Hector and Polydamas: The Iliad’s Great Debate

One of the most fascinating passages of Homer’s Iliad takes place in book 12, when the Trojans have successfully broken through the Greek lines and now assault their rampart. Beyond these fortifications lie the ships and the camp. The resurgent Trojans now had a chance to win the war outright, especially with Achilles on the sidelines. Hector, being the warrior that he is, jumps at the opportunity.

It is at this point that he’s warned by Polydamas:

Stop the attack, don’t fight them at their ships! All will end as the omen says, I do believe, if the bird-sign really came to us, the Trojans, just as our fighters tried to cross the trench. That eagle flying high on the left across our front, clutching this bloody serpent in both its talons, still alive – but he let the monster drop at once, before he could sweep it back to his own home…he ever fed his nestlings in the end.

Nor will we. Even if we can breach the Argives’ gates and wall, assaulting in force, and the Argives give ground, back from the ships we’ll come, back the way we went but our battle-order ruined, whole battalions of Trojans left behind and killed – the Achaeans will cut us down with bronze to save their fleet! So a knowing seer of the gods would read this omen, someone clear in his mind and skilled with signs, a man the Trojan armies would obey.

Hector responds:

Enough, Polydamas! Your pleading repels me now – you must have something better than this to say. But if you are serious, speaking from the heart, the gods themselves have blotted out your senses. You tell me to forget the plans of storming Zeus, all he promised me when he nodded in assent? You tell me to put my trust in birds, flying off on their long wild wings? Never. I would never give them a glance, a second thought, whether they fly on the right toward the dawn and sunrise or fly on the left toward the haze and coming dark! No, no, put our trust in the will of mighty Zeus, king of the deathless gods and men who die.

Bird-signs! Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!

Hector’s admonishment was seen by later generations of Greeks and Romans as the epitome of patriotism and courage, perhaps the most admirable line in the Iliad. It is the response of a man of action, filled with vigor and masculine virtue. This utterance can only have come to a man with trust in his own strength and skill, one who will not let superstition or excuses cast doubt on the mission at hand, one which he knows is the right course of action.

Polydamas Iliad

And yet, Polydamas’ warnings to Hector wind up being correct. The Trojan charge turns into a disaster as soon as it reaches the height of its momentum. Once the first ship is burned, Patroclus joins the fray in Achilles’ armor. The Trojan morale instantly evaporates and the Greeks rally at the charge of Patroclus and the Myrmidons – fresh troops. The Trojans ranks are torn asunder and they flee pell-mell back toward Troy.

What can we glean from this? Was Hector wrong?

Hector has been accused of impiety, but Zeus himself declares that no one honored his altar more then Troy’s crown prince. Yet, this warning also seems to have come from Zeus, as the eagle is his bird.

The incident in book 12 wouldn’t be the only time Hector ignored Polydamas’ sound advice. When Achilles returned to the battle, Polydamas suggested the Trojans retreat inside the walls and fend off the attackers that way, but Hector refused and ordered his army to meet them in the field. The result was a horrific defeat and his own death.

Homer anticipated something that Sophocles would later flesh out in Antigone:

Reverence towards the gods must be inviolate. Great words of prideful men are ever punished with great blows, and, in old age, teach the chastened to be wise.

Hector, for all his admirable qualities, let his pride got the better of him. Instead of carefully assessing his own strengths and weaknesses (particularly where Achilles was concerned), and the “fortune’s revolving wheel,” he went ahead wildly and paid the price.

Yet, we have the benefit of an all-seeing eye where Hector is concerned. At least in the matter of book 12, would you have called off a charge that had every inkling of success? Making a decision in the heat of the moment is hard enough. Calling off an endeavor that looks like it will succeed is something even more difficult.

Greeks vs. Trojans Bronze Age
Would you be able to call this off?

And sometimes, we must move toward the end state of things with boldness and brute force, without calculation or care as to the final outcome. Whether it’s a girl you really want to talk to, a deal you want to make, or something else, you need to go full-force with all your skill toward the opportunity, regardless of what happens.

Louis XIV, that master of the art of leadership, had this to say:

“There are often troublesome occasions which may cause you to hesitate in making a decision, but once you do, and think you have seen the best course, you must take it.”

“Uncertainty will sometimes make a prince pass very painful moments; but when a reasonable time has been bestowed on the examination of an affair, he must take a determination according to his best judgment, without protracting that state of suspense any longer.”

Who is to say what are “true signs” or not? Making a judgment like that is hard enough on its own. Being the creatures of confirmation bias that we are, we’re more prone than not to making “signs” out of things that aren’t really there. Our fears overtake our reality. Most of the time, they are way out of proportion.

And in a leadership position, it often becomes necessary to squelch these superstitious ramblings, these wanderings of the mind looking for a pretext to retreat. William the Conqueror knew this well. As he was arming for the Battle of Hastings, he accidentally put his chain mail armor on backwards. His men wavered at this, believing it to be an omen of ill fortune. Imposing his frame on the situation, William casually set his armor on right and said: “Today, I go from a duke to a king.” And of course, he did.

Hector would have approved of that. It worked for William. It didn’t work for Hector.

The (tentative) conclusion we can reach from the Hector and Polydamas debate is that we must carefully consider ourselves and our opponents, the risks, and, the tides of fortune (admittedly, always a difficult thing). But once we reach a decision, we have to move forward with boldness to the end, whatever that end may be.

Hector didn’t consider what could happen if Achilles and the Myrmidons rejoined the fight, and we can fault him for that, but we can’t fault him for his bravery, and his desire to take action on behalf of his people.

And sometimes, there is no choice but to fight to the end, as the Trojans did.

Sometimes, the end can’t be helped.

Some other times, as in 1429, miracles occur, and the tides get turned completely.

You don’t know until you fight. And that’s the greatest virtue of Hector’s rebuke. It didn’t work for him, but sometimes, if you fight to the end, a miracle will occur, and turn “the inevitable” back.

For more on fighting full-throttle after deliberate calculation, read Stumped.

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