The first “almost modern” hero: Aeneas


It’s time to tie together three of my threads:

So what role did Aeneas play in the history of hero stories? What sort of hero was he?

A revolutionary one, it seems to me. He was a classical Homeric hero (literally mentioned in Homer’s Iliad) whom Virgil made into a recognizable modern hero, but with one interesting twist that still alienates him from us today.

I) The “weak” hero

In the Aeneid, we first meet Aeneas (and first meetings are important) in the middle of a storm that Juno has orchestrated in the hope of killing him and his Trojans. As the wind and waves tear his ships apart (sinking 7 of the 20),

Aeneas on the instant felt his knees go numb and slack, and stretched both hands to heaven, groaning out: ‘Triply lucky, all you men to whom death came before your fathers’ eyes below the wall at Troy! Bravest Danaan [ie, Greek], Diomedes, why could I not go down when you had wounded me, and lose my life on Ilium’s [Troy’s] battlefield? (I, 131-139)

This is an astonishing departure, a brave literary innovation, in ancient storytelling. We could not imagine, say, a Hercules or Theseus, or even a Jason, in despair — frightened to death in the sense of wishing to die.

Right from the start, therefore, we understand that Aeneas’ heroism will not consist only of strength — expressed as the overcoming of enemies or monsters — but, more importantly, of an inner struggle with himself.

So Aeneas is the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey. Virgil thus invites us, his readers, to empathize with Aeneas more than we would ever empathize with Hercules, Theseus or Jason.

II) The tender hero

Virgil also wants us to empathize in another way: Aeneas is the first hero (aside from Orpheus, arguably) who is presented to us as a whole man, a man who not only has a public duty but also private loyalties to:

  • father,
  • son,
  • wife,
  • and even lover.

Hercules, Theseus and Jason also had parents, wives and offspring, of course. But their stories never dwelt on these relationships.

Aeneas carries his father and son out of Troy

By contrast, Aeneas’ proto-Roman deference and respect for his father, Anchises, and his tender nurturing of his young boy, Ascanius, are deliberately touching. Here is Aeneas as Troy burns and its inhabitants are being slaughtered by the Greeks:

‘Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck: I’ll take you on my shoulders; no great weight. Whatever happens, both will face one danger, find one safety’…. Over my breadth of shoulder and bent neck, I spread out a lion skin for tawny cloak and stooped to take his weight. Then little Iulus [another name for Ascanius] put his hand in mine and came with shorter steps beside his father… (II, 921-924)

Aeneas loses his first wife, Creusa, in the genocide of Troy, but he makes clear how painful this is for him. Having rescued his father and son, he goes back into the burning city to look for her:

I filled the streets with calling; in my grief time after time I groaned and called Creusa, frantic, in endless quest from door to door. (II, 999-1000)

Aeneas also feels tenderness for his lover Dido, even after their “break-up” and her eternal hatred. We see this as Aeneas descends to Hades to seek advice from his dead father. In passing, he sees the shade of Dido (who has committed suicide, as Aeneas has guessed but does not know). Aeneas

wept and spoke tenderly to her: ‘Dido, so forlorn, the story then that came to me was true, that you were out of life, had met your end by your own hand. Was I, was I the cause? I swear by heaven’s stars, by the high gods, by any certainty below the earth, I left your land against my will … And I could not believe that I would hurt you so terribly by going… (VI, 611-625)

This is an unusual classical hero — a man who is aware of the ramifications his actions have on others, and man who has compassion.

III) The hero without free will

But there is also a clue to the aspect of Aeneas that alienates him from us today. “I left your land against my will,” he tells Dido’s shade. This is true. The gods ordered him to leave Dido, because they had sketched out a larger mission for him, which was to found the Roman nation.

This was his duty, and Aeneas is still, above all, pius Aeneas, as he himself says. (Dutiful is a better translation than pious here.)

In fact, as Susanna Braund points out in her fantastic (and free) Stanford lectures on the Aeneid, Aeneas uses a more telling phrase:

I sail for Italy not of my own free will. (IV, 499)

There you have it: no free will.

Braund thinks that this is the reason why the Aeneid has not yet been made into a Hollywood film, even though we’ve long had to suffer Brad-Pitt-Achilleses and their like.

It seems that we like heroes to be strong and weak, tough and tender, but that we need to believe that they are free. Subtle but interesting. To be continued.

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85 thoughts on “The first “almost modern” hero: Aeneas

  1. I agree with your analysis. I guess you could say that just as sculpture evolved and became more “human” (compare an Egyptian pharoah statue to La0coon and His Sons) literary constructions, legends and archetypes evolved as well with characters becoming more human.

    Plus more human heroes are more realistic to us–if they share characteristics that we have (e.g., fear, grief, anger) then there is a chance that we may share some of their heroic characteristics.

  2. i thought the jury was still out on free will? free will is a theological paradox. and science is still debating “determinism”?

    It seems that we like heroes to be strong and weak, tough and tender, but that we need to believe that they are free. is that a hint that the “assumption” of free will will be included in the definition of “modern hero”?

    i can’t wait to see how this turns out. personally, i find the idea of kismet freeing 🙂

    • The jury is indeed still out. It’s one of the oldest philosophical debates. Do we or do we not have free will?

      But in this post, I’m purely talking about free will in storytelling. In fact, Dafna, try to think of a modern hero or heroine who does not have free will. I’d love to know if there is one.

      “I can’t wait to see how this turns out..”.

      Join the club. Personally, I have no idea….

    • A hero or heroine without free will? A great discussion topic.

      What makes stories interesting is the point at which the hero or heroine, acting with free will, suddenly finds themself narrowly circumscribed by the results of their actions so that it seems as if they no longer have free will. As Macbeth said, “I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as going o’er.”

    • The story of Perseus and the Medusa was once explained to me as being about free will and decision-making.

      The snakes on the head of the Medusa represent choices — so many choices that paralysis ensues.

