The Very Best Men in Greek Mythology

Caption: “The Farewell of Hector and Andromache” by Sergey Petrovich Postnikov

The Very Best Men in Greek Mythology

By Maggie Yuan



Nearly every classics student that I’ve met was obsessed with Greco-Roman mythology as a child. It didn’t matter whether we read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths or Percy Jackson, we were all fascinated by this ancient world filled with trickster gods and dashing heroes. But looking back, the stories themselves were pretty intense for a readership of children. Violent acts were often covered with euphemisms and vibrant illustrations. In particular, the various characters’ acts of sexual violence were often glossed over or ignored. Some may say that ancient characters cannot be held to the same standards as people today. However, I would argue that burning lovers alive (Zeus to Semele) or chasing women until they are forced to metamorphose (Apollo to Daphne) are universally unacceptable behaviors. There are just so many red flags in mythology that overshadow the green flags.

To combat this overwhelming majority of Greek men, I wanted to provide some examples of men who were known for their good qualities (though, to be honest, the bar is relatively low). The others make this list’s men all the more impressive; they are the ones who serenaded their lovers or sacrificed their lives for their people.



By an overwhelming margin, Prince Hector of Troy clinches the top spot on this list. Renowned for his piety, compassion, strength, battle prowess, handsomeness, etc., Hector had no deficient qualities (unless you count his unfortunate fate). To the Trojans, he was their best warrior and greatest man. To the Greeks, he was their most formidable enemy and (almost) Achilles’ equal. His fame in life is only surpassed by the tragedy of his death at the hands of Achilles, who defeated him after an intense chase and one-on-one combat.

However, none of these relationships, none of his deeds, mattered more to him than his wife, Andromache. In Book VI of Homer’s Iliad, Hector is given arguably the most touching scene in all of the classical canon. Before he goes out into battle, he seeks out his wife and young son for a moment of respite. With her son in her arms, Andromache begs him to remain with them, where he would be safe from the dangers of battle. In his reply, Hector tells her that he has a duty toward his country and that he is resigned to his fate of death. However, he is not without his fears, many of which were concerning Andromache, as he declares: “May I be dead, and the earth piled above me, before I hear your cries as [the Greeks] drag you away” (VI.461-465). While he knows that he is fated to die, he worries more for the lives of his wife and child than his own. To add to the emotion of the scene, when his son Astyanax cries at the sight of his fearsome helmet, Hector removes it to remind the child that it is his father underneath all the armor. In the end, this touching scene shows us the moments of peace and compassion, even in times of war.

For his love for his wife and his willingness to sacrifice himself for a doomed city, Hector more than deserves the number one spot.



There was only one man who could tame the rage of Achilles, and that was Patroclus. Though many scholars claim that “they were just friends!”, their love went far beyond the realm of friendship. As Achilles’ right hand man and lover, he acted as a voice of reason. Their love story began in early childhood, as Patroclus was given to Achilles as his squire and companion. When the Trojan War broke out, Patroclus followed Achilles to Troy. It was in their tenth year that tragedy struck. Achilles, unwilling to fight on behalf of the Greeks, agreed to let Patroclus fight in his stead. By donning Achilles’ armor, disguising himself, Patroclus was able to convince the resentful Greeks that Achilles had re-entered the battle, thus reinvigorating the tired armies. With his own self-sacrificing spirit and Achilles’ battle prowess, Patroclus defeated many Trojans, including Sarpedon (a son of Zeus), until he himself was cut down by Hector.

While Patroclus’ story was brought to the attention of modern audiences by Madeline Millers’ The Song of Achilles, his role in the Iliad was just as tragic. The first line of the Iliad, “Sing, o goddess, of the anger of Achilles,” is already so memorable. While it does refer to Achilles’ general state of being, it refers most of all to the wrath and despair he felt at Patroclus’ death. Patroclus’ death at the hands of Hector reignited Achilles’ will to fight, leading to the Greeks’ eventual victory. However, Patroclus was more than just Achilles’ lover. His willingness to fight for the Greeks, even when Achilles would not, is an act that should be commended. His final moments in battle were also something to be lauded — killing a son of Zeus is no easy feat, even for the most weathered warrior.



