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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Trojan/Roman Aeneas: the historical big picture


What was Virgil trying to accomplish in writing his Aeneid, perhaps the greatest poem in history?

That’s the question I want to try to answer in this post.

(Since the Aeneid merits several posts, I’ll get into what its hero, Aeneas, meant for the development of Western ideas about heroism in a subsequent post.)

I propose that to answer the question, we need to understand something about

  1. Virgil’s own time, and
  2. All of history (ie, ≈1,250 years between the Trojan War and Emperor Augustus), as viewed by Romans in Virgil’s time.

1) Virgil’s own time

Publius Vergilius Maro was born in 70 BCE in the northern part of what we now call Italy, which was then still considered part of Gaul. He probably became a Roman citizen only at the age of 21, when Julius Caesar extended civic rights to the region.

Virgil was thus born in the middle of the century-long Roman Revolution, a time when the old Republic disintegrated — first gradually, then suddenly — as strongmen seized power and fought one another, murdering and terrorizing much of the population in the process. Virgil lived through several rounds of civil war. He was a scholar and spent some of these years in the relative peace of Naples. But the constant and often arbitrary slaughter terrified everybody at the time, including him.

Octavian (Augustus)

Out of that chaos, like a Lotus flower out of pond muck, rose Octavian, later known as Emperor Augustus. Virgil was in Octavian’s social circle and began writing the Aeneid as Octavian consolidated his power, following his naval victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE.

Shrewd and subtle, Octavian was careful to avoid the mistakes of his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had begun to resemble a king — a dirty word to the Romans — and was murdered. So Octavian never called himself a king, but a princeps — “first head,” as in leading citizen (whence our word prince).

Over time, Octavian allowed the Senate and people of Rome — his genius manifested itself in this psychological coup — to bestow upon him ever greater powers and titles, increasingly mocking the non-use of the word king. In 27 BCE, the Senate began calling him Augustus, the august or blessed.

But to Virgil and most Romans of the time, all this was a huge improvement over the apparent alternative: more civil war. Augustus imposed peace, on Rome and on its empire. What we call the Pax Romana was really the Pax Augusta.

Augustus thus appeared to be the reluctant hero, the hero who wages war only to end war, who finally lets Rome reach its full, world-ruling and world-changing potential and mission. He seemed to be the end of Roman history, its telos.

What was needed was a story that would tell all of the past, starting before Rome even existed, as though everything inexorably led up to this man, this peace, by divine will.

And this is the answer to the question. Virgil wanted to write that story. We today might be tempted to call it propaganda, and it was. But it was sublime propaganda, in the most moving and intimate words, with allusions to all poems that preceded it. It was epic.

2) From Troy to Rome

There was, of course, an earlier epic poet to whom all of Mediterranean antiquity looked for explanation of the mysteries of life. That was Homer.


In about 750 BCE, Homer wrote the Iliad, about events in about 1,250 BCE just before the as yet un-named “Greeks” sacked Troy. And he wrote the Odyssey, one of the many nostos (“homecoming”) stories, in which the nominally victorious Greek heroes struggle and sometimes fail to re-enter society at home. (Whence our word nostalgia: nostos = return home; algos = pain.)

By Virgil’s time, the Romans had, of course, conquered the Greeks and in turn been culturally conquered by them. In fact, as Virgil has Aeneas’ father Anchises predict, in a vision just after the Trojan War for the not-yet-existing Rome:

Others [ie, the Greeks] will cast cast more tenderly in bronze their breathing figures, I can well believe, and bring more lifelike portraits out of marble; argue more eloquently, use the pointer to trace the paths of heaven accurately and accurately foretell the rising stars. Roman, remember by your strength to rule earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these: to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud. (VI, 1145-1154)

So this contrast, this proto-Ricardian division of labor, existed: Greek culture, Roman law. The Romans saw themselves as more trustworthy and purer than the Greeks, but simultaneously as the younger descendants of that older culture, a bit as Americans used to feel toward Brits.

So a creation myth had become fashionable in Rome that linked Rome to the same Homeric tradition and yet distinguished it from the Greeks.

This introduces a fascinating psychological symmetry and twist: The Romans had to have been there, to be fighting in the Trojan War, but not as Greeks. Ergo: They were the Trojans! As they had lost then, they prevailed now.

