Freedom to, freedom from

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Two years ago, near the beginning of my amateurish exploration of the concept of freedom here on The Hannibal Blog, I dabbled a bit in the nuance between

  • negative and
  • positive


As it happens, there is a much, much better treatment of that distinction in this lecture by Hunter Rawlings, a classicist at Cornell (as well as that university’s former president).

We today subscribe largely to the negative concept of freedom. We want to be free from things (intrusion, government, …)

Most of the ancients — such as Pericles, the Athenian statesman who probably summed up classical democracy best in his famous Funeral Oration, pictured above — took nearly the opposite point of view. They wanted to be free to do things (speak in the assembly, sit on juries, fight in the army, co-determine the fate of their polis…)

(One exception in antiquity might be Diogenes, which is perhaps what makes him so interesting to us, or at least to me.)

As Rawlings puts it, neither society, Greek or American, would regard the other as “free”.

The Greco-Romans had a communitarian (and largely tribal) definition of freedom and were concerned about virtue (but hardly at all about property).

Enlightenment thinkers, starting with John Locke, defined freedom in much more individualistic terms and were more concerned about property than virtue.

The mixture of the two strands was at first (in the minds of geniuses such as Madison or Hamilton) tonic. But something has arguably gone wrong in the centuries since then, leading us gradually to stunningly childish and unsophisticated notions about freedom today.

A short excerpt of the lecture is below, but I hope you take time for the full hour, because it is fascinating and touches on all the topics dear to The Hannibal Blog: Greece and Rome, the Founding Fathers, democracy, et cetera.

Incidentally, I discovered the speech through this Greek blog post, which discusses some of my own posts and which Google has only translated for me very imperfectly. Thank you very much!

I’ll leave you with one snippet from Rawlings’ lecture, which is that the ancient Greeks, being so busy with their freedom to participate in the public business, had … no word for boredom! ūüôā

Now the excerpt:

In praise of sublime Greek violence

Nietzsche turned 26 as the Franco-Prussian war was raging (above). He saw this bloodshed as a failure of culture. So he started thinking more deeply about culture and its most fundamental mandate: dealing with human violence. And he arrived at some very interesting insights.

He did this by weaving together two strands of his thinking:

  1. the nature of violence in humans, and
  2. the nature of ancient Greek civilization

This is a great example of the benefits of cross-fertilization between areas of expertise. That’s because Nietzsche was not yet what we would call a philosopher. Instead he was, by training and profession, a philologist, which at that time in Europe basically meant a¬†classicist — somebody who studies antiquity, which in turn mainly¬†meant studying the Greeks.

Nietzsche absolutely adored the Greeks of the classical era (as we do here on The Hannibal Blog). He believed that they were the first to elevate humanity by transcending violence. Here is how.

(This is based on pages 139-141 of Julian Young’s excellent philosophical biography of Nietzsche, which I am currently reading.)

I) Violence

First, according to Nietzsche, the Greeks were honest about the human instinct to violence, and that’s a great start.

The Greeks knew that they were just as capable of violence as the barbarians. (Just read Homer’s account of Achilles’ wrath, or Thucydides’s account of the rape of Melos.) So they accepted that violence was simply part of human nature. The question was what to do about that knowledge.

Pause here for a moment:

a) 19th-century context

In Nietzsche’s own time, this was already a radical interpretation. First, European academe (of which he was part) basically viewed the Greeks as serene and enlightened √ľber-thinkers, as beyond violence. And second, European society (of which he was also part, at least at the outset)¬†had adopted a Christian morality (which Nietzsche would later in his life set out to debunk) that considered violence sinful and tried to eliminate or even deny it. So Nietzsche was already being politically incorrect.

b) Our contemporary context

While no longer politically incorrect, this view is still controversial today.  Which is to say that we are still arguing about whether we are at heart peaceful, like our cousins the bonobos, or violent, like our other cousins the chimps. (Video via Dan.)

In any case, the Greeks recognized the chimps in us humans, but then went a crucial step further.

