Hector and Andromache
Here is one of the most poignant and tragic scenes (at least in its outcome, foretold but unstated here) in all of epic poetry. From Homer’s Iliad, in the Richmond Lattimore translation from the University of Chicago Press, this is the moment on the battlements of Troy, when the Trojans’ great hero Hector has left the fighting momentarily; his wife Andromache comes to speak with him, accompanied by a nurse and their infant son, Astyanax.
First Andromache, foreseeing Hector’s death, pleads with him to withdraw from the fighting. “Dearest, your own great strength will be your death, and you have no pity on your little son, nor on me, ill-starred, who soon must be your widow … ” She reminds Hector that all of her family have already been killed in war, including her father and seven brothers, all slain by Achilles (who is destined as well to defeat Hector in mortal combat.)
“Hector, thus it is you are father to me, and my honored mother, you are my brother, and you it is who are my young husband. Please take pity upon me then, stay here on the rampart, that you may not leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow … “
Hector’s response is that of the classic Homeric hero:
Then tall Hector of the shining helm answered her: “All these things are in my mind also, lady; yet I would feel deep shame before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments, if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting … for I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it: there will come a day when sacred Ilion will perish, and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear. But it is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans that troubles me, not even of Priam the king nor Hecabe … as troubles me the thought of you, when some bronze-armoured Achaian leads you off, taking away your day of liberty, in tears; and in Argos you must work at the loom of another, and carry water from the spring Messeis or Hypereia, all unwilling, but strong will be the necessity upon you; and some day seeing you shedding tears a man will say of you: ‘This is the wife of Hector, who was ever the bravest fighter of the Trojans, breakers of horses, in the days when they fought about Ilion.’
“So will one speak of you; and for you it will be yet a fresh grief, to be widowed of such a man who could fight off the day of your slavery. But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.”
So speaking glorious Hector held out his arms to his baby, who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom screaming, and frightened at the aspect of his own father, terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse-hair, nodding dreadfully, as he thought, from the peak of the helmet. Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honoured mother, and at once glorious Hector lifted from his head the helmet and laid it in all its shining upon the ground. Then taking up his dear son he tossed him about in his arms, and kissed him, and lifted his voice in prayer to Zeus and the other immortals: “Zeus, and you other immortals, grant that this boy, who is my son, may be as I am, pre-eminent among the Trojans, great in strength as I am, and rule strongly over Ilion; and some day let them say of him: ‘He is better by far than his father,’ as he comes in from the fighting; and let him kill his enemy and bring home the blooded spoils, and delight the heart of his mother.’
Hector’s dire predictions were of course all to come true. He himself would be killed in battle by Achilles; his son slain, still an infant; while Andromache indeed was borne off into captivity, though her life’s end came, in old age, as a queen.
So glorious Hector spoke again and took up the helmet with its crest of horse-hair, while his beloved wife went homeward, turning to look back on the way, letting the live tears fall. And as she came in speed into the well-settled household … she found numbers of handmaidens within, and her coming stirred all of them into lamentation. So they mourned in his house over Hector while he was living still, for they thought he would never again come back from the fighting alive, escaping the Achaian hands and their violence.
I would recommend “The Greeks” by HDF Kitto. His discussion on Arete uses this scene as an example.
hmm will do! with thanks
Thanks, Steve. Hector is my favorite character in the Iliad. Second is Cassandra.
Truly epic in nature, this scene depicts on a grand scale what takes place on Naval installations, Marine and Army bases around the world as our men go off to war. The need of men to be warriors, true to the ideals of our nation, and to continue the traditions of virtue, liberty and freedom. I love everything about it Steve. Once while in Bahrain waiting to fly north into Iraq back in 2003 a friend once said, “The world still needs gunslingers Chief.” Such a true statement. Thanks for all you do Steve.
The only scene more heartbreaking for me is when Andromache is about to have her son taken from her arms to be dashed upon the rocks by the Achaian soldiers in The Trojan Women by Euripedes. I cannot read it without breaking down into a heap of bawling. What strength and courage to endure all that Andromache did.
Great excerpt. Probably the strongest indicator that the Iliad is in fact antiwar in theme.
Brian, I don’t see it as that at all. Rather it is a picture into the soul of those that go into harms way to try and ensure the lives of others are safe. Death happens, but death sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing while your country, or in this case, city-state is being attacked is far more repulsive in nature. They mourned as well they should, but they were proud of him and his courage and he loved his family. Recommend Theodore Roosevelt “Man in the Arena” excerpt.
What you’re saying about a theme of sacrifice and patriotism may have some function in this portion of the text, but when considering the epic as a whole it seems less likely than an antiwar theme.
For one, the protagonist of the epic isn’t a man who fights for a home he loves or people he loves. He fights independently for “glory”. When given the choice to live a long life but have no legacy or to live a short life with an eternal legacy he chooses the latter, a choice it seems he regrets later.
One of the only people in the world he cared about was killed so he went on a rage of blood lust thinking it would be the catharsis he needed. He killed indiscriminately and without thought. It didn’t do anything for him. He kills Hector and drags him around behind his chariot. He still doesn’t feel relief. Only when Priam reconciles with him does Achilles’ anger desist.
The shield of Hephaestus pretty much shows the good life in peace and also the despair war can bring. It shows the happiness that was once Troy contrasted to what will soon come to pass because of war. It shows that peace and civility, not war and glory, are what should be sought after.
Both heroes and their families (or whatever Patroclus is to Achilles) die so no one is left to make amends. War destroys families, and that is the end of it. Hector’s nobleness to defend home and family fail. The bad guys win.
I don’t know, if I was listening to Homer recite hours of lines, probably over several days, I think I would have been really depressed that everyone I invested interested in died, and for nothing. It would seem that the ten years of fighting and the days I listened to the poem were pointless because nothing positive came out if it. I might like war just a little bit less.
This scene just furthers that message by giving voice to the often unheard side of war–women. The side that suffers even after a victory because of the loved ones that are lost. The side that hates war the most. The side that promotes peace. It reminds us early on that war has consequences and destroys family, civility, and happiness in peace.
Look, I’m an international relations major, and I don’t particularly care about classic Greek literature. I don’t have any credentials. All I can say is I studied and read the Iliad over three weeks in a Civ class and to me antiwar seemed a much stronger message than the typical Greek themes of glory or fate.
YOU are repulsive!!!
I read something by a thoughtful modern soldier that made me think of this, and thought I was the only one who was wrenched by reading this.
On The Virtues Of Killing Children by the pseudonymous Grim, posted at Blackfive.
And I’ll second the recommendation about Kitto.
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