Hektor’s Changing Motivations: Individual Interests, Societal Interests, and the Heroic Ethic in Iliadic Decision-making

by Steven Tammen

paths in a wood image

For any given society, there exist an ever-changing number of variables that contribute to individuals’ decisions – from things as mundane as what sort of clothes to wear to things as momentous as what to die for. Generally speaking, these variables may be grouped into three distinct categories: individual interests, societal interests, and cultural expectations. Homeric warriors in the Iliad live their lives and die their deaths in accordance with the particular set of cultural expectations that apply to them, known collectively as the heroic ethic.


Homer shows a change in Hektor’s motivations between his conversation with Andromakhe in Iliad VI and his confrontation with Akhilleus in Iliad XXII. In book VI, Homer portrays all three categories of variables – individual interests, societal interests, and the heroic ethic – as contributing to Hektor’s decision; although Hektor ultimately acts against his individual interests, they are a large part of book VI. In book XXII, however, only societal interests and the heroic ethic are portrayed as contributing to Hektor’s decision (Hektor’s wife and son – so important to his thought process in book VI – are not even mentioned), but Hektor now chooses to act against societal interests instead of in accordance with them as he did in book VI.


At first glance, these observations appear to present a contradiction in Hektor’s motivations, but closer examination makes it clear that the situation can be explained in terms of the heroic ethic. The consistent importance that the heroic ethic has in Hektor’s decisions suggests that it is the primary driver of behavior in Homeric decision-making.



In lines 404ff. of Iliad XI, Odysseus, facing oncoming Trojan ranks all alone, debates with himself as to what he ought to do. Should he flee (as his fearful comrades had), or should he stand his ground and fight? By all canons of ordinary logic, standing alone against a multitude of enemies is foolishness. Surely, if Odysseus valued his own interests – the wellbeing of his wife and son waiting for his return in Ithaka, the long years ahead of peaceful existence as ruler of his small kingdom – he ought to turn back to fight another day. Odysseus fighting (and dying) alone would have negative consequences for society, as well; because he was a valuable strategist for the Greeks, his loss would be felt acutely.

Yet, despite his own individual interests and societal interests being firmly rooted in a course of action that we might term a “strategic retreat,” Odysseus concludes that the right thing to do is exactly the opposite: “Yet still, why does the heart within me debate on these things? Since I know that it is the cowards who walk out of the fighting, but if one is to win honor in battle, he must by all means stand his ground strongly, whether he be struck or strike down another.”[1] This situation shows that individual interests and societal interests are not the only factors in decision-making for a Homeric warrior; because Odysseus’s individual interests and societal interests support a different course of action, it is reasonable to hypothesize that something else is causing Odysseus to stand his ground alone. Here, as elsewhere in Greek epic, scholars have decided that a third factor is influencing warrior behavior: a collection of cultural expectations known as the heroic ethic.

Because the Greeks were a shame, as opposed to guilt, culture (i.e., cultural disapproval and social consequences rather than a moral code determined “right” and “wrong”), the heroic ethic influenced decision-making by means of shame rather than morality. For the purposes of this paper, two aspects of the heroic ethic are relevant to understanding this influence through shame: timē (Gk. τιμή), the reputation a warrior has in the eyes of his peers, and kleos (Gk. κλέος), which may be understood most simply as glory achieved through meritorious action (be it on the battlefield or otherwise). To avoid shame (and thus societal estrangement), Homeric warriors were motivated to refrain from making decisions that caused them to lose timē and/or led to inadequate gains in kleos – sometimes causing what might otherwise be perceived as erratic or irrational behavior.

For Odysseus, running back to safety with his tail between his legs would lead to a significant loss of timē – a prospect so unattractive to him that certain death is seen as preferable. This suggests that the heroic ethic played a primary rather than secondary or tertiary role in Homeric decision-making. This paper will examine such a hypothesis in light of the changes in Hektor’s motivations between his conversation with Andromakhe in Iliad VI and his confrontation with Akhilleus in Iliad XXII. An analysis of these changes will show that neither individual interests nor societal interests are consistently important in Hektor’s decision-making, but that the heroic ethic is, and that therefore the heroic ethic is the primary driver of behavior in Homeric decision-making.

