Iliad: Book 6 | Hector Returns to Troy

Deacon Harrison Garlick and Adam Minihan sit down to talk about Hector returning to Troy.

In this episode we will discuss:

  • What happens in book six?
  • What should be noted in the duel between Glaucus and Diomedes?
  • What may be noted in Helen’s lament to Prince Hector?
  • What lesson does Homer provide by Hector returning to Troy?
  • Is Homer presenting Hector as a virtuous character?

Book Six

Hector Returns to Troy

Always be the best, my boy, the bravest, and hold your head up high above the others. 

Never disgrace the generation of your fathers.

Hippolochus to Glaucus, his son (6.247)

35. What happens in book six of the Iliad?

Pressed against an Achaean advance led by Ajax and Diomedes, Hector and Aeneas receive word of an omen from Helenus, son of Priam, the seer (6.88). The Trojan army is to hold the line, while Hector is to return to Troy and direct his mother, the queen of Troy, to arrange a sacrifice to Athena—a sacrifice to entice the goddess of wisdom to pity Troy and hold back Diomedes (6.102). Hector obeys and returns to the palace of Priam—a magnificent structure that houses the fifty sons and twelve daughters of King Priam (6.291). Hector tells Hecuba, his mother and queen of Troy, to perform the sacrifice (6.318). It is notable that she is to lay before Athena the robe she personally prizes the most, which illuminates the personal sacrifice being ask of her (6.323). Hecuba obeys, but Athena refuses to listen to the Trojan prayers (6.366). It is not unremarkable that Homer immediately follows Athena’s rejection with the introduction of Paris into the narrative (6.368). 

Hector chastises Paris—who has remained in his bedroom since his duel with Menelaus—and exhorts him to return to the war (6.383). Before returning to the war, Hector visits his wife, Andromache, and his son Scamandrius, who the Trojans affectionately call the “Lord of the City” (6.477). Hector then rendezvouses with his brother, Paris, and returns to fight the Achaeans (6.601).

36. What should be noted in the duel between Glaucus and Diomedes?

After we see Hector begins his return to Troy, we are introduced to the duel between Glaucus, the Trojan, and Diomedes, the Achaean (6.138). Diomedes, whom Homer gives the epithet usually reserved for Menelaus—“the lord of the war cry”—taunts his opponent but notably gives the caveat he will not fight a deathless god in disguise (6.148). He is still obedient to Athena’s command to not fight the gods—save Aphrodite (5.142). At first, Glaucus provides a somewhat nihilistic response, stating, in part, “like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men” (6.171). He then, however, begins his lineage with Sisyphus, “the wiliest man alive,” who is a prominent figure in Greek mythology (6.180). To wit, Sisyphus had a habit of wanting to outsmart the gods, and this resulted in him being damned to Hades to roll a stone up a hill (only to have it roll back down) for all eternity. His son, Glaucus (the great-grandfather of the Glaucus dueling Diomedes) decided to habituate his horses to eating “human flesh to make them fierce in battle.” For this horrific act, the gods ensured Glaucus was tossed from his chariot and devoured by his own horses. His son Bellerophon, who may have been sired by Poseidon instead, is a classic hero in Greek mythology. 

The narrative of Antea being unable to seduce Bellerophon but then blaming him for lusting after her (6.188) bears many similarities with the Hebrew story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:5-20). Bellerophon carries his own death sentence to Antea’s father, and the king of Lycia’s welcome to Bellerophon—nine days of feasting before asking him his business—recalls the importance of guest-friendship for the ancient Greeks (Question 24). The king attempts to comply with the letter by ordering Bellerophon to slay the Chimera—a part lion, part serpent, and part goat monster (6.212). Homer does not mention that Bellerophon had tamed the famous winged horse, Pegasus, and it was upon Pegasus that Bellerophon was able to slay the Chimera. Bellerophon had three children, and it is notable that the Trojan warrior Sarpedon (Question 33) is the son of Bellerophon’s daughter, Laodamia, and Zeus (6.233). Glaucus is the son of Bellerophon’s son, Hippolochus. The peace Diomedes makes with Glaucus is a testament to the resilient power of guest-friendship, even over generations (6.259). Why Zeus, in his providence, elects to steal Glaucus’ wits in the exchange of gifts is a matter of some debate (6.280).