How? Homer himself had seeded the new storyline, in Book XX of the Iliad. Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the third cousin of Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior, fought the monstrous Greek killing machine Achilles and survived. Neptune (ie, Poseidon, to the Greeks) convinced the gods to take Aeneas out of danger, because

his fate is to escape to ensure that the great line … may not unseeded perish from the world…. Therefore Aeneas and his sons, and theirs, will be lords over Trojans born hereafter.

Aeneas rescuing his father and son

So there it is. Aeneas will survive the sack of Troy, a genocide he describes in the Aeneid in harrowing detail. With his father and his son and a band of other Trojan survivors, they will sail through the Mediterranean, trying to found a new Troy.

They try, and fail; again and again. One frustrating delay or disaster follows the next. As a result, Aeneas goes on his own “Odyssey”, criss-crossing the same ocean at the same time as Odysseus does. Virgil emphasizes this. Aeneas sails past Ithaca, Odyssues’ home, and meets one of Odysseus’ men who survived their encounter with the Cyclops. Aeneas’ itinerary, (click to enlarge), looks remarkably similar to Odysseus’:

Aeneas knows all along that he has a duty to found a new city, but he only discovers the details along the way, as they are revealed to him.

This is crucial, because through these revelations we (ie, Virgil’s Roman audience) are foretold the destiny of Rome — Rome’s future in the story which is already Virgil’s past. Indeed, Aeneas and his band of Trojans gradually become Romans — Virgil has them staging games and rituals that the Romans recognized as their own.

When Aeneas descends to the underworld to talk to his dead father, he, Anchises, spells out the next thousand years. He gives Aeneas glimpses of the Gallic wars and Pompey and Caesar and Augustus.

When Vulcan (Hephaestus, to the Greeks) forges him special armor, the shield depicts all of Roman history on its front — including, of course, Octavian’s victory at Actium. Message: This is what Aeneas is fighting to make come about!

The most traumatic part of the next thousand years of Roman history (ie, the millenium between Aeneas and Octavian) occurred during the third century BCE, when Rome fought Carthage and Hannibal came close to exterminating the race of Aeneas. How Virgil deals with that is fascinating. This being The Hannibal Blog, I’ll have more to say about it, as you might imagine. But I will do that in a separate post.

So this is the context of the first six books of the Aeneid: an “Odyssey” from burning Troy to “Hesperia”, the land of the West (ie, Italy).

The context of the remaining six books is a war that must be fought once Aeneas arrives in Italy, at the mouth of the Tiber: another “Iliad”, but this time a war for the founding of a city rather than the destruction of one.

Yes, it is his destiny to found a new Troy on this land, a new race that will rule the world. But the land is already taken. Aeneas and his Trojans will have to make alliances and to defeat the Latins. As Achilles once overpowered Aeneas’ cousin Hector, Aeneas now must become a Trojan Achilles to overpower the Latin hero Turnus.

Aeneas, killing Turnus

The Aeneid ends abruptly as Aeneas finishes the job, after a grueling battle. The last lines are these:

He sank his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest. Then all the body slackened in death’s chill, and with a groan for that indignity his spirit fled into the gloom below.

But through the revelations up to that point, and of course through the history that the Roman audience knew, it was clear that Aeneas is now done with killing. The time for generating has begun. Aeneas marries the Latin princess Lavinia, and Trojans and Latins merge to become a new race, the future Romans.

The city of Rome itself, mind you, will not be founded for another few centuries, when Romulus kills his brother Remus, both suckled as babies by the she-wolf, and starts building the city he names after himself.

But the Romans bridged those centuries in their story with genealogy. Romulus and Remus were the offspring of Aeneas and Lavinia fifteen generations downstream. If you define a generation as 25 years, this places Romulus and Remus 375 years after Aeneas. If you assume that Aeneas arrived in Italy between 1,200 and 1,100 BCE, then this fits Romulus’ customary founding date of 753 BCE.

Name is destiny

Ever wonder why the Iliad is not called the Troiad? Well, there’s a little story there that brings us full circle in this post. (This is a bonus round for geeks.)

Remember what my premise for this post is: The Aeneid was a genius work of propaganda for Octavian.

