By Thomas Van Nortwick
Bellerophontes’s fortunes take a turn for the better when the king learns that the triumphant hero is the son of a god. This is news to us, since Glaucus has said earlier (154) that Bellerophontes’s father was a mortal named Glaucus, apparently the present speaker’s namesake and otherwise completely obscure. To have both a mortal and a divine father is not unknown in Greek myth, and in fact this is another way, beside the labors, that Bellerophontes resembles Heracles. We never hear from Glaucus who the divine father is—another example of Homer’s selective narration—though other Greek sources identify Poseidon.
The genealogy continues as we learn that Sarpedon, an important Lycian ally of the Trojans, is Glaucus’s cousin and himself the son of Zeus. The two will appear together in Book Twelve, when Sarpedon delivers to Glaucus a famous speech on the nature of heroism (310–328). Sarpedon then becomes Patroclus’s most prominent victim in Book Sixteen and Hector in turn kills Patroclus, setting off a deadly chain of events that culminates in Hector’s death at the hands of Achilles. Though the significance of what Glaucus reports to us is sometimes obscure, Homer has a use for everything he puts in his poem, playing out threads that he will gather later.
Diomedes is delighted by Glaucus’s story, because he realizes that ξεῖνος πατρώϊός ἐσσι παλαιός, “you are a guest friend of mine from our fathers’ time” (215). Like Bellerophontes, Glaucus will win some temporary peace and respite because of his family history. Details follow, giving us a glimpse of Diomedes as a boy, further distancing us from the violence of battle. The two parts of the digression come together when we learn that Diomedes still has the beautiful golden cup that Bellerophontes gave to his grandfather. Now the two men who were planning to fight to the death vow to avoid each other on the battlefield and themselves exchange gifts.
In the last glimpse we have of the two warriors, Homer brings us abruptly back from the warmth of the fairytale world we have been visiting to a more cold-eyed perspective: Glaucus “loses” after all, seduced by the good feeling of the moment into making a bad bargain.
We have finally arrived at the dramatic climax Homer has been dangling before us since the beginning of Book Six. We may now pause to reflect on how the book as a whole has been constructed up to this point and how the apparently disparate elements in the material are all aimed in one way or another toward the moving scenes to come in Troy. The most obvious function of the Diomedes and Glaucus encounter is to bring the aristeia of Diomedes, which has been the focal point of battle narrative since the beginning of Book Five, to a satisfying conclusion. In fact, having used it as a motivation for sending Hector to Troy, Homer has no further immediate use for the story or its hero. But rather than abruptly dropping the narrative thread, the poet uses the digression to: 1) further tantalize us as we await news about Hector; 2) give the portrait of Diomedes a portentous finale that rounds off the aristeia and lends it an organic unity; 3) remind us of the absence of Achilles by focusing on his surrogate; 4) establish variation in the emotional and dramatic tone of the two parts of the digression, which will be echoed in and enriched by the scenes that follow in Troy; and 5) create an island of serenity and peace as a counterpoint to the ongoing violence of battle, the first in a series that includes comic episodes, like the beguiling of Zeus, but also resonates with the burials of Sarpedon, Patrolcus, and finally Hector.
Along the way, Homer expands the portraits of other prominent heroes, Ajax, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Nestor, Glaucus, Sarpedon, Paris, and of course, Hector. Lesser characters also appear briefly, each playing his or her part in the larger design and then fading from sight, Adrastus, Helenos, Proitos, Anteia, Bellerophontes, and all the victims from the battle narratives. As we have seen, many incidents foreshadow people and events to come in the poem, with Diomedes’s restraint setting the stage for Achilles’ excesses, or Ajax’s austere self-sufficiency as a foil for the solipsism of Paris. In particular, the Diomedes and Glaucus encounter offers various examples of human relationships, marked by either malicious treachery or open-hearted generosity, deep affection or shallow self-regard, all of which serve as prologue to Hector’s interactions with loved ones in Troy. Helen’s original erotic betrayal is echoed in Anteia’s treachery, while Agamemnon’s anxious solicitude for his brother resonates in various ways with the uneasy bond between Hector and Paris; at the same time, Agamemnon’s vicious attitude toward the unborn children of his enemies contrasts poignantly with Hector’s tender affection for his infant son.
The scenes leading up to Hector’s visit to Troy are a good example of certain characteristics of Homeric storytelling, crucial to the poem’s impact and yet challenging to describe. This stretch of the story is packed with disparate incidents that flow swiftly by, and yet each element receives the poet’s full attention, its particular details giving it a tone of naturalism—why would the poet tell us all this unless it actually happened? As Hector recedes from view on his way to Troy, the picture of his shield banging off his legs and shoulders as he runs makes pause a little longer, wondering perhaps how long it will take him to get home at that pace. This quality is in part surely a reflection of the Iliad’s origins in oral poetry, performed before an audience of listeners, not solitary readers. As each incident passes before us, we participate in a continuous present tense, only moving on when the poet’s eye falls on the next thing. There is also a quality of fullness to the style, as ornamental epithets (themselves an artifact of the poem’s origins in oral composition) fill out the verse and contribute to the blend of the generic and the particular that is unique to Homeric poetry.
And yet, though Homer can sometimes seem to be simply bouncing along from one thing to the next, throwing in material as it comes to mind, by the time we reach the end of the poem we realize that everything serves the poet’s purpose, contributing to the vast and intricate tapestry, a work of art whose richness is almost beyond our ability to grasp. When we listen to Achilles give his magisterial speech to Priam at the end of the poem, as he describes how the quality of each person’s life is not the product of what he or she has done and suffered but is finally a gift from powers beyond his or her power to control (24.527–33), we may hear a faint echo:
μή μοι δῶρ᾽ ἐρατὰ πρόφερε χρυσέης Ἀφροδίτης:
οὔ τοι ἀπόβλητ᾽ ἐστὶ θεῶν ἐρικυδέα δῶρα
do not throw in my face the lovely gifts of golden Aphrodite,
which are glorious and may not be refused;
Straining to remember when we heard these verses, we realize that the speaker was, of all people, Paris. And then we think again about the unexpected crosscurrents of emotion that tie humans together.
Edwards, M. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 102–10; 29–40. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Graziosi, B. and Haubold, J. ed. 2010. Homer: Iliad, Book VI, 8–23.
Owen, E.T. 1946. The Story of the Iliad, 36. Toronto: Clark and Irwin.