II) Agon

That step was to redirect and sublimate whatever violent energy there is in humans.

Rather than denying or suppressing human aggression (what Nietzsche would later call the “will to power”), the Greeks purified it through the filter of¬†culture.

The result was agon — strife or, better, competition.¬†That’s agon as in agonize, agony, protagonist and antagonist, et cetera.

Classical Greece was perhaps the most agonistic — meaning competitive — civilization in world history, surpassing even modern America. Everything was a competition:

  • poets such as Homer and Hesiod competed with words,
  • playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides competed with their tragedies — literally for an award given out during the Dionysian festivals at which their plays were performed,
  • Socrates and Plato competed with the Sophists, and the Sophists with one another,
  • orators like Demosthenes and Aeschines competed with their rhetoric, and
  • athletes competed at the Olympic Games.

The result was beauty such as this discus thrower, sculpted by a competitive artist of a competitive athlete:

Agon pervaded every single aspect of Greek culture. It was the nasty goddess of strife, Eris, reincarnated as “good Eris”. Bad Eris had started the Trojan War. But Good Eris, according to Hesiod,

drives even the unskilled man to work: and if someone who lacks property sees someone else who is rich, he likewise hurries off to sow and plant… Even potters harbor grudges against potters, carpenters against carpenters, beggars envy beggars and minstrels envy minstrels.

You can choose to see infinite parallels in our own time and lives. For example, culture succeeds when Good Eris enters a courtroom in an adversarial justice system such as America’s. Culture fails when Bad Eris takes her place.

In the name of peace, may humanity study the Greeks and learn to ‘agonize.’

Bookmark and Share

What Polybius said about the Tea Party

I’ve been spending the weekend talking to various visitors from Europe, and they are, shall we say, fascinated by the American mood this year.

The country, a superpower that is hard for foreigners to ignore even when they try, seems to have gone loony-potty. A movement is afoot that wraps itself in a historic-sounding name, the Tea Party, then feeds on undistilled anger to rebel against… well, it’s not clear against exactly what.

The Hannibal Blog embraces intellectual contradictions as though they were steps in a Jacob’s ladder toward more humble and refined views. The Tea Party, on the other hand, won’t even acknowledge its contradictions. That’s the wrong way to go on a ladder.

And so we return once again to Polybius (Histories, VI, 57), who so influenced our Founding Fathers (those of the real Tea Party), and who seemed, about 2,150 years ago, to have something to say about America in 2010:

When a state, after warding off many great perils, achieves supremacy and uncontested sovereignty, it is evident that under the influence of long-established prosperity life will become more luxurious, and among the citizens themselves rivalry for office and in other spheres of activity will become fiercer than it should. As these symptoms become more marked, the cravings for office and the sense of humiliation which obscurity imposes, together with the spread of ostentation and extravagance, will usher in a period of general deterioration. The principal authors of this change will be the masses, who at some moments will believe that they have a grievance against the greed of other members of society, and at others are made conceited by the flattery of those who aspire to office. By this stage they will have been roused to fury and their deliberations will constantly be swayed by passion, so that they will no longer consent to obey or even to be the equals of their leaders, but will demand everything of by far the greatest share for themselves. When this happens the constitution will change its name to the one which sounds the most imposing of all, that of freedom and democracy, but its nature to that which is the worst of all, that is the rule of the mob.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

Dido conjures Hannibal: Avenge me!

Aeneas and Dido

What role did¬†Carthage and Hannibal play in the history of Rome as Virgil saw it — ie, in the entire millennium between the Trojan War and Emperor Augustus?

Last time in this mini-thread on the Aeneid, I tried to sketch the big historical picture of that great poem, the overarching tale of how a band of Trojan survivors arrived in Italy and merged with the Latin race to found what would become, fifteen generations hence, the Roman nation.

But I promised in that post to pay a bit more attention to Hannibal and Carthage. For Aeneas the Trojan, the three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage would not start for another thousand years. For Virgil and Augustus, the worst memories of those Punic Wars (ie, the years when Hannibal was in Italy) already lay two centuries in the past. Did Carthage need to be in this story at all?