Hektor’s Motivations in Iliad VI

The importance of Hektor’s conversation with Andromakhe vis-à-vis Hektor’s motivations must be understood in relation to its position in the epic. Book VI is the first time Homer spends significant time on Hektor’s characterization, and instead of being on the battlefield where a Homeric warrior belongs, Hektor is within the walls of Troy. The significance of this cannot be overstated; the reader comes to know Hektor’s character through his interactions with his family.[2] In this way, Hektor’s individual interests – his desire to be with his family and protect them in the future by surviving – are juxtaposed with the interests of society and the expectations of warrior behavior associated with the heroic ethic.

When departing from Helen and Paris, Hektor explains his decision to visit his family before returning to the field of battle: “I am first going to my own house, so I can visit my own people, my beloved wife and my son, who is little, since I do not know if ever again I shall come back this way, or whether the gods will strike me down at the hands of the Achaians.”[3] In this statement, Hektor demonstrates that he is self-aware with respect to the personal sacrifice he is making. However, it is not Hektor alone who understands his choice – Andromakhe’s first words upon meeting Hektor in front of the Skaian gates concern this matter, as well:

Dearest… you have no pity on your little son, nor on me, ill-starred, who soon must be your widow; for presently the Achaians, gathering together, will set upon you and kill you; and for me it would be far better to sink into the earth when I have lost you, for there is no other consolation for me after you have gone to your destiny… Please take pity on me then, stay here on the rampart, that you might not leave your child an orphan, your wife a widow.[4]

Andromakhe’s appeal to Hektor to stay within the safety of the city frames Hektor’s choice not only in terms of lost time with his family, but also in terms of the consequences that choice could have on their future. The tragic irony at this moment is intense, for, as readers, we know that Andromakhe will be taken as a concubine by Pyrrhus, and that Astyanax will be thrown from the walls of the city. Homer uses this irony to explicitly link Hektor’s determination to fight with negative consequences for his family, and, therefore, his individual interests.[5]

In his response to Andromakhe, Hektor reveals that shame is one of the pressures leading him to rejoin the battle: “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.”[6] As previously discussed, shame was the primary means by which the heroic ethic exerted its influence over individuals, and Hektor’s shame-driven defense of the city is a paradigmatic example of this phenomenon. Hektor also states that “the spirit will not let me [shrink aside from the fighting], since I have learned to be valiant and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans, winning for myself great glory, and for my father.”[7] While Hektor mentions this rather offhandedly here – second in position and importance to shame as a motivating factor – the idea of winning kleos is an additional aspect of the heroic ethic present in his decision to leave his family for the field of war.

Hektor’s last words to Andromakhe shed light on the role that societal interests play in his decision: “the men must see to the fighting, all men who are the people of Ilion, but I beyond others.”[8] This statement shows that “all men who are the people of Ilion” are expected to fight – all those who call Troy home. The social obligation of self-defense is a concept just as ancient as war itself, and its manifestation here – though perhaps unsurprising – supports the idea that part of why Hektor is fighting is because it is in society’s best interest for citizens to defend against foreign invaders, whether doing so aligns with their individual interests or not. It is also interesting to note that more is expected of Hektor because of who he is; in this we see that even in Homer’s time, the burdens society placed on individuals varied as a function of social status.[9]

At this point in the epic, Homer shows Hektor’s decision-making governed by adherence to the heroic ethic and societal interests rather than his individual interests with respect to his family. However, “Hektor’s concluding statements (448-465), that he is more disturbed by the prospect of Andromakhe’s slavery than of Troy’s destruction and that he wishes he would die before that happens, show a set of priorities that are more domestic than heroic.”[10] That is to say, while he fights because he must, his heart remains with his family in the city.

Farewell of Hector and Andromache

Fig. 1: Anton Losenko, Farewell of Hector and Andromache, 1773, oil on canvas, 61.3 in. x 83.3 in., Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Available from: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hector_and_Andromache_by_A.Losenko.jpg (accessed April 6, 2017).

