Heroism is a concept that changes over time as society changes, and the values that each society upholds determines who they view as a hero. The ancient idea vastly differs from what we think of as a hero today but there are parallels that are interesting to consider; ancient heroism still arguably impacts modern-day perception.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are defining and seminal works that have an enduring legacy on literature, art, and society in both the modern and ancient world. Homer was truly the precedent of works to follow – from Greek tragedy to Virgil’s Aeneid, the influence of Homer on the ancient world was undeniable. Homer remains one of the most well-read texts even today. The themes of warfare, human emotion, loss, and struggle are enduring and can resonate with anyone across the world. One of the motifs for which Homer has set the precedent is heroes: Homeric heroism is a concept that is widely discussed within scholarship.
The Iliad contains a multitude of these ‘heroes’, since the focus of the action is on the Trojan War and various characters’ stories within this narrative. Diomedes, Odysseus, Ajax, and even Hector are all examples of Homeric heroes: they win kleos (glory) in battle by defeating their enemies in killing sprees which display their aristeia (battle excellence) – the ability to defeat the enemy is what epitomises a Homeric hero. The quintessential hero of the Iliad is Achilles, aristos achaion (the best of the Greeks), who is the most esteemed warrior in Homeric epic. Achilles’ heroism stems from his excellence in battle and not necessarily his own personal virtues. Achilles is arrogant and selfish: he refuses to fight at the beginning of the Iliad as his honour has been slighted by Agamemnon stealing his war spoils, a captive girl named Briseis. He then spends the majority of the epic poem sitting in his tent while the war rages on and the Greeks begin to lose without him. Despite multiple pleas to return to fighting, he continually refuses until his companion Patroclus is killed by Hector. He returns to the fight purely for the selfish reason of avenging Patroclus’ death, rather than for the noble cause of Greek victory.
Would Achilles be judged as a hero in modern times? Perhaps not. The Greeks valued strength in battle, brutality, and vengeance as ideals that a hero should uphold. Modern day depictions of heroes are influenced by popular media such as comic books, movies, and TV. The superheroes we idealise today are heroes because of their selflessness and commitment to helping others rather than personal motivations. Superman, for example, is considered a hero because –despite not having any personal stakes in Earth as he is a superpowered alien – he consistently tries to save the world and the people living in it. His motivations are not due to his own honour or to take revenge, but for the greater good of the world itself. This is what underpins a modern-day hero, and it drastically differs from the ancient perceptions of heroism.
Odysseus is another prominent example of a Homeric hero. The Odyssey depicts his ten-year nostos (homeward journey) after the Trojan War until he finally retakes his throne on Ithaca. Odysseus is a different type of hero to Achilles: his heroic qualities stem from his quick wit and clever tactics rather than brute strength in battle. He is consistently referred to with the epithet ‘a man of many ways’ (compared to the ‘swift-footed Achilles’), demonstrating that Odysseus’ heroism is due to mental rather than physical strength. He is shown to be clever but flawed, as his pride leads him to reveal his identity to Polyphemus in Odyssey 9, enabling the cyclops to pray to Poseidon and curse the rest of his journey back to Ithaca.
Odysseus is perhaps more closely paralleled to a modern-day hero like Batman or Iron Man. He does not have any supernatural abilities – unlike Achilles who is the son of a goddess and so has superhuman strength and speed. Odysseus relies on his wit to help him in battle and on his journey home, just as Batman and Iron Man use mental acuity to build their own suits and gadgets. However, once again, Odysseus’ motivations are ultimately selfish: the Odyssey revolves around his homecoming and the lengths to which he will go to return home. He loses his entire crew in the process, intentionally sacrificing some of them to Scylla for his own survival. He comes home to Ithaca and immediately seeks revenge against the suitors who have been courting his wife Penelope and abusing xenia (the Greeks’ sacred concept of hospitality). He not only slays all of the suitors but also the slave girls who slept with them, an act of violence that is morally abhorrent by modern standards. While he is not a modern hero, he is a compelling character in the Odyssey, and the reader roots for him to achieve his goal of returning to Ithaca.
Moving away from Homer, another hero of ancient epic is Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid. He is different from Achilles and Odysseus in that he is a distinctly Roman hero and therefore upholds specifically Roman values, which have already changed from the values that were important in Homer’s society. Aeneas’s epithet is pius, which does not have a precise translation but encompasses duty and patriotism to gods, country, and family. He is not a selfish hero: instead, his drive is to his people and to found a new city that will eventually become Rome. In fact, he puts the duty he has towards his people before his own needs, which is demonstrated when he leaves Dido behind in Carthage as he knows that it is his destiny to found a new city in Italy. He is consistently seen to display piety and is perhaps more closely aligned with our ideals of a modern hero in his selfless motivations, comparable to a superhero like Hawkeye whose duty to family trumps all. However – especially in the later books of the Aeneid which focus on war – he is still seen accruing kleos by going on a killing spree, and partakes in considerable bloodshed and vengeance; notably, at the end of the Aeneid, he kills Turnus unnecessarily to seek revenge for the death of Pallas. Aeneas is closer to a modern hero, but he is still notably Roman in his motivations, which are removed from our own society.
Heroism is a concept that has evolved and will continue to evolve over time since it depends heavily on the values which each society covets. Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas are undoubtedly heroes but they would all certainly feel out of place in a superhero movie of today!
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