Achilles vs. Hector: Who Was The Better Man?

Hector takes his stand outside the gates and under the beetling towers of Troy as his countrymen and allies rush past him, cramming into the walls of the city, panicked, fleeing pell-mell the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilles. Now, at the climax of the Iliad, the two champions finally face off. Yet, the clash between Achilles and Hector isn’t just a battle between two men, it’s a battle between a set of values that each man represents in the clash, and, in an ominous outcome that echoes down through the ages, the “better angels of our nature,” the forces that Hector represents, go down to defeat at the merciless, racing hands of the primeval force of nature, Achilles.

The Champions

Achilles and Hector, first and foremost, were the greatest warriors of their two armies, Greek and Trojan. All of the hopes of the two forces rest on their shoulders. Particularly strong is the burden on Hector. Homer is refers to him as the sole defense of Troy. He leads the Trojans and their allies in battle gallantly, fighting and beating the greatest Greek warriors. Hector got the best of giant, Telamonian Ajax numerous times. He packed the Greeks like sardines against their ships, setting one of them ablaze and was poised to do more before the strong force of fate intervened.

Hector vs. Ajax
Ajax duels with Hector

Though his prowess in combat is questioned by none of the Greeks, not even Achilles, who clearly respects him as “man-killing Hector,” the Crown Prince of Troy isn’t driven by combat. What Homer shows us in the Iliad is that combat is incidental to the life of Hector. He’s clearly talented at it, but it isn’t who he is. Though it’s a story driven by war, the Iliad does allow us to glimpse into Hector’s other life. Homer shows him as the model husband, father, son, and citizen. He exhorts his brother Paris to think of Troy and the men fighting for him. He seeks nothing more than to drive the day of death and slavery off of Troy and the Trojan women. Homer shows us that his greatest nightmare is to be alive when the Greeks drag his wife, Andromache, to slavery, and throw his son Scamandrius (who the Trojans refer to as “Astyanax,” or lord of the city, because Hector was the sole defense of Troy), off the walls.

The city and its people – these are the elements in which Hector thrives the most. He is fighting to preserve this world – the community, the laws, and his own family, from the Greeks outside the walls, who are there to destroy it all down to, Agamemnon says early on in the Iliad, the last baby boy still in his mother’s belly.

What of Achilles?

Achilles is the champion of this world, this world of ruthless men determined to destroy Troy and all its people. This world of hard fighting and hard living is Achilles’ element. He embodies it. It’s who he is. It’s why he chose a short life of glory over a long one where his name would be forgotten.

Because of this choice, any diminution of his honor is a denial of his right to exist, and Achilles won’t tolerate it. When Agamemnon seizes his prize at the beginning of the Iliad, he enters an inhuman rage. Throughout the Iliad, Homer often describes Achilles as “godlike,” and his rage, we are shown in Bernard Knox’s excellent introduction to the Fagles translation of the Iliad, is indeed like that of the gods. The language used mirrors the rage of Hera against Troy for Paris’ insult to her in the contest of the golden apple. This was a visceral insult, as it spurned her beauty. Similarly, Achilles is viscerally insulted because Agamemnon spurned his greatness as a warrior by taking away a marker of that greatness, Briseis.

It would be wrong to say that Achilles was entirely a beast. Homer shows us at times, particularly in book 23 of the Iliad, that Achilles could be a man of courtesy and respect, a trusted and generous comrade. But these things aren’t the most important aspects to Achilles that Homer displays. What is important to Achilles is his honor and his reputation as the greatest warrior among the Greeks. The episode of his rage, namely, the Iliad itself, shows us that all other considerations are secondary. Even Agamemnon’s offer in his embassy to Achilles is spurned, because the latter deems it to be a false apology, not a recognition that he has been wronged. The consequences are that many of his comrades, his closest friend Patroclus most of all, will die.

At first, this is no bother to Achilles, who remarks in book 11 of the Iliad, when the Greeks are being routed by Hector and his men “now I think they will grovel at my knees.”

Achilles Agamemnon
Achilles draws his sword against Agamemnon

Hector vs. Achilles: Who Is Right?

What can Homer teach the modern man in the clash between these two Bronze Age champions?

