Diomedes: The Underrated Hero of the Iliad

In the early books of the Iliad, when Achilles withdraws from the Greek army in rage, Diomedes emerged as the leading warrior within its ranks. Diomedes was the King of Argos, with his base at “Tiryns of the famed walls” (later excavated by Heinrich Schliemann). From this imposing citadel, Diomedes led 80 black ships to Troy. Diomedes, then, was one of the more powerful kings in the Greek coalition. He was also the youngest, but came from a respected royal house. His father was Tydeus, one of the famous “Seven Against Thebes,” who attacked that city prior to the events of Sophocles’ Antigone.

With these credentials, he came to Troy, and was ready to achieve a glory befitting his status. Once the truce between Paris and Menelaus is broken, Diomedes takes the lead in the coming fight. As a sign of his worthy status, Athena, the great matron of heroes, is there with him, in his own chariot,, spurring his courage and helping him to fight the gods themselves. He wounds Aphrodite during the events of book 5 of the Iliad, and later in that same book, Ares. Diomedes also brings Aeneas, the second-best Trojan on the field, to the brink of death.

Diomedes Iliad

As another marker of his prowess, during book 6 of the Iliad, Hector has the noble women of Troy gather in Athena’s shrine to placate the goddess and beg her to “shatter the spear of Diomedes, never once did we fear Achilles so.”

During book 8 of the Iliad, the tide of the battle turns against the Greeks. Hector leads his Trojans headlong against their enemies, knocking them back to their rampart. During the Greek retreat, Diomedes is one of the few that stands firm.

One of his heroic moments is when he sees old Nestor stranded in the middle of the Trojan offensive, one of his horses slain by Paris. Diomedes shouted out to Odysseus:

Where are you running, the royal so of Laertes, cool tactician? Turning your back in battle like some coward! Cutting and running so – take care that no one spears you in the back! Hold firm with me – we’ll fight this wild maniac off the old man here! (8.108-13)

No less a figure than Odysseus ran away from Hector and his onslaught. Not Diomedes, he rushed to Nestor and saved him from the attack. Moments later, when the Greeks were still in full panic and Hector raced forward, Diomedes, on Nestor’s council, withdrew, but not without a protest:

Here’s the grief that cuts me to the quick: one day this Hector will vaunt among his Trojans, ‘Diomedes ran for his ships – I drove him back!’ So he’ll boast, I know – let the great earth gape and take me down that day! (8.166-71)

Even there, in withdrawal, Diomedes was tempted to turn around and fight Hector, Troy’s greatest man, in the full flush of triumph.

This gives us an idea of not only Diomedes as a fighter, but as an honorable man. He saved Nestor’s life and still wanted to keep going, unafraid to battle Hector face to face, man to man, even with panic engulfing all the ranks around him.

The same attitude prevails in book 9 of the Iliad, when Achilles turns down Agamemnon’s offer and plea to return to the army. Doom and gloom prevails in the Greek high command, but the youngest of the leading kings doesn’t lose heart, and in fact, has a plan for a counterattack:

Great marshal Atrides, lord of men Agamemnon – if only you’d never begged the dauntless son of Peleus, holding out to Achilles trove on trove of gifts! He’s a proud man at the best of times, and now you’ve only plunged him deeper in his pride. I say have done with the man – whether he sails for home or stays on here. He’ll fight again – in his own good time – whenever the courage in him flares and a god fires his blood. So come, follow my orders. And all of us unite. Go to sleep now, full to your heart’s content with food and wine, a soldier’s strength and nerve. Then when the Dawn’s red fingers shine in all her glory, quickly deploy your chariots and battalions, Agamemnon, out in front of the ships – you spur them on and you yourself, you fight in the front ranks! (9.850-65)

In book 10 of the Iliad, Diomedes immediately volunteers to go on a scouting mission to collect intelligence from the Trojan lines.

Again, Athena appears to him and Odysseus, two of her three favorites in the Greek army (Achilles being the other). Athena’s presence signifies the pre-ordained success of their mission, and it is so.

In the next part of the Iliad, Diomedes’ counterattack strategy initially succeeded, until Agamemnon was “wounded.” Not long after this, Diomedes finally suffers a reversal of fortune, as he is wounded in the foot by Paris, who shoots him with an arrow.

He rebukes Troy’s prince, saying that a little boy or woman could have wounded him in such a way, but if you can’t walk, you can’t fight, and he spends most of the rest of the Iliad on the sidelines, as the Trojan charge picks up even greater pace. With Diomedes out, Ajax is the only one left to pick up the slack, and he can’t do it alone.

We see further proof of his power, finally, in book 23 of the Iliad, the funeral games for Patroclus, when Diomedes actually gets the better of Ajax in a full-armor duel, the first to draw blood. Achilles awards him the first prize of the contest.

Athena and Diomedes in the Iliad vs. Ares
By Giovanni Caselli.

Throughout the Iliad, we thus see the King of Argos in his greatness. Favored by Athena, feared by his enemies, never slacking in strength or losing morale even in the grimmest moments. His best words in the poem might have been these, in response to Agamemnon:

Atrides – I will be first to oppose you in your folly, here in assembly, King, where it’s the custom. Spare me your anger. My courage – mine was the first you mocked among the Argives, branding me a coward, a poor soldier. Yes, well, they know all about that, the Argives young and old. But you – the son of Cronus with Cronus’ twisting ways gave you gifts by halves: with that royal scepter the Father gave you honor beyond all other men alive but he never gave you courage, the greatest power of all. Desperate man! So cerntain, are you, the sons of Achaea are cowards, poor soldiers, just because you say so? Desert – if your spirit drives you to sail home, then sail away, my King! The sea-lanes are clear, there are your ships of war, crowded down the surf, those that followed you from Mycenae, your own proud armada. But the rest of the long-haired Achaeans will hold out, right here, until we’ve plundered Troy. And they, if they go running home to the land they love, then the two of us, I and Sthenelus here will fight our way to the fixed doom of Troy. Never forget – we all sailed here with god.” (9.33-57)

There is much masculine virtue in these words. Courage is the greatest gift of all. Courage is how we take fate and fortune into our own hands, at least to the extent that we can. We can certainly use more courage in times like these, more characters like this and less like Dolon, who was killed in book 10 by Argos’ mighty king.

He truly is the Iliad’s unsung hero, the guy that doesn’t feature in movies like Troy or get the attention that Achilles, Hector, Ajax, Odysseus, Agamemnon, etc. get, but one who deserves more spotlight. In terms of being the complete, virtuous man, he’s arguably the best the Greeks have. It shouldn’t surprise you that he’s one of the few heroes to come out of the Trojan experience intact.

And it’s for this reason that one of the characters in my upcoming Red War series of novels is named in his honor.

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