Diomedes: The Iliad’s Second Achilles

Diomedes functions as a second Achilles in the Iliad. When he takes center stage, he is completely dominant and can take on seemingly any opponent, even the gods.

Aug 17, 2021By Eugenia Russell
diomedes greek trojan war hero wounded god
Munich Diomedes, Roman copy after a Greek original, c. 440-430 BCE, Wikimedia Commons; with the Combat of Diomedes, Jacques-Louis David, 1776, Albertina Museum

 

Diomedes is a great Trojan War hero featured in many ancient texts. In the Iliad, he dominates Book V with his military virtue and he is important throughout. The leader of a large army and a favorite of Athena, Diomedes functions as a second Achilles. A great rival of Ajax and Agamemnon, and a close ally of Odysseus, Diomedes is an intriguing mix of cunning, brutality, and courage. When he takes center stage, Diomedes is completely dominant and can take on seemingly any opponent, even the gods. In Book VI, the Trojan prince Helenus calls him the strongest of the Achaeans (Iliad, 6.99).

 

Diomedes: One of the Many Great Trojan War Heroes

keuninck fire trojan war troy painting
Fire of Troy, Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck), 16th century, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

 

The Greek myths tell us of many fantastic heroes from the Trojan War. Their stories can be found within an epic cycle of many long poems, of which Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are the most famous and the only ones fully preserved. These stories influenced classical literature profoundly and found their way into the classical tragedies of ancient Athens. In these stories, Diomedes is featured as a physically strong and dependable warrior with a thirst for success and the unrelenting desire to glorify his name. But before learning more about Diomedes, let’s take a quick look at the other heroes of the Trojan War.

 

rhesus diomedes odysseus steal vase painting
Odysseus and Diomedes stealing the horses of the Thracian King Rhesus, Lycurgus painter, 400–300 BC, via Wikimedia Commons

 

On the Trojan side, there is Hector, the first son of King Priam, a man of great virtue and bravery and the main protector of Troy. Helenus, his brother, a seer and advisor in matters of war. Aeneas, second in military prowess only to Hector and renowned for his piety. Sarpedon, an exemplary Trojan War hero: valiant warrior and beloved son of Zeus. Paris, the beautiful prince who steals Helen of Troy. Deiphobus, another son of Priam who takes the place of his brother Paris when the latter dies. Troilus, a young son of Priam and rival of Diomedes in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Rhesus, the Thracian king and owner of legendary white horses; Diomedes and Odysseus kill him and steal the horses during a night raid. Pandarus, a skilled archer who is killed by Diomedes.

 

attic neck amphora combat scene trojan war heroes
Detailed view of a combat scene of heroes in the Trojan War from an Attic Black-Figure Neck Amphora, 500-480 BC, via Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

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On the Greek side, there is Achilles, the ultimate war hero on whose anger the whole of the Iliad is centered. Agamemnon, the king and overlord of the Greek fleet, overseeing many mighty kings under him. Menelaos, king of Sparta and Agamemnon’s brother. The Trojan War is fought for his sake, to recover the beautiful Helen who ran off with Paris, prince of Troy. Odysseus, the great negotiator and maker of the Trojan Horse, which led to the taking of Troy. There are also the Aiantes (plural of Ajax): the great Ajax and Ajax the Lesser, mighty warriors and great companions in battle. Nestor, the wise king of Pylos; loved and revered by all. In the midst of all these heroes stands Diomedes.

 

Diomedes, King of Argos, Son of Tydeus

diomedes glyptothek sculpture
Munich Diomedes, Roman copy after a Greek original, c. 440-430 BCE, Glyptothek, Munich, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Diomedes is the son of Tydeus and king of Argos. He is often called by the patronymic Tydides, meaning son of Tydeus. This is a common trait with many Trojan War heroes: Achilles is called Pylides after his father Pyleas. Agamemnon is called Atreides after his father Atreas. Ajax the greater is called Telamonios after his father Telamon. Patronymics bestow dignity upon the Trojan War heroes and are used to underline their princely origins.

 

In the Iliad Diomedes is often compared to his father who achieved glory and renown throughout Hellas as one of the ‘Seven Against Thebes’. These were seven famous heroes who marched against the famed city of Thebes. Their war was the most famous war before the Trojan War immortalized in the eponymous play by Aeschylus. In this war Tydeus died, leaving his young son fatherless. In Book VI of the Iliad Diomedes mentions that he does not remember his father (Iliad, 6.222). By later avenging his father’s death and taking Thebes, Diomedes had already joined the ranks of the heroes before setting foot on Troy.

 

Statues of Diomedes graced Argos and Delphi and are mentioned by Pausanias amongst the statues of the Seven and other Epigoni. It is understood that Tydeus married one of Adrastus’s daughters and so Adrastus is Diomedes’s maternal grandfather, which makes Diomedes the rightful king of Argos.