      When the Medusa’s head is cut off, Winged Pegasus emerges, representing freedom and fountains of inspiration:

      George Lucas’s Star Wars employs echoes of this:

      Obi-Wan: “Use the force, Luke … Let go.”

      Voice: “His computer’s off.”

      Voice: “Luke, you’ve switched off your targeting computer. What’s wrong?”

      Luke: “Nothing.”

      At 0:20:

    • Love the pairing of Perseus of Star Wars, Jim M.

      I’ve got to ponder that interpretation of Perseus and the Medusa. I don’t immediately get it, but it intrigues me….

    • modern day fictional hero without free will… john irving’s owen meany?

      i came to this blog in december? at that time i understood that eventually the topic would become meal and modern? still going in that direction?

      anyone a fan of john irving? there is one quote in the book i really hoped was deliberate with irony as it’s intent – owen meany says something like, “why do they always show the movie the ten commandmentsaround easter?”

      irony or ignorance? never did decide.

    • something also made me think of the fictional character of oskar in GG’s the tin drum a very haunting exploration of modern hero and free will. many years ago, but i remember the underlying themes.

      oskar too obtuse of an example? (i always saw him as a flawed modern hero.) i am only referring to oskar’s “choice” to of size and voice. free will or something else?

      maybe it was the overlapping theme of “menay’s child-like voice” that reminded me of oskar.

    • The concept of free will vs destiny was also explored quite well by James Clavell in Shogun (and Tai Pan). It may be a common theme in sagas and even novels and short stories. It certainly permeates myths and legends and religious stories and texts.

      Being one who does not believe in destiny, it might seem odd that I am fascinated by it.

    • try to think of a modern hero or heroine who does not have free will. I’d love to know if there is one.

      Interesting poser… I am trying to think of a modern hero or heroine that does have free will. In the end, most are bound by destiny or its modern counterpart (a strong moral code). They struggle against great odds to right wrongs and restore order but it seems they arrive on the scene at the moment they are most needed and do things they must, regardless of a desire to move on. But, then, who do you mean by “modern hero”?

      There is a term, “reluctant hero”, which is often used to describe the hero who is compelled to perform whatever deeds need to be done (consider Bruce Willis’ character, John McClane, in “Die Hard”. Forced by the “gods” (circumstance, destiny, the pull of humanity, etc) to overcome impossible odds and restore order (regain his kingdom, save the people, vanquish the evil doers). But that reluctance is part of what makes the hero, is it not? He could just walk away, ride out of town, mind his own business, if he really had free will.

      Does any political leader present himself as an individual of free will, there to seek power and impose his will? Or does he present himself as the man of the hour, there at the right moment in time to deliver the nation from the troubles they are experiencing? In effect, a man of destiny?

  3. “So Aeneas is the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey.”

    Thoughtful point. As a side note to this, I always get frustrated when teaching Odyssey because so many of my students expect to see some sort of growth / change in the hero. The made-for-TV film adaptation actually sort of projects this on him to a degree.

    • Hmm. I never thought of the Odyssey in that way. I suppose he does not “grow” much (solving his problem with Penelope’s suitors in much the same way he might have solved it 20 years earlier, with a good heroic ass-kicking).

      Then again, your students are probably too young to suspect that the Odyssey is really a story about a midlife crisis. Just getting through it may have been enough “growth”. 😉

    • 9th-10th grade (13-15 year olds), and they study the poem in the context of a unit on self-identity (“Who am I?”). Consequently, the Telemachus story plays a prominent role here. More broadly, one of the important points we try to make is that characters in literature tend to be deep rather than shallow (there’s a tendency to look for one-word characterizations, which while sometimes useful tend to oversimplify). Part of character complexity is that they often change as a result of their experiences — as, broadly speaking, do people. Odysseus, as has been pointed out, doesn’t really change.

      For that matter, it’s easy enough to argue that Telemachus doesn’t change so much through his quest as the quest simply reveals his true self / identity — the son of Odysseus. His behavior in the hall, among other things, seems to confirm that. But again, this is probably too subtle a point.

      Don’t want to get us too off-topic. Now I’m going to have to go re-read Virgil.

    • “wily Odysseus”, Homer calls him, with a one-word descriptor. He doesn’t really change over time, but he changes by the hour, or at least by the situation. Disguises, ruses, “I am Nobody”, etc. Perhaps Homer (or the oral tradition encompassed by him) considered him plenty complex already, and did not know how to make him even more complex.

  4. o.k

    having a many typo day, so my last attempt to meet challenge try to think of a modern hero or heroine who does not have free will. I’d love to know if there is one. it was too much fun to resist!

    luke skywalker an princess lea? modern day fictional heros whose destiny overrides their free will.

    unless sci-fi doesn’t count.

    • @ thomas,

      shamefaced, i know nothing of Frodo.

      under modern hero or heroine without free will (in the storytelling category),

      the candidates are:

      luke skywalker and princess lea
      owen meany

      we are awaiting the blog masters verdict 🙂

    • Blog master no give verdict. Blog master try keep day job. Blog master today drive editor in car all day. Blog master learn about many heroes… 🙂

      [Seriously: Sci fi counts, everything counts. Frodo, that’s the hobbit in Tolkien. I think of him more as a frame — like the dwarves for Snowhwite — for the “heroes”…]

  5. Big topic Andreas. You tend to do this, you know. Throw out a little idea that takes one away from her duties and train of thought. 🙂

    I am wondering about the Greek heroes as opposed to the Roman ones. Granted, some of the Roman heroes are just Greek deities renamed and shrink wrapped made in Rome.

    The Greeks, and thus their heroes, were internal, that is…reflective. Know thyself and don’t stumble into your hamartia.

    The Romans, and perhaps their heroes, were more external, that is…Follow the orders of the person of higher rank (or of your powerful God). Does that obedience lessen the heroic qualities of brave Aeneas? Not in my book.

    The Greeks enjoyed the theatre; the Romans, the fights in the Coliseum.

    The Greeks exhibited restraint; the Romans, little restraint.