Well, Octavian was adopted by Gaius Julius Caesar, and in Roman law the son takes the name and lineage of his new father. So Octavian’s name was also Gaius Julius Caesar. We call them the first of “the Caesars” (whence the words Kaiser, Tsar, Shah, etc). But they were from the clan of the Julii.

Now, Troy and the Trojans were a city and people with many names (ditto the Greeks), depending on which ancestor you wanted to emphasize.

There was a Dardanus, so the Trojans in the Aeneid are sometimes the Dardans or Dardanians. In fact, we still call the former Hellespont, the straits that separate Europe from Asia, the Dardanelles. Troy was a few miles inland.

There was a Teucer, who married Dardanus’ daughter, so the Trojans are also sometimes called Teucrians. And Teucer had a grandson named Tros, whence Troy.

Tros had three sons: Assaracus, Ilus and Ganymede.

Ilus gave the city one of its names, Ilium. Hence the Iliad. (Ilus was also the grandfather of Priam and great-grandfather of Hector.)

Assaracus, meanwhile, was the grandfather of Anchises, who had the enormous luck to sleep with the goddess Venus (Aphrodite) and sire Aeneas. Aeneas then married Hector’s sister (his own third cousin) Creusa, and they had a son, Ascanius, also named Iulus, a form of Ilus.

Ilus, Iulus, Julius: They are all variations of the same family name. The Julii claimed direct descent from Aeneas and Venus.

Julius Caesar Augustus, you see, was Iulus, was Aeneas, was the reluctant warrior peacemaker, and Rome was the new Ilium, the new Troy.

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The unexpected page-turner: Virgil


Of late, I’ve been worrying that I’m losing it. Specifically, my ability to concentrate and … to read. (To read, you must concentrate on what you’re reading.)

I read so much all day on screens large and small that I find myself struggling to read words on paper when they are bound into packets of a certain thickness, otherwise known as books. Perhaps that is why I struggle to appreciate tomes that others are still capable of savoring.

You will appreciate that this is an odd confession from an aspiring author. Soon, in my fantasies, I will persuade all of you to read my book, once it is published. If you’re still able, that is.

So I’ve been starting and dropping books. It’s so easy nowadays — one click on Amazon, a few seconds on the Kindle. But they can’t hold my attention anymore.

And then, I returned to an old book: Virgil’s Aeneid.

Perhaps Cheri reminded me to pick it up again when she did. Perhaps I was just looking for an excuse.

And oh, what a surprise. The pages turn themselves. The pace is fast but light, the action non-stop, the tension immediate, the storytelling riveting. My concentration is complete, my effort nil.

I am reading Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which preserves the rhythm of Virgil’s Latin. I mentioned the other day how Virgil paid attention to his words, like “a she-bear licking his cubs.” Well, this is the result. Not a word is amiss or extraneous. The poem has speed.

Perhaps I need to get my head examined. Perhaps I am an anachronism, two millennia out of date. Or perhaps there is a reason why the Aeneid is a classic. It is so good. It made me remember how to read. If you’re like me, wondering whether “Google has made you dumb” (Nick Carr), pick up Virgil.

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Postcard from (yet another) Mount Olymp

This is where I am at the moment.

In Rome, you ask? The home of Scipio, one of the two heroes in my coming book? The place that Hannibal almost took, almost destroyed, but not quite, and which, as a direct result, took over the world–our modern world–instead?

No, actually. I’m in a sleepy little state capital called Olympia. That’s Olympia, as in the abode of the Greco-Roman gods, the place my four-year-old could tell you all about.

Some of the people that I’ve been talking to in these buildings are very aware indeed of the heritage that their architects intended to remind them of, each and every time they walk in and out of their offices. Sam Reed, Washington’s erudite secretary of state (and apparently a direct descendant of Charles Sumner) could go toe to toe with me on Polybius.

Others here look at me blankly when I opine that it must have been quite a controversy to decide between … Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. (But even then they inform me proudly, as three people have now done, that Olympia’s Capitol has the fourth largest masonry dome in the world.)

In any case, I quite savor these improbable links–visual, symbolic, cultural–to our common Western heritage, and to the world of my imagination, peopled as it is with the likes of Fabius, Scipio, Hannibal, Polybius and all the others who are in my book and in our world.

