By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 20, 2011
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.