An Examination of the Lamentations of Hector in the Iliad
by Abhinav Suri
Classical epics share many characteristics, among which is an expression of loss: lamentation. From a literal perspective, a lamentation is an expression of sorrow or mourning. However, in the context of the epic, it takes on a far greater meaning in the storyline. As Murnaghan puts it, “Lament … confers praise … on the actions of heroes, and more particularly of dead heroes who have earned their right to be praised through the manner of their deaths” (Murnaghan 1999). As a natural consequence of the praise conferred upon heroes after death, many instances of lamentation focus on extolling the reputation of the deceased individual. For example, in the Odyssey, the ghost of Agamemnon characterizes the deceased Achilles as “godlike”, “one of the great”, and “very dear to the gods”. He even goes further to say that Achilles has “not lost [his] name nor [his] honor among men” (Odyssey 24.38-110). This lamentation highlights Achilles’ honor, reputation, and stature even after death, focusing attention on the greatness of Achilles’s actions in life.
This definition can be extended with Thomas & Ziolkowski’s focus on another aspect of lamentation. They describe it as an act that, in addition to expressing praise for the dead, “denotes an expression of grief spoken by a mourner … that describes the virtues of the deceased and the ramifications of his loss to the mourner” (Perkell and Ziolkowski 2014). In the Iliad, the lamentation of Briseis at the burial of Patroclus exemplifies this definition. She emphasizes how Patroclus acted as her protector after she had gone through much adversity in her life, going on to say that she will never stop grieving for him (Iliad 19.300-319). In this lamentation, Briseis not only exemplifies the virtue of nobility that Patroclus embodies but also dwells on his death, which is very much a loss to her. The aspects of lamentation highlighted by Murnaghan and Thomas & Ziolkowski can be synthesized to a common definition for this paper: Lamentation denotes the conferral of praise on the actions or virtues of heroes and the expression of loss to the mourner.
Unique to the lamentation of Hector by his wife Andromache, there exists a lack of praise in her recounting of Hector’s life. Instead, in this particular lamentation, the expression of loss dominates the entire speech and is not paired with praise for Hector. This lamentation breaks the traditional definition of lamentation exemplified in other parts of the Iliad and other Homeric epics. While most characters in the Iliad use the process of lamentation to recall the heroic nature of the dead’s actions, Andromache’s lamentation of Hector offers insight into a darker, often hidden aspect of the effect of death on the lives of the living and how death makes the future uncertain. Particularly, Andromache’s lamentation stands in direct contrast to the other lamentations for Hector made by Helen and Hecuba, which emphasize Hector’s bravery, his protectiveness, and his valiant actions in battle.
To explore the distinct nature of Andromache’s lamentation, I will first demonstrate how honor after death was emphasized in the Iliad, focusing on how Hector did so, and how the lamentation is a critical means of communicating that honor. Next, I will explore the lamentations of Helen and Hecuba and illustrate how they fit the traditional definition of lamentation. Lastly, I will expound upon Andromache’s lamentation and its differences from the traditional lamentation before exploring how this lamentation serves to emphasize a contrast between the lamenters and their personal priorities.
Hector’s View on Death in Battle
To truly understand lamentation, we must first examine the underlying aspect of honor in death that drives characters to achieve their valorous ends in battle before exploring why reaching such a goal actually relies upon the delivery of a traditional lamentation. Through interactions with Andromache and Achilles, we see how Hector justified the risk of death in partaking in battle. He, like many heroes before him, reasoned that a valiant death in battle would benefit his family. In Book 6 of the Iliad, Hector conveys his vision of an honorable death to Andromache:
And someone, seeing you crying, will say,
‘That is the wife of Hector, the best of all
The Trojans when they fought around Ilion.’
Someday someone will say that, renewing your pain
At having lost such a man to fight off the day
Of your enslavement. But may I be dead
And the earth heaped up above me
Before I hear you cry as you are dragged away.”
In Hector’s eyes, participating in the war presents the only viable option for him to take in order to protect his family while also maintaining his honor. Here, Hector acknowledges the possibility that Andromache may be enslaved, but affirms his decision to attempt to prevent that likelihood, even if it leads to his death. Furthermore, Hector continues, saying:
“You worry too much about me, Andromache.
No one is going to send me to Hades before my time,
And no man has ever escaped his fate, rich or poor,
Coward or hero, once born into this world.
Hector accepts his fate, whatever it may be. To Hector, his choice is not between living and dying but between cowardice and heroism, since, in his view, fate only decides between death and life, not his status as a hero. This distinction serves to clarify why he considers death in battle to be honorable—it is the act of fighting for his people that matters, not the event of death itself.