Unlike the other men on this list, Orpheus was not known for his battle prowess or general manliness. The son of a Muse, Orpheus’ skills lay solely in music. The inspiration behind the Broadway musical Hadestown, Orpheus’ story speaks to a depth of emotion that is difficult to find in other places. What other man would go to the Underworld, willingly coming face to face with death, to rescue his beloved?

Orpheus’ wife was Eurydice, a nymph who met a tragic fate. At their wedding, Eurydice stepped on a venomous snake and died. What was supposed to be a celebration turned into a funeral. However, Orpheus refused to accept her fate, and journeyed down to the Underworld with only his lyre in hand. Using his musical skills, he was said to have made rocks weep, the Furies shed tears, and even moved Hades and Persephone to feel pity. Hades struck a deal with Orpheus, that Eurydice could return to the land of the living as long as Orpheus guided her out without turning back to look at her. In typical tragic fashion, Orpheus did exactly the one thing he was forbidden to do — he looked back right as he reached the land of the living. Eurydice was lost to the Underworld forever, leaving Orpheus to wander the earth alone until Maenads tore him to pieces.

The question of “why?” haunts the minds of audiences even today. If he had just waited one more moment, if he had just not turned around, then he would have been reunited with his beloved. Some may think that Orpheus wanted to ensure that Hades was not tricking him. Others may think that Orpheus simply could not wait, that he could not bear to keep his eyes off of Eurydice for any longer. Regardless of his motive, the story resonates with us because we can all understand yearning for something so much that you simply cannot wait.



Most heroes meet an untimely demise at the hands of fate, often due to their own fatal flaws. Unlike some of his counterparts, like Jason or Bellerophon, Perseus avoided such an end and managed to live to a ripe old age. His story began in a chest floating across the sea to the island of Seriphos. Raised by the kindly fisherman Dictys, and his mother Danae, Perseus had a peaceful childhood until the wily king Polydectes pulled him into a scheme. To prove his mettle as a son of Zeus and protect his mother from the advances of Polydectes, he went on a quest to kill the Gorgon Medusa. His quest was a typical hero’s journey: armed with information from the Gray Sisters and receiving help from his godly siblings, Athena and Hermes, Perseus used a polished shield to behead Medusa (who herself was a victim of the god Poseidon, but that’s an entirely different story). From there, Perseus was led to Aethiopia, where he rescued the princess Andromeda from a fearsome sea monster (also sent by Poseidon, rather unfortunately). After marrying her and turning a couple of people to stone along the way, Perseus settled down to rule multiple kingdoms and became the progenitor of a lineage that led to Hercules.

To be honest, Perseus is less an inspiring figure and more a man who had everything go well for him. But it should be noted that Perseus is in fact a certified woman-supporter. Not only does he save his mother from Polydectes, but he also saves Andromeda from certain death. Through his obedience to the gods and general goodness, he is able to get everything one could ask for.



Much like Orpheus, Cephalus came upon a series of unfortunate events that led to tragedy. At the beginning of his tale, Cephalus was happily married to his wife Procris, a princess of Athens. Being the dashing-looking man that he was, the goddess of the dawn, Eos, fell in love and kidnapped him. She kept the unwilling Cephalus captive in the sky for many years, but Cephalus never stopped yearning for his life with Procris. Eos became tired of his grumbling and allowed him to return to Procris, but not before planting a seed of doubt in his mind that Procris had not been loyal to him. Coming home, he tested her faithfulness by donning a disguise. When Procris failed the test and discovered his tricks, she ran away to the woods. Years later, they reunited, but the seed of distrust remained between them. Cephalus often liked to call out to the breeze when he was hunting. Procris, secretly following him, heard his song and believed that he was cheating on her. When Cephalus heard the noise from the bushes, he thought it was a beast and hurled his javelin at it. Unfortunately, his aim was true, and he discovered that he had pierced his own wife. The tragedy of the moment is cemented, as Procris begged him with her final words not to marry this unnamed breeze.

There are many things that can be said about this story. Of course, the element of sexual assault upon him is often glossed over, but should not be. First, the role reversal must be taken into account here. In a world full of male violence, one may miss the importance of a female perpetrator here. Their relationship has the same power dynamic that characterizes the relationships of many male gods and their lovers. As a mortal man with limited strength, he lacks the power to refuse her advances. He is a victim of Eos, and this trauma informs all the other decisions he makes afterward. From questioning the fidelity of his wife, to his immediate response of hurling a javelin into the bush, all these decisions can be viewed through the lens of sexual trauma. However, above all, he should be remembered for his loyalty to his wife.



By this point, you may realize that many of these men’s stories are extremely depressing. You may also begin to think, if these very nice men all end up dying or killing someone, then what is the point of being nice? Yes, Meleager is yet another depressing tale. But I am here to tell you that it is still better to be nice than to be a terrible person.

His story began with a log burning in the fireplace. The Fates told his mother, Althaea, that his life source would be tied to the log — if it went up in flames, so too would his life. As a young man, he was in charge of leading a band of heroes to hunt the Calydonian Boar, which was terrorizing his homeland. One of the people he recruited was Atalanta, the famed huntress. While all the men of the hunt protested that a woman was joining them, Meleager would hear no harsh words because he was in love with her. Together, they made a formidable team. When Atalanta drew first blood on the boar, Meleager was able to go in for the kill. However, a dispute arose when Meleager awarded the hide to Atalanta, much to the anger of his uncles. In a fit of rage, Meleager killed his uncles. Understandably, his mother Althaea was upset at the news, and promptly threw Meleager’s log into the fire, killing him.

There are some sources that credit Ares as his father, which would explain a lot of his behavior. While it is obvious that Meleager (and the rest of his family) had anger issues, what makes him worthy of being on this list is his egalitarian bent. Some may label him a simp in today’s language, but at least he gave credit where credit was due. In a world where women were often cast aside or shunned, Meleager shone a spotlight on the heroism of Atalanta.


Honorable Mention: Odysseus

You might ask why Odysseus does not make the main list. After all, this man has a reputation of extreme loyalty to his wife, Penelope. Sure, he cheats on her with not one, but two women, Calypso and Circe (and probably countless other women during his journey). But, it’s okay and all is forgiven because he goes home to his wife in the end! Of course, the situations he finds himself in are a bit more complicated than the word “cheating” can describe. Both Calypso and Circe kept him with them for long periods of time against his will, and he is in essence forced to sleep with them. For him, the only relationship that matters is the one with his wife Penelope. He spends his seven years on Ogygia pining for his wife until Calypso finally relents and lets him go. However, his violence against women is inexcusable. During his time away, suitors of Penelope took over Odysseus’ household with the help of many of his slaves. In an act of uncontrolled rage, he ordered all his female slaves who participated in the scheme to be hanged. In the end, Odysseus doesn’t live up to the hype mostly because the only woman he truly respects and empowers is his own wife.



            In the Iliad, many of the battles of the Trojan War were fought by Achilles and Hector, the two best men among the Greeks and Trojans, respectively. However, being the best of the Greeks or Trojans did not simply mean having the most battle prowess. A good Greek man sought to achieve both timē (honor) and aretē (virtue/excellence). Far from being only brave, good Greek men held certain moral views that informed their actions. However, today the term ‘masculinity’ implies something different. In the current era, ‘masculinity’ is often linked to the word ‘toxic’ because it creates a standard where men are not allowed to show emotion and must be the dominant figure in any scenario. Although it is unfortunate, it represents a deviation from the standards set by the Greeks. More unfortunately, many Greek figures have been claimed by far right political groups as the perfect emulation of (toxic) masculinity. While some Greek heroes do embody modern-day toxic values through their violent actions and treatment of women, we must remember that it was not necessarily something that the Greeks praised. If anything, the men on this list show that being the best can mean many things, and that one’s greatest deeds need not be their most heroic actions. Instead, let us celebrate the men in Greek mythology who earned their honor through their love and respect of their beloved.


Maggie Yuan (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and International Relations.