And how.

It is clear that Virgil and the Romans in the time of Augustus still considered Hannibal their worst enemy ever, the man who brought them closest to extinction. And so Virgil almost stuctures the entire poem around Carthage, albeit in very subtle and psychologically surprising ways. Here goes:

Juno (Hera) again….

Hera, whom the Romans called Juno, has already come up repeatedly as an almost generic source of trouble in antiquity, as when she drove Hercules mad in her jealousy. Well, the Aeneid takes place just after the Trojan War, and Virgil has Juno still seething with rage at the indignity that caused that war, which was Paris’ choice of Aphrodite (Venus) over Hera as “the most beautiful.” Venus, of course, not only went on to fight for the Trojans but was also the mother of Aeneas.

So Juno would do everything she could to torment Aeneas:

… the origins of that anger, that suffering, still rankled: deep within her, hidden away, the judgment Paris gave, snubbing her loveliness; the race she hated… (I, 38-41)

And so Virgil starts his poem, on the very first page, with Juno and her new obsession, which is Carthage (“new city” in Punic), which was just then being built, at least in this mythical version:

Tyrian settlers in that ancient time held Carthage, on the far shore of the sea, set against Italy and Tiber’s mouth, a rich new town, warlike and trained for war. And Juno, we are told, cared more for Carthage than for any walled city of the earth… There her armor and chariot were kept, and, fate permitting, Carthage would be the ruler of the world. So she intended, and so nursed that power. But she had heard long since that generations born of Trojan blood would one day overthrow her Tyrian walls, and from that blood a race would come in time with ample kingdoms, arrogant in war, for Libya’s ruin… (I, 20-32)

There, in a nutshell, you already have it all: Juno would nurse Carthage¬†to become the world power, and yet she already knew that destiny intended, after a bloody struggle, for Rome to “overthrow its walls” and be its “ruin.”

(Tyrian refers to Tyre, Carthage’s mother city in Phoenicia, today’s Lebanon. Libya at the time referred to the inhabitants of northern Africa.)

Carthage as eastern temptress

Aeneas and his Trojans, meanwhile, are at sea, trying to reach Italy. Juno tries to kill them, by persuading the god of winds to cause a storm. She almost succeeds. 13 of Aeneas ships sink, and only 7 remain. And where do they land?

At Carthage, as it is being built. Its ruler is the beautiful and good queen Dido. Dido is more than generous to these Trojan refugees. She even offers to share her kingdom:

Would you care to join us in this realm on equal terms? The city I build is yours; haul up your ships; Trojan and Tyrian will be all one to me. (I, 776-779.)

And then she beholds Aeneas, the Trojan leader, and falls for him,

for she who bore him [Venus] breathed upon him beauty of hair and bloom of youth and kindled brilliance in his eyes…. (I, 801-803)

From the start, there is a scintillating and even erotic chemistry between “Carthage” and “Rome”, these two opposites who are yet so attracted to each other.

So Dido asks to hear Aeneas tell of the sack of Troy, that Greek genocide about which all people in the Mediterranean had by then heard. Aeneas describes it, in Book II of the Aeneid, in harrowing detail (in the picture above, Dido is listening to him as Ascanius, Aeneas’ little boy, sits on her lap). Aeneas also tells of his wanderings, his “Odyssey”, that brought him from Troy to Carthage.

Did0 listens and is rapt:

The queen, for her part, all that evening ached with longing that her heart’s blood fed, a wound or inward fire eating her away. The manhood of the man, his pride of birth, came home to her time and again; his looks, his words remained with her to haunt her mind, and desire for him gave her no rest. (IV, 1-7)

They get together, in a wild cave on a wild night. It must have been great, for she wants more, infinitely more. In fact, she considers herself married.

Virgil’s Roman audience at this point pictures not only the temptresses that tried to seduce Odysseus but Cleopatra, another queen in northern Africa who had very recently led astray a great Roman (Mark Antony) with her wily and erotic eastern ways. This is titillating stuff to the Romans.

