By Thomas Van Nortwick
Hector’s exit for Troy is carefully marked before the narrative switches to Diomedes and Glaucus. The details are telling. His shield bangs off his neck and ankles because he has pulled it around to his back so he can run more easily, hurrying to fulfill his responsibilities. He will be impatient to get back to his men the whole time he is in Troy, adding urgency but also increasing his pain as he is torn between his family and his duty. This last picture of him, growing smaller in the distance, will stay with us, reminding us that while we are hearing all about the genealogies of Diomedes and Glaucus, crucial things are happening in Troy, things we will have to wait a little longer to hear about.
Diomedes’ exchange with Glaucus concludes his aristeia begun in Book Five. The entire encounter feels like a digression from the main plot, because Homer has made us feel the urgency of Hector’s mission. Classical scholars have speculated in the past that the episode was once an independent poem, which Homer incorporated into his narrative. That may be so, but this version was clearly crafted by the poet to fit his own purposes.
A parallel passage in Book Twenty is instructive. There, Achilles has vowed to hunt down Hector to avenge Patroclus’s death. He meets Aeneas on the battlefield and the poet teases us:
The whole plain was filled with men and horses,
shining with bronze; and the earth shook with their feet
as they swarmed together. Two of the best men by far
came together in the middle, eager to fight,
Aeneas, son of Anchises and brilliant Achilles.
Iliad 20. 156–60
By the time we hear these lines, we are hungry for the climactic duel between Achilles and Hector, which has been dangled before us since Book Fifteen (15.61–68). Now Homer delivers a big build-up and delays the names for four verses. Finally, as we listen eagerly for Hector, the poet gives us Aeneas, an estimable warrior but not the one we want. We are then treated to an exceptionally lengthy disquisition by Aeneas on his genealogy. Family connections are the principal mode of identification in the Iliad, so Aeneas’s family tree is not in itself unimportant, but the sheer length of this one is challenging. Perhaps only his family and those especially interested in the dynastic history of the Near East would find it absorbing.
But maybe that is the point. Both digressions come at a time in the story when we are looking toward events that the poet has freighted with dramatic interest. Both settle into a leisurely pace, full of incidental detail that contrasts with the urgency surrounding the episodes we know will eventually follow. If we are impatient with the delay, it does not mean that we are unengaged with the material. Homer holds out the promise of an emotional payoff and keeps us looking for it.
Though the Glaucus and Diomedes episode has the effect of slowing things down, Homer keeps important themes before us. Diomedes is confident that he will win the duel, unless of course Glaucus happens to be a god in disguise. This possibility takes us back to the beginning of Diomedes’ aristeia in Book Five, where Athena gives him the power to recognize divinities in disguise, a gift apparently not still in force here. Diomedes does engage Aphrodite and Ares, but only because Athena has told him to do so, and he refrains from fighting Apollo, restraint, as we have said, not found in Achilles. The association of the two heroes surfaces again in the mythical example Diomedes gives to illustrate the dangers of incurring the hatred of the gods. Lycourgos attacked the nurses tending to the baby Dionysus, a heinous and, as it turned out, disastrous act of arrogance. Dionysus fled in terror, straight into the arms of—wait for it— Achilles’ mother! Though Achilles never appears directly between Books Two and Nine, Homer keeps him and the question of his return constantly before us, another carrot to keep us attentive.
Glaucus waxes philosophical when answering Diomedes’s challenge, opening with the justly famous simile comparing the generations of humans to leaves on the trees, growing to ripeness and then dying away. Like all similes in the Iliad, this one has the effect of changing the venue, widening the scope of the story to include some slice of experience not directly related to war, and often providing some relief from the tension of battle. Two aspects of this simile are especially significant. First, a character delivers the simile, as opposed to the omniscient narrator, which gives some insight into the mind of the speaker. Since the serenely detached tone of the observations comes from within Diomedes, we have perhaps a foreshadowing of the happy outcome of the duel. Secondly, the melancholy tone of the simile becomes part of a series of contrasting moods in Book Six as a whole, leading up to the powerfully emotional encounter between Hector and Andromache, where Hector’s delight in his wife and son occurs in the shadow of his impending death.
Immediately following the simile, Diomedes delivers two verses that signal a return to a more conventional perspective:
εἰ δ᾽ ἐθέλεις καὶ ταῦτα δαήμεναι ὄφρ᾽ ἐῢ εἰδῇς
ἡμετέρην γενεήν, πολλοὶ δέ μιν ἄνδρες ἴσασιν:
If you wish to know these things, so as to understand well
my family history, there are many men who know it.
These lines appear verbatim in Book Twenty, when Aeneas launches his lengthy discussion of his lineage (Il. 20.213–14). This repetition suggests that both family histories are examples of a Homeric type scene, describing a recurring event or experience and using some identical language. As we will see, in the Diomedes and Glaucus episode as in so much of his poetry, Homer uses repeated conventional forms as part of a sophisticated and highly original story.
Edwards, M. 1987. Homer: Poet of the Iliad, 102–10; 201–06. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Gaisser, J. Haig. 1969. “Adaptation of Traditional Material in the Glaucus-Diomedes Episode.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 10, 165–176.
Graziosi, B. and Haubold, J. ed. 2010. Homer: Iliad, Book VI, 5–6; 36–40.
Kirk, G.S. 1990. The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. I, 172–73. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Martin, R. 1989. The Language of Heroes: Speech and Performance in the Iliad, 126–28. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.