In reality, the origins of ἥρως are simply unknown. The etymology ‘protector, defender’ was firmly disproved the moment Linear B was deciphered.

Not from ἡρωϝ-, as previously assumed, because of the Mycenaean form [ti-ri-se-ro-e /tris-ērōʰes/ ‘triple hero’]. Probably a Pre-Greek word.
Beekes 2010: 526

The imaginary *ἡρωϝ- root is the one that would have the meaning Pearce wants. If it existed, it would mean ‘watch, shepherd, protect’ (from PIE *ser-u-o).

As used in Homer, though, hḗrōs simply means ‘warrior’, or even just ‘man’ (Cunliffe 1924: 183). In later Greek it came to have a specifically religious meaning. It got used primarily in the context of hero cults, the thousands of Greek religious sites devoted to the worship of legendary figures and culture heroes. As with Homeric characters, these figures of worship weren’t necessarily good or bad: they were just there.

The amorality of Greek religious figures is rather like laws of the land. A law may be morally good or bad, but it’s still the law. And if you break it, you’re still going to face penalties.

Even if hḗrōs were related to Indo-European *ser-u-o — which it isn’t — that wouldn’t matter. Etymologies don’t decide meaning. If they did, English dolphin would mean ‘pertaining to wombs’, weird would mean ‘fateful’, and lord would mean ‘bread monitor’. And somehow I doubt that when Pearce says his prayers he’s thinking about bread.

‘Hero’ is no different. In the sense Homer uses, all the Iliad’s male characters are hērṓes. In the sense of ‘a person idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities’, it’s hard to see that the Iliad has any heroes at all.

And really, that’s a pretty level-headed picture of armed conflict. That clarity — that understanding that while violence can be fascinating, there’s nothing admirable or noble about it — is one of the reasons the Iliad is a remarkable piece of literature.


  • Beekes, R. 2010. Etymological dictionary of Greek. Leiden/Boston. [Internet Archive]
  • Cunliffe, R. J. 1924. A lexicon of the Homeric dialect. London/Glasgow/Mumbai (reprinted 1963, Norman, OK). [Internet Archive]
  • Pearce, J. 2023. ‘Hector versus Achilles: who’s the hero?’ The imaginative conservative, 23 Oct. 2023. [Internet Archive]
  • Redfield, J. M. 1975. Nature and culture in the Iliad: the tragedy of Hector. Chicago. [Internet Archive]