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Ancient scroll worms

As a writer, I am naturally interested in reading. That includes all the ways in which technology changes reading habits. How is reading different on a Kindle? Do you retain more if you “delete through a text“?

And: What if we were still reading scrolls?

That was the fun insight in this piece by Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. She takes us on a tour of reading and writing in ancient Rome. Some aspects of the trade were eerily familiar, but others quite different:

The ancient equivalent of the printing press was a battalion of slaves, whose job it was to transcribe one by one as many copies of Virgil, Horace or Ovid as the Roman market would buy. And it was a large market. Imperial Rome had a population of at least a million. Using a conservative estimate of literacy levels, there would have been more than 100,000 readers in the city. The books they read were not “books” in our sense but, at least up to the second century, “book rolls” – long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. To read the work in question, you unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, onto the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two. It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right- hand rod when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page.

Reading was a very different experience with this technology. You could not really skim, for example. You could not easily go back to check something you had forgotten. And you really had to concentrate, because often the Romans did not separate words with spaces but wrote in one continuous stream of letters.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering where papyrus came from: It came from Phoenicia, the mother country of Carthage and thus Hannibal. The Phoenician city that did the briskest export trade was Byblos. Hence: Bible, bibliography, bibliophile, etc.

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What’s in a word: Rostrum

When you speak in front of people, you “take the rostrum“. Literally, you are “taking the beak”. The what? Why would you do anything so odd when everybody is watching?

It turns out that, like so much else in our lives, our phrase for pulpit or lectern–ie, rostrum–has everything to do with the story that forms the historical backdrop for the main characters in my forthcoming book. Recall that we left off describing the foolish and tragicomic cock-up that led to two world wars and then a genocide. Well, the first of those wars “produced” quite a bit of flotsam, which the Romans called rostra.

We are talking now about the 23-year-long First Punic War between Rome and Carthage that started in 264 BCE. This war was about the island of Sicily. Both the Romans and the Carthaginians rather wanted it. There was a lot of fighting on the actual island, but the most dramatic and spectacular battles were sea battles. In fact, one of these may have been the single largest naval battle in all of history, involving 200,000 sailors and soldiers!

If you’ve been reading The Hannibal Blog for a while, this might strike you as odd. Yes, Carthage was a great naval power, so that makes sense. But Rome was not. In fact, Rome had no navy at all at the start of the war.

Well, the Romans changed that. At one point, they captured a Carthaginian ship, studied it, and copied it again and again, until they had an entire fleet. This was the ‘reverse-engineering’ part.

517px-corvussvgNext came a bit of innovation. They added an ingenious weapon to their ships. This was the “raven” (corvus), a large swivel bridge that the Romans brought crashing down onto an enemy ship when they pulled up alongside of it. The two ships were then tied together as a large floating platform, and the Roman soldiers stormed across. In effect, the Romans had thereby found a way to turn sea battles into land battles, and they tended to win land battles.

Now to those rostra, or beaks: It’s what the Romans called the prows of galleys. After their first big naval victory, the Carthaginian ships were sinking or floating in the water in pieces, so the Romans fished out the prows, brought them to Rome and stuck them onto the speaker’s pulpit in the Forum, as in the image at the very top of this post.

It was the equivalent, you might say, of an Indian hanging the scalps of his enemies above his tent.

And so, ever since, speakers in Rome and elsewhere have been taking the beak.

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Oops, we started a world war


Life, or history, is a tragicomedy. A lot of it is is just plain absurd. Hilarious, if it were not also terrible. The epic is bound up in the banal, the heroic in the vulgar. Wars are started out of folly or oversight, or somebody’s vanity, or pure mistake.

Let me give you an example from the era that forms the backdrop for the main characters in my forthcoming book. This is the giant cock-up that led to the Punic Wars, stretching over 118 years, robbing the ancient Mediterranean world of entire generations of its young as the the World Wars of the 20th century once would, and ending in the complete annihilation of Carthage.

To recap: Last time in this series we left off with Pyrrhus, the studly Hellenistic king who fought the Romans, usually winning (but hey, those Pyrrhic victories) but finally acknowledging that those Romans, so obscure and backward until now, were quite something. He went home and left Italy to them. For the first time, the Romans were now all the way down in the Italian “boot”, looking over at Sicily (see map).