Hektor’s Motivations in Iliad XXII

By book XXII, much has changed. The Trojans were nearly successful in burning the Greek ships and ending the war once and for all. Hektor has had a hand in the death of Patroklos and has taken his armor; Akhilleus views him as responsible, and Hektor has become the focus of his mēnis. Hektor has ignored the advice of Poulydamas, costing many Trojans their lives. Now he stands before the approaching Akhilleus. In a way, this scene in book XXII is a deliberate recasting of the situation of Iliad VI: Hektor, partway inside and partway outside Troy, must make a decision to fight beyond the walls or take refuge within them.[11]

Under these circumstances, the plea of Priam forms the basis for understanding the role of society’s interests in Hektor’s decision: “Come then inside the wall, my child, so that you can rescue the Trojans and the women of Troy, neither win the high glory for Peleus’ son, and yourself be robbed of your very life.”[12] By this point in time Homer has made it clear that Hektor represents Troy – so long as Hektor is well, Troy is well. Thus, Priam appeals to Hektor not only on behalf of himself – as Hektor’s father – but on behalf of the people of the city. He extends his appeal by speaking to how the city’s fall would affect its inhabitants:

…my sons destroyed and my daughters dragged away captive and the chambers of marriage wrecked and the innocent children taken and dashed to the ground in the hatefulness of war, and the wives of my sons dragged off… And myself last of all, my dogs in front of the doorway will rip me raw. . .[13]

Each category of Trojan – men of fighting age, young women, children, wives, the elderly – would face horrendous consequences should the city fall; essentially, Priam tries to sway Hektor by implying that he would be responsible for such devastation should he throw his life away instead of considering his role in protecting the people. However, this tactic proves to be unsuccessful, and Priam’s plea is entirely ignored; unlike in book VI, Hektor does not heed society’s interests in making his decision.

The influence of the heroic ethic in Hektor’s decision is most apparent in Hektor’s conversation with his spirit (thumos) as he faces the approaching Akhilleus:[14]

If I go now inside the wall and the gateway, Poulydamas will be first to put a reproach upon me, since he tried to make me lead the Trojans inside the city on that accursed night when brilliant Akhilleus rose up, and I would not obey him, but that would have been far better. Now, since by my own recklessness I have ruined my people… it would be much better… to go against Akhilleus, and slay him, and come back, or else be killed by him in glory in front of the city.[15]

In this interior monologue, two reasons for facing Akhilleus arise: first, to avoid facing shame and the loss of timē occasioned by rejecting Poulydamas’s advice to retreat instead attack – a mistake which cost many Trojan lives;[16] second, to gain kleos through slaying Akhilleus in single combat. Both of these reasons are fundamentally intertwined with the heroic ethic – because Hektor is a Homeric warrior who jeopardized the entire wellbeing of society with his actions, he must find a way to reintegrate himself.[17] Killing Akhilleus would restore his timē by winning kleos, and bravely dying a warrior’s death in combat would also serve to bring him back into the fold. According to the heroic ethic, fighting Akhilleus is the right thing for Hektor to do.

In this interior monologue, we also find Hektor’s rejection of his own individual interests. Despite considering the possibility of saving himself by approaching Akhilleus unarmed as a suppliant, offering Helen and half the city’s wealth, Hektor decides against it. While it true that part of his motivation for rejecting the idea is because Akhilleus kills suppliants, it is also true that Hektor’s odds in combat are slim, as he well understands. The fact that he is even considering such a course of action shows that Hektor knows that fighting Akhilleus is certain death. Yet despite this knowledge, Hektor decides to fight nonetheless: “Better to bring on the fight with him as soon as it may be. We shall see to which the Olympian grants the glory”.[18]

The death of Hector

Fig. 2: Peter Paul Rubens, The death of Hector, 1630-1635, oil on panel, 17.5 in. x 20.9 in., Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Available from: Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Paul_Rubens_003.jpg (accessed April 6, 2017).

Nowhere in this thought process did Hektor ever consider Andromakhe or Astyanax (although Hekabe mentions Andromakhe in her appeal). Gone is the concern Hektor voiced in book VI for Andromakhe’s enslavement – more important to him than the destruction of the city at that point in time. Homer does not give an explanation for this lack of concern – why now Hektor does not consider his family when they were the focus of his decision in book VI ( though he ultimately chose to sacrifice his familial role for his warrior one) – but the absence of this variable in his decision further supports his rejection of individual interests.


