Book VI is magnificent. I just read it in Lattimore’s splendid translation. In VI, the Achaeans (Greeks) are pressing the Trojans back towards the high walls of their city. One of Priam’s fifty sons, Helenos, who is a seer/prophet, urges Hector to instruct his mother Hecabe to gather the best women of Troy, and to take a beautiful robe to the temple of Athene in Troy. Helenos believes that it may be possible to placate Athene, who is still angry at Troy because of the Judgment of Paris. That famous incident occurred years earlier, when the three great goddesses asked a random shepherd (who happened to be young Paris) to decide which of them was the most beautiful.
Athene offered power and wisdom and military might.
Hera offered civic power, a solid monogamous marriage, healthy children.
Aphrodite offered the most beautiful woman in the world.
So you know how that turned out!
Hera and Athene have never been able to forgive Paris for his disastrous choice, the same disastrous choice that most men make in life; one that tracks beautifully with the Lakota myth of the White Buffalo Calf Woman (see Black Elk Speaks).
Hector goes back to Troy, delivers the right instructions to his mother, then goes to the house of his playboy brother Paris, to try to shame Paris back into battle. As he was speaking to his mother Hecabe just before this encounter, Hector actually said he wished Paris were dead, so that the terrible war could end (or never have occurred at all). Hecabe does not respond to this grave moment of sibling fantasy.
Paris has no good excuse for hanging back. He essentially says he is mourning (for what: his lost credibility as a man, citizen, and warrior?). Helen tells Hector candidly that she wishes she had died at birth so that she would not have brought on this great war; and says, in front of her husband Paris, that she wishes at least she had found a more reliable and honorable husband.
Before returning to battle, Hector has an encounter with his wife Andromache, who is portrayed in the Iliad as a gentle woman who just wants her excellent husband to live a full and essentially domestic life. Andromache is almost always depicted in tears in the epic.
Book Six has two famous moments.
First, Diomedes (still in his aristeia) coms up against the Trojan hero Glaukos. In typical Homeric style they each give a lengthy speech before the fight, and it turns out that their grandparents were “guest friends,” had exchanged visits and exchanged guest gifts. This means that Glaukos and Diomedes are “friends” (twice removed), and therefore they must not fight against each other. Diomedes suggests that they memorialize their moment of mutual recognition by exchanging their battle armor. They do so: Glaukos gives Diomedes his golden armor; Diomedes gives Glaukos his bronze armor. Here Homer offers one of his rare editorial comments:
Zeus the son of Kronos stole away the wits of Glaukos who exchanged with Diomedes the son of Tydeus armor of gold for bronze, for nine oxen’s worth the worth of a hundred.
The other great moment is when Hector reaches out to hold his infant son Astyanax, forgetting that he is covered with battle gore and wearing his helmet with its horse-hair plume. The child screams in terror. At this Hector and Andromache have a moment of laughter, and Hector takes off his helmet before dandling his child. This is one of the most famous moments in the Iliad.
- The book ends with Paris returning to battle in his splendid armor. He runs back to battle, glorious, handsome, in perfect designer battle wear, and Homer has him “laughing aloud” as he returns to the field. Paris is frivolous, something of a coward, a womanizer, undisciplined, lacking in civic virtue or patriotism, and yet there is something quite attractive about him, for all of that.
- We hear from Helenos that the Trojans did not even fear Achilles (when he was in battle) as much as they now fear Diomedes. This is a startling statement. Homer makes it clear that Achilles is the single greatest warrior at Troy, uniue in his greatness. To grant this concession, that in his aristeia Diomedes exceeds even the routine Achilles, is remarkable. But of course when Achilles returns to battle late in the epic, he exceeds all previous conceptions of his greatness.
- Priam (the old rascal) has 50 sons and 12 daughters. In his great palace, there are fifty adjoining rooms on one side of the hall, for Priam’s sons and their wives, and twelve on the other side, for his daughters and their husbands.
- Hector is well aware that Troy is doomed. He just wants to be dead before his wife and son are made slaves, or worse.
- When Paris returns to battle, Homer provides one of the greatest of his Homeric similes: “As when some stalled horse who has been corn-fed at the manger breaking free of his rope gallops over the plain in thunder to his accustomed bathing place in a sweet-running river and in the pride of his strength holds high his head, and the mane floats over his shoulders; sure of his glorious strength, the quick knees carry him to the loved places and the pasture of horses; so from uttermost Pergamon came Paris….”
- In one of the early battles of the book, Menelaus defeats a Trojan named Adrestos, who begs to be spared and promises a huge ransom. Menelaus, who is depicted by Homer as a rather humane man, agrees to spare Adrestos. But before that can happen his brother Agamemnon intervenes and reminds Menelaus that no Trojan deserves to be spared after Paris broke the sacred hospitality code and abducted Helen. Menelaus pushes Adrestos away, and Agamemnon savagely kills him. This is a great moment of Homeric character development.