When I look at the clash between Hector and Achilles, and the entire Iliad that Homer put behind it, I see a clash of two value systems – that which is good for the individual (Achilles) versus the community (Hector). Homer shows us that Achilles was motivated first and foremost by his individual enterprise. His glory and his reputation were what mattered to him. Hector could be ruthless. He was by no means immune to the ferocity of the battle around Troy, as seen when he was mad to hack off Patroclus’ head and leave his body to the dogs after his death. However, Hector was primarily fighting for his community above his individual pursuits.

Perhaps it was mere circumstance that deemed this to be the case. The Trojans were the defenders and the Greeks the attackers. Homer in the Odyssey makes Odysseus resemble Hector in some ways, as he seeks to defend his own home and wife from invaders. What other kind of Achilles or Hector we may have seen remains hidden from us.

In the clash between the two, Homer reminds me of Cicero’s discourses on glory and moral rightness in On Duties. Cicero is adamant in his treatise that true glory, as with all things that are advantageous or expedient, cannot be separated from what is morally right. Even attempting to define such a separation, he says, reveals an unsavory character.

If we take Cicero’s maxim and apply it to the career of Achilles in the Iliad, we may ostensibly find Cicero’s pronouncements true. Achilles believed it would be advantageous to him to rage away until he made Agamemnon and the Greeks realize how much they needed him, which would restore his honor. This did happen, but only after thousands of his comrades died, most of all Patroclus, which was a grievous, shattering loss. Ultimately, Achilles’ rage set him on a course to his own death. Agamemnon, too, brought dark disaster on himself when he set Achilles’ rage in motion (to say nothing of events before or after the Iliad).

It’s arguable that Hector, too, was morally corrupted, because he defended Paris, the thief of another man’s wife (and more treasures besides). After the truce of book 3 is broken, one of the Trojans says, rather accurately, “we fight as outlaws.”

Cicero emphasizes that moral rightness can often be identified as those things which tie the human community together. If everyone were to act like Paris acted toward Menelaus, human civilization would be impossible.

Yet, Hector can mostly be seen as an unwitting victim of his brother’s immoral acts. Aside from forcing Paris to face justice and return Helen, what more could he have done? Would the Greeks have sailed home? If Agamemnon’s words about blotting out Troy’s existence down to the last baby in his mother’s womb are any indication, this proposition is at least open to doubt. The Greeks didn’t merely want Helen. As Homer reminds us time and time again throughout the Iliad, they are there for Troy’s wealth, women, and its very right to exist as a community.

Hector, by defending that community, would no doubt earn some praise from Cicero. These desires are just in his framework. Romans often praised Hector as the model soldier, the framework for their own Republic, particularly given its mythical connections to Troy through Aeneas.

From Cicero’s framework, Hector was clearly the better man than Achilles. His actions in the Iliad are largely driven by what Cicero would see as morally good. He fights to keep his community intact, even if on the battlefield he, like all fighting men that Homer depicts, was not above brutality.

What of Achilles?

Here was clearly a man who put himself above his community, as far as an armed camp can be considered as such. His actions throughout the Iliad, up until the very end in that magical scene where Priam at last breaks Achilles’ rage by begging for the body of his son, were destructive to communal bonds.

Still, Homer teaches us something useful in the character of Achilles.

As longtime readers of the Masculine Epic know, Achilles’ great skills and his devotion to his honor, reputation, glory, and memory (kleos) is a wonderful guide to living a great life, one which invites you to do great deeds to prove your existence. The hero of Homer and his goal of immortality serves as a very useful model in today’s world. But we can argue that Achilles went too far, even mistreated as he was by Agamemnon. How you should deal with such mistreatment is another discussion. Achilles’ acts not only caused others to suffer needlessly, but it ultimately brought him no advantage in the end.

The clash between Achilles and Hector teaches us to try and reconcile the two philosophies.

Achilles vs. Hector

It’s possible to be a brilliant Achilles driven by glory, by the desire to make your name immortal, and to be a Hector who is upstanding, who keeps your community together rather than sows the forces of entropy and discord.

In fact, the two champions of Homer and the Iliad seem to come perfectly together in the “New Right” for which we have some affinity. The great warrior driven by glory and the staunch defender of his city and people come together as one.

Because you want to do the same, pick up a copy of Stumped today.