Sicily, remember, was a mostly Greek island whose western parts Carthage, the maritime superpower of the day, considered to be in its sphere of influence.

We have already reviewed how Carthage and Rome were twins in some ways, friends in others. But now suddenly, they found themselves staring across the narrow straits of Messina, then called Messana. What would happen next? Did anything at all have to happen next?

No, nothing had to happen. That’s just what historians pretend 2,000 years later when they need to get tenure. Instead, here is what did happen:

Meet the Mamertines

There was this band of hoodlums–hooligans, gangsters, goons, whatever you want to call them. They were from southern Italy but went to Sicily at some point to look for work. Sort of like the Okies during the Depression. They found jobs in the great Greek city of Syracuse for a few years, but then got fired. So they wandered off again.

But on they way back to Italy they stopped at Messana, also a Greek town. The town’s elders, always good hosts in the Hellenistic way, gave them lodging. The hoodlums said Thank You, waited till everybody was asleep, got up and cut their hosts’ throats. Then they took their women. Then they declared that Messana was now theirs.

For good measure, they called themselves Mamertines, or “sons of Mars”. Looks better in the history books.

They kept being hoodlums, ransacking the towns in their neigborhood, until the Syracusans heard about this and sent an army. Yikes, the Mamertines thought. We better call for help.

So they contacted the Carthaginians in the west of Sicily and invited them over, just to show some force and scare the Syracusans off. The Carthaginians came, and the Syracusans thought it better not to risk a war over, well, hoodlums. (They knew whom they had recently fired, after all.)

Except now the Mamertines thought ‘Yikes, those Carthaginians are a bit scary too, aren’t they?’

So–and I think you see where this is going–they contacted the (wait for it) Romans, who were, after all, just a stone’s throw across the straits, in Rhegium (also Greek), today’s Reggio.

Sure, the Romans said. Why don’t we hop over and strut around a bit. We kicked out Pyrrhus, after all.

The Carthaginian commander thought it best not to risk a full-fledged war over, well, hoodlums, and left. But this was picked up by the Carthaginian equivalent of Fox News and the superpower decided that it had been humiliated. It crucified the general. (Literally, by the way.) Then Carthage sent a force to drive the Romans back across the straits.

And this, in 264 BCE, is how it started! The First Punic War would last 23 years. It would see some of the greatest sea battles of all time, including our own. It would be followed by the Second Punic War–Hannibal’s war–which was even bloodier. And then by the Third Punic War, which was genocide.

And the Mamertines, you ask?

Good question. Somehow they vanished from history the moment they entered it. We have no idea where they went or what became of them. The Romans, the Carthaginians, the Sicilians–nobody heard about them again or cared to inquire. After all, they had just been a bunch of hoodlums, passing through.

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Pyrrhus meets Rome; the world takes note

Let me now start to unravel some of the mysteries I have been setting up in my recent thread about Carthage, Rome and Hellenism–the historical backdrop for the main plot in my coming book.

The first mystery, in brief, is this: Why did two powers, which had been very alike and on friendly terms for centuries, start fighting some of the most brutal wars in all of history, ending in one of them (Rome) completely erasing the other (Carthage)?

In this post, let’s first look at how Rome even came to the attention of the Mediterranean world as a whole. Recall that Rome had been an obscure and small land power in central Italy of which Alexander had apparently never even heard!

Well, that’s because the Romans had been busy for several centuries fighting their immediate neighbors in Italy. As they subdued them piecemeal, these tribes–such as the Samnites and Etruscans–essentially disappeared from history. But with each victory, the Romans got closer to the tip, or “boot”, of southern Italy. And, this being the Hellenistic era, this brought the Romans into contact at last with the Greek world. The first great city of the Greeks in Italy to take offense was Tarentum (modern Taranto).


As it happened, there was at this time a very colorful and strapping young king just across the Adriatic in today’s Albania, which at that time was a Hellenistic kingdom called Epirus. His name was Pyrrhus. He is one of my favorite characters in ancient history (as I told you when I talked about Pyrrhic victories).

Pyrrhus had a bit of a complex. The Epirotes, like the Macedonians next door, were sort of, just barely, Greek. Which is to say that the “real” Greeks couldn’t quite make up their minds whether the Epirotes were really barbarians masquerading as Greeks. So Pyrrhus was forever overcompensating.

