Finally we get the Trojan War in earnest. Lots of severed arms, bronze spears through the chest or through the groin, heroes “falling thunderously with their armor clattering about them.” The preliminaries are over. It’s as if this is Year One of the war not Year Ten.
Diomedes gets his aristeia. An aristeia is when a Homeric hero makes his most significant run at greatness. Agamemnon gets one. Odysseus gets one. Ajax (Aias) gets one. And of course swift footed godlike Achilles gets a tremendous aristeia after his closest friend Patroclus is cut down in battle and his mother Thetis persuades the smith god Hephaestus to make him new armor.
Dimomedes is one of my favorite characters in the Iliad. He is young, courageous, immensely likable, and not yet disillusioned by the sorrows and cynicism of war.James C. Hogan (A Guide to the Iliad)writes, “Diomedes is closer to a model of chivalry than any other of the Akhaians (Greeks).” In Book Five Diomedes kills ten Trojan heroes or Trojan allies. He wounds two gods: Aphrodite, whom he stabs in the hand; and Ares, the Greek god of war, whom he wounds in the midsection. He even attempts to attack Apollo, until the sun god (who favors the Trojans) warns him not to take his aresteia one step too far and get himself killed! In these hubristic attacks on gods, Diomedes is aided by the greatest of the goddesses Athene, who hates Troy and serves as patron to several Greek warriors, most notably Odysseus. Diomedes also wounds the Trojan ally Aeneas, who will survive and go on, after the war, to help found Rome.
One of the men Diomedes kills is Pandoros, the Trojan who broke the truce of Book Three and wounded Menelaus slightly. He is an excellent archer, but not nearly as adept with the spear. Pandoros will go on to have a remarkable literary career in western civilization. He’s the “pander” who arranges the love affair between Troilus (Trojan) and Cressida (Greek), the theme of Chaucer’s greatest poem, Troilus and Criseyde.
Book Five contains a number of lion similes–the more remarkable because lions had been extirpated in Greece by the time Homer composed the two great epics. And Five contains several of the greatest Homeric similes in the Iliad. Here’s just one, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation:
[The Achaeans stirred up so much dust in their battle lust] “As when along the hallowed threshing floors the wind scatters chaff, among men winnowing, and fair-haired Demeter in the leaning wind discriminates the chaff and the true grain and the piling chaff whitens beneath it, so now the Achaians turned white underneath the dust the feet of the horses drove far into the brazen sky across their faces.”
Notes: 1) There are a number of slightly out of place references to Herakles in this book. Herakles’ son Tlepolemos is killed. But the references to his father seem strange in this setting. 2) The book ends in a comic fashion. Diodemes has wounded two gods (Aphrodite and Ares) but both are more or less instantly cured, unlike humans who are usually permanently maimed or killed in battle. Both gods whine about their injuries, Ares particularly. He is outraged that mere humans can damage the gods. His father Zeus responds with fury, saying that to him Ares is “far the most hateful of the gods,” and he would authorize much more serious (and divine) damage to Ares except that he must protect even a terrible child. Homer’s point surely is to draw stark contrast between the essential frivolous of the gods, who cannot die or even get seriously hurt, and humans, who are tragically aware of the brevity and fragility of life. 3) The Aeneas story in Book Five is very strange. He is very severely injured by Diomedes. Diomedes lifts a rock that nobody in later times could possibly life, says Homer, and hurls it at Aeneas. It strikes the future founder of Rome in the hip, breaking the hip socket, severing the tendons of the hip, and opening a huge skin flap at the point of contact. Aeneas kneels and the cloud of “black death” descends upon him. He is whisked out of battle by his divine mother Aphrodite (with help from Apollo), and deposited on a sacred mountain where he can be more or less instantly cured. Meanwhile, Apollo fashions a simulacrum that looks identical to Aeneas to keep on the battlefield, almost immediately to be replaced by the actual, miraculously cured, Aeneas. A hip injury of this sort would be a career-ending disability for a mere mortal. My daughter (an expert on the Latin epic the Aeneid) wondered why there is no mention of this significant injury in the Aeneid. Surely Aeneas should at least have a permanent limp. But not. We then found ample online resources on how Aeneas is portrayed in Homer and in Vergil. 4) It is hard to imagine Homeric greatness without the extended similes. They break up the sheer violence of the war. They image the other Greek world, “when there was peace, before the coming of the Achaeans,” as Homer puts it. They startle with their lyric beauty, and the point of comparison (battle dust and chaff, for example) is often very striking and evocative. 5) Trojan ally Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, makes his first appearance in Book Five. He rebukes Hektor severely for hanging back when the Trojan allies seem to be bearing the brunt of battle. Hektor is apparently shamed, because he doesn’t attempt to defend himself or counter-rebuke Sarpedon. He immediately hastens into the thick of the battle brandishing two stout spears. 6) In Book Five, no Helen, no Paris, no Priam, and only one mention of Achilles, the purpose of which is to remind readers that the greatest hero of the Achaeans is sitting out the battle. When he was on the field, Homer says, the Trojans barely dared to venture out of the gates of Troy.
In Book Six (next post), the aristeia of Diomedes continues.