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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