    By the time Virgil wrote The Aeneid, the Roman Empire was full throttle. Perhaps having a hero like Aeneas, who tethers himself to the will of the Gods, validates the Roman way of doing things. By the end of the poem, Aeneas has developed a certainty that he will be the founder of Rome. Sometimes the Gods knew what they were doing.

    • I wasn’t really bothered by Aeneas’ lack of free will either, until Braundon (a fantastic lecturer, if I haven’t made that clear yet) pointed out that Aeneas has been a remarkably un-Hollywooded hero.

      I’m still puzzling over it now.

      BTW, I didn’t mean to set up a dichotomy between Greek and Roman heroes. As you said, they’re the same. I think it’s a matter of time. The Aeneid is 700 years younger than the Iliad, as distant as we are from Dante.

      PS: Taking you away from your duties is the express purpose of The Hannibal Blog. 😉

  6. Thank you, Andreas, for seeking to share your insights. You are enthusiastic and prolific and no-one doubts your authenticity. Your explanations are works of art in themselves. You write with felicity, facility and scholarship.

    Yet I remain unmoved. You endeavour to teach what you know, generously and risking much. I have studied those special excerpts and throw-away lines backwards, forwards and inside-out.


    Poor Cheri has tried with me and failed. It was always the same.

    I resent it. I resent that the Ancients talk to others and not to me, particularly at my age when time is short. It is sheer greed and envy. You will keep trying and I will keep reading, but forgive me if I retreat, clutching my small volume of Zen stories, to my very small corner of Paradise (a prosaic life dismissed by Phil Phogg, God bless him), so that I may face whatever awaits me in peace. I have reached my zenith: it is nix.

    • That should worry neither you nor me, Richard. I suggest you skip the posts about “the Ancients that talk to others but not to you”, and show up for all the other posts, which are still in the majority.

      I sympathize because I feel the same way about, say, opera. It talks to others and I’ve tried to make it talk to me, but it just doesn’t like me. So, no sense fighting it, because life is short. 🙂

    • My sister (74) is mad keen on opera and goes to Verona every year, which puts me off rather.

    • @Richard

      I thought I was the only one in the world whom the Ancients never talked to. So guilty have I felt, that I’ve considered seeking psychiatric help.

      That the Ancients speak not to you either is of great comfort to me.

      But I may seek psychiatric help anyway.

    • Shall we wait in the pub, RM? Out of respect for this very nice place to visit, I’m trying to avoid my usual graffito. I knew I was out of my depth at, “So Aeneas is the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey.” Is this known? You’d have to like, read all that stuff to argue that point.

    • No, it’s not known, Mr Crotchety. here on The Hannibal Blog (in contrast to certain other outlets for my writing) I like to shoot from the hip. But even as I do, I squint at the target.

      I’ve not read all that stuff. But I’ve read a representative sample because I’m a geek. So think of that question as a gauntlet thrown to the experts who may chance upon this blog. I’m really daring them to falsify the statement, Popper style.

    • My goodness. You are on your best behavior. What’s that all about. Remember the good old days when Andreas’ readership was just a few of us? Remember when we used to fantasize that we would all go to Morocco for a field trip?

      Remember, when he was super busy, you and I (who are still working our bums off) would log on late at night and pretend that he was too busy to notice our comments?

      Remember those days in dark winter of 2008?

  7. @Andreas

    Very good post. This point attracts my attention most.

    It seems that we like heroes to be strong and weak, tough and tender, but that we need to believe that they are free.

    Aeneas, like many heroes, is an inspiring icon of values respected; in Aeneas’ case, of the Roman values of individual self-effacement vis-à-vis the group(s) the person belonged to: family, clan (gens), clubs & associations, centuriae (in the Legion), civitates – like Mantua or Arretium – and res pubblica or Rome.

    We (I too) find it alien because we are individualistic in the West. But to a number possibly greater than the entire world population Aeneas choices wouldn’t look so strange.

    To these non western people – you might know better than me – family, clan, neighbourhood, tribe etc., count a lot more than the single person. Just one example behaviour among many: the majority possibly of marriages in the world are arranged by families.

    I wrote a *Asking Mamma when Looking for “Mr Right”* and got some feedback from India, Japan etc.

    • Yes, the Romans were quite “communitarian” in that sense, whereas the Greeks were, by ancient standards, the individualists.

      Incidentally, what is your theory as to why the Aeneid is one of the least re-told stories in today’s pop culture? Is it this — is that pop culture comes from individualistic America, which doesn’t “get” sacrifice for family, clan and nation?

    • The following post:

      “Addicted To Being Good? The Psychopathology Of Heroism”
      By Andrea Kuszewski

      draws interesting parallels between the (altruistic) hero and the sociopath.

      Specifically, it asks whether heros tend to be lawbreakers:

      “As crazy as it sounds, there may be a closer link than than most people would think between the extreme-altruistic personality and sociopathic personality.”


      * low impulse control

      * high novelty-seeking (desire to experience new things, take more risks, break convention)

      * no remorse for their actions (lack of conscience)

      * inability to see beyond their own needs (lack of empathy)

      * willing to break rules

      * always acts in the interest of himself


      * low impulse control

      * high novelty-seeking

      * little remorse for their actions (would “do it again in a heartbeat”)

      * inability to see past the needs of others (very high empathy)

      * willing to break rules

      * acts in the best interest of others, or for the “common good” (because it is the right thing to do)

      (Andrea is currently a Behavior Therapist and Consultant, treating children on the Autism Spectrum in Boston, MA, USA. )

    • @Jim M

      So, basically, the extreme altruistic type is a bit of a mirror image of the sociopath with the opposing points being moral positions but sharing the adrenalin rush and the indifference to danger.

    • But a sociopath will typically try to hide his actions, whereas an altruistic person may prefer a thorough examination of his actions and motives. This difference could turn out to be one of many such differences in behavior and character — so the extent to which one can mirror the other may be limited.

      Still, the idea that altruists may weigh the dictates of their conscience against the dictates of the law is logical — the Founding Fathers can be seen as altruistic lawbreakers. Of course, the Declaration of Independence shows that they welcomed an examination of their motives, and they put their “John Hancocks” on the document to take unambiguous responsibility for their actions, something the sociopath would typically not do.