While Hektor’s flight from Akhilleus could arguably be considered an act of conscious self-preservation, the way Homer presents it is much more unconscious and instinctual. Hektor did not decide to flee; he decided to fight (cf. XXII.129-130, quoted above).[19] For this reason, this paper analyzed Hektor’s motivations in terms of his intention not his final action, for it is his intention that is truly reflective of his thought process.

Between Iliad VI and Iliad XXII Hektor’s relationship to societal interests flipped: in book VI Hektor is aligned with the interests of society, fighting in defense of his home; in book XXII Hektor is opposed to the interests of society, ignoring the consequences of his death for various societal groups. This change suggests that societal interests in and of themselves were not the main factor in Hektor’s decisions. Similarly, there is not continuity for individual interests: in book VI, Hektor is greatly concerned with the future of his family; in book XXII, his family does not appear to factor into his decision at all.

These observations point to some other driving force behind Hektor’s decisions, a reason why he would choose to fight as a defender of the city in book VI – sacrificing his role as a family man – but choose to face Akhilleus alone to the detriment of the city – and with no apparent regard for his family – in book XXII. Unlike societal interests and individual interests, the heroic ethic is consistent across both books: in book VI, Hektor is portrayed as fighting due to shame (and a desire for kleos, to a lesser extent), while he is also portrayed as fighting due to shame in book XXII – and a more pronounced desire to win kleos (and thereby recover lost timē) by killing Akhilleus in single combat. In this consistency, Homer presents the heroic ethic as the primary driver of behavior in Homeric decision-making, rather than individual interests or societal interests – which sometimes align with a decision based upon the heroic ethic, but sometimes do not.

This conclusion is not unreasonable given how strongly the warriors of the epic believe in their code. In a well-known evocation of the warrior’s faith, Sarpedon spurs Glaukos to battle:

Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves or yield it to others.[20]

Given such devotion to the heroic ethic, it is only natural that it should play a large role in the decision-making of its adherents – for the lesser heroes like Sarpedon and Glaukos just as much as for the greater heroes like Odysseus and Hektor.

Implications and Further Study

Many of this paper’s practical implications depend upon how long and to what degree such devotion to the heroic ethic was maintained throughout the progression of Greek history and society. Because of Homer’s profound impact on the development of later Greek values, showing that the heroic ethic is at the center of Homeric decision-making certainly has at least a degree of relevance for understanding Greek decision-making in later times; if shame, timē, and kleos drive behavior in the Iliad, they must also be a factor in behavior that draws on the Iliad as a source of cultural guidance. Establishing the importance of the heroic ethic in early Greek decision-making (at least in the idealized form presented in Homer) thus supports interpretations of historical events – sometimes difficult to explain in terms of normal behavioral motivations – that take the heroic ethic into account as a contributing variable.[21]

To take but one example, consider Leonidas’s decision to stay at Thermopylae despite overwhelming odds and certain death. Neither individual interests nor societal interests provide a particularly satisfying explanation for this decision,[22] but it makes good sense in the framework of the heroic ethic, in which shame drives warriors to battle regardless of survival considerations. To say that Leonidas made his decision because of Homer’s portrayal of the heroic ethic in relation to decision-making is overstepping the reasonable, but to say that it likely contributed to his decision is easily defensible, if Homer does in fact portray the heroic ethic as the primary driver of warrior behavior, as this paper argues.

It is difficult to draw any more definitive conclusions without additional, detailed study. For this reason, I believe that a closer examination of how the heroic ethic affected later Greek behavior (rather Homer per se) would prove most fruitful. I also believe that a study of the heroic ethic’s social utility would be useful – for aiding in the former study if nothing else. For example, if the heroic ethic was meeting a societal need that later came to be met by the polis, one would expect a reduced devotion to the heroic ethic over time. On the other hand, if the heroic ethic was meeting a societal need that remained unmet by other things – such as giving meaning to situations where individual interests and societal interests fail, like massive wartime losses without discernable furtherance of strategic goals – one would expect at least a degree of devotion to the heroic ethic even as Greek society underwent major changes.

