By Thomas Van Nortwick
The danger facing the Trojans comes vividly before us. As is usual for Homer, the peril is conveyed not by naming it, but by describing its effects. Nestor rouses the Greeks, and the Trojans are on the verge of fleeing back into the city. At this moment another one of Priam’s many sons, Helenos the seer, steps forward to assume the role of adviser to Hector and his cousin Aeneas. His plan has several parts: because they have borne so much defending Troy, Hector and Aeneas should be the ones to rouse the Trojans, lest they “fall into the arms of their wives” (6.81–82). Meanwhile, the rest of the Trojan warriors will stay and fight. Finally, Hector must go back to Troy to get his mother to lead the older Trojan women in offering sacrifices to Athena, so the goddess will protect the city.
The passage repays careful attention. We might begin by looking at Helenos. Though he is a seer, we are not told whether a vision has prompted what he says to Aeneas and Hector. He offers what looks like some sound advice in the face of the imminent threat from the Greeks: get moving and hold the city. But as we have said, the idea of sending your best fighter off the field at this critical moment might seem questionable, so he opens with detailed battlefield tactics, always an acceptably heroic discourse. Only after he has apparently arranged to cover for Hector’s absence—without saying so directly—does he urge the return to Troy.
The exchange between Hector and Helenos is an “adviser scene,” a recurring motif in the poem. Here Hector follows the advice of his brother. Later in the story, Poulydamas will assume the adviser role and Hector will ignore his urging of caution, plunging after the Greeks and eventually facing death at Achilles’ hands in Book Twenty-Two (18.249–309). In his poignant monologue at 22.99–130, Hector says it would have been much better for him to follow Poulydamas’s advice, since his recklessness will now destroy his people.
In these scenes, Homer is not inviting us to judge Hector so much as to dramatize a significant moment of choice, in which we see a character faced with making a decision from which will follow significant consequences, for him and for others. Rather than simply telling us that Hector is a good man who takes his responsibilities seriously, the poet shows him doing so. We observe that, faced with this kind of situation, he is the sort of person who chooses to act in a certain way. We form our opinion of moral character by witnessing such moments, and Hector’s character is the one we will be most concerned with for the rest of Book Six.
Helenos’s fear that the Trojan fighters will flee and “fall into the arms of their wives” is significant on more than one level. Since this is exactly what Hector seems about to do, we wonder what Homer is up to in having Helenos suggest it. Though the seer seems to be implying that the men who flee before the Greeks here are unmanly, hiding behind the city walls with their wives, are we to see Hector as cowardly too? What we in fact have here is a good example of Homer’s rich and subtle understanding of human character. Hector will flee before Achilles in the last moments of his life in Book Twenty-Two. We will not be invited to think of him as a coward there, but simply human, in the face of the demonic ferocity of Achilles. But the resonance of the phrase in question here also sounds more immediately, pointing toward the terrible dilemma Hector will find himself facing in his last moments with Andromache, to stay inside the walls with his wife and child or return to battle.
Helenos’s use of the phrase is yet more ambiguous if we consider that the usual way for soldiers in the Iliad to end up in the arms of their wives is as a corpse, being prepared for burial by women. While soldiers always face the specter of death on the battlefield, Homer seems to be suggesting that there is more than one way to die, bravely, defending one’s city, or of shame, the avoiding of which is ultimate motivation for Homeric soldiers. If we follow the implications of Helenos’s ambiguous phrase, allowing the possibility that even Hector might be found wanting in manliness, and that this quality is for a Homeric warrior a kind of death, our ears will be attuned to an important motif that runs through Hector’s visit to Troy and then resurfaces in Book Twenty-Four: the consolation of those who are grieving someone’s death.
Helenos tells Hector that he must get his mother to arrange an offering of beautiful clothing to Athena in her temple, so that the goddess might hold off the “powerful spearman” Diomedes, who he says is the “most powerful of the Achaeans,” even more feared than the semi-divine Achilles. Diomedes “raves” (μαίνεται, 6.101) too much and no one can equal his strength (6.96–101).
Again, we can discern multiple purposes here. Diomedes is about to come before us again, after a brief hiatus. The peaceful end of his impending encounter with Glaucus, which is also the end of his aristeia, will be all the more striking because he is referred to here as a madman on the battlefield. At the same time, we are reminded that Achilles is out of action and again wonder when he will return. As previously noted, the parallels between Diomedes in Books Five and Six and Achilles in Books Eighteen through Twenty-Two are an important part of Homer’s characterization of the latter as he rages across the battlefield in search of Hector. Where Diomedes is a fierce fighter who nonetheless observes certain limits, Achilles always goes too far, challenging the very contours of human existence in his thirst for vengeance. When Athena tells Diomedes in Book Five that he may pursue any human opponent but must not challenge gods except Aphrodite and Ares (5.124–32), he dutifully complies, backing away from a confrontation with Apollo. In Book Twenty-One, Achilles will not back down before the god of the river Scamander, though he nearly dies as a result (21.214–26).
Graziosi, B. and Haubold, J. ed. 2010. Homer: Iliad, Book VI, 17; 34.
Horsfall, N. 1979. “Some Problems in the Aeneas legend.” Classical Quarterly 29: 372–90.
Owen, E.T. 1946. The Story of the Iliad, 58. Toronto: Clark and Irwin.