      Fortunately, by altruistically “hanging together” they managed not “to hang separately.”

  8. So Aeneas is the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey. Virgil thus invites us, his readers, to empathize with Aeneas more than we would ever empathize with Hercules, Theseus or Jason.

    I always considered the external journey/struggles as metaphors for the internal ones.

    • @Douglas

      I always considered the external journey/struggles as metaphors for the internal ones.

      True. As for journeys, in every person more than a metaphor maybe. A travel without (in space) is often a travel within (our mind,) the opposite not being true – I’m mind-tripping now and glued to my chair lol.

      Literature previous to Vergil didn’t show textured mind trips much, which makes Virgil modern from this angle too, as Andreas has pointed out.

    • @MoR

      Just as the external journey is metaphor for the internal, the internal is influenced by the external. We observe and experience the external and then, of course, internalize the lessons. I think we, humans, seek linkages and relationships to everything external and internal.

      Or, maybe, it’s just that I do.

  9. @Andreas

    why the Aeneid is one of the least re-told stories in today’s pop culture ….Is it that pop culture comes from individualistic America, which doesn’t “get” sacrifice for family, clan and nation?

    I have no theory. I can try a ‘ranting stab’, but I want credits and a percentage from your book’s gains 😉

    Pius Aeneas … difficult today to portrait something appealing out of it. It takes knowledge, intense poetry, a good feel of the public. Today’s Hollywood culture is too ..slanted on making money and ‘culture’ in the old sense is not appreciated by both the public and the people in the entertainment business (we discussed that on my blog.)

    So the reason is not individualism, I believe. I’ll try to explain.

    This pius … a mixture of tenderness (humanitas), self-effaced duty, religious love & respect that starts from family (Aeneas’ old father is a ‘pius weight’ on his shoulders) and ends up in obedience to Fate’s decrees (“I sail for Italy not of my own free will” you well quote). It is hard silent toil both in battle and out of battle (Romans soldiers were never idle, had to build roads etc. and did not just go to bed after marching all day: had to silently toil again in order perfectly entrench themselves.)

    I was wrong. Aeneas is not an alien, he is in us. The Victorians were pii towards fatherland, and Elgar’s music well expresses such devotional ‘collective’ feeling. Many folks are pii. Hitler exploited this almost sacred attachment to duty and to their land the Germans had / have. And possibly a McCaine is closer to this … reverence, but I am a fan of Obama.

    There is something of the pius Aenea in Maximus Meridius, the Gladiator. It took a cultured genius like Ridley Scott and a script writer like David Franzoni to accomplish it. Maximus is pius to his butchered family, to penates (he brings the tiny sacred objects everywhere, caresses, reveres them; Aeneas brings the Dii Penates of Troy to Latium: this is profoundly religious).

    Maximus is pius towards Rome, to emperor Marcus Aurelius, to his former comrades. When he dies in the Colosseum, Marcus Aurelius’ daughter exclaims: “Honour him! He was a great soldier, a great soldier of Rome!”. I get goose-flesh, not because of Rome (well, also) but because it is a great universal feeling.

    So my theory is that today’s pop culture is not deep enough to face such themes, not that it is too individualistic. It was not like that in the 50s 60s, and Hollywood in fact produced much greater films. So while Aeneas is not an alien to our mind, it takes both great love and knowledge to make a person of 3100 years ago look alive and not a silly puppet. Of course persons like Ridley Scott or Stanley Kubrick can / could do it, but they are /were expensive. Fellini in the end could make no movies, he did cost too much, times were changing (or he was crazier).

    Most people today are good specialists – excellent 3d animators, excellent special effects people, good script writers and directors – but not too good to represent Antiquity. It can be done, but due to the nature of today’s business we’ll have 90% products like ‘Troy’, good but deprived of a soul. Were I a producer, I’d never put my money on the Aeneid, or Dante, or Milton. In the past they dared. The Hollywood version of Tolstoy’s War and Peace for example was excellent.

  10. I am a newcomer here, and not nearly as studied as I would like. My specialty is more modern–the medieval and Renaissance period, but I would like to humbly put forth a much more prosaic and shallow possibility as to the lack of Hollywood interest in the Aeneid: try summarizing the story and you come up against Aeneas’ purpose, which was to found Rome. Being, as I have been, in English Departments for the past decade, I can attest to the unpopularity of imperialism, colonialism, etc. This may be a stretch, but perhaps the lack of coverage is due to this unpopularity. Aeneas wasn’t just obeying the will of the gods; by fulfilling his purpose, he does not simply avenge the wrongful death of a loved one, or live honorably in the face of dishonor and difficulty–no, he claims as his destiny this: to found a nation. Not such a popular idea in Hollywood these days, which is more apt to give attention (not that I am objecting) to the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the easily forgotten. It is no easy task to embrace Aeneas’ destiny or the will of the gods for his life, because this fate (according to the story) brought into being an Empire. For moderns, this is when you say, “Yikes!”

    • Good point, Fiammetta. Aeneas is a proto-Imperialist, and Imperialism has gone out of fashion.

      (By contrast, Achilles was just hunky and angry, and that is still very American and in fashion today, so it’s OK to cast Brad Pitt. ;))

      Incidentally, there was apparently a debate over whether or not Virgil was in fact an Imperialist. Some people think that he made war look so bad that he must have been criticizing the Pax Augusta.

      So, what in the Middle Ages and Renaissance are you studying?

    • 🙂 Every time (it hasn’t been that many!) I have watched Troy my husband tells me to cover my eyes at *certain scenes*. It’s too good to be true, eh? I can’t say I object… that’s part of the fun of the movie, though I do think it is a bit soul-less, as a previous post pointed out.