Hector also believes that the honor that comes from dying in warfare will continue to exist beyond one’s lifetime in the form of reputation. Extending this idea, reputation serves as the closest thing mortals can achieve to immortality. In the world of the ancient epic, it was deeds of great strength and skill in battle that allowed the memory of these heroes to affect those who came after them. As a result of this desire for immortality through reputation, warriors often sought out dangerous instances of combat, going so far as to sacrifice themselves when death was imminent. Hector exhibits this behavior during his last moments in his face-off with Achilles:
…Well, this is fate,
But I will not perish without doing some great deed
That future generations will remember.
It is line 333 that succinctly expresses the Greek attitude towards honor and death in the Iliad—that glory must be achieved through some sort of struggle, whether it is killing others to protect a city or being killed trying to defend one. Thus, we can interpret Hector’s statement that he must not die without accomplishing something great to mean that he does not value the future outside of what reputation he will have and what he will be remembered for. Here is where lamentation plays a critical role. Lamentation serves as the primary means of communicating that reputation and praise for the fallen individual into the future. And so, it is critical for Hector, and other heroes, that his lamentation focus on the valiant nature of his actions in battle. If no such lamentation is made, then there is a risk that future generations will not remember his sacrifice.
The traditional lamentation serves as a means to communicate the struggle and sacrifice of a hero to others, highlighting praise for characteristics of the deceased. We see a more traditional instance of a lamentation from Hecuba, Hector’s mother, stressing that Hector has received divine blessing:
Hector, my heart, dearest of all my children,
The gods loved you when you were alive for me,
And they have cared for you also in death.
…And now you lie here for me fresh as dew,
Although you have been slain, like one whom Apollo
Has killed softly with his silver arrows
This lamentation starts with a recollection of Hector’s role in her life in a loving way, even going so far as to exalt Hector among her other children. By setting Hector apart from his siblings, Hecuba conveys to the people that her love for him was significant, highlighting the profound impact Hector’s actions had on Hecuba’s life while emphasizing his glorious death in battle.
The involvement of the gods in preserving the body of Hector also adds divine credibility to the glorification of death in the battlefield, suggesting that if one dies heroically, the gods will preserve a past, pristine image of the hero. Even after Achilles disgraced Hector’s body by dragging it around Troy attached to his chariots, the gods protected Hector’s body from the damage it otherwise would have received. The miracle of Hector’s godlike appearance even in death emphasizes that there is definite glory in a heroic death. Since dying of old age does not appear to merit divine intervention in maintaining a pristine image of the deceased, this passage can also be used to imply that dying of old age is an inglorious death in contrast to the manner of Hector’s more heroic death, accompanied by the immaculate appearance of Hector’s body.
Finally, the traditional lamentation of Helen is similarly in line with that of Hecuba. Helen also chooses to recall endearing sentiments towards Hector, thus praising him. Particularly, Helen chooses to focus more on the noble and protective qualities of Hector:
Oh, Hector, you were the dearest to me by far
Of all my husband’s brothers…
And I have never had an unkind word from you.
If anyone in this house ever taunted me…
You would draw them aside and calm them
With your gentle heart and gentle words.
During Andromache’s lamentation in Hector’s funeral, we see a different aspect of lamentation emphasized—that of concern for the future and an understatement regarding any honorable aspects of death. The lamentation Andromache gives regarding Hector during his funeral does not highlight his glorious career as a soldier and defender of the city. Rather, it emphasizes that he could have lived a longer life, cared for his family, and provided them with a degree of certainty for the future. Andromache’s apprehension for what is to come and the loss of a warrior to the field of battle is demonstrated in the following passage:
You have died young, husband, and left me
A widow in the halls. Our son is still an infant,
Doomed when we bore him. I do not think
He will ever reach manhood. No, this city
Will topple and fall first. You were its savior,
And now you are lost …
And you have caused your parents unspeakable
Sorrow, Hector, and left me endless pain.
This expression of grief by Andromache represents the realization of her concerns conveyed in Book 6, where previously, Andromache had implored Hector not to “leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow.” (6.432) Andromache’s entire lamentation goes on to include that the death of Hector will lead to the direct destruction of the city, enslavement of the population, and the endangerment of her son. Unlike the other lamentations, Andromache presents a vision of what is to come in the wake of Hector’s death in battle. As such, her lamentation confirms her previous concerns—namely that as a result of Hector’s death, he has abandoned his role as a father and failed in his role as a protector of Troy. It is notable that Andromache leaves out any mention of her love for Hector and instead blames him for leaving her vulnerable, implying that Hector will lead her to her own death as well as cause the death or enslavement of their child. Andromache’s lamentation serves to question rather than celebrate the reputation of Hector. Her lamentation focuses on the immediate adverse effects death has on one’s family and community.