 

Agamemnon and Athena Commemorate Tydeus

moritz louis diomedes nestor
Diomedes and Nestor, Louis Moritz, c. 1810, via Joan Wijermars

 

Still, although the Trojan War gives him a further opportunity to cement his reputation, he is unable to shake off his father’s shadow. Diomedes has many rivals amongst the Greek chieftains and competes with them for glory. Even more so, however, he competes with the undiminished glory of his father. Agamemnon compares his feats of bravery with Tydeus. The gods, too, revere the fame of Tydeus. Even though the goddess Athena favors Diomedes by giving him the power to tell a mortal from a god on the battlefield, she also feels she must infuse him with the strength of his father Tydeus to ensure his success. Diomedes himself also mentions his father in his prayer to Athena in Book X (Iliad, 10.284).

 

The association with his illustrious father in the storytelling is there to emphasize the dominance of Diomedes as a Trojan War hero. If Diomedes is less well known than his rivals, he is nonetheless one of the finest. Not only does he hold his own amongst his peers, but he also dares to wound the gods and scare them away.

 

Diomedes Leads a Large Army

venus wounded diomedes painting
Venus wounded by Diomedes, Gabriel-François Doyen, 1761, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

 

But who was this Argive king who functioned as the Iliad’s second Achilles? Shaped by his desire to emulate his father and wanting always to be the best, Diomedes was a great rival and a great ally. Wanting to be better than the mighty Ajax and taunted by Agamemnon, who compared him with his father, Diomedes formed a partnership in war with Odysseus, king of Ithaca. Diomedes shares Odysseus’s strategic acumen and is often seen to collaborate with him on operations. As king of Argos, he is able to bring eighty ships to Troy, making him joint third with Idomeneus of Crete as a leader of an army by size. They trail after Agamemnon (one hundred ships), the overall chieftain and lord of men (anax andron), and the wise and revered Nestor (ninety ships).

 

Diomedes’ thirst to increase his reputation and win military accolades makes him both a competent speaker in front of the army and a fierce opponent on the field of battle. He throws himself into the conflict with undiminished zeal, killing his enemies in great numbers. Diomedes, renowned in the use of the spear, is fearless in the pursuit of his opponents in his chariot, but equally happy to dismount if it means killing more enemies faster. Only the gods can slow him down, and then not for long. His immortal fame rests on his having fought with the gods and audaciously wounding at least two of them, Ares and Aphrodite, and it is with the spear that he wounds Ares, the god of war.

 

The Aristeia of Diomedes: The Finest Hour of a Great Trojan War Hero

jacques louis david combat diomedes painting
The Combat of Diomedes, Jacques-Louis David, 1776, Albertina Museum, Vienna

 

As a great leader and a favorite of the goddess Athena, Diomedes is the classic Trojan War hero, being both resourceful and fearless. Although he features throughout the epic, he is especially dominant in Book V. In fact, this book is all about Diomedes. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, the central theme of the tale, means that the latter has left the field of battle preferring to sulk in his tent while hoping that the Trojans will succeed in burning the Greek ships and thus scare Agamemnon into accepting that he cannot win without him, forcing him to beg for his return. With the main Greek hero not there to dictate the course of the battle, it is Diomedes that then takes center stage.

 

Diomedes, the son of Tydeus, King of Argos, dominates Book V in the Iliad with his combative display of military skill. The favorite of the Greek goddess Athena and a fearless fighter, the Trojan War hero, is remembered for wounding the gods, notably Ares, the god of war no less, and also Aphrodite. In fact, Athena advised him that Aphrodite was the only one of the immortals that he should really allow himself to fight in order to avoid committing hubris.

 

homer bust marble
Marble terminal bust of Homer, Roman copy of Hellenistic original, 2nd century AD, British Museum, London

 

Homer’s Achilles leaves the war in great anger. Anger that, by contrast, is not evident in Diomedes. Though he excels in his stead, Diomedes is a different kind of warrior. Achilles is fast and skillful – Homer calls him swift-footed –  Diomedes is forceful and strong, able for example to pick up a stone that two men together could not manage and throw it at Aeneas who, on the Trojan side, is only second in military virtue to Hector (Iliad, 5.305). Diomedes wounds Aeneas badly and it takes the intervention of the gods to heal him and save his life.

 

Diomedes’ Own Epic? 

venus wounded diomedes iris painting
Venus wounded by Diomedes is saved by Iris, Joseph-Marie Vien, 1775, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus

 

When a Trojan War hero in the Iliad is shown to do as well as say Diomedes in battle, their exceptional display has a special name: it is called aristeia or individual excellence in war. It is a narrative structure that signifies the peak of a Trojan War hero in their military performance. Many of the famous Trojan War heroes have an aristeia to their name. Still, the all-consuming nature of the aristeia of Diomedes in Book V (and some of Book VI) goes beyond ‘normal’ excellence. So it has led scholars to speculate that the passages describing his exploits must be derived from another, earlier, narrative. This narrative was possibly inserted into the epic without much integration. So Diomedes fought exceptionally well, even by Homeric standards!



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By Eugenia RussellHistorian and publisher Dr Eugenia Russell has written and edited several academic books and articles. She has strong research interests in early modern cultural history and especially the literature, art and culture of Byzantium and early modern Greece. She also has co-authored three books on the history of Watford and South West Hertfordshire. Her shorter pieces have appeared in BBC History Magazine, the British Library website, Oxford Bibliographies Online, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Ancient World Magazine and many other publications. In 2021 she co-founded Book Publishers Lone Fox Publishing.