By Thomas Van Nortwick
Carefully following the proper protocol, Hecabe presents the robe to the temple priestess, Theano of the beautiful cheeks, daughter of Kisses, wife of Antenor. The women cry out, raise their hands, and offer twelve yearling heifers along with the robe, if Athena will only defend the city. In contrast to the expansive style of this section, Homer’s description of Athena’s response is brutally terse: ὣς ἔφατ᾽ εὐχομένη, ἀνένευε δὲ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη, “So Hecabe spoke, praying, but Athena turned away” (311). Troy’s doom continues to knell in our ears as Hector makes his way through the city.
Having failed to connect with his mother, Hector goes in search of Paris. He finds his brother and sister-in-law sitting amid opulent splendor in their boudoir. Homer tells us that Paris himself worked with the best builders in the kingdom to create his part of the palace, his care in tending to his own comfort and magnificence standing in marked contrast to his disregard for the safety of the rest of the Trojans. As Hector crosses the threshold, we are reminded of the last time we saw Paris and Helen in their bedroom, in Book Three. Then, rescued by Aphrodite from certain defeat at Menelaus’s hands, Paris waited at his ease for Helen, whom Aphrodite compelled to join him:
Come here! Alexandros wants you to come home.
He waits in the bedroom with its carved bed,
glistening in beauty and fine clothes; you would not
say that he had just come from fighting, but from
dancing, sitting there as if he’d just left the chorus.
Helen protests, clearly repelled by her husband’s breezy selfishness, but he hardly notices. He calls her to bed and she follows in silence.
Now Hector finds them right where we left them, luxuriating. Paris shines his armor, Helen sitting silently among her handmaidens. As Hector crosses the threshold, the crosscurrents of meaning in the scene intensify. Covered in blood and filth, holding in front of himself a spear, eleven cubits long with a bronze point, Hector encounters Paris, polishing his own armor, which gleams as he himself did when Helen came to him in Book Three. This moment sums up the essence of each man: Hector carrying the stains of a war that he did not want and yet still leads to protect his family and city, Paris admiring himself in the mirror of his narcissism, breezily oblivious to the terrible suffering his selfishness has brought down on his people. The relationship of appearance to reality, inner substance to outer show, is an important theme in the Iliad. Both Paris and Helen represent the danger of alluring but potentially destructive beauty. Their glossy presence in Troy forms a counterpoint to Hector’s longsuffering virtue.
A warrior’s armor is a special case of the appearance/reality theme. There are four extended arming scenes in the poem, involving Paris (3.328–38), Agamemnon (11.17–44), Patroclus (16.130–44), and Achilles (19.365–91), each preparing for battle. Paris’ arming is the least elaborate, showing the basic components of what is clearly a traditional Homeric “type scene,” a series of words and actions that recur, usually verbatim, several times in the course of the poem:
Then bright Alexandros, husband of well-coiffed Helen,
put his beautiful armor over his shoulders.
First, he fitted to his calves the handsome greaves,
joined together by silver fastenings.
Next, he covered his chest with the breastplate
from his brother Lykaon, and it was molded to him.
Over his shoulder he hung the silver-studded sword,
made of bronze, then the shield, broad and strong.
On his mighty head he set the well-made helmet
with horse-hair crest, and its frightful plumes nodded down.
Then he took up the strong-shafted spear, fitted to his hand.
The components of the armor and the order they are donned remain the same in all four passages, usually expressed in exactly the same language as they are here. But in the other three passages, this basic core is expanded to add details specific to the characters and situation. What the armor shows on the outside may or may not reflect what is inside the warrior.
Agamemnon’s arming (11.15–46) is the longest and most elaborate, adding a lengthy description of the decoration on the breastplate, with cobalt snakes writhing up toward the throat opening and on the shield, with an image of monstrous Gorgon, staring ferociously. The decoration is clearly meant to frighten an enemy, but given what we know of Agamemnon’s difficulties in living up to his leadership role in the army, we might almost find the lengthy description faintly ironic, more show than substance. Patroclus’ arming (16.130–44) comes next in the sequence, and is already unusual in that he is donning not his own armor but Achilles’. The interplay of appearance and reality is prominent in this case, since Patroclus is in fact disguising himself in the hope that the Trojans will think he is Achilles and fall back. Homer points insistently to the problem with this strategy, noting that Patroclus put on all of Achilles’ armor, but did not take up the spear, with its ash wood shaft, a gift to Achilles from his father Peleus:
That weapon, made of ash wood from Mount Pelion,
no other of the Achaeans could handle; only Achilles
knew how to wield it; Chiron brought it to Achilles’ father
from the peaks of Pelion, an instrument of death for heroes.
The message is clear: Patroclus is not Achilles, no matter how he may appear from the outside.
The arming of Achilles (19.367–91) is, not surprisingly, the dramatic climax of the series. Thetis comes through for her son by getting Hephaestus to make armor to replace what Hector stripped off Patroclus. She wafts down from Olympus with her gifts, which frighten the Myrmidons, but not Achilles:
Trembling gripped all the Myrmidons, nor did anyone dare
to look at the armor; they were afraid of it. But when Achilles
saw it, his anger came on stronger, and his eyes
shone terribly under his brows, like sunflare.
Taking the god’s gifts in his hands, he was delighted.
The armor, glittering and beautiful but also menacing, seems to stir something elemental in Achilles. The divine part of him is about to be tapped, releasing a terrible power the moral import of which is not easy to fix. As he arms himself, the fire remains in his eyes and his heart is full of rage. The standard elements of the scene are all there, but expanded by similes that feature light and fire. The last lines of the scene return to the famous sword, bringing death to warriors. The use of armor to reflect something of the character of its wearer is a continuing theme in the Iliad, coming to a crescendo in the armor of Achilles. Homer introduces the motif when Hector crosses the threshold of Paris’s bedroom.
Frustrated as usual with his brother’s indifference to the threat facing Troy, Hector lashes out. It is not a good thing, he says, to keep χόλος, “anger,” “gall,” in your heart. People are fighting and dying all over the city, and it is Paris’s fault that war has surrounded the city. Δαιμόνιε, the term Hector uses to address Paris, is telling. It is used by several characters in Homeric poetry, always in direct address, to show bewilderment and sometimes frustration with another person to whom he or she is emotionally tied. The etymology, from δαίμων,“divine being,” suggests that the speaker finds the other person strange or uncanny, inscrutable as gods are to mortals. It will appear three more times in Book Six, used by Andromache of Hector (407), Hector of Andromache (486) and finally Hector of Paris again (521). The tone always seems to contain a varying mixture of frustration and bemused affection, but its use in these encounters always signals the same thing: the estrangement of Hector from those he loves.
Armstrong, J. 1958. “The Arming Motif in the Iliad.” American Journal of Philology 79: 337–54.
Edwards, M. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 71–77. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Lord, A. 1951. “Composition by Theme in Homer and Southslavic Epos.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 82: 71–80.
Owen, E.T. 1946. The Story of the Iliad, 35–36. Toronto: Clark and Irwin.
Redfield, J. 1975. Nature and Culture in the Iliad, 113–15. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Van Nortwick, T. 2008. Imagining Men: Ideals of Masculinity in Ancient Greek Culture, 63, 72. Praeger.