Focuses on the Past and Future with Lamentations
The stark contrast between elements emphasized in Andromache’s lamentation and Helen and Hecuba’s lamentations could be due to multiple reasons. One particular aspect to consider is that these three characters point out a contrast between lamentations focusing on the past and future.
Helen mourns Hector as one who shielded her from others around her, similar to how Achilles protects the interests of Briseis. However, she does not express apprehension for her future, but rather indirectly suggests that her self-worth may be harmed due to the “taunts” or “unkind words” of others. Overall, Helen’s lamentation focuses on past ramifications of Hector’s actions, since those are what she benefited from the most. For the future, Helen does not reflect on the immediate effects of Hector’s death on her life.
For Hecuba, her mourning serves to emphasize the glorious nature of Hector’s death, focusing on how he was a good son and how the gods favored him. Importantly, she discusses how little damage Hector sustained in battle. These two aspects of Hector addressed in her lamentation draw attention to Hector’s past and the deeds he is to be remembered for. Much like the lamentation of Helen, Hecuba also does not focus on what effects Hector’s death will have on her life outside of implying that he will be missed. Thus, these two lamentations emphasize Hector’s past actions and omit any direct mention of the implications surrounding Hector’s death.
It is only in Andromache’s lamentation that we see grave concern for what Hector’s death means for the future. Andromache does not focus on herself, but rather on their son and the future of the city. This is the only lamentation that calls into question the consequences of Hector’s sacrifice. While Helen and Hecuba emphasize the past traits and state of Hector, Andromache instead goes on to rebuke Hector’s actions which will have the opposite effect of his intent to protect his family as stated in Book 6. Additionally, Andromache’s lamentation specifically refers to the consequences of Hector’s death on people outside of herself, an aspect not touched upon in the other lamentations. By choosing not to praise the traits of Hector and instead focusing on the uncertain and gloomy future to come, Andromache’s lamentation stands in stark contrast to the others. Whereas Helen and Hecuba choose to focus on Hector’s qualities and memories of his actions, concentrating their expression of loss on the past, Andromache chooses to introduce the irrevocable effect of Hector’s death on the future via a non-traditional lamentation. Her emphasis on the future effects of Hector’s death draws attention away from his valiant actions in battle, which Hector believed would serve to prevent deleterious effects on his family. This non-traditional lamentation exposes Hector’s potentially flawed desire for achieving glory by directly contrasting it to the dreadful apprehension Andromache expresses for what is to become of her family and her city without Hector’s presence.
In this series of lamentations in the Iliad, Andromache is the sole voice that calls into question the value of a glorious death. By breaking the formula of a traditional lamentation, Andromache’s lamentation serves to emphasize the idea that the pursuit of glory in battle has actual consequences on the living that reputation alone will not suffice for. Hecuba and Helen offer traditional lamentations which praise Hector’s superficial qualities (his appearance and his previous interactions with them) in their lamentations. However, by expressing the grief of a war widow and highlighting the consequences of Hector’s death, Andromache’s lamentation grounds Helen and Hecuba’s praise in the reality of their present calamity. Instead of exalting his memory, Andromache’s speech questions Hector’s choices by offering an opposing view that the glory in an early death perhaps does not outweigh the resultant future uncertainty and loss to the living.
As readers, we can speculate on the inclusion of this unique lamentation; I myself will suggest that it presents evidence of Homer confronting the supposed value of the classical tradition of emphasizing honor, martyrdom, and sacrifice. While several epic poems refer to how a hero’s death is considered honorable, few call into question the implication of that death on the future. Through the contrast between the traditional and non-traditional lamentations of the Iliad, we as readers gain a sense that these deaths may not be as beneficial as they are described to be, giving us a new, realistic perspective on descriptions of honorable deaths we may encounter in other literature.
Homer, Stanley Lombardo, and Sheila Murnaghan. The Essential Homer: Selections from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.
Murnaghan, Sheila. 1999. “The Poetics of Loss in Greek Epic.” In Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World: The Poetics of Community, edited by Margaret Beissinger, Jane Tylus, and Susanne Wofford, 203–21. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Perkell, Christine, and Jan M. Ziolkowski. 2014. “Traditional Lament in Virgil.” In The Virgil Encyclopedia. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Abhinav Suri graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with B.A.s in Biology and Computer Science, and minors in Classical Studies and Chemistry.