He claimed that he descended from Achilles, the greatest Greek hero ever. And he wanted to be as grand as Alexander, the Macedonian who had made himself the lord of all Greeks and conquered their old enemies. So Pyrrhus was constantly getting into wars here and there to prove his mettle.

His big break, or so he thought, came in 281 BCE, as Tarentum invited him to come over to help fight off some barbarians (the Romans). Pyrrhus, the defender of the Greeks! Pyrrhus, the descendant of Achilles fighting Trojan War 2.o against the descendants of Troy! He was thrilled. He packed his bags and swords, along with 20 war elephants and a huge, splendid army of Greek hoplites. And off he was to Italy.

Call me Achilles

Let’s pause briefly to grasp what kind of man Pyrrhus was. Here is Plutarch, describing a moment when Pyrrhus was wounded in the head once and his enemies were closing in for the kill:

one of them advancing a good way before the rest, large of body and in bright armour, with an haughty voice challenged him to come forth if he were alive. Pyrrhus, in great anger, broke away violently from his guards, and, in his fury, besmeared with blood, terrible to look upon, made his way through his own men, and struck the barbarian on the head with his sword such a blow, as with the strength of his arm, and the excellent temper of the weapon, passed downward so far that his body being cut asunder fell in two pieces.

Pyrrhus was more than brawny and brave; he was also a great tactician and general, perhaps the best of his time. So now, for the first time ever, Roman legionaries clashed with the famous phalanxes of Greek hoplites.


This picture actually does not do it justice. The hoplites in the phalanx stayed in tight formation, each holding his long spear so that the phalanx as a whole advanced as though it were a deadly porcupine with its quills pointing forward.

The Romans gave way. Then Pyrrhus’ elephants did the rest. And so Pyrrhus won victories, but they were “Pyrrhic”–which is to say that they did not help him win the war and cost him so much in lives that he himself said that he could not afford another.

Roman and Greek: Clash of Civilizations

But there was more going on here than battles. This was the first time that these two cultures actually met en masse. And the Greeks did not know what to make of these Romans.

In the Greek (Hellenistic) world, war was a higher form of sport and art. One or two victories on the battlefield, and the gentlemanly thing to do was to make a treaty, call it quits and go to the gymnasium to get oiled. So Pyrrhus was waiting for the Romans to cry Uncle.

But they didn’t. And the Greeks just did not understand. Why did the Romans just keep coming, and coming and coming, when they were dying in such large numbers? Who, or what, were these people?

There were more surprises. In the Greek world, you opened diplomacy with a gift or two, and perhaps the equivalent of a discreet brown envelope to the right persons. So Pyrrhus sent an envoy to talk to the Romans. But when he offered his gifts to the Roman senators, they were so shocked at the implication of venality that all diplomacy ended abruptly.

Bizarre! Even stranger, the Romans then saved Pyrrhus’ life. The king’s own doctor was a traitor and offered the Romans to poison Pyrrhus. The Romans, far from accepting the offer, promptly informed Pyrrhus, who had his doctor taken care of. There was nobility in these barbarians, he thought!

Long story short, Pyrrhus, after some distractions in Sicily, eventually left Italy and went home to Epirus, to keep looking for adventures and glory there.

Rome had survived its first encounter with the Greeks unbeaten and was now master of all Italy. All over the Mediterranean, people sat up and held their breath. Wow. A new power, living by exotic values and playing by incomprehensible rules, had arrived on the scene.

Even Rome’s old friends in Carthage suddenly realized that these Romans were now awfully close to Sicily, and rather more menacing than Carthage had ever thought. Whatever Rome was now, it was certainly no longer obscure.

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Great friends for 230 years: Carthage and Rome


Are you puzzled by Carthage and Rome? You should be, if you’re learning about them through my thread on the historical backdrop behind the main story and main characters in my forthcoming book. So far, I’ve told you just enough to raise lots of questions.

Recap: There we are, in the third century BCE in the Mediterranean: the place is essentially a Greek (“Hellenistic”) pond, with two other powers–one mighty, seafaring and rich (Carthage); the other obscure, land-bound and provincial (Rome)–waving at each other from opposite shores. But one century later, the obscure upstart somehow completely erases the mighty and rich superpower, thereby changing our world forever.

How and why did this come about?