Indeed, Aeneas almost seems inclined to change his plans and stay with Dido. But this is not his duty, and he is “dutiful Aeneas”, pius Aeneas. Jupiter, via Mercury, reminds him unequivocally of his destiny: to go to Italy and sire the Roman race.

Aeneas understands and decides to be on his way. But he doesn’t know how to tell Dido. Indeed he fears her. So he orders the ships to prepare to sail away at night.

Dido finds out and goes into a rage, the mother of all meltdowns. As Cheri has said elsewhere, it is not a testosterone rage as Hercules might have it, defined as violent, intense and short. No, it is an “estrogen rage”: deep, lingering, even eternal and ultimately more destructive.

Thus Dido (Carthage) ceases being Aeneas’ (Rome’s) lover and becomes instead his enemy, indeed the enemy of his entire race:

Then, O my Tyrians, besiege with hate his progeny and all his race to come: Make this your offering to my dust. No love, no pact must be between our peoples; No, but rise up from my bones, avenging spirit! Harry with fire and sword … Coast with coast in conflict, I implore, and sea with sea, and arms with arms: may they contend in war, themselves and all the children of their children! (IV, 865-875)

Then she stabs herself with a sword and hurls herself on a funeral pyre.

Every Roman of Virgil’s day would have understood whom Dido was summoning as this “avenging spirit”: Hannibal.

Indeed, just in case anybody was still confused, Virgil later, in Book X, has Jupiter himself make it more explicit. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says

the time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome. (X15-19)

You almost get the sense that the entire Aeneid was mere prologue … to this:

Bookmark and Share

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, ‚Čą1,250 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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

The classic hero story: Theseus

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur (above) is, in my opinion, the classical storyline, the archetypal Ur-Story. I much prefer it to the story of Hercules as I described it recently. It has:

  • unity
  • direction and momentum, propelling us forward
  • complexity, with characters male and female being fleshed out in a way that lets us empathize
  • relevance, collectively and individually, to our own life stories.

It is, in short, far superior to the myth of Hercules as a story.

Part I: Identity

As I interpret the story, it has distinct parts, which we see re-used, like Lego blocks, in our stories today. (If any of the parts remind you of stories, let us know in the comments.)

First, there is the boy who needs to find a) his identity and b) his calling.

Theseus grows up with his mother at the court of Troezen, where his maternal grandfather is king. But he does not know who his father is (ie, he does not yet know his identity).

This he discovers when he lifts a huge boulder and finds under it a sword. The sword was hidden there for him by his father, who is, as Theseus’ mother now reveals, the King of Athens, Aegeus (as in: Aegean Sea). In fact, there will always be some uncertainty about even that, since Theseus mother was visited by both Aegeus and the god Poseidon on the night of Theseus’ conception.

Theseus now sets out to find his father (= his identity, in my reading), which is of course a difficult path. A bit as Hercules had to complete his twelve labors, Theseus has to overcome and kill a series of villains who have been making the road to Athens unsafe. Thereby he delivers a public good. I won’t dwell on each adventure, except one: I’ve already told you about Procrustes, who either stretched or amputated his guests so that they fit into his special bed. Well, Theseus forces him into his own bed, with deadly effect.

Having prevailed (and thus established himself as a promising hero), Theseus arrives in Athens, where nobody yet knows who he is. Only Medea (who will also feature in another hero story, Jason’s), who is the king’s wife, intuits that he is Aegeus’ natural and rightful heir, and thus a threat to her own son. Using her feminine weaponry–guile–she persuades Aegeus that Theseus is dangerous and must be poisoned.

Aegeus reclines at a banquet to see the stranger drink the poisoned wine. But just then Theseus draws his sword, the same sword that Aegeus had hidden long ago for his heir to find, to cut a slab of meat. It is a recognition scene: Aegeus knocks away the poisoned cup and they re-unite. Medea, knowing her game is up, flees.

