The two protagonists of Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus present similar sentiments. All three of them were great leaders of men and valiant fighters. It is unfortunate that these men were dragged into situations from where there could be no escape as they were, and had to live up to their heroic statures. There was a huge burden placed on them by their respective followers during war that they paid no heed to the consequence they would face when they faced off with their enemy. Therefore, there is no doubt that all the three of them; Hector, Achilles, and Coriolanus, were unfairly led into positions where they were ‘sacrificed’ or used for someone else's gain during wartime. It would be hard to point a finger on whether it was a part of their job as a wartime leader, or whether the casting reflects a negative light on wartime civilian culture, but yes, it does seem to put more light on the responsibility of such valiant fighters to risk their lives for their kingdom. Having given them so much importance and the honor of leading their respective armies, it can be assumed that the poets duly wanted to show their protagonists in high esteem, and the only way they could, was by sending them into the battlefield without a care in the world for their lives. Each one of them was dragged into a conflict from where escapism would have been called betrayal or cowardice. Therefore, because the expectations of their citizens were so high, it is not irrefutable to claim that the war time struggles between citizens and leaders were unjustly biased. The basis of presenting these heroes as they were by the poets was not to ridicule them for their act, but to show their valor even in the face of adversity.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were known for their love for comfort, battle, love and women, and these were exemplified in no better way than through the works of ancient poets like Socrates, Aristotle, Homer, and Shakespeare and so on. Ancient Greece was the heart of literature and it was here that people from other parts of the ancient world came to learn. A look at Homer’s Iliad shows that men and women were important in the development of the epic. While the men were treated as heroes, it was the women who took center-stage in the development of the epic. The cause of the war between the Achaeans and Trojans was because of one woman, Helen, the most beautiful woman on earth. At Sparta, Athena, Hera and Aphrodite vied for Paris’ attention and each of them offered varying powers to impress him. However, it was Aphrodite’s offer which attracted Paris, who was promised with the hand of Helen, the wife of Menelaus. When Paris falls in love with Helen and elopes to Troy, Agamemnon assembles his army and sails to Troy to bring her back. Hector, on his part, dislikes Paris for his actions:
“Paris, you handsome, woman-mad deceiver, you shouldn't have been born, or killed unmarried. I wish you had-it would have been far better Than having you our shame, whom all suspect, Or having the long-haired Acheans laugh When you appear as champion-champion beauty- But have no strength, nor character, nor courage.” Lines 40-45 Book Six
Achilles was never a part of the war, but when Agamemnon took his woman Briseis for ransom, Achilles was forced to enter the war.
In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the stage is set in ancient Rome, where in the aftermath of a famine, a food crisis arises and the common Romans seek right to fix their own price for the city's grain supply. In order to pacify their needs, the rulers grant the commoners or plebeians (as they were called), the right to nominate five representatives, which provokes Caius Martius, who shows his displeasure of allowing the lower classes of Romans any position. Just then, war breaks out with the Volscians, a neighboring Italian tribe, led by Tullus Aufidius. In the ensuring war, the Volscians are defeated, and the Romans take the Italian city of Corioles, thanks largely to the valiant effort of Martius. In recognition of his great deeds, Marius is named Coriolanus.
On returning to Rome after conquering Corioles, Coriolanus is given a hero’s welcome, and the Senate, in recognition of his efforts, is offered the position of a consul. However, in order to obtain this position, he is asked to go out and meet the common Romans to get their support and votes, a task he finds most uncomfortable, but does so most reluctantly. Having seen his heroics on the battleground, the commoners at first agree to give him their votes, but that is stopped by two of their five chosen representatives; Brutus and Sicinius, who cannot forgive Coriolanus for his attitude toward them. An infuriated Coriolanus is annoyed and speaks out against the Senate for giving these two the power to represent the commoners. Brutus and Sicinius seize this opportunity and declare him a traitor of the Roman state and driven into exile. He goes to Aufidius who is now in Antium, and makes peace with him. Aufidius, who is hurt by defeat and plans an attack on Rome, welcomes Coriolanus, though with a little apprehension. Aufidius, along with Coriolanus march with their army to Rome. They camp just outside the city wall, when two of Coriolanus’ old friends come seeking his pardon. He refuses, but when Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, meets and begs him to make peace, he relents. Volumnia is immediately hailed as Rome’s savior, and Coriolanus and the Volscians return to Antium. At Antium, the local people hail Coriolanus as a hero, but Aufidius, humiliated, declares Coriolanus’ failure to take Rome as treachery:
Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads, Stain all your edges on me. Boy! false hound! If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there, That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli, Alone I did it (5.6.134)
Following this, Aufidius’ friends join hands and in the ensuing argument, kill Coriolanus.
Homer’s Iliad is structured around the true character of heroic virtue through the characterization of Achilles and Hector. The clash of the titans leaves Hector dead. The turning point in the plot of the Iliad is when Achilles hears that his dear friend, a defenseless Patroclus is killed by Hector. Under Patroclus’ leadership, the Greeks, who saved their ships from the Trojan fire, drives the enemy to the walls of Troy, when, Patroclus is killed, fighting “beyond what is fated” (16.780). This is one quote that has many a significance in the Iliad. Homer makes this reference of fate to portray that Patroclus had steeped beyond his means and entered a zone from where there was no return. He was fated to die on that day at that place and since he did die, fate had dragged Achilles to the battlefield to slain Hector. In that war, Patroclus charges three times, killing a number of soldiers, until Apollo strikes Patroclus from behind and knocks off his armor, leaving him dazed and vulnerable. Euphorbus stabs Patroclus with his spear and a wounded Patroclus is killed by Hector.
Initially, Achilles forbids his Myrmidons to fight, and watches as his allies get slaughtered by the Trojans. However, when Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles enters the war and seeks a dual with Hector. He takes the responsibility for the death of his dear friend, Patroclus.
“I sat by the ships, a useless burden, though there are better in Assembly-so may this strife of men and gods be done with.” Lines 104-107 Book Twenty-two
This verse answers the call why and how Achilles was pulled into combat with Hector. On killing Hector, Achilles vents his anger of the lifeless body of Hector by tying the body to his chariot and dragging it around in front of the city, in full view of Hector's parents and his wife. This act of Achilles shows his frustration of going to war in the first place. Hector on his part, did not know that Patroclus was seriously wounded and killed him, but for Achilles, it was the anger of killing a friend most unconvincingly that made him enter the war. Hector, sadly, had to stand up for his younger brother’s action, which ultimately led to the war. Hector portrays the true character and qualities of an epic hero. Even when he knew that it would be difficult for him to defeat Achilles in battle, he chose to safeguard the beliefs of his people and the kingdom and entered the battle with little care for his own safety. Achilles, the true warrior hero that he is, didn’t die in battle; he died at the hands of Paris.
William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton, 1974)
Jones, P. V (Ed), (2003), Homer’s The Iliad (Penguin Classics) (Paperback), ISBN 13: 978-0-14-044794-1