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The Iliad is an epic because it features characters who are larger than life and whose deeds are truly remarkable. Even centuries and millennium later these heroic figures astonish us with their extreme and powerful qualities. Indeed, the weaknesses that would mark them as human are almost entirely hidden under cloaks of bravado and deeds of stirring courage. But how exactly does this works—portray its heroes? Why do these figures continue to resonate in our modern days and continue to excite us so much?

To begin with, the Iliad is full of heroes. Indeed even as Homer tells the story of both the Greeks and the Trojans, it is clear this story is more a tableaux about heroism than a morality play involving good guys and bad guys. Both sides of the conflict have their villains and heroes and indeed some heroes are more heroic than others. The two most immediate heroic figures that leap from the pages are Achilles, on the Greek side, and Hector, on the Trojan side. In the entire epic, most people would agree that Hector is the more heroic and honorable, even though he is killed by Achilles. Part of these lies in the fact of what Achilles does to Hector after killing him—tying him behind his chariot and dishonoring his body. Even many Greeks believe this is an unpleasant and unbefitting thing to do, although there is no reasoning with Achilles. We see in Homer’s depiction a very complex figure. Achilles is the strongest and best fighter for the Greeks, but he is also impatient, childish, and brutish. No one can beat him and everyone is afraid of him, but he is not necessarily a great person. He does however sometimes have a sense of honor as when he is forced back into battle by the death of Patroclus. When he finally decides to reengage with the Trojans he does it not out of his own self-interest but to avenge his best friend. So we see that sometimes Achilles acts selflessly—a quality of heroism—and sometimes he acts selfishly as when he stops fighting and allows Greeks to be killed in battle (including Patroclus) because he is angry at Agamemnon and just decides to sit in his tent and to sulk.

We can contrast this behavior to that of the honorable Hector who is defending his home and his family. He is defending his father, Priam, the king of Troy, but he is also deeply concerned about his family. When his wife Andromache tells him not to fight, he answers:

"Wife, I too have thought upon all this, but with what face should I look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward? I cannot do so: I know nothing save to fight bravely in the forefront of the Trojan host and win renown alike for my father and myself. Well do I know that the day will surely come when mighty Ilius shall be destroyed with Priam and Priam's people, but I grieve for none of these- not even for Hecuba, nor King Priam, nor for my brothers many and brave who may fall in the dust before their foes- for none of these do I grieve as for yourself when the day shall come on which some one of the Achaeans shall rob you for ever of your freedom, and bear you weeping away . . .”[1]

We see here a man who is torn, but has made his choice. He is not all blind patriotic fervor or bloodlust (like Achilles). He is also capable of reaching out to others and trying to console them. We see with what contempt Achilles treats women as with his many slave women, none of whom he will make his wife.

But the greatest question that faces all heroes is mortality. Although they are the strongest in their class they are no invincible (even if they are part God, like Achilles). They are tempted to use their great strength to do good for themselves or their cause, but they have limitations that they may not know. In this way the heroes of epic stories tell us something about ourselves: although human beings are the strongest species on the planet we can often harm ourselves through our hubris. Hubris and Nemesis are issues that all heroes must face often on a huge and dramatic scale. In the Iliad, as Gregory Nagy writes,

The human condition of mortality, with all its ordeals, defines heroic life itself. The certainty that one day you will die makes you human, distinct from animals who are unaware of their future death and from the immortal gods. All the ordeals of the human condition culminate in the ultimate ordeal of a warrior hero's violent death in battle, detailed in all its ghastly varieties by the poet of the Iliad.

This morality play is often acted out in battle in both the Iliad, which features innumerable scenes of combat—all for a “glorious cause,” e.g. a woman’s beauty or to avenge the death of a friend. War and battle are rejuvenating and indeed in both of this story gives birth to heroes.

There are many qualities of heroism depicted in the Iliad. We see powerful people set against a very dramatic, epic background where history is being made. Indeed, few stories about heroes happen in someone’s apartment on a Sunday afternoon—they usually happen in the midst of battle that shows the true mettle of a hero. One of the main questions such scenes reveal to us is how a hero must deal with his own limitations or his own mortality. In a way, at their darkest moments, heroes show us what we could be if we stay true to ourselves.

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