Homer /

Thomas Van Nortwick and Geoffrey Steadman

Iliad 6.503-529

By Thomas Van Nortwick

The somber mood shifts briefly as we now see Paris heading out to meet Hector. Homer captures the moment in a memorable simile:

As when a stalled horse, fed from the corn crib,
breaks free of his tether and gallops across the plain
to his regular bathing spot in the sweet-flowing river,
glorying; trusting in his splendor he holds his head high
and his mane bounces on his shoulders, while his quick knees
carry him to the familiar haunts of horses.
                                       Iliad 6. 506–11

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect image to capture Paris’ joyful, preening narcissism, his hair flowing over his shoulders, blown by the breeze as he runs along. If Troy had glass windows, we could easily envision him admiring his reflection. Surprisingly, the very same six lines appear verbatim at 15.263–68, describing, of all people, Hector. There Zeus has awakened from his midday tryst with Hera to discover that in his absence the Greeks have rallied with their divine allies and driven the Trojans back, thus stymying his plan to punish the Achaeans for not giving Achilles what he wants. Hector has been briefly out of action, but now Zeus has Apollo rouse him. Excited by the chance to reenter the battle, Hector strides forth, prompting the identical simile.

Verbatim repetition of short passages is not unusual in a poem the style of which reflects the influence of oral composition. But though the repeated lines convey certain images and ideas that carry over more or less intact from one place to another in the narrative, the surrounding context always adds meaning. In Book Six, the quality of “shininess” resonates most with Paris’s armor, as he polishes it in his boudoir, and with Hector’s helmet, the symbol of war’s destructive power in the encounter of Hector and Andromache. The simile resonates with both passages, pointing to Paris’s shallow self-display, made all the more appalling when we know that he is heading into the horror of war beyond the city gates, for which he bears the ultimate responsibility. The last two lines of the simile in his case add another comparison, to the sun, to drive home the point about shininess. Perhaps not by coincidence, the only other use of the word ἠλέκτωρ, “sun,” is in reference to Achilles, about to launch his destructive quest to kill Hector (19.398).

By contrast, Hector’s return to battle in Book Fifteen occurs about two hundred verses after Zeus lays out the terrible chain of events that will lead to Hector’s death at the hands of Achilles in Book Twenty-Two: Apollo will rouse Hector and stir panic in the Achaeans, who will be driven back to their ships; Achilles will send Patroclus into battle and Hector will kill him; then Achilles will kill Hector (15.58–71). Hector’s spirited return to the fighting lies in the shadow of this somber prophecy, enriching our sense of his doomed nobility, drawing a painful contrast to his brother’s feckless insouciance.

Even particular words can change meaning under the influence of the local context.

For instance, the word ἀγλαΐηφι, which I have translated above as “splendor,” is the noun cognate with ἀγλαός, “shining,” “brilliant,” an appropriate quality for Paris’s shallow preoccupation with appearances. To use this word to describe Hector would seem to be problematic, as Homer has been at pains to portray him as the polar opposite of his vain brother. By doing so, the poet pushes the word’s connotations toward not outward display, but inner strength, which shines forth when Hector races out to battle.

As Paris finally catches up to Hector, Homer gestures once more to the intimacy that has bound husband and wife together and which, we sense, they will never be able to enjoy again:

Τhen suddenly
he came upon bright Hector, his brother, where he was about
to turn from the spot where he had talked to his wife.
Then godlike Alexandros addressed him first:
“Dear brother, surely I’ve delayed you in your haste
by lingering, and have not come on time as you urged.”
                                       Iliad 6.514–19

The meeting of brothers is to occur right at the place where Hector has just said goodbye to Andromache and Astyanax for what looks like the last time. As I have said (see essay on 6.156–190), the verb ὀάριζε (“talked to,” 516) seems to carry the connotation of an intimate exchange between spouses. Using it here, Homer marks the spot with the lingering fragrance of deep, shared emotion. The verb will appear only once more in Homeric epic, in Hector’s wistful monologue in Book Twenty-Two, as Achilles bears down on him.

When Paris arrives, breezily tone-deaf as usual, apologizing yet again for falling short of his brother’s expectations, the effect is jarring. His greeting, ἠθεῖ’, which I have translated as “Dear brother” (511), is cognate with ἤθεα, the “familiar haunts” of horses in the simile. Other uses of the greeting are all by younger men, usually brothers, speaking to their elders (see 10.37; 22.229; 22.239; 23.94). Once again context is important. The apparently affectionate tone of the greeting is tinged with earlier edgy exchanges between the brothers (see 3.59; 6.333), where Hector’s frustration and resentment seem to roll off of Paris. In my ears, ἠθεῖ’ here carries the false heartiness of something like, “old buddy” (“dude”?) in English, preserving the poisonous dynamic between siblings.

Hector’s reply preserves the uncomfortable atmosphere of the encounter. Paris is δαιμόνι(ε), “strange,” “uncanny,” to him, as he was earlier (6.326), an able but reluctant fighter. And once again, this reflection brings pain to Hector, who is ashamed of his irresponsible little brother (see 3.39–42). Nevertheless, he ends with a hopeful wish: perhaps Zeus will grant them victory over the Greeks after all. In light of what we know and what we have seen in Troy, the words sound a final tragic note.

Further Reading

Edwards, M. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 212–213. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Scott, W. 1974. The Oral Nature of the Homeric Simile, 127–140. Leiden: Brill.

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Suggested Citation: 

Thomas Van Nortwick, "Iliad 6.503-529," in Thomas Van Nortwick and Geoffrey Steadman, Homer: Iliad 6 and 22. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-947822-11-5.