      Discussing Imperialism as a theme in the Aeneid: I think the New Criticism would be nigh-impossible to avoid, as it is wide-spread and “easy” for the general public (I sound like a snob!). The story is the story is the story. As a film, I find it difficult to imagine it could escape this fate, unless the focus was shifted, the story retold, so-to-speak, in order to bring the character struggles to light and push the destiny question (or rather, answer) to the back burner.

      My studies: I am a wishful classicist. The chair of my thesis committee has told me more than once that if I learned everything I wanted to learn, I would “kill us all!” Well. Hmmmmph. My thesis is looking into Epicurus in the medieval period. This topic, I find, has a tendency to act as a magnet, drawing in all manner of things. Or maybe that’s just me. 🙂

    • Epicurus is fascinating!!

      In antiquity, at least. I haven’t the faintest idea what role he might have played in the medieval period. Do enlighten us here on The Hannibal Blog one day.

    • I will. You know, one of the most interesting things (to me) about looking into this topic has to do with the texts themselves–the traffic of texts, languages, goods, etc coming through the pilgrimage routes, the crusades, and trade routes. We owe a great deal to scholarly Arabs who preserved much in the fall (out) of the Roman Empire. Of course, there are other debts as well–to monks and monasteries and private collectors with a love of knowledge. But for me, researching Epicurus brings me up against questions of availability: was Horace available? Seneca? These are not straightforward questions. And in some ways, much of how we perceive even Virgil has to do with the ways the text has been interpreted through long centuries.

  11. @Fiammetta

    We ALL do hope that you come back! 😉

    Epicurus …. wow … more stoic texts have survived unfortunately.

    I wonder what THE HELL are they doing at Herculaneum, I mean at the darn Villa of the Papyri.

    (To those that might not know) this splendid dwelling – owned almost surely by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso – contained a vast library “of a mainly philosophical character …collected and selected by Piso’s friend and client, the Epicurean Philodemus of Gàdara….” (wiki). (!!)

    Do you know anything detailed about it? Off -topic for your studies possibly I know 😦

  12. It isn’t really all that off-topic for me, but I have mostly focused on texts available in the medieval period. There have been some discovered in more recent times (since, say, the seventeenth century), but they do not help me much. I’d love to talk more about it, but first I’ll ask a question: why is it improbable for them to be at Herculaneum, or in the Villa of the Papyri specifically? (p.s. you guys are such a nice bunch.)

  13. @Fiammetta & Andreas

    Back from a blog vacation, I don’t quite grasp Fiammetta’s why is it improbable for them to be at Herculaneum, or in the Villa of the Papyri specifically?

    On the contrary, it is probable to me. What I meant is that at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum many papyrus scrolls recently unearthed cannot but be Epicurean, possibly by the Epicurean Philodemus, I read in the wiki. Fiammetta, I was asking whether you knew anything about all this. I think I had a book by an Italian who for many years was responsible for those unearthings but in the chaos of my library I cannot find it. Now that I try to brush up my Latin a bit I better realise how Horace (terribly difficult) was certainly a bit epicurean, and so was Caesar (very easy.)

    Interesting (tho sad) how some works did survive while others did not. If they were not considered interesting to people lived in the Middle Ages (or late antiquity,) they were not copied, which meant like a death sentence for an author.

    Stoicism possibly appealed more to medieval minds. While seeking pleasures, though moderate (Epicure is moderate,) wasn’t considered ‘correct’ in the Christian Middle Ages. How foolish. Fiammetta is an Italian name … oh I forgot something that might be useful to both of you: a blog full of resources by the international people working at Pomnpeii and Herculaneum (I have it in my blogroll):


    • Thank you Andreas! Blog vacations do good to us (and to our blogs.)
      Fiammetta, of course my speculations, why some works – and especially Epicureanism – survived and others didn’t, you might know better about. What is your take about it?

    • I don’t know much about the unearthing done there at the Villa in Herculaneum (though I did enjoy walking the streets of Pompeii very much), but the idea of why some survived and some didn’t has a lot to do with my area of interest. Some scholars believe that it was a supply issue–the texts simply weren’t available–but the more common assumption is that those collecting texts were not favorably inclined toward a philosopher whose foundational tenet was that the gods were dead (or so far distant as to be insignificant in their role for humans). This was naturally a rather objectionable idea to the monks! Not perhaps the death of “gods,” but a philosophy of living that began with the absence of the divine. In this way, Epicurus makes himself a god (in essence). This was probably considered dangerous thinking, and so the precious scribal time and materials were not allocated to copying them.

      I do believe that by the time of Julius Caesar the Epicurean camp had split into two factions: one which followed the ways of moderation and seeking peace of mind and calm through isolation and right living, and the other which took his tenets on pleasure as the ultimate end and pursued sensuality. Once this split occurred, the two groups often existed at the same time, naturally creating a confusion in the popular mind about Epicurus’ teachings.

  14. I feel compelled to respond. Hi, by the way, I’ve been perusing this blog this evening, heroism being a topic I am particularly interested in, and I don’t think Aeneas is as revolutionary as Andreas wants him to be.

    First of all, I don’t think Aeneas is wishing to die when we first meet him, per se–he’s wishing he had died at Troy, in battle, in sight of his father and the people he cared for most. He envies the men who fell at Troy because they didn’t die at sea, dying at sea being one of the worst deaths in the ancient world because there is utterly no glory in it. You don’t die facing your enemy; you don’t achieve any honor; you die alone and anonymous, lost in a vast watery grave, unable to be buried properly, and, therefore, unable to properly enter the Underworld.

    Secondly, it makes narrative sense to first show your protagonist at a moment of crisis, beginning the narrative where things get interesting, as it were. Consider the Iliad, which Homer (assuming such a creature existed) begins when the Achaean army is plague-ridden and all but broken. Or the Odyssey, in which we first meet Odysseus weeping, a helpless and pathetic captive of Calypso.