37. What may be noted in Helen’s lament to Prince Hector?

As we track the culpability of Helen for absconding with Paris (Question 18, 22), we should give care to her short monologue to Hector when he comes to rouse Paris back to the war (6.406). Helen continues to show contrition and remorse, as she refers to herself as a “bitch” and a “whore” (6.408, 422). She also states, “I wish I had been the wife of a better man, someone alive to outrage,” which leaves Homer’s audience immediately thinking of Menelaus, the Spartan king (6.415). Helen critiques Paris’ lack of spirit and portrays him as “blind mad Paris,” a reference reasonably interpreted as the effect of his lust (6.423).

Helen’s short speech presents certain similarities to two distinct texts in the Bible. First, she laments the day of her birth by wishing some “black whirlwind” would have left her exposed on the mountainside or upon the beach to be swallowed by the waves (6.410). Her words recall a certain comparison to the Old Testament story of Job in which he too curses the day of his birth (Job 3). Second, Helen states: “Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, so even for generations still unborn we will live in song” (6.424). Her words present as a horrific contrary to the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary who, after being impregnated with Jesus by the Holy Spirit, sings, in part: “henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). 

Helen’s words also evoke the ongoing question of the interplay between the free will of man and the providence of the gods. Along with the aforementioned statements, she also avers “since the gods ordained it all,” and, as mentioned, posits that Zeus rooted in her and Paris a “doom” that is coming to fruition (6.414, 424). Did Helen have a free choice in absconding with Paris or what it more an abduction? Does she now stay with Paris of her own free will or is she coerced by Aphrodite? Helen is, without question, a conflicted character. 

38. What lesson does Homer provide by Hector returning to Troy?

The ancient notion of piety is one of gratitude. A man who is thankful and humble before the gods is a pious man. The notion of piety, however, is also extended to the polis and to the family; because, as a man is in debt to the gods, he is also in debt to his country and to his family. The presentation of Hector in book six is an invitation to consider his piety. It is notable that Hector, upon entering Troy, exhorts his fellow citizens to “pray to the gods,” and, furthermore, he refuses to pour a libation to Zeus due to his “unwashed hands,” i.e., he’s covered in blood and grime (6.286, 315). He displays a certain piety toward the gods—one that should be coupled with the fact the omen elected him to return to Troy to arrange a sacrifice the goddess Athena (6.102).

Though he is arguably not without fault (5.540), Hector’s piety toward Troy is evidenced in his leadership of the Trojans and his defense of Troy. It is notable that his wife, Andromache, critiques Hector’s habit of fighting on the front lines and asks him to “pity” her (6.511, 482). Andromache’s words may be seen as a temptation against piety. Piety exists in hierarchy moving from higher to the lower—the gods, the polis, and the family. As the Iliad painfully demonstrates, the polis cannot survive without the gods any more than a family can without the polis; thus, one must be pious in due order. Hector rejects the temptation of Andromache not by rejecting his family but by caring for it within the proper whole (6.523).

39. Is Homer presenting Hector as a virtuous character? 

Hector displays many characteristics we would refer to as virtues. He is brave, magnanimous, and pious. The narrative of him seeing his wife and son in Troy is a charming testament to Hector’s character (6.462). Though not without his shortcomings, Hector presents to us as a virtuous leader. This is, however, us looking back at Hector as moderns through the more robust virtue tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. What was virtue for Homer? 

In the Greek, the term arete means “excellence.” While its ancient etymology is somewhat obscure, it may be derived from Ares, the god of war, and recall excellence in battle. By the fourth century B.C., however, Plato uses the term arete, translated “virtue” in English, to speak about the excellence of things broadly. For example, in Socrates’ dialogue with Polemarchus and later with Thrasymachus, Socrates speaks of the arete of dogs, horses, and his classic example of the pruning knife. Here, Socrates attaches the excellence of a thing, its virtue, to it fulfilling its purpose, end, or telos. In other words, if we know the purpose or telos of a thing, we can determine whether its quality is good or bad. For example, if the purpose of the knife is to cut, then a good knife would be sharp and a bad knife would be dull. The quality of being sharp would be a virtue or arete of the knife—its excellence. We could also then tell what is good or bad for the knife—a whetstone would be good for the knife while anything that dulled it would be bad. 

