The Tears of Achilles

  Monsacré, Hélène. 2018. The Tears of Achilles. Trans. Nicholas J. Snead. Introduction by Richard P. Martin. Hellenic Studies Series 75. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

I.1. Proper Relations to Aphrodite: A Criterion in the Definition of Heroic Conduct

It might seem paradoxical to approach the question of heroism in the Iliad by way of Aphrodite, thus giving sustained attention to episodes where the majority of the action occurs within the walls of Troy. Yet it is also a way to examine fundamental values of the Homeric universe. By initially abandoning the battlefields for the city of Troy it is possible to grasp a “problematic” rather than a “superhuman” heroism. But there is a correlation between warlike rage and separation from Aphrodite, and it is accompanied by cowardice and defined by an excessive proximity to the goddess or even an immersion into her world.

The fame of Paris has nothing to do with great deeds on the plains of Troy and everything to do with being favored by Aphrodite. This fact will serve as our starting point: heroic conduct is defined as much by what it is not as by what it must be. In this context, being close to or far from the “world” of Aphrodite during the siege of a city is one of the defining characteristics of the quality of a warrior.

Hector: The Paradigm of the Warrior

For the heroes of the Iliad “everything pivoted on a single element of honor and virtue: strength, bravery, physical courage, prowess. Conversely, there was no weakness, no unheroic trait, but one, and that was cowardice and the consequent failure to pursue heroic goals.” [1] Hector is a hero without fault; his brother Paris, on the other hand, is a coward. Hector represents the model of warlike masculinity, Paris the opposite, both on the battlefield and inside the walls of the city of Troy.

Paris: A Representation of Cowardice

Hector’s candid, loyal, and efficient attitude corresponds inversely with that of Paris. Even in battle, his exploits are recounted briefly by the poet, as if his true function is not related to the war. He kills two adversaries with his spear (goaded on in one case by Hector). [5] He kills one other Greek with his bow, [6] as well as one of Nestor’s horses. [7] All the rest of his arrows only cause injury. [8] When he tries his hand at single combat, he advances to the front lines only to be first to retreat. During the first confrontation of the two armies, confident in the strength of the Trojans around him, he dares to advance beyond the lines (promachiken; Iliad 3.16). He appears here to be particularly bold since, armed with two spears, a sword, and a bow, [9] he can take on the Greeks with any weapon. However, his armor is incomplete: just before the confrontation, he has to barter his panther skin for his brother Lycaon’s cuirass (3.322–323). His arrogance lasts only for the moment of the initial challenge: at the sight of Menelaus advancing, he “quailed … and shrank in fear of his life under cover of his men” (3.31–32). [10] His challenge would have ended there if Hector had not goaded him with insults to confront his adversary. The rest is well known. Aphrodite intervenes to bring her protégé to shelter inside the walls of his bedchamber, while a raging Menelaus continues to search for him on the battlefield. Commentators have always recognized a comic tone in this confrontation. Paris is decidedly not a noble warrior. While he may happen to kill and inflict injury, he does not first openly confront his enemies. For example, when he hits Diomedes with one of his arrows, he is hidden behind a pillar, which was erected in honor of Ilos, eponymous hero of Troy, and which, in a subtle way, recalls the walls of the city that Paris stays behind most of the time (Iliad 11.371–372). With Diomedes wounded, Paris “sprang forward from his hiding-place” (11.379) to triumph over him, but Diomedes dismisses the importance of this wound (11.386–391):

If you were to be tried in single combat fighting in full armor, your bow and your arrows would serve you in little stead. Vain is your boast in that you have scratched the sole of my foot. I care no more than if a girl or some inept boy had hit me. A worthless coward can inflict but a light wound.

The Stability of Hector

Hector is able to remain steadfast before Hecuba. Despite the maternal tenderness she expresses in her affectionate gestures (Iliad 6.252), he resists the wine and rest she offers him for fear of letting these things cut into his courage: “Honored mother, bring no wine, lest you unman me and I forget my strength” (6.264–265).

Still in his armor, he enters into Paris’ home, only to find him in his bedroom. He refuses to sit when Helen offers him a seat (Iliad 6.354 and 6.360); battle, he says, is calling him: “I am in haste to help the Trojans” (6.361–362).

Finally, obviously the greatest temptation, he sees Andromache on the ramparts. Here again, he refuses to linger within the city walls, which would be cowardice: “But with what face should I look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward?” (Iliad 6.441–443).

The Weakness of Paris

The strange thing about Paris is that his character embodies a certain number of masculine values that are subverted by the fact that they are inconstant; when following Paris, we are always coming away from the battlefield back into the interior of the palace. If his abilities as a warrior are sometimes asserted (Iliad 6.522), they are never convincing. When he lays down a challenge before an adversary, he needs the authority of Hector to follow through in his efforts, which, incidentally, are unsuccessful.

Hector: The Model of Virility

The Aphrodite of the Iliad, far from being completely removed from the field of warlike values, allows us to outline in counter-relief the territories of cowardice, excessive fervor, and proper courage. Even in the universe of the Iliad, one regularly encounters Aphrodite: in order to define heroism, one must pass through the world of women and at the same time radically distinguish oneself from it.


[ back ] 1. Finley 1978b:31.

