The Classics – Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus

Heroes are people with exceptional qualities that make them special and different from ordinary people. There is no one single definition of a hero, but most of us have a general sense of what makes a hero. Most of us think of heroes as being outstanding in some way or another, a fighter, a rescuer, someone who stands up for others, a leader, someone who makes the difference, a creator of something great, someone who changes the world, etc. These are just a few of the general ideas of what a hero does and what defines a hero.


A hero is a unique individual or a primary fictional character who, against all odds, fights adversity, through feats of courage, ingenuity, or bravery, in face of extreme adversity. Like many formerly only gender-specific terms, however, hero has become generic and can be used to describe almost any human being, although hero usually refers to only women. In recent years, the word “hero” has become associated with heroic actions and heroic outcomes more than those actions and outcomes that result from exceptional ability, personal resilience, extraordinary resourcefulness, etc., and “superpower” has come to replace the term “hero” with a concept of unique ability, extraordinary capability, personal uniqueness, etc. While this tendency may seem unfortunate, it is an increasingly accepted one.

For example, while the Greeks celebrate the classical heroes as if they were models for virtue and Greek values, and while modern Greeks celebrate the classical heroes as if they were models for Greek values and virtue, both terms are actually used interchangeably. The Greek ideal of hero is similar to the modern American ideal of freedom, righteousness, and the like, which would make a hero a fighter, a rescuer, and a warrior. And the Greek ideal of a hero is nearly identical to our modern concept of a superhero–that is, someone who stands up for and idealizes noble acts of courage. (In both cases, however, the word “hero” involves risk and may thus be offensive to some readers.)

When we speak of classical heroes, we are not talking about ancient Greeks–at least, we are not speaking of classical Greece, which is not the only possible model for classical heroes. Most classical heroes, after all, are those who excel at war or warcraft. These heroes come from a different culture and belong to a different time. Thus, when we speak of classical heroes, we really mean any hero who excels in war, whether he was born in Greece, or came of age in Mesopotamia. And we really mean any hero who bestows honor, not merely some abstract quality.

What then is the criteria for judging Greek heroes? The most important criterion for judging Greek heroes is their ability to act. This is perhaps the most important criterion, because action is the only thing that distinguishes between a Greek hero and a barbarian, and between a Greek hero and a Germanic hero. Achilles, for instance, though not a Greek hero by birth, and though not a prince, did excel as a warrior and conquer not only Troy but the entire Mediterranean world. Achilles may have been a Greek hero in name only, but his actions speak much more of his character than any biography or history would ever reach.

Thus, if we are to judge Greek heroes by their courage and skill at war, and by the quality of their human relationships, we could say that Aeneas, Hector, Odysseus, and Patroclus were, perhaps, the classical Greek heroes we most associate with that period. Achilles, for instance, exhibited great courage in facing a return to Troy after his long absence, and by saving the Trojans on multiple occasions; Hector shielded his country from the dangers of invasion; and Odysseus returned home not only armed, but also with a daughter by his side, as well as his faithful Trojan horse, Pylos. In all, these three heroes exemplified the qualities that define Greek and Latin culture in general.

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