    I also don’t agree that Aeneas is the first hero presented as “a whole man.” Here, I offer Hektor, a warrior, yes, but also a son, a husband, a father, and a brother. There’s the iconic scene where he takes off his helmet as not to frighten his son; the time after time his wife pleads with him not to fight; and his uneasy relationship with Paris, who he blames for the war but loves as a brother nonetheless. I would classify Hektor as a man who “is aware of the ramifications his actions have on others” and “has compassion.” In fact, it is these very ties that damn him to his inevitable face-off with Achilles. He can’t run from the war because of what he’s fighting for (nor, really, can any Trojan), and, because he must fight, he dies.

    And I also don’t agree (good-naturedly, of course 🙂 that Aeneas is the first (western) hero whose internal journey is as important as his external one. Here, I’ll go back to Achilles, who I feel compelled to defend against his slanderous portrayal by Mr. Pitt.

    Achilles begins the Iliad in a huff (and, I would argue, justifiably, given his cultural zeitgeist) because Agamemnon took away his war prize/lover, who was given to him as a demarcation that he is the greatest of the Achaean warriors. But, by the end, he sits and ponders and grieves and rages (oh how he rages) until he finally weeps, weeps with his enemies’ king over the warriors they both have lost. He starts as a pinnacle of Greek heroism, comes to question everything that that heroism is based on, and ends accepting the inevitability of death and the human condition. I mean … c’mon! That’s an epic hero.

    Which brings me to the problem of free will. And here I have to echo Douglas above: Who does have free will? Determinism, for my money, is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the world. All determinism really claims is that there is a reason for everything, a causal chain of events. What I think most people don’t get is that you, yourself, are also a determining factor in those events. For instance, if I feel hungry, I can get up and go to the kitchen, but I did not “choose” to feel hungry, and whatever I “choose” to eat is bound by what I find in the fridge. Similarly, what people aspire to be, their morals, their values, their hopes and dreams for the future are all wrapped up in biological and cultural determinants. Or else it would be mighty odd that most Americans just happen to choose to value freedom above most other things, whereas most Chinese people just happen to value duty to family and friends. Or, as Arty Schopenhauer put it, “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot control what it is that he wants.”

    The ancient Greeks took it even further because they believed in fate. No one escaped their fate. Even the gods were bound by it. The only ancient Greek who came close to anything like free will was Achilles, because he alone (to my knowledge) had two fates that he knew about with certainty, thanks to his goddess mother (the vast majority of ancient Greeks didn’t know their fates until those very fates were upon them).

    But even Achilles didn’t choose his fate. As I’m sure everyone remembers, his choices were (as paraphrased by Joe Strummer) “should I stay or should I go?” At first, he wants to go, reasoning that any honor he wins in battle is trivial if Agamemnon can snatch it away (i.e. He desires to leave the war as determined by his shabby treatment by Agamemnon). He does not leave because Ajax the Greater convinces him to stay (i.e. Ajax’s argument for why he should stay determines that he will, in fact, stay). But, finally, his fate is sealed (his path determined) when he rejoins battle, hell-bent on avenging the death of Patroclus by killing Hektor (an act that puts him on the path to the worst case of Achilles tendonitis yet recorded). But did he choose that fate? I don’t think so. Such was his grief at the news of Patroclus’s death that he could not have done otherwise. His grief (and rage) overrode any hope of rational deliberation he had left. Game over; Hektor’s screwed.

    Aeneas may not have free will, but then, neither do we.

    • Hi Chris,

      I really enjoyed reading your post. I’m on my way to Greece next week and have been in the doldrums over the situation over there. Reading your ideas here about Achilles and Aeneas reinvigorated me this morning. Thank you!

    • Welcome, Chris. I’m with Cheri: I feel refreshed and engergized having read your comment.

      You’ve made me rethink my post, which is the not-so-secret purpose behind every post I write here on The Hannibal Blog. (Otherwise known as “learning”)

      Your example of Hector is particularly good. Yes, you’re right, he (a cousin of Aeneas’, as it happens) was indeed a whole man. So perhaps Hector and Achilles were the first, then?

      I’ve always loved that scene in the Iliad, where Hector’s baby son cries in fear at the sight of his horse-hair-helmeted dad. It gets every dad.

      Indeed, one might say that the very end of the Aeneid — the fight between Aeneas and Turnus — revisits the match between Achilles and Hector, with the roles not so much reversed as jumbled.

      In any case, I’m very curious where your own journey into heroism leads you. I hope you’ll make it easy for us here to follow it.

    • Oh good; I’m so glad. Upon reading it after posting it, I feared I came off as a bit of a prick. The internet can do that I suppose … not being able to inflect my words properly.

      Ummmmm, yeah…. I would mark Hector and Achilles as the first fully-embodied human heroes in the West. Though … I dunno, I harbor an admitted bias towards the Iliad. It was my initiation into the epic world and I’ve studied it quite a bit. Hector (whose name I always liked more spelled ‘Hektor’ (for absolutely no rational reason), but I defer to your spelling for consistency of reference) Hector particularly always struck me as interesting because he is a city hero, a hero integrated in a community, whereas Achilles is more the antisocial lone wolf (or, perhaps, lion) our society has learned to love. He has an OK relationship with his mom, but she’s a goddess who never really “gets” him. He has Patroclus, but … well, we all know how that goes for him. Heh, those Trojans … always giving us people who are “whole.”

      But I should give more credit to Aeneas. He is a very level-headed hero, and his internal journey is important. I think his story is much more of a coming-of-age tale than any of the previously mentioned (including Hercules, Theseus, and Jason), especially when you think of the little twerp that got smacked around in the Iliad, needing to be saved over and over by his goddess mother. And then, like you said, he’s able to face Turnus, who I agree begs inevitable comparison to Achilles and Hector. Isn’t their even a young friend of Aeneas that Turnus kills, spurning Aeneas to seek revenge? Though Turnus is the one described with a chaotic rage, and this time it’s the level-headed Trojan who triumphs.

      I hope I end up getting somewhere with my hero studies…. I’m hoping to work my way into a PhD program somewhere (anywhere), studying Medieval literature, actually, focusing on the evolution of the hero. But flame-capped Achilles will always give me chills.