Part II: Quest

The stage is now set for Theseus, having found his identity, to go on a quest, on the one big task that will define him (in contrast to Hercules, who had twelve tasks but none that was definitive). It so happens that Athens is suffering. Every nine years, the Athenians, having lost a war with Crete, have to send seven maidens and seven boys to Crete as human sacrifice for a monster, half man and half bull, the Minotaur. The Minotaur lives in a labyrinth built be the greatest architect of Greece, Daedalus, and nobody who enters finds his way out again.

Theseus volunteers to be one of the seven youths on the next ship, heeding his “call to action” in the language of the mono-myth theory. The ship sets off with a black sail, and Theseus tells his father that, if he succeeds in slaying the monster and survives, he will return with a white sail.

And how different he is from Hercules even now, as he approaches his biggest task. Hercules occasionally had helpers in his labors, but they were mere stage props in the background. Theseus, on the other hand, is capable of love. He meets Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and they fall for each other.

Without this woman and her love, Theseus would fail. He is vulnerable. He needs an other, a woman, to complete him. And so Ariadne gives him her clew, telling Theseus to unravel its thread as he descends into the labyrinth in order to be able to follow it back out if he should survive his encounter with the Minotaur.

Theseus descends, finds the Minotaur and a ferocious fight ensues. This is his best moment (depicted above), his great act of heroism. He kills the Minotaur, follows Ariadne’s thread back out, and is ready to return home with the news that Athens has been liberated.

Part III: Return

But returns are never easy. Theseus elopes with Ariadne and they sail for Athens. But Theseus, now that the danger is past, falls out of love with her. She has done so much for him, and they have been so close. But now he abandons her on an island (where, in some versions, she will become the wife of Dionysus).

Did the Greeks think he was right to do so? Did they think he was bad? This is beside the point. Theseus, unlike Hercules, is complex. He is human. He gets confused, distracted, unsure.  We can see ourselves in him. He makes mistakes.

He makes a big one, in fact. He promised his father to set a white sail if he succeeded in slaying the Minotaur but evidently forgets and appears on the horizon before Athens with the black sail. Aegeus sees it, assumes that his son has failed and died, and throws himself off a cliff to his death.

But this tragedy marks another rite of passage. Theseus is the heir to the throne, so, having liberated Athens, he now becomes its king.

The story as model

At some later point, we’ll have to take stock of how Theseus (and all subsequent heroes in this thread on Heroes) fits into our debate about heroism. But for now, let’s just think of his story as such: as a story.

It’s all there. A search (for identity), a recognition and reunion (with Aegeus), evil (the Minotaur), a quest and a journey, love and dependency (Ariadne), a peak moment (the slaying), a return, betrayal, tragedy, destiny.

Are these not the parts out of which we build all our stories?

Bookmark and Share

New thread: Heroes and heroism


I’m announcing a new “thread” on The Hannibal Blog: Heroes.

I’ve already written lots about heroes, of course:

And I’ve discussed how the hero or heroine is an archetype at the heart of almost any story, and thus crucial to storytelling. (This is why the new thread will overlap a lot with that on storytelling.)

Why a new thread on heroes?

Because I think there is a lot to say about them. As always with my threads, I have no idea where we will end up, but I’m quite curious to find out. I have a vague sense that I will discover quite a bit, from you more than from myself, as we get deeper into the thread.

A very tentative outline of future posts in this thread might run as follows:


First, the classical heroes of antiquity:

  • Hercules
  • Theseus
  • Perseus
  • Jason
  • Achilles
  • Odysseus
  • Aeneas

Then, some non-Western heroes, including my favorite:

  • Arjuna

(For the yogis among you, did you know that the Sanskrit word for hero is vira, as in the yoga poses virasana and virabhadrasana? It is related to Latin vir, man, and thus virile, virtue…)

Then some fictional heroes and heroines from our folk-tales, our movies, modern literature. Then some real-life heroes. And eventually, some anti-heroes, who are really modern heroes. (Albert Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger jumps to mind.)

