Ah what chilling blows
we suffer—thanks to our own conflicting wills—
whenever we show these mortal men some kindness.
As the battle rages, Pandarus wounds the Achaean hero Diomedes. Diomedes prays to Athena for revenge, and the goddess endows him with superhuman strength and the extraordinary power to discern gods on the field of battle. She warns him, however, not to challenge any of them except Aphrodite. Diomedes fights like a man possessed, slaughtering all Trojans he meets. The overconfident Pandarus meets a gruesome death at the end of Diomedes’ spear, and Aeneas, the noble Trojan hero immortalized in Virgil’s Aeneid, likewise receives a wounding at the hands of the divinely assisted Diomedes. When Aeneas’s mother, Aphrodite, comes to his aid, Diomedes wounds her too, cutting her wrist and sending her back to Mount Olympus. Aphrodite’s mother, Dione, heals her, and Zeus warns Aphrodite not to try her hand at warfare again. When Apollo goes to tend to Aeneas in Aphrodite’s stead, Diomedes attacks him as well. This act of aggression breaches Diomedes’ agreement with Athena, who had limited him to challenging Aphrodite alone among the gods. Apollo, issuing a stern warning to Diomedes, effortlessly pushes him aside and whisks Aeneas off of the field. Aiming to enflame the passions of Aeneas’s comrades, he leaves a replica of Aeneas’s body on the ground. He also rouses Ares, god of war, to fight on the Trojan side.
With the help of the gods, the Trojans begin to take the upper hand in battle. Hector and Ares prove too much for the Achaeans; the sight of a hero and god battling side by side frightens even Diomedes. The Trojan Sarpedon kills the Achaean Tlepolemus. Odysseus responds by slaughtering entire lines of Trojans, but Hector cuts down still more Greeks. Finally, Hera and Athena appeal to Zeus, who gives them permission to intervene on the Achaeans’ behalf. Hera rallies the rest of the Achaean troops, while Athena encourages Diomedes. She withdraws her earlier injunction not to attack any of the gods except Aphrodite and even jumps in the chariot with him to challenge Ares. The divinely driven chariot charges Ares, and, in the seismic collision that follows, Diomedes wounds Ares. Ares immediately flies to Mount Olympus and complains to Zeus, but Zeus counters that Ares deserved his injury. Athena and Hera also depart the scene of the battle.
With the gods absent, the Achaean forces again overwhelm the Trojans, who draw back toward the city. Menelaus considers accepting a ransom in return for the life of Adrestus, a Trojan he has subdued, but Agamemnon persuades him to kill the man outright. Nestor senses the Trojans weakening and urges the Achaeans not to bother stripping their fallen enemies of their weapons but to focus instead on killing as many as possible while they still have the upper hand. The Trojans anticipate downfall, and the soothsayer Helenus urges Hector to return to Troy to ask his mother, Queen Hecuba, along with her noblewomen, to pray for mercy at the temple of Athena. Hector follows Helenus’s advice and gives his mother and the other women their instructions. He then visits his brother Paris, who has withdrawn from battle, claiming he is too grief-stricken to participate. Hector and Helen heap scorn on him for not fighting, and at last he arms himself and returns to battle. Hector also prepares to return but first visits his wife, Andromache, whom he finds nursing their son Astyanax by the walls of the city. As she cradles the child, she anxiously watches the struggle in the plain below. Andromache begs Hector not to go back, but he insists that he cannot escape his fate, whatever it may be. He kisses Astyanax, who, although initially frightened by the crest on Hector’s helmet, greets his father happily. Hector then departs. Andromache, convinced that he will soon die, begins to mourn his death. Hector meets Paris on his way out of the city, and the brothers prepare to rejoin the battle.
The battle narratives in Books 5 and 6 (and the very end of Book 4) constitute the epic’s first descriptions of warfare, and, within the war as a whole, the first battles in which the sulking Achilles has not fought. Diomedes attempts to make up for the great warrior’s absence; the soothsayer Helenus declares, in reference to Diomedes, that “[h]e is the strongest Argive now” (6.115). The Achaeans still feel the consequences of their mightiest soldier’s prideful refusal to fight, however, and remain on the defensive for much of Book 5. Even with divine help, Diomedes cannot quite provide the force that Achilles did. As Hera rightly observes, “As long as brilliant Achilles stalked the front / no Trojan would ever venture beyond the Dardan [Trojan] Gates” (5.907–908). As potent as the rage that Achilles feels toward Agamemnon is his ability to intimidate the Trojans.
Homer communicates the scope and intensity of the battle with long descriptive passages of mass slaughter, yet he intersperses these descriptions with intimate characterization, thereby personalizing the violence. Homer often fleshes out the characters being killed by telling stories about their backgrounds or upbringings. He uses this technique, for instance, when, after Aeneas fells Orsilochus and Crethon midway through Book 5, he recounts the story of how these twins joined up with the Achaean ranks. Furthermore, Homer often alternates between depictions of Trojan and Achaean deaths, sometimes rendering the victor of the first exchange the victim of the next. In this way, he injects a sense of rhythm into what would otherwise be a numbing litany of mass destruction.
The battle narratives also give Homer the chance to comment on the similarities and differences between the mortals and the gods. For while the mortals engage in their armed warfare, the gods engage in their own squabbles. Invariably, the latter conflicts appear less serious, more frivolous, and almost petty. Although the disagreements between the gods sometimes result in further violence among the mortals, as when Athena persuades Pandarus to defy the cease-fire, in Book 4, the gods’ loyalties and motivations ultimately emerge as less profound than those of the humans. The gods base their support for one side or the other not on principle but on which heroes they happen to favor. They scheme or make pacts to help one another but often fail to honor these pacts. Ares, for example, though having vowed to support the Achaeans, fights alongside the Trojans throughout Books 5 and 6. Furthermore, when the tide of war doesn’t flow in the direction that the gods desire, they whine to Zeus. In contrast with the glorious tragedy of the human conflict, the conflict between the gods has the feel of a dysfunctional family feud.