      Have fun in Greece, Cheri! I hope you do, at least. I’d love to get there. Have no idea if I ever will. They’ll make through their current … predicament, eventually. Triumphs and disasters, right?

    • Yes, Turnus kills Pallas, son of Evander (a Greek king at the site that would later become Rome). Pallas was sort of under Aeneas’ protection, so Aeneas went ballistic when he died. At the very end, as Turnus pleads with Aeneas to have mercy on him, Aeneas sees Turnus wearing Pallas’ belt and is overcome with wrath, killing Turnus.

      Very much looking forward to your “heroism” journey. Why don’t you give your future posts a tag, so we can follow the progress on that topic?

  15. G’day Andreas, and thank you for an interesting article. Interesting that your analysis omits Odysseus, whom I would have chosen as the first modern hero… but that may be a personal thing anyway…

    You ask in one of your responses whether or not there is such a thing as a modern hero without free will… how about the character played by Sly Stallone in ‘First Blood’ and ‘Rambo’? In neither of these movies is the principle protagonist (hero) there voluntarily but is compelled into the action…

    Among other projects, I’m also currently rendering Virgil’s Aeneid into prose in order to make it more accessible for a modern audience, who are more familiar with prose than poetry as a medium for storytelling. You and your readers may all feel free to check it out, and even to link to my blog if you like; it’s free to register and read; and I’d appreciate any comments you’d care to make and would be only to happy to answer any questions you may have. The address is:

    Hope to see you there sometime.


    • Hi, Astyages.

      Odysseus and Achilles could BOTH certainly be “modern” heroes. They are timeless heroes. In fact, there are books out there comparing Vietnam vets to Odysseus on his nostos (homecoming) and to Achilles during his rage.

      I’ll definitely check out your translation. Very worthwhile project!

    • Thanks for your encouragement, Andreas.

      However, it’s rather ironic that you should say that BOTH Odysseus and Achilles could be modern heroes, as I have a theory that in the Iliad, Homer is actually drawing a line between an ‘ancient’ idea of a hero and a ‘modern’ one; and that Achilles represents the ‘ancient’ hero:

      For Achilles it is all about himself; his fame and glory in his path to his predestined demigodhood. Heroism is simply about defeating one’s enemies; and everything else pales into insignificance beside any slight to his honour; whereas for Odysseus, it’s all about being a part of a team and having the kind of courage which dares to defy the very gods themselves; and in the process, discovering his humanity, though this is not done in the Iliad, but in the Odyssey; the Iliad is merely the introduction to the new hero… and more importantly a new type of hero.

      Achilles is not only vainglorious, but when offended by Agamemnon’s ‘stealing’ of his prize, the slave-girl, Briseis, he spends most of his time thereafter sulking in his tent; he only comes out to fight when his boyfriend, Patroclus, is killed by Hector (who is the only hero who emerges from this book with his honour intact and, as such, is the only ‘perfect’ Homeric hero) and then, when he does come out to fight, it is not as a general with a plan and his armies behind him, but as an offended lover, in a fit of rage; a strategically stupid move. Finally he is killed by Paris, whereas we all know that heroes must always win; so he is an ‘ex-hero’ (just as Monty Python’s dead parrot was an ‘ex-parrot’!)

      Odysseus, on the other hand, though following the traditional path to hero-hood, (by this I mean the same general path of fighting lots of enemies, demons and monsters, visiting the underworld, overcoming sorcerors and witches, and finally vanquishing all his foes; a tradition which probably started with the Epic of Gilgamesh, or possibly even the Isis/Osiris mythos), also travels, quite unwillingly, an inner journey in which ‘home’ is a profound symbol.

      I’m afraid that your presumption that heroes must always have free-will in order to be such is mistaken; rather, it is in the fight to establish their own autonomy that they establish themselves as heroes… in this sense, heroism is about achieving freedom; yet it is a freedom which is not unbounded, but which is circumscribed with civic and social duties; a freedom within a community; within a city.

      Looking forward to seeing you over at Astyages’s Weblog sometime, bye for now!


    • BTW, I feel I should clarify something: I’m not ‘translating’ the Aeneid, but merely transposing it from poetry to prose. However, I do still think this is still a worthwhile enterprise, as poetry is, for many of our young people, sadly, a foreign tongue…

      And I do hope Chris will read my analysis of the character of Achilles and engage me in discussion; his own post was interesting, but I disagree with him, of course (and in the friendliest possible manner), on his assessment of Achilles as a ‘modern’ hero…


  16. Interesting stuff, astyages! I have no idea if you are still around to receive this reply, but you threw down the gauntlet, as it were, and I figure picking it up late is better than not picking it up at all. As you’ve no doubt guessed, I differ with you on a few points, but you’ve given me an excuse to spend a few days contemplating my man, Achilles, a task I do enjoy.

    First off, and this is more of a general question not specific to astyages, how exactly are we using the term “modern” here? I’m not trying to be that prick who says “We can’t use any terms without clearly defining them first,” but “modern” does seem to be a significant one in this post and no one (including me!) has been really clear about how they are using it. For myself, it seemed to me that Andreas was using it to mean something like “fully-formed, complex.” Or, anyway, that was my understanding of it, so that’s how I used it in response. But it’s an imprecise term and smacks of historical hubris.

    So, your spin on Achilles is the standard contemporary one: he’s a spoiled brat, a prima donna. Our mainstream culture hates to see anyone with any kind of pride. Especially when they’re the best at what they do. But, within the world of the poem, I don’t see Achilles as acting at all spoiled or childish. Agamemnon’s stealing of Bryseis is a really big deal. Bryseis was Achilles’s “timê.” Now, that word is translated as “honor” into English, but the implications of honor are abstract, whereas in Achilles’s society timê was very concrete. Bryseis was Achilles’s honor, the actual representation of it. Not only that, she was the top honor of the war up to that point, a special prize for Achilles. Taking her away is a huge deal because it diminishes Achilles’s kleos, that is glory–but a specific kind of glory, the glory that is sung about you after your death. In a pre-literate culture (that doesn’t even have headstones) kleos is the only thing of you with any potential to continue on. How would you respond if someone permanently altered your legacy for the worse?