[ back ] 2. Chantraine 1963:18–19: “… Ce ne peut être un hasard que les aèdes aient donné au principal héros troyen le nom d’Hectōr, lequel signifie en grec ‘celui qui tient bon’ (de echō avec le suffixe tōr) et l’on sait que les vers 402–403 du chant 2 expliquent le nom Astuanax par le fait que le père de la ville était ‘le protecteur de la ville’”  [“… it can not be by accident that the bards gave the principal Trojan hero the name Hectōr, which in Greek means ‘he who holds true’ (from echō with the suffix tōr) and we know that verses 402–403 of Book II explain the name Astuanax by stating that the father of the city was ‘chief guardian of Ilion.’”]

[ back ] 3. Translator’s note: English citations of the Iliad and the Odyssey are from Samuel Butler’s translations, revised and edited by Gregory Nagy et al. These translations are available online in the Publications section of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies website ( In some places, Butler’s text has been altered to coincide with the details Prof. Monsacré emphasizes in her arguments. For more on citations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, see the Translator’s Preface, p. xxvi.

[ back ] 4. For example, against Ajax at Iliad 7.242–243; or against Achilles at Iliad 18.307–308 (“I shall not shun him, but will fight him face to face”) and 20.71–372.

[ back ] 5. With Hector: Iliad 7.9–11; and alone: Iliad 15.342.

[ back ] 6. Euchenor: Iliad 13.662.

[ back ] 7. Iliad 8.83–85. I would point out that as soon has Paris has killed the horse it is Hector who rushes toward Nestor for the actual combat. Paris has already disappeared, and the duel that follows is between Hector and Diomedes.

[ back ] 8. Diomedes: Iliad 11.376–377; Machaon: 11.507; Eurypylos: 11.582–584.

[ back ] 9. Mazon 1967:157: “Rien de plaisant comme ce Pâris attifé en matamore, qui prétend défier tous les Grecs, puis replonge dans la masse, aussitôt qu’il voit Ménélas” (“Nothing is quite so amusing as this Paris decked out and blustering, who proclaims himself ready to challenge all the Greeks and who then dives back into the crowd as soon as he sees Menelaus”).

[ back ] 10. The same idea is reinforced at Iliad 3.36–37. The contrast, throughout this scene, is striking between the excess of Paris and the poise of Menelaus. For Paris, there is an excess of “sophistication” and, as well, of fear. Conversely, Menelaus is delighted when spots his personal enemy among the Trojans.

[ back ] 11. On the bow as a non-noble weapon in the context of war, see Le Goff and Vidal-Naquet 1979:274.

[ back ] 12. See Redfield 1975:121. As soon as he enters the city, the women question him about the fates of their husbands and brothers (Iliad 6.238–240).

[ back ] 13. Concerning “shame culture” and the notion of aidôs, see Dodds 1965:29–30 and Redfield 1975:115–119.

[ back ] 14. See the remarks of Redfield 1975:121. Lastly, I’d point out that Hector encounters, besides Paris, one other male, his own son Astyanax. The interplay of these encounters suggests that in this episode Paris occupies the place of a woman, or even of a young child; see again the words of Diomedes at Iliad 11.386–391, cited above, pp. 9–10.

[ back ] 15. When Hector is presented resting on a bed, he is no longer alive; his bedchamber only exists as a mortuary setting (Iliad 24.720).

[ back ] 16. A paradox pointed out by the scholia to Iliad 6.319 and 321, and analyzed by Griffin 1980:7–9.

[ back ] 17. Iliad 6.319–20, 342, 359, 369, 440, 469–470, 473, 694–695.

[ back ] 18. See Vernant 1979a:187–194 and Loraux 1978:49 (reprinted in Loraux 1981c:85–86).

[ back ] 19. Therapontes Areos is a common epithet for warriors; see, for example, Iliad 2.110; 21.540, 663, 704, 842, etc.

[ back ] 20. On the sexual connotations of Helen inviting Hector to sit down in her thalamos, see Arthur 1981:31n24, 44; Griffin 1980:6–7; and Schmitz 1963:133.

[ back ] 21. A clear way for the poet to underline his equivocal character, “husband of lovely-haired Helen”: Iliad 3.329; 7.355; 8.82, 355; 11.369, 505; 13.766; “son of Priam”: 3.356; 6.512.

[ back ] 22. The prestigious lineage of Diomedes is underlined more often than that of any other hero in the poem; on this point and on Diomedes in general, see Schnapp-Gourbeillon 1981:95–131.

[ back ] 23. Vidal-Naquet 1975:31: “le seul qui ne soit que guerrier, le guerrier de la réussite totale.”

[ back ] 24. This is, broadly speaking, the argument of Arthur 1981:24–25. In the same study, Arthur convincingly shows that Iliad 6, in its narrative structure, temporarily muddles the opposition between the masculine and feminine world. Hector and Andromache, together one last time on the ramparts, leave their respective spheres for a brief moment to participate in the other’s; or to put it another way, the border between the worlds of men and women is blurred for about 100 verses (392–502).

[ back ] 25. On Diomedes’ outright disadvantage in the encounter with Paris, see pp. 9–10 above.

[ back ] 26. On the duality of the character, I draw here on the conclusions in Schnapp-Gourbeillon 1981:124–131, concerning the “peculiar ambiguity” of Diomedes; see also Daraki 1980:16–23.