Athena temporarily gives Diomedes, son of King Tydeus of Argos, unmatched battle prowess. Diomedes battles fiercely, and Athena convinces Ares that they both should stand aside and let the mortals battle it out on their own. The battle is fierce, deaths reported by the speaker, as different Trojans and Greeks fight. Diomedes is hit by one of Pandarus' arrows. His friend Sthenalus tends to the wound, and Diomedes prays for revenge. Athena gives him another wave of strength, as well as a special gift: the mist is lifted from his eyes, and he can now temporarily recognize the gods fighting among the mortals. Athena warns him to face no god head-on, unless it is Aphrodite. Diomedes leaps into battle, slaughtering warrior after warrior.
Aeneas, Trojan warrior and mortal son of Anchises and Aphrodite, asks Pandarus to strike Diomedes down with an arrow, but Pandarus despairs of having failed to kill both Menelaus and Diomedes. Aeneas urges him to ride with him in his chariot to strike down Diomedes. The two men charge for the Achaean hero, and Sthenalus urges Diomedes to retreat. He does not, reminding Sthenalus that if they win they'll take the chariot and horses as a prize. Trojan horses are the world's finest, given to Troy by Zeus, and Aeneas' horses are particularly good specimens. Pandarus is killed, but before Diomedes can kill Aeneas, Aphrodite whisks him away. Aeneas' chariot is captured by the Greeks. Aphrodite is wounded by Diomedes and drops her son, but Apollo picks him up and carries him away. With the help of Iris and Ares' chariot, the wounded Aphrodite returns to Olympus. She complains to her mother, Dione, about what has happened to her. Dione reminds her of times when other immortal gods have had to suffer at the hands of mortals. She comforts her with the knowledge that no mortal who fights the gods gets away with it. Hera and Athena mock Aphrodite, and Zeus comforts her.
Apollo tries to carry Aeneas to safety, but three times Diomedes makes a fierce attack on Apollo. On the fourth try, Apollo warns him in a terrifying voice not to defy the gods. Diomedes backs down. Apollo carries Aeneas to his temple, where the goddesses Leto and Artemis tend to him, and Apollo makes a doppleganger of Aeneas to replace him temporarily in battle. Apollo urges Ares to stop Diomedes. Ares takes mortal form to rally the Trojans. Sarpedon, a Trojan ally, insults Hector and goads him into new heights of valor. Hector rallies the troops, and Apollo brings Aeneas back from his temple, fully healed. The battle rages, more killings described by Homer, and Ares now aids Hector. Diomedes, because of Athena's gift, can see the god, and so he warns the Achaeans to fall back. Battles follow, including a notable encounter in which Hector wounds Odysseus. Hector drives the Achaeans back, and Hera, watching the battle, tells Athena that they must stop Ares. The goddesses prepare for battle. Hera takes mortal form to rally the Argives. Athena goes to stand beside Diomedes, telling him that because Ares has broken his vow to leave the battlefield she will help Diomedes to bring him down. Diomedes and Athena wound Ares, who ascends to Olympus and complains to Zeus. Zeus scolds and insults him, but calls for a healer. Hera and Athena, satisfied, return to Olympus.
The gods choose champions, but their decisions are not arbitrary. The will of the gods in this case has something to do with the characters of mortals. Diomedes is the chosen champion of Athena; he is not beloved for nothing, but because he is a strong warrior, faithful to the gods and loyal to his commander. We first saw him in the last book, when he patiently bore the abuse of Agamemnon and encouraged Sthenalus to do the same. This brief moment establishes his character's loyalty and respect for the chain of command, preparing us for his re-introduction in this section as the chosen champion of the goddess Athena.
With gods behind them, single warriors seem worth more than whole armies. Diomedes smashes through the Trojan ranks with Athena's help, just as later Hector drives the Achaeans back with Ares by his side. Homer writes not exactly of real men, but of heroes. (It was the work of the Athenian tragedians centuries later to tear Homer's heroes down to human scale.) His vision of battle is one where single men, when inspired or chosen, can drive back the entire opposing army. In Homer, war is not pure chaos or mass violence; war is an arena in which individual warriors make all the difference. The armies fail or succeed because of the actions of single men. Homer glorifies the place of an individual's valor and strength.
His heroes are of a stronger race of men: many times throughout the Iliad, men perform astonishing feats of strength. Diomedes wounds Aeneas by throwing a giant boulder at him, "a huge thing which no two men could carry / such as men are now, but by himself he lightly hefted it" (5. 303-4). (Incidentally, this line shows that either Homer was writing long after the events he was supposedly portraying or at least that there are lines that were added to the Iliad long after the supposed time of the Trojan War.) Homer writes about a heroic past, one where men are supposedly stronger than any living during Homer's own time. Homeric heroes talk to gods, and are chosen by them; with some help, they can even fight against the gods on the battlefield and win.
Aeneas is one of the gods' favorites. Both Aphrodite and Apollo are determined that he should not die, spiriting him away and shielding him with their own bodies. He is destined to be one of the few survivors of Troy, and, long after Homer's time, the Romans claimed descent from him. Aeneas' treatment reveals how single-minded the gods can be once they have made a decision; or, alternatively, his treatment shows how the gods must act under the dictates of fate.
We see here gods who can be wounded. They bleed ichor, blood of the gods, but they cannot die. Greek divinities have limits on their power: although Aprhodite is unmatched in the realm of love (her power will later master Zeus himself) in battle she is vulnerable. On the other hand, it is impossible for a mortal to oppose a god without divine help. Aphrodite is an exception because she has no battle prowess, but even in her case Diomedes wounds her after he has been given great strength by Athena. And when Diomedes wounds Ares, he is only able to do so because Athena drives and directs the spear.
The brutal fighting continues, with more blow-by-blow description of the battle. At one point, Menelaus overcomes Adrestus and is about to kill him, but the man catches Menelaus by the knees (position of the suppliant) and begs for his life. A customary alternative to slaying an enemy is capturing him and holding him for ransom. Menelaus is about to do as the young man asks, but Agamemnon tells his brother that they are here to kill the Trojansall of them, until no trace of their people remains on the earth. Menelaus kills him, and Nestor calls out to the men to waste no time on plunder: they shall kill now, and loot the bodies later at their leisure.
Helenus, son of Priam and a skilled seer, tells Hector and Aeneas that they must rally the troops lest the soldiers are driven back through the gates. He also tells Hector to return to Troy and gather all of the elder noblewomen together to make a special sacrifice at the temple of Athena. They must pray to the goddess to hold back Diomedes. Hector does as his brother asks.
Glaucos, of the Lycians (Trojan allies), comes face to face with Diomedes in battle. Diomedes asks who he is, not wanting to fight against a god, and, in grand epic fashion, Glaucos recounts his genealogy and the deeds of his ancestors. Diomedes realizes that their families have a history of friendship, and the two agree to be friends. They will avoid each other on the battlefield, since there are plenty of other warriors for the two of them to kill. They swear an oath of friendship and a permanent open offer of hospitality, exchanging armor to seal the oath. Diomedes, however, gets the better end of the deal: Diomedes gets Glaucos' golden armor, while Glaucos is stuck with Diomedes' bronze armor.
Meanwhile, Hector goes back into the city, where all of the women come running around him to ask about their fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, and friends. His only response is to tell them to pray. He enters the palace of Priam, the layout of which is described here briefly, and he meets his mother Hecuba and his sister Laodice. His mother wants him to rest and offer prayer, but Hector brushes aside her requests and gives her the instructions of Helenus. The old noblewomen make the offering as instructed, but when the priestess prays that Diomedes might be defeated and Troy saved, Athena turns her head away. The women then pray to Zeus himself.
Meanwhile, Hector searches for Paris, with whom he is increasingly angry. He finds Paris gearing up for battle. He harshly rebukes his brother, but Paris makes excuses for himself and his lateness, saying that he will soon be ready to return to battle. He is gearing up now on the urges of his wife Helen. Helen, disgusted and angry with Paris, asks Hector to rest for a moment. Hector refuses and goes to see his wife and son. He cannot find them in the house, but a servant informs him that his wife Andromache has gone to watch the fighting from atop the city walls. Andromache is attended by a nurse who carries Hector's infant son. Hector goes back to the Scaean Gates, searching for her, and Andromache rushes to meet him there. She weeps for fear that Hector's status as the greatest Trojan warrior will mean his death. She has lost both parents and all her brothers, her father and seven brothers all killed by Achilles in previous campaigns. She wants Hector to stay away from the front lines and set up a defensive force for blocking a weak point in the city walls. He refuses, and tells her that he must not be called a coward; he must win glory for himself and his line. He also confides in her that he knows Troy will fall. The thought that troubles him most is that Andromache will be hauled away and made captive in a Greek man's house; he will die before he hears the sound of her being dragged away. He holds his infant son, praying for the child to one day rule and be greater than his father. Andromache goes back into their house, where she and the handmaidens mourn for Hector, because they do not expect to see him alive again.
Paris meets up with Hector near the gates, and Hector takes a softer tone with his brother than before. He recognizes that Paris, when he does fight, is a capable warrior, but explains that he cannot stand it when Paris hangs back from battle. Hector then speaks wishfully of a day when the Achaeans will be driven away forever and the Trojans can give thanks to the gods.
This section orders and structures events in a moving and powerful way. There are three important events in Book 6: the consideration and then rejection of Adrestus' plea for mercy, the meeting on the battlefield between Glaucos and Diomedes, and the return of Hector to the city. The structure creates some remarkable effects. The first part establishes the level of brutality with which this war will be fought. It emphasizes that there will be no mercy for the Trojans, and the Achaeans are fighting a war that will end in the destruction of a whole people. With that fact established, the third part is emotionally wrenching. Hector, beloved of his people, is returning to look on a city that will be no more. The characters and people of Troy, depicted in this section with great sympathy, are doomed. The second important event, the interaction and exchange between Glaucos and Diomedes, creates a space for non-martial virtues in the midst of war. The poignancy of an offer of friendship in the middle of a battlefield provides relief from the gruesome descriptions of combat and warriors' deaths. The friendship between Diomedes and Glaucos suggests an alternative course of action for the peoples for whom they are fighting, but the other events of this section make it clear that this alternative will not be pursued. These three events reward a closer look.
Agememnon brings us face to face with one of the Iliad's themes. The brutality of men, even noble men, on both sides, shows us that this war was not fought with mercy or restraint. Although Menelaus considers Adrestus' pleas for mercy, his more bloodthirsty brother convinces him that they are here to bring total destruction on the people of Troy. Nestor's announcement moments later is not accidental: he drives the Achaeans to forsake looting the bodies for now. Once all of the Trojans are dead, he argues, they can loot at their leisure. By this point, even an audience unfamiliar with the myth knows without a shred of ambiguity that for the Trojans defeat means annihilation. If the Achaeans are defeated, they return home and suffer dishonor and the pain of wasted effort. The Trojans, if defeated, pay a much higher price. The Acheans have come not to conquer, but to destroy.
This chilling opening sequence is relieved by the exchange between Glaucos, a Lycian ally of the Trojans, and Diomedes. Amidst the brutality of war, these two men carve out a small space for more gentle values. The realization that their families have a history of friendship motivates the men to come to a separate peace between the two of them. The fact that Glaucos is Lycian rather than Trojan gives him a chance to actually survive the war. The scene is beautiful, affirming a place for friendship even under the most extreme and violent conditions imposed by war. However, the end puts a twist on the exchange: has Diomedes intentionally swindled Glaucos out of his golden armor? It is improbable that the proposal of friendship was a way for Diomedes to get a pricier suit of armor; after all, as champion of Athena, Diomedes probably could have killed Glaucos and taken the armor. But the possibility remains that Diomedes has swindled a man to whom he has just proposed friendship, complicating this short scene. It is as if the war makes it difficult to create any pure space for the gentler virtue of friendship. Even when swearing solemn oaths of friendship and making a separate peace, Glaucos would have been better off if he had kept his wits about him.
Within the city walls of Troy, the Trojans are depicted with tremendous sympathy. The concern of the women for the fighting men is poignant; there is also something deeply saddening about the moment in the temple when Athena refuses to heed their desperate prayers. Although the Trojans are not of the same culture as the Achaeans, Homer has made them worship the same gods. The plan of the palace and Priam's number of sons makes it clear that the royal family is in the style of the Near East rather than Greece, but the city would still have been recognized by Greece as a powerful symbol of civilization and its benefits. Civilization here is made fragile, shown to be vulnerable before more brutal forces. They are a pious people; Zeus has said earlier that their offerings are rich and constant. They are also a compassionate people. The elders and especially Priam treat Helen better than she deserves, and she knows it. But the Trojans are also a doomed people, and Homer is no romanticist about the relations between states. Troy is home to a refined civilization with a gentle and pious citizenry, but brute strength is the only way to protect oneself from an invader.
We are also given a much richer characterization of Hector. Note that although Helenus is the prince who knows what must be done to stop Diomedes, Hector is the man with the authority and stature to carry out Helenus' plan. And when Hector returns through the Scaean Gates, the women of Troy turn to him for comfort and news. He is the man to whom his people turn for support; at a few words from him, the women pray for Troy as ordered. Helen also holds him in esteem, and the contrast between the ridiculous, self-absorbed Paris and his tougher brother could not be clearer. There is also a strong contrast between the flawed marriage of Paris and Helen and the deep bond between Andromache and Hector. In Andromache's lament, there is foreshadowing of Hector's destiny. Like all of the other men close to Andromache, he will fall before Achilles in battle. Here, we see that Hector knows that his city is doomed, but he must go on. We see him as a great husband and father, a compassionate man full of love and devotion to his city. Despite some deep foreboding that Troy is lost, he prays that his son might grow to greatness. This moment has greater weight because earlier in Book 6 Agamemnon has made clear that not even the unborn will survive. At the end of Book 6, standing beside his cowardly brother Paris, Hector faces the battlefield and speaks words of hope, although by now the audience knows that there is none.
Paris and Hector return to battle with renewed determination, and Glaucos, too, fights fiercely. Seeing their strength, Athena comes down from Olympus to aid the Achaeans. Apollo intercepts her, proposing that they bring about peace for a day. He proposes that Hector call for one of the Achaeans to meet him is single combat. Athena agrees, and Apollo proposes the idea to Hector. Hector comes between the ranks and gives the command for his men to seat themselves, and Agamemnon does likewise with the Achaean soldiers. Hector proposes that a man meet him in single combat. The loser will be stripped of his armor, which will be a trophy for the victor, but the body will be given proper respect and burial. No one meets the challenge initially, so Menelaus takes the offer. Homer reveals here that Menelaus would certainly have died if Agamemnon had not interceded. Agamemnon convinces his brother that to fight Hector is madness, and Menelaus sits down. Nestor scolds the Achaeans, telling a story of his own valor from the days of his youth, and in response nine men step forward: Agamemnon, Diomedes, the two Aeantes, Idomenus, Meriones, Eurypylos, Thoas, and Odysseus. Nestor has them throw lots, and Great Ajax wins. After trading words, Hector and Ajax fight. The two men fight fiercely, and Ajax seems to be winning, but the fight is stopped by the heralds Idaios and Talthybios, messengers of Zeus and of mortals. They argue that night is falling and that Zeus loves both men, and therefore the duel should stop. The two men stop fighting, trade gifts, and return to their sides.
That night, after sacrifices and feasting, Nestor suggests that they burn their dead and build fortifications. Among the Trojans, Antenor tells Paris that he should give back Helen and all of the other treasures he stole from the house of Menelaus. Paris refuses, suggesting instead that he give back the treasures he stole from Menelaus (except for Helen) plus other valuables from among his own goods. Priam wants to send messengers relaying Paris' offer and also asking for a temporary truce so that both sides can bury their dead. In the morning, the herald Idaeus carries out Priam's orders. Diomedes responds that the Achaeans should not accept Paris' giftseven if he should offer Helen. The Trojans must die. The troops cry out their agreement with him. Agamemnon heeds his men but grants the temporary truce. Both sides, with great sorrow, bury their dead. The Achaeans take advantage of the truce and build a great wall, along with a ditch and a line of sharpened stakes, and on Olympus Poseidon objects that in building the wall they have dedicated no offering to the gods. Zeus promises him that once the war is over Poseidon can destroy the wall. That night, shipments of wine come to the Achaeans from Euneus, son of Jason, and the Achaeans drink. Zeus plans horror for them, however, and the Achaeans can feel it. They pour wine in offering to Zeus and are unable to celebrate freely.
Although the fight between Ajax and Hector ends in a technical draw, the direction of the duel clearly indicates that Hector would have lost. Throughout the Iliad, it is clear that the best Achaean warriors are far greater than their Trojan counterparts. From among their ranks there are a number of mighty fighters, including Agamemnon, Diomedes, the Aeantes, Odysseus, Patroclus, and of course, Achilles. On the Trojan side, the champions include Sarpedon, Aeneas, and Hector, but none of the great Trojan warriors gets through the Iliad without being soundly defeated by an Achaean champion. Even when the Trojans are winning, the victory is somehow qualified. This pattern reflects Homer's pride in the heroes of his own culture, but it may also reflect the fact that many members of the nobility in Homer's audience traced their ancestry to various Achaean heroes in the Iliad. The epic had to include celebration of these heroes in order for Homer to please his crowd.
Hector's pride (activated by Apollo's suggestion) leads him to suggest the duel for no purpose other than the pursuit of glory. But we see here also the force of Hector's personality. When he orders his men to sit down, putting himself in a dangerous position between the two armies, we see the power of his charisma in action. Agamemnon, himself a mighty king, follows Hector's lead. Hector is respected not only by the Trojans, but by the Achaeans as well. Although he is more vulnerable on the battlefield than Ajax or Achilles, as a leader his charisma is unmatched.
Zeus calls the gods to assembly and warns them not to take part in the Trojan War; any god who does so will be hurled into Tartarus, a deep pit far below Hades. Zeus himself descends to the earth and watches the battle, and at midday he shifts the balance of war to favor the Trojans. He also throws his lightning and terrifies the Achaean soldiers, who begin to retreat. Nestor becomes stuck when one of the horses drawing his chariot has been wounded, and Hector closes in for the kill. Diomedes sees Nestor's plight and calls to the fleeing Odysseus, who does not heed him. Diomedes rescues Nestor, taking him into his own chariot and trusting Nestor's horses to two henchmen. The two men charge Hector, and Diomedes spears Hector's chariot driver. Hector finds a new charioteer and the two great warriors seem prepared to clash, but Zeus's lightning strikes the ground between them. Nestor tells Diomedes that Zeus clearly no longer favors him, and they must flee. Diomedes is anxious about fleeing from Hector, but he is persuaded by Nestor's arguments. Zeus sends thundering signs from the mountain of Ida to let the Trojans know that the tide of war favors them. Hector calls out to his men, saying that they shall overcome the fortifications and burn the ships of the Achaeans, but first they must win Nestor's shield and Diomedes armor. Hera, watching from Olympus, is angered, but she is unable to persuade Poseidon that the gods should unite, overrule Zeus, and aid the Achaeans.
Hector is raging forward, pinning the Achaeans behind their own fortifications, and Agamemnon, stirred by Hera, tries to rally the troops. The commander-in-chief is horrified by the defeats being dealt to his men, and prays, weeping, to Zeus. Zeus heeds his prayer, sending an eagle with a fawn in its talons. The fawn releases the eagle by the altar the Achaeans built for Zeus, and so the Achaeans take heart and turn to fight the Trojans. Teucer, Great Ajax's half-brother and master archer, strikes down warrior after warrior with his arrows, taking occasional shelter behind his brother's massive shield. He cannot hit Hector, however, though he kills Hector's chariot driver. Hector leaps down and throws a great rock at Teucer, injuring him badly. With Great Ajax providing cover, he is carried back to the ships. Hector drives the Achaeans back behind their fortifications again.
Hera fumes with Athena over the fate of the Achaeans, and Athena tells Hera that they should both prepare for battle. As they come down from Olympus, Zeus sends Iris to warn them that if they do not turn back, Zeus will harm Athena horribly. Hera speaks first, saying that the two goddesses should leave the mortals to their fate rather than allow an immortal to be harmed, and so they return, grieving for the men whom they cannot help. Zeus returns to Olympus also, where Hera and Athena sit apart and plan pain for the Trojans. Hera and Zeus exchange harsh words, but Zeus promises that Hector will have even greater victory until the death of Patroclus stirs Achilles to rejoin the fight.
Night falls, and Hector proposes that they light fires and watch the Achaeans, so as to attack them if they try to escape. The people of the city should light fires and keep careful watch as well, because the army will be camped on the field. Hector is sure that the next day will bring great victories, including the death of Diomedes. The Trojans sacrifice oxen and sheep, but, unbeknownst to the Trojans, the gods do not partake of the offerings.
It is established here that no god can oppose Zeus. Even if the Olympians were to band together, he would still be able to overpower them. We also see more of Hera's and Athena's unreasoning hatred of Troy, the motivation for which is never explained in a satisfactory way. In Book 24, the beauty contest of the goddesses and Paris' fateful decision is offered as the reason for Athena's and Hera's hate, but by then the contest seems frivolous compared to the scale of carnage in the Trojan War. For Poseidon, once forced to toil in a humiliating manner under Laomedon, Priam's father, a more understandable motive exists, but the two goddesses are far more constant defenders of the Achaean forces.
But now we see Hector at the height of his strength, backed by Zeus, turning back the Achaeans, almost, as Homer depicts it, single-handedly. It would be a mistake to say that Hector is the least proud of the heroes of the Iliad; as Lattimore has pointed out, Hector's pride takes the form of a great fear of looking like a coward. We have seen other instances of pride. In Book 7, he risks himself in a duel with Ajax for the sake of pure glory; here in Book 8 he is determined not only to win, but to heap ignominy on the Achaeans should they try to escape. He is now fully confident in his ability to beat the Argives, boastfully wishing that his becoming immortal were as certain as the great defeat he is about to deal against the Achaeans. But Homer tells us at the end of Book 8 that the gods do not accept the sacrifice of the Trojans. Even as the Trojans reach their high tide, we are reminded of their certain destruction.