Works Cited

Clark, Matthew. “Poulydamas and Hektor.” College Literature 34, no. 2 (2007): 85-106. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115422.

Farron, Steven. “The Character of Hector in the ‘Iliad‘” Acta Classica 21 (1978): 39-57. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24591547.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Lazenby, John. The Defence of Greece: 490-479 B.C. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1993.

Sharples, Robert. “‘But Why Has My Spirit Spoken with Me Thus?’: Homeric Decision-Making.” Greece & Rome 30, no. 1 (1983): 1-7. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642739.

West, David. “The Deaths of Hector and Turnus.” Greece & Rome 21, no. 1 (1974): 21-31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642548.

[1] Richmond Lattimore, trans., The Iliad Of Homer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 264. XI.407-410.

[2] See Steven Farron, “The Character of Hector in the ‘Iliad‘” Acta Classica 21 (1978): 41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24591547. The location of the meeting (at the gates – on the border between his life inside the city as a family man and outside the city as a warrior) is also supportive of this point, as is Homer’s use of Astyanax’s fear of Hektor’s warrior visage in VI.466-473.

[3] Lattimore, The Iliad, 181. VI.365-368.

[4] Ibid., 182. VI.406-432.

[5] For a similar discussion with respect to Hektor’s prayer for Astyanax, see Farron, “The Character of Hector”, 42-43.

[6] Lattimore, The Iliad, 183. VI.441-443.

[7] Ibid., 183. VI.444-446.

[8] Ibid., 184. VI.493-494.

[9] Cf. later developments regarding the role of hoplites in defending poleis and the concept of leitourgia in Athens.

[10] Farron, “The Character of Hector”, 42.

[11] The lamentations of Hekabe, Helen, and Andromakhe in Iliad XXIV also call to mind the circumstances of book VI, wherein Hektor talked to each of the women in turn.

[12] Lattimore, The Iliad, 458. XXII.56-58.

[13] Ibid., 458-459. XXII.62-67.

[14] On the relationship between conversation with the thumos and decision-making, and its particular manifestation here, see Robert Sharples, “‘But Why Has My Spirit Spoken with Me Thus?’: Homeric Decision-Making,” Greece & Rome 30, no. 1 (1983): 1-2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642739.

[15] Lattimore, The Iliad, 460. XXII.105-110.

[16] For a discussion of this decision, see Matthew Clark, “Poulydamas and Hektor,” College Literature 34, no. 2 (2007): 94-98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115422. The earlier part of this work details the nature of the relationship between Hektor and Poulydamas, which is important in understanding why the shame Hektor feels now is so intense; not only did he ignore the advice of Poulydamas once and make a poor decision, he did so multiple times.

[17] Some might argue that restoring his timē is essentially an individualistic motive, but this begs the question of the importance of honor in society in the first place.

[18] Lattimore, The Iliad, 460. XXII.129-130.

[19] Also see David West, “The Deaths of Hector and Turnus.” Greece & Rome 21, no. 1 (1974): 21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642548. This work is tangential, but consistently portrays Hektor’s decision to flee as panic rather than a reasoned response: West’s summary of the events leading to Hektor’s death begins with “Hektor panicked … and run away.”

[20] Lattimore, The Iliad, 286. XII.322-328.

[21] This being said, care must be taken to view human motivation as the complex psychological phenomenon that it truly is. While establishing the importance of the heroic ethic in Homeric decision making does give support to a historiographical approach that considers the heroic ethic in the analysis of later events, the effect may be more subtle than direct, and should thus be viewed as a pertinent factor rather than a certain rule.

[22] Not that there hasn’t been scholarship on the subject; for a brief discussion of conventional views of Leonidas’ motivations, see John Lazenby, The Defence of Greece, 490-479 B.C. (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1993), 144-145.

Acknowledgments: This work owes its success to both Dr. Benjamin Wolkow and Austin Becker, who helped not only with editorial matters, but also with the cultivation of a passion for the subject, without which passion this paper would be much less than it is.

Citation style: Chicago 16th ed.

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