Hērōs, the Greek word for hero, is the goal for most of the ancient Greeks. Traditionally, being a hero meant great glory and remembrance for years and decades to come, even after their death. A hero is defined by the Webster Dictionary as a man distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength. If this is defined as a hero, then why so much do people associate Achilles as the hero of one of Homer’s most famous epic poems, The Iliad? He was not courageous, or else he would have never left the battle in the first place, or only come back for vengeance.
He was not fighting for nobility, but out of rage.
He was more focused on avenging the death of a near friend that he was arrogant in his actions, endangering the lives of all of the Greeks as they waged war on the ancient city of Troy. And even his strength was not his own, but the strength of the gods behind him.
For years, Achilles has always been falsely accused of being the great hero of The Iliad, but in reality, Achilles is the example of what a hero is not.
The first part of the definition of a hero is that the hero has exceptional courage, which Achilles obviously did not. Many times, his friends pleaded for him to come back into the fight because they needed him. The Greeks were suffering horrible losses and Achilles was worried more about his own life than the lives of his fellow Greeks:
Tomorrow at dawn when I have made offering
To Zeus and all the gods, and hauled my ships
for loading in the shallows, if you like
and if it interests you, lookout and see
my ships on Helle’s waters in the offing,
oarsmen in line making the sea-foam scud! (9.
Achilles blatantly tells three fellow comrades that he is leaving in the morning, and that they can do nothing but watch him sail off. This is very cowardice for Achilles. Instead of try to help his begging friends, he plans to sail off into the sunset when there is still much work to be done:
My mother, Thetis of the silvery feet,
Tells me of two possible destinies
Carrying me toward death: two ways:
If on the one hand I remain to fight
Around Troy town, I lose all hope of home
but gain unfading glory; on the other
if I sail back to my own land my glory
fails-but a long life ahead of me
to all the rest of you I say: sail home (9. 499-507)
At this point, Achilles says that he only has two options, to die with eternal glory from helping his own people, or to live a long life, forgotten about and to leave his fellow soldiers abandoned in battle. A hero is a character who will stay until the task is done, and not run off for fear of his own life. Achilles lacks the characteristic of nobility that a hero possesses. Nobility can be defined two ways. People can be born into a rich family, a noble family, or they can have the characteristic of nobility. An example of Achilles lacking the characteristic of nobility follows:
Worn out with battle
I carry off some trifle to my ships.
Well, this time I make sail for home.
Better to take now to my ships. Why linger
Cheated of winnings, to make wealth for you? (1. 195-199)
If Achilles is noble, he would not have left the fight in the first place. He would have fought alongside of his fellow soldiers from start to finish. He would not have cared about how others thought of him, honored or not. For hero’s do their good work not for honor or what people think of them, but for the fact of doing what is right because it is right. That is one of the characteristics that best defines a hero.
Finally, Achilles has a complete lack of strength. The last of the Webster definition is that a hero has to have strength. As well as nobility, strength can be measured two ways. It can be physical strength, or it can be mental strength. From this stems the idea of brains vs brawn. A hero would possess both capabilities of strength. Achilles, for almost the entirety of the poem, is using brawn where brains would be more useful:
Achilles now came up like a fierce lion
that a whole countryside is out to kill:
he comes heedless at first, but when some yeoman
puts a spear into him, he gapes and crouches,
foam on his fangs; his mighty heart within him (20. 191-196)
Homer compares the so called hero Achilles to a savage animal, a lion. The lion is a beast that used more of its pure strength to capture and kill its prey rather than figuring out a smarter way to kill. With Achilles being compared to a primitive animal, it becomes hard to look at him as if he is a hero of the Iliad.
In one of Homer’s most famous books, The Iliad, many associate the Greek warrior Achilles to be the hero of the book. But that is not the case. As previously stated, a hero is one with exceptional courage, nobility, and strength. Achilles only partially shows some of these characteristics at best. In the face of dishonor and hardships, he lets his fellow comrades do the fighting. When in the face of danger, he flees.
When Achilles finally does fight, it is not the most effective. He is crude and inefficient in his fighting style. He may show physical strength, but he cannot produce the mental strength. Achilles is an unstable, inconsistent, unreliable warrior that the Greeks had to rely on for the many years of the siege. But what does Achilles do? He flees the battle, worrying more for his own life than the lives of his brothers, his family, and even his friends. In conclusion, Achilles, throughout The Iliad, is portrayed as an example of what a hero is not.