Feel free to nominate heroes in the comments that you’d like to have discussed.

I’m interested in what makes these various heroes and heroines heroic, what makes them timeless. Why did some heroes enter our collective unconscious, and others not?

About threads

For those of you who are new to The Hannibal Blog, a thread is simply a mini-series of blog posts, not necessarily sequential or coherent, united by a common tag or category on the right. By clicking on the tag of a thread you get a list of all the posts in it, in reverse order.

And threads never really end. So all the previous threads–such as those on the great thinkers, storytelling, Socrates, Hellenism, Carthage, stuff, America, freedom, et cetera–will go on.

Bookmark and Share

The “heart” of the Western Tradition: Dante


Nudged by Cheri, I’m re-reading Dante’s Inferno right now on my Kindle. Reading Dante is always a good idea.

The Inferno, or Hell, is the most gripping of the three parts of Dante’s epic Divine Comedy–the more boring parts being Purgatory and Paradise. (And isn’t that interesting, by the way: As every journalist and writer knows, the awful makes for an infinitely better story than the hunky-dory.)

But in this post I want to make a different, more historical, point about Dante: He may just be the single best illustration of a metaphor I told you about last year to explain–really, really explain–the entire Western Tradition.

To recap that post very briefly: You can think of “Western culture” as a human body.

  • The left leg is ancient Athens and Rome, Socrates and Aristotle;
  • the right leg is Jerusalem and the Bible, Moses and Jesus;
  • the crotch is the end of the Roman empire when the two “legs” met;
  • the torso is the Middle Ages, when the two traditions became one;
  • the left arm is the Renaissance;
  • the right arm is the Reformation;
  • the neck is the Enlightenment; and
  • the head is us, ie modernity.

(The metaphor, which comes from Professor Phillip Cary, is more subtle, so please read the older post.)

So where does Dante fit in?

Well, he was a product of the Middle Ages, located in the “torso” just below the left arm pit, where the Renaissance was to begin. The Renaissance, or “left arm”, in this analogy, was to be Petrarch, a fellow Tuscan and co-founder, with Dante, of the “Italian” language.

You see this all through the Inferno: the surprising and constant mixture of Athens/Rome and Jerusalem, of the (pagan) classics and the Judeo-Christian, Bible-thumping fire and brimstone, so that the two legacies merge to form a new and distinct tradition, as two haploid gametes unite to make a new, diploid human being.

The overall structure, both narrative and psychological, is, of course, Biblical: We are in Hell, after all. (The ancients did not have Hell, a place where we are punished for our sins. They only had a boring and gloomy place named Hades.)

But look who guides Dante through this Hell: It is Virgil, the greatest of the Roman poets, who told of brave Aeneas surviving the sack of Troy and founding the Roman nation. Dante can think of no one nobler, and yet Virgil is a pagan, so Dante meets him, along with Homer, Horace and the other ancient greats, in the first circle of Hell. Relatively un-dreadful, this circle is the limbo where those hang out who were unlucky enough to live before there was a Christianity to be baptized into.

Together, Virgil and Dante then descend deeper and deeper, from one circle to the next, to witness the torments of the sinners increasing with the vileness of their sin. But again, look whom they encounter:

  • Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded Hades (although Dante describes him slightly differently),
  • Charon, the ferryman who brought the dead souls across the river Styx for their final destination in Hades,
  • Centaurs, half men and half horses, who caused mischief in the Greek myths,
  • even historical characters such as Alexander the Great, whom we meet boiling in a river of blood in return for the blood that he spilled. (Hannibal must have been floating nearby.)

On and on. Virgil and Dante casually discuss things such as “your ethics”, which is assumed to mean Aristotle’s Ethics (the only text on ethics that the medievals had recourse too).

This, then, was the torso just before Petrarch emphasized its left (humanist, classical) side, thus launching the Renaissance and eventually provoking others to raise the right (Protestant, then counter-Reformationist) arm.

Located just below the left arm pit of the Western Tradition, Dante was thus … its heart!

Bookmark and Share