Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Oliver North reports on strange and interesting occurrences in war torn Iraq and Afghanistan for Fox News in his show War Stories, but even Colonel North would be dumbfounded by the exchange between two heroes in Homer’s Iliad. In the midst of pitched battle Glaucus and Diomedes face off in mortal combat in the “no man’s land between both armies” (Iliad, 136). The encounter between Glaucus and Diomedes is strange and surreal because it occurs in the midst of battle and ends in a bizarre way. Homer inserts this exchange between two minor heroes to poke fun at the uselessness of such warfare and to display how seemingly mortal enemies can find friendship and reconciliation even within a pitched battle.
In the midst of this poem of warfare, pouting heroes, and plundering, Homer inserts an aside that at first blush lightens the mood of the storyline. Having read many books about civil war stories, this encounter brings to mind accounts of opposing commanders crossing enemy lines at night under a flag of truce to visit with old friends and West Point classmates, only to raise swords in battle against each other the next morning. Homer uses the long discourses of the warriors that go on and on about seemingly useless information to show his own wry humor at the whole affair of warfare. He also shows his hidden wit when Diomedes asks Glaucus if he is “another born to die” (Homer 136) initially taken to mean “die now” by the reader, but in reality all are born to die eventually. The same question is asked again at the end of his initial challenge. Homer seems to be saying much more, however.
With the exception of the encounters between Petroclus and Hector, and Achilles and Hector, this is the longest encounter between two heroes in the poem. Unlike those encounters which are part of the storyline, the exchange between Diomedes and Glaucus seems completely out of place and unconnected to the greater poem. This brings the reader to ask why and study the exchange in more detail.
While it was normal for the heroes to meet between the lines and exchange insults before their deadly combat, this exchange does not match up well with other such exchanges in the Illiad. Diomedes starts the verbal jousting normally enough, but is taken aback by his lack of familiarity with Glaucus. Glaucus obliges Diomedes with a family history lesson dating back five generations spelling out his Greek heritage. It is very odd that Homer places a Lycian who was actually of Greek heritage fighting as a mercenary in the Iliadic wars. It is even stranger that during Glaucus’ dissertation he mentions Bellerophron, his grandfather, a man known to Diomedes as having spent time with his own grandfather. The surreal encounter further intensifies when Diomedes throws his spear in the ground and proclaims Glaucus a friend, both men leaping from their chariots and clasping hands. The battles involving heroes between the lines are intended to rally the soldiers to fight. The hero that wins the day rallies the soldiers near him to fight much harder. One can only imagine the soldiers’ reaction to seeing these two heroes clasping hands in friendship. The final strange behavior is when the two men exchange their armor. The poem states that Zeus “stole Glaucus’ wits away” when he traded gold armor for bronze (Homer 139). The entire episode seems completely out of character, certainly for Diomedes who we get to know quite well throughout the poem. In the midst of a raging battle two men stop, talk, find common ground, embrace, and exchange gifts. Homer seems to be saying that enemies only need to do these things to solve their conflict and avoid needless bloodshed. He puts the exclamation point on this point by putting it directly in the midst of heated battle when men are nearly beyond sanity and decorum.
Unlike other exchanges between heroes in the Iliad, Diomedes does not have knowledge of his opponent and therefore asks for an introduction. One would suppose from this that all heroes typically have some knowledge of their opponents. There were many other instances in the Iliad of heroes meeting on the battlefield possessing some knowledge of the family lines of their rival. Hector had enough knowledge of Petroclus to locate him from a distance (Homer 175). For some unknown reason, Diomedes goes into a tirade about fighting gods and its futility which again may have more to do with the greater poetic theme than this singular encounter. Diomedes seems to be scared because he does not know this man; it is possible that he may be a god. Diomedes is sure that he does not want to fight a god because of detailed knowledge of Lycurgus’ folly. Homer is most certainly again poking fun at warfare’s futility and the gods infatuation with war.
The most striking point that Homer is making by this exchange is that all humans are connected at one level or another. It indicates that if we spend enough time, and in some cases just a little time, we may find some common ground that will change our attitude toward our “enemies” and turn them into friends. Glaucus knew his family heritage quite well as most people of this era of history. Because the written word was still new, verbal family and social histories were the means by which centuries of tradition and heritage were passed on to each generation. It was striking that Diomedes knew his family history, but did not know his own father well since he died while Diomedes was apparently very young at a battle in Thebes. Diomedes circumstances of his childhood point to another useless outcome of warfare. Homer humanizes these heroes to the point that we learn far more about these men than any others in the poem. He brings them from brutality to friendship in just a few words. Homer clearly states that these men were “burning for battle” when he introduces the encounter. In the end, they selflessly exchange their armor, their protection, regardless of value to seal a new friendship.
Homer tells the reader throughout the Iliadthat war is terrible, that people die by horrible means, that their bodies are desecrated in many ways, and that it is all for naught. He wants his readers to realize that people can work out their differences by means other than war if they will only spend a few moments in sincere conversation. Homer’s insertion of this encounter of heroes and the use of hidden wit clearly show the uselessness of warfare and the commonality of the combatants.