By Thomas Van Nortwick
Everything in Book Six is preparation for Hector’s visit to Troy and especially for his meeting with Andromache. After the inconclusive duel in Book Three and the failure of the truce in Book Four, the poem’s first day of fighting begins and continues through Book Five. The poet structures his battle narrative there around the aristeia, or moment of special prowess, of Diomedes. In Books Four through Seven, the plan of Zeus—to make the Greeks suffer for not giving Achilles what he wants—is on hold, as Diomedes leads a successful Greek charge toward Troy.
We begin to see how Homer paces his story in order to hold our interest. The plan of Zeus runs counter to the overarching theme of Troy’s ultimate doom, which is always in the background. This tension allows the poet to create expectations, which he can fulfill or delay. We have been told that the Greeks will pay for their treatment of Achilles and we look for it, but the poet makes us wait, filling in the cast of characters on both sides. We are also aware of Achilles’s absence and wonder when he might return. Diomedes is a surrogate for Achilles here, and his sense of duty, shown in his deference to Athena’s instructions, forms a contrast with the latter’s arrogant behavior, something that Homer will use in his portrait of Achilles’s rampage in Books Twenty through Twenty-Two. At the same time, the Greeks’ success is the impetus for getting Hector to Troy. It is a measure of how well the poet keeps our attention on the immediate business at hand that we do not pause to reflect on the Trojans’ doubtful strategy of responding to peril in battle by sending their best fighter off the field.
Book Six begins with more battle narrative. The gods have left the battle for the moment under orders from Zeus, who had become annoyed with their meddling in Book Five. Though the interactions of the gods with each other can often be comic in the Iliad—since nothing can change them, nothing they do to each other really matters—it is always a good idea to pay attention to how and when they enter the world of mortals. For instance, when Zeus turns away from the battle, it is a signal to us that his plan is on hold and the Greeks are going to prosper, as happens in Book Fourteen when Hera beguiles him into a midday tryst. When Zeus allows the gods to fight each other in Book 21, we know that nothing serious can happen and that Zeus is taking a break.
In these first duels, Homer underscores the gravity of the Trojans’ situation by showing us all of the principal Greek warriors, Ajax, Diomedes, Odysseus, and Agamemnon, killing Trojans. Translations can sometimes make battle narratives seem dull and repetitive, but reading the Greek lets us see the marvelous variety and inventiveness in these encounters. A third of the Iliad is taken up with battle scenes and Homer had to hold his audience. Tedium was not an option for oral poets. Note, for instance, the number of ways that the poet uses to say “x killed y,” in this short stretch. Sometimes he does speed things up, mentioning only killer, victim, and verb (cf. 6.21, 29-31), but more often, he takes the moment of death as an opportunity for a short vignette, training his eye, and so ours, on the life the loser forfeits. Diomedes kills Axylos, we are told, whose father was Teuthras. Axylos was known as a good neighbor back in Arisbe, where he entertained travelers in his house by the road. But none of those neighbors can help him now, as he faces his death. His friend and charioteer Kalesios dies too, and they both go under the earth. Euryalos kills four men, the last two of whom, Aesepos and Pedasos, a nymph named Abarbare bore when she met a man named Boukolion, a shepherd tending his flocks. Boukolion was the son of Laomedon, a haughty man, and his mother bore him secret. But now Euryalus kills them both and strips off their armor (6.12-28).
These victims, none of whom we have heard of before or will ever hear about again, exist only to be killed, but Homer makes us pause before the little window of life that he opens before us, happy days now lost forever. The details of these lives have no bearing on the main plot of the poem, but their loss sounds a persistent knell, a melancholy music that pervades the entire poem. And at the center of every encounter lies the moment that defines that kind of perspective we call tragic, a man facing his own death. Tragic stories take many forms, but they all point us toward the need to acknowledge the fact of human mortality and to think about how that fact defines what it means to be human. If we are tempted to call the Iliad a celebration of war, these little biographies say otherwise.
Let us pause to admire Ajax, son of Telamon, one of Homer’s most arresting creations. His epithet here, ἕρκος Ἀχαιῶν (6.5), “bulwark of the Achaeans,” captures the essence of his role in the Iliad. Huge, powerful, and plain-spoken, he suffers no fools. Here he “shatters the ranks” of the Trojans (6.6), but his most characteristic act in the poem is to hold the line for his fellow Greeks. He does so for the entire stretch from Books Eleven through Fifteen, slowly, grudgingly giving way, as all the other principal Greek fighters are wounded and leave the field for triage. Homer’s double simile for his holding action is one of the more memorable ones in the Iliad. Ajax is compared first to a marauding lion, surrounded by snarling dogs, and then to a donkey feeding in the fields. The donkey stubbornly munches away while boys beat him with sticks, trying to drive him away. Only when he has had his fill does he move (11.545-65).
Of all the prominent heroes of the poem, only Ajax thrives without the support of a particular god. He is splendidly self-sufficient and impatient with the querulous self-regard of other heroes. When he agrees to fight a duel with Hector in Book Seven and appears to be winning, heralds break in and announce that the light is failing. Do the fighters want to go on, or call it a day? Ajax answers first, with characteristic brevity: Ask Hector. If he wants to quit, I will. It’s up to him. Hector decides maybe they should stand down (7.273-302). Then in Book Nine, Ajax is one of three ambassadors who go to Achilles to convince him to come back to the fighting, since the Trojans are about to overrun the Greek camp. Odysseus and Phoenix, Achilles’s old childhood tutor, each give lengthy and rhetorically accomplished speeches that fail to move Achilles sufficiently. Ajax does not address Achilles directly, instead turning to Odysseus to say that they should just return to the camp and deliver the bad news. If Achilles is too proud to help his friends, so be it (9.624-42). The portrait of Ajax is characteristic of Homer’s ability to create a vivid, rounded personality using a few brief strokes. We will see the same technique at work in the scenes between Hector and his family in Troy.
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