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Heroes, or Cry-babies?
By Nicole Saldarriaga
Let's Talk About Heroes (maybe)
The heroes of antiquity were a force to be reckoned with. They could best any man in battle, win against odds that seemed impossible, outsmart everyone but the gods…and…throw temper tantrums, watch hundreds of men die because of their stubbornness, treat women unfaithfully, unfairly, and downright murderously, murder their children, and uproot (or kill) whole cities for the most unsavory reasons.
It’s not a side to the ancient heroes that we often talk about, but it’s a side that definitely exists and really can’t be ignored.
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Achilles drags Hector’s lifeless body behind his chariot
Achilles is probably the most famous example of an applauded ancient hero who, to our modern sensibilities, can seem like a child throwing a temper tantrum. Achilles was well known for his strength, his prowess on the battlefield, and his apparent invincibility. He was an obvious pick to lead a battalion of troops in the Trojan War, and for a while, he really turned the tide of the war in favor of the Greeks—that is, until he didn’t get his way.
According to Homer’s Iliad, Achilles flatly refused to fight after his battle prize, a young woman named Briseis, was taken from his by Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces. Even after hundreds of men died, and even after Agamemnon desperately tried to return Briseis, Achilles absolutely refused to return to battle, and only did so after a beloved friend of his was killed. He says:
Neither Agamemnon nor any other Greek will change my mind, for it seems there is no gratitude for ceaseless battle with our enemies. He who fights his best and he who stays away earn the same reward, the coward and the brave man win like honour, death comes alike to the idler and to him who toils. No profit to me from my sufferings, endlessly risking my life in war. I am like the bird that brings every morsel she finds to her unfledged chicks, and goes hungry herself. –Homer (Iliad)
What matters to him is not that, as Odysseus has just told him, the Trojans are poised to decimate the Greek forces, but that he has been dishonored by not getting his just rewards.
Then, to put the cherry on top, after killing Hector, the Trojan hero, he desecrated Hector’s dead body by dragging it behind a chariot until it was torn to shreds.
So, let’s see—if keeping a woman as a “battle prize” isn’t bad enough to our modern sensibilities, what about Achilles’ pettiness, selfishness, unchecked anger, and his disregard for the respect we still believe belongs to the dead? His hero status, at least by our standards, is on shaky ground, it seems.
Some Questionable Behavior
And Achilles isn’t the only one. Agamemnon, the aforementioned commander of the Greek forces, willingly sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, so that the Greek fleet would have favorable winds when sailing to Troy. Odysseus, our favorite trickster hero and strongman, helped Iphigenia into thinking that she was being taken to the place of the sacrifice to be married. Ajax, another famous hero of the Trojan War who was revered for his strength and courage, made it out of the war alive but killed himself in a rage when he lost a competition to win Achilles’ magical armor. And these are just a few examples of “questionable behavior” on their part.
Iphigenia about to be sacrificed
Again, these heroes—while they were obviously revered in their own time—are seeming a little lackluster by our modern heroic standards, which tend to emphasize self-sacrifice, humility, and justice. Of course, it’s impossible for us to really judge centuries-old characters by standards so far removed from their own time and societal norms; but it’s certainly interesting to see how the concept of a hero has changed over time. Based on these examples, it would seem that some ugly behavior (though it wasn’t necessarily acceptable even to ancient society) was considered overlookable in the face of glory.
Don’t Forget the Romans
It’s not all Greek heroes either. The famous Roman hero (and legendary founder of Rome), Aeneas, exhibits his fair share of “complicated” behavior. He nearly brutally kills a woman (Helen) during the Fall of Troy, and the fact that he even considers committing this heinous act (which was considered unacceptable even in ancient times) is a telling mark on his character. Famously, at the end of Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas brutally slaughters an opponent even after that opponent admits defeat and humbly begs that his life be spared. Again—not looking so pretty.
Aeneas ignores Turnus’s cry for mercy
In fact, there is a small but significant portion of modern opinion that has begun to see the very event for which Aeneas is considered a hero—his conquering of the city of Latium in order to found Rome upon that spot—as an act of terrorism and brutality. This opinion goes so far that it has resulted in an enormous controversy over the use of a quote from the Aeneid in the recently opened 9/11 Memorial.
The quote, though beautiful (“No day shall erase you from the memory of time”) refers to two of Aeneas’s soldiers, who sneak into an enemy camp in the middle of the night and slaughter dozens of unsuspecting men in their sleep, and are killed for it afterward. This context, argue a number of classicists, appears to make the quote in the 9/11 Memorial sympathize more with the aggressors than the victims.
"You are the victor, and the Ausonians have seen me stretch out my hands in defeat: Lavinia is your wife, don’t extend your hatred further." – (Turnus, in Virgil’s Aeneid)
Clearly, the ancient heroes were not only nuanced, but also fairly complicated characters. This leads us to some major questions that we should be asking ourselves as modern readers of these narratives: Why were these men still considered heroes despite their (often ugly) behavior? Was heroism in the ancient world nothing more than incredible strength, skill, and the ultimate achievement of kleos (glory), despite selfishness or pettiness?
Or, from a different angle: were these heroes loved and revered not in spite of, but because of their flaws? Did these flaws, these behavioral quirks, somehow make them appear more human, more like us?