    But I see this as also the inciting incident for a true existential crisis for Achilles. After all, when Agamemnon, Odysseus, and Ajax come to Achilles’s tent to persuade him back to battle, he doesn’t just spurn them in a huff; he explains to them that he’s lost faith in the whole heroic endeavor. After all, if any king can waltz up and steal someone’s timê, what does that say about kleos? Who exactly are we honoring in our songs and are they the right people?

    Achilles, of course, does return to battle, in a rage as you say. You mark it against him as strategically stupid but I see nothing strategically upsetting about laying absolute-frickin-waste to the enemy. Agamemnon certainly isn’t complaining. The language that Homer uses to paint Achilles in this passage is that of a god. Achilles is awesome, as in inspiring all kinds of awe. But then when he faces Hektor, he does betray a bit of a huff, blaming Hektor for causing him this all-consuming grief by killing Patroclus when Achilles has just butchered … however many of Hektor’s comrades he has. Do we, then, write Achilles off as a spoiled brat?

    No. Or, well, I don’t. Because I think Homer is setting up here a parallel between Achilles and the gods. You have no doubt noticed that the gods in the Iliad are incredibly petty and childish, yes? It is because they cannot die. Therefore, none of their actions have any gravitas. There are, literally, no life-and-death scenarios for them. Not even war carries any real weight that they can understand. But it’s not the same for Achilles. He has god-like power, but he remains a man. All that rage and power counts for nothing in the face of death, and he doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know how to take it. So he does what he knows best: battle. He focuses his rage on the man who delivered the final blow to Patroclus, thinking maybe his death will quell the awful feeling consuming him. But it doesn’t. He still feels the rage; he still hurts inside; and he can’t bury Patroclus, can’t let go, can’t access his grief and mourn, not until Priam, his sworn enemy and the father of the very man who killed Patroclus, comes to him, as an old man, as a father, and shares his own grief, shows Achilles that he too has caused so much grief on the Trojan side. And, somehow, Priam’s appeal finally gets Achilles to access his grief, to let go of his rage, and to understand (as much as it can be understood) the human condition, death as an inevitable part of life. And they weep together.

    Achilles then continues with battle, even though he knows his own death is looming. But he accepts that now, understands a little more. You say that his death is a mark against his heroism because heroes “must always win,” but that really misses the entire point of the poem, in my opinion. Not even Hektor, the man you call a “perfect” hero survives (how then is he a hero, by your conditions?). Heroes attaining godhood is actually really, really rare, when you look at the literature. Much, much more common is the hero’s eventual (often inevitable) death. Perhaps if Joseph Campbell had written the Iliad Achilles would have cheated death, escaped somehow, had a “magic flight” and ushered in some childish fantasy of a happy ending. But the ancient Greeks knew that, ultimately, there is only one ending, that we can’t cheat death, and that that is why we strive to accomplish great and valiant deeds, that that, in fact, is our chief source of nobility.

    • Another amazing exegesis, Chris. Remind me: Are you writing a Masters or PhD thesis on the Iliad? You easily could, it seems.

      You’ve made me rethink the role of Bryseis, in particular. I’d never paid that much attention to her, but I totally see how she represents honor and glory.

      (BTW, in this context, I’ve heard “honor” defined as reputation while alive, “glory” as reputation after death.)

      Re “modern”: Boy, I hadn’t thought about what that meant at all. Let me start thinking ….

    • Ha! Oh, how I wish I was writing a dissertation on the Iliad…. No, no, as of now I’m just a nerd with a passion. I do, however, plan on seeking a PhD in literature, applying to programs maybe in a year or two. I’d like my focus to actually be Medieval literature. I am extremely fascinated by the Medieval world because I see so many of our modern institutions as originating from there. If I really had my choice of programs, I would want to do something interdisciplinary, crossing literature with something like gender studies.

      Heh, and if I had to pick a dissertation topic now, it would probably be something to do with critically analyzing the permutations of masculinity found in the Chivalric romances. You have the Chivalric Ideal on the one hand, and then, on the other, how all these knights actually act. Le Morte Darthur is particularly rich in this respect, with every knight reconciling their psychology and actions in idiosyncratic ways to the Chivalric Ideal, almost all of them failing the Ideal in some major way (Galahad and (sometimes) Percival being the only exceptions), but to say they didn’t live by the Ideal would be a lie. Each tale seems like it’s own case study in the tension between theory and practice.

      Of course, I have to know the ancient stuff to really do justice to the Medieval, because Medieval writers were constantly borrowing, adapting, reinterpreting, and commenting on the Classics. And the Iliad was the first real epic I ever read/studied, so it has a soft spot in my heart. And, well, I just really love Achilles. It’s very unfortunate to me that, these days, when people think of him, they picture Brad Pitt.

      But I’m no where near ready to apply to programs, what with the admissions requirements and such, so it all remains but a dream.

      Yeah, Bryseis is a character that really challenges our modern sensibilities. On the one hand, she’s a prisoner, a slave, a victim and emblem of the repugnant misogyny of ancient Greek culture, but then she seems to have a genuine fondness (in addition to a sexual relationship) with Achilles and even mourns Patroclus. Heh, Stockholm Syndrome?

      I was told that a hero’s “honor” is the stuff they are awarded after battle (as in “honoring” someone with a gift) and the best prizes (most honor) go to the greatest heroes. And it was reiterated to me that timê is a physical thing, because, if you think about it, everyone would know that Agamemnon stole Bryseis from Achilles, so everyone would presumably know not to “honor” Agamemnon (if honor were immaterial). But Achilles, Thetis, and Zeus all confirm that Achilles has been stripped of his honor (a-tîmos: “without honor”) by Agamemnon’s act. So Achilles withdraws from battle to show the Greeks their dishonor, which means he can’t return to battle until they have suffered real and material losses. Which they do. Politics. Unfortunately, Patroclus was a material loss Achilles hadn’t counted on….

      Bleg, that was a mouthful….

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