We will get there, but first, let’s take another look at Carthage and Rome before war broke out between them. Not only were these two city-states remarkably alike; they were also … friends!

Not cuddly friends, perhaps, but certainly cordial enough to have four treaties of friendship between 509 BCE and 279 BCE. The terms changed, but the essence stayed the same:

  • You play nice over there, and don’t come armed over here, although if a storm were to blow your ships to our side, we’ll help you out so that you can be on your way.
  • In return, we will play nice over here, and not come over there, unless a storm were to blow our ships to your side, in which case we’ll be on our way as soon as you’ll help us along.
  • Oh, and we both realize that a lot of these places between us are actually Greek, so let’s give them some respect too.

You see this summarized in the map above. The Carthaginian sphere of influence is light green; the Roman light red; the Greek light brown. Notice the three main centers of Greek civilization in this (western) part of the Mediterranean, which were Tarentum (today’s Taranto, in Italy); Syracuse (also Italian today, of course) and Massilia (today’s Marseilles, in France).

This is still a largely happy and peaceful picture. But along came a swash-buckling young lad–no, not Hannibal yet–who caused trouble. He was Greek, his name was Pyrrhus, and you’ve heard and used his name in its adjectival form many times. To be continued.

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Archimedes between Carthage and Rome

"Don't disturb my circles."

"Don't disturb my circles."

Above you see a 78-year-old Greek man drawing mathematical diagrams into the sand, a split second before a Roman soldier stabbed him to death in a war against Carthage. The old man’s name, of course, is Archimedes, and when the Romans ran toward him he apparently said, simply, “Don’t disturb my circles.”

I have been thinking about how to illustrate for you, in one terse but punchy anecdote, the essence of the Hellenistic era that I wrote about in the previous post. And this is it.

Remember: This was an era when 1) two mighty powers, Carthage and Rome, clashed and changed our world forever and 2) the entire known world, including Carthage and Rome, was simultaneously taking its cultural, linguistic, artistic, scientific and aesthetic cues from the Greeks. (Oh, and it was the era that forms the backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book, a book that is really about the ups and downs in your life.)

But why this moment, the stabbing of Archimedes?

Because it was a microcosm of the larger situation. Consider:

  • Archimedes was stabbed in 212 BCE, just as Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander who is my main character, was in Italy, killing Romans (he killed about one quarter of all free Latin men at the time!).
  • The Romans, who were losing, were worried that Sicily, the ethnically Greek island between Italy and Carthage which they had wrested from Carthaginian control in a previous war might go over to Carthage again, thus giving Hannibal a base for supplies and reinforcement and sealing their likely fate: extinction.
  • So the Romans, while fighting Hannibal in Italy itself, attacked and laid siege to the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily, once a Roman ally but now flirting with Carthage.
  • But Syracuse, a proud and ancient Spartan Corinthian colony, was a more refined–ie, Hellenistic–culture than either Rome or Carthage. It was Greek, rich, old, full of art and learning. And it was the home of Archimedes!
  • Archimedes, using Hellenistic values of science and thought (as opposed to brute Roman force) helped his city to keep the Romans at bay for two years.
  • He figured out a way to use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto the Roman ships until they burnt–the Hellenistic form of Star Wars. He designed cranes that, using the principle of leverage, lifted the Roman ships out of the water and let them crash down.
  • Eventually, the Romans got into the city and had their Roman way with it. But the swash-buckling Roman commander, Marcellus, gave orders to save the great man, Archimedes–a gesture that was itself a sign of the Hellenistic Zeitgeist. Alas, the young legionaries did not recognize Archimedes and killed him.
  • And so Sicily stayed Roman and did not become a base to resupply Hannibal in Italy. Hannibal would later kill Marcellus in Italy, and things would take their course…

So there you have it: the three civilizations–Greek, Roman and Carthaginian–meeting in one spot at one time. But there is another reason to choose Archimedes.

Archimedes perfectly epitomized his Hellenistic time and his Greek culture. He was curious, full of wonderment, inquiring into everything. As he was taking a bath one day, he noticed how his leg, moving in and out, displaced the water, which gave him the idea for measuring the volume and density of any object. He was so excited that he ran out into the streets, stark naked and dripping, screaming what might be the the best and ultimate slogan for Hellenism itself:


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