The Noblest Hero

Give way, you Roman writers, give way, Greeks.

Something greater than the Iliad is being born.

– Propertius

It is said that the chronology of the epic involves building upon past examples to produce a nobler and more virtuous ideal for the new generation of men. Homer idealized a cast of heroes in the Iliad and Odyssey which were considered to be the finest examples of manliness, which provided a righteous model on how to live and whose flaws and crimes stood as reminders of how not to act. The classical Greek education was centered on discussion of the epic heroes, from Heracles to Odysseus and a man was said to be worthy of life he best imitated Hector or Achilles. While the figures of Homers work might have been praised by the Greek tangibility Publius Vergilius Maro, a statesman and poet during the Pax Romana under Augustus would come to harshly criticize the Greek epic ideal and redefined what it meant to be a man with his hero Aeneas. The Aeneid would come to tell the story of the Trojan War from the victim’s perspective and would rebuke the deception, treachery, barbarism, greed, materialism and self-involved fame seeking of the Greek epic while simultaneously proposing a new, nobler model on how to live well. For Virgil and the Romans the ideal man was not interested in his own glory, prizes, gold or fame but the wellbeing and guardianship of the people, of selflessly building upon the idea of what Rome would become while never being able to see it in life, of enduring hardship without expectation of reward, capable and devoted to maintaining the path faithfully and with justice, of sacrificing to sustain something greater than the self or family (Res Publica), by practicing virtue and by fulfilling with unshakable resolve the duties assigned to him. This character is best exemplified in Aeneas and makes him the greatest of epic heroes.

We begin the Aeneid chronologically with Aeneas leading his people from ravaged Troy on an evacuation, an exodus which would eventually conclude with the founding of what would later become Rome. Aeneas, a prince of Troy and a skilled and courageous warrior, has either the option of fighting to the death in order to claim personal glory and fame or denying his own glorious death so that the Trojan people and civilization endures beyond the burning of its most brilliant city. The Trojan prince initially desires a glorious death, gathering his friends together and proclaiming as the city burns: “You race to defend a city already lost in flames. But let us die, go plunging into the thick of battle. (Fagles 87)” Aeneas eventually transcends the seduction of the glory of death and leads the evacuation of Troy, realizing that the wellbeing of the people and of the civilization is worth surviving, that a life in defeat is worth enduring, in hope of a more brilliant future.

Aeneas looks to the preserving of his pious heritage for it is too precious to abandon to flames just for the sake of some imagined glory, and trudges to the ships with his father on his back and his son in hand, a trail of refugees in his wake. The true honor of Aeneas is in fulfilling his duty to his people. Aeneas decision to run instead of fight, his exercise of prudence and compassion in the stead of rage and reckless abandon, and his devotion to the future wellbeing of his people is in stark contrast to the death cult of Homer’s Iliad and represents a more humane, noble and heroic way to live.

When Homer’s Hector was faced with a similar choice, an inevitable death (and glory) or survival for the sake of defending others, he chose death. The pleadings of Hector’s wife Andromache were to no avail: “Hector … this bravery of yours will be your end. You do not think of your little boy or your unhappy wife, whom you will make a widow soon … (Iliad 6.405)” Hector attacked Achilles outside the walls of Troy knowing that Achilles was a demigod and would surely defeat him, yet he trudged forward to die nonetheless, abandoning his wife, child and the safety of Troy to its fate. Hector’s self-centered choice to preserve his honor and glory before the wellbeing of the people was a death sentence for the Trojan people. Hector lacked the prudence and temperance of Aeneas, who realized that his death would mean nothing if no people were to remember it, if nothing was saved from it. While the other Trojans fly to their deaths as Troy falls Aeneas is charged by the ghost of Hector to not repeat his mistakes and to carry the people forward:

Escape