The Nature of Heroes
From the very beginning of the great epic known as the Iliad it is obvious that it is a tale of great heroism, of daring and feats of strength. A less obvious fact is who the hero is. The greatest heroes of the respective sides are Achilles son of Thetis and Hector, Prince of Troy. The one is as renowned for his inhuman ability and love of battle as the other is for his calm courage and brilliant sword, but it is never said who the true hero of the tragedy of Troy was. Hero: A warrior-chieftain of special strength, courage, or ability. Whose arm was stronger? Who was the nobler? Who was the better man?
Achilles is said to be the greatest of the heroes that Greece ever produced. His skill in battle was unmatched. Again and again his accomplishments are listed, his victories, and his strength. His fury is ever predominant, with his moments of mercy, of tenderness and anguish, scattered like jewels in the blood of the Trojan fields. Like any other hero though, and more so because of his very greatness, Achilles has one fatal flaw, his pride. His pride cost the Achaeans thousands of lives- all because he and the king were fighting over a girl. It is his hubris that leads him to withdraw from the battle until Agamemnon begs him to return to the fray, which doesn't happen but leads to his dear friend Patroclus' death when he takes Achilles armor and joins the battle unable to stand the slaughter of his companions any longer. Finally it is his pride that after the last fateful battle between himself and Hector that causes him to dishonor the death of his brave enemy. He was a godlike hero.
In every epic ever written there has never been an abundance of tender scenes of affection and love, but the Iliad contain more than one such scene. In an interlude that displays his nature and certainly his true gentle spirit despite his skill in battle Hector goes to say good-bye to his wife and infant son. For a few moments in the blood and his own certainty that he will die there is a peaceful instant when his son is scared by his fathers helmet and screams, Hector only laughs and takes off the offending armor to kiss his child and his wife before he leaves for the walls hoping against hope that he might save his city even at the cost of his own life. Back on the field however, it is "man-killing" Hector who razes the ranks of his enemies, slaughtering them, without mercy, as caught up in his deadly rage as Achilles himself. Human as he is though when he faces Achilles himself even Hector fears- and flees.
It is said that a man's true nature is revealed in his darkest moments and in the Iliad this offers an oxymoron to what is generally thought of the main dramatis personae. Achilles is the raging warrior throughout the entire epic but in his pain he is gentle. Patroclus' death drove him to madness but it was on the breast of his friend's body he wept innumerable times, after the funeral he couldn't sleep he "turned and twisted, side to side, he longed for Patroclus' manhood, his gallant heart-" He wept with King Priam when he came to recover his sons body, despaired when he could not embrace Patroclus' shade, and longed to be reunited with him in the fields of Elysium. Hector, gentle prince, made every effort to be the perfect royal son, but quixotically he had fewer moments of true gentility of spirit than Achilles. His farewell to his family is the only instance in all others his love of battle, the violence of his heart so carefully hidden when not needed, blazes with the ferocity of a truly human man.
In the end it is only the humanness of a hero that matters. When Achilles died, after his revenge, his despair, and his desperate love for his comrade he was mourned as a demigod, something superhuman. On Hector's death it is his wife Andromache who mourns him as Achilles mourned Patroclus' but cedes that he died well and is a better man for it. Her, his people and his father pour out their grief like the men of Achaea did for Patroclus' when led by Achilles. It is real, raw and they honor him as a man, not a god. So the truest measure of a man is what kind of man he wishes to be, even to the utter sublimation of his darkest desires. Achilles loved and hated deeply, completely, but he lacked the mark of a man, control despite fallibility. Prince Hector loved and tried to erase his hate, he controlled his barbarous human nature in the power and dignity of a true hero.