What then is the telos of the human being? To understand whether a man is good or bad, virtuous or vicious, we must know the purpose of a man. This question will be taken up explicitly by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In Homer, however, we are presented with the very beginning of the virtue tradition. A primary question is whether Homer’s concept of virtue is limited to prowess in war or is he pushing his aristocratic Greek audience to start to think of virtue, the excellence of a human being, as something more. If virtue is simply military might, to be like the war-god Ares, then Achilles is no doubt the most virtuous character of the Iliad. If virtue is to be more broadly construed as an overall excellence of man, then the reader is often drawn to Hector. 

We should ponder Homer’s intent with presenting a character like Hector, a Trojan, to his Greek audience. The warmth of Hector seeing his family in Troy is a clear contrast to the opening story of Achilles and Agamemnon fighting over a slave girl—with all its trappings of rage and pride (Question 1). Moreover, compare Hector refusing to not return to the front lines (6.521) with Achilles sitting idle by his ships while his countrymen die. What is Homer teaching his audience, teaching us, with the character of Hector? It is a question to ponder as evidence of Homer’s intent matures throughout the Iliad.

40. What else should we observe in book six?

Homer gives us the first narrative of a solider taken captive (6.44). We see again the action of the supplicant hugging the knees of the person with whom he’s pleading (6.53)—as Thetis did to Zeus. Notably, Menelaus is “moved” by the captive’s words and is about to take him for ransom when Agamemnon berates him and spears Menelaus’ Trojan captive (6.68). The same pericope gives us a mention of iron as a precious treasure (6.56). The Iliad, which is set in the bronze age, makes a few notable references to iron—primarily as a precious material.

One could debate the significance that neither Helen nor Andromache join Hecuba and the other noble women in making the sacrifice to Athena (6.406, 455). We are also introduced to the fact that Achilles killed Andromache’s father and her seven brothers (6.491) and ransomed her mother back to her father’s house—who was then killed by Artemis, the goddess (6.504). One should note that Achilles treated Andromache’s father’s body with respect (6.495), as how Achilles treats the dead will be a point of later discussion. 

The perennial question into fate is further developed in the text. Observe that Hector declares he will “stand up bravely, always to fight in the front ranks of Trojans,” despite knowing that Troy is doomed to die (6.528). He also desires to die prior to hearing his wife’s cries, as she is dragged into slavery by the Achaeans (6.554). The sorrowful narrative of the fated end of Troy, Hector, and Andromache is contrasted with the warmth and laughter of Hector holding his son. Only after his son recoils does Hector finally remove his war helm (6.564). Moving from soldier to father, Hector kisses him, playfully tosses him in the air, and prays to Zeus for his son (6.566). It is notable that Hector discusses his fate and that of his wife assuming Troy will fall but does not do so with his son. The unspoken shadow here is that it would be a common fate for the child to be tossed from the walls of the conquered polis. One may see Agamemnon’s cruelty to Menelaus’ captive and his statement afterward of what will happen to the citizens of Troy as somewhat haunting this passage of Hector and his family (6.68).

Hector addresses fate directly, stating: “No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—it’s born with us the day that we are born” (6.581). Andromache has her own reaction to fate—she returns to her and Hector’s home, stirs the women of the house into mourning, and raises the “dirges for the dead” for her still alive husband (6.596). The intimate dialogue of Hector and his wife on fate stands in contrast to Hector’s concluding comment to Paris (6.627). He gives encouragement to Paris and speaks of driving the Argives out of Troy, if Zeus permits (6.631). The reader is left to decide whether Hector is simply playing the role of an encouraging leader—despite knowing in his heart Troy will die (6.528)—or does Hector truly have some hope that Troy will survive the Achaean assault. 

The long ancillary story into the multigenerational guest-friendship forged between the families of Glaucus and Diomedes coupled with the story of Hector seeing his son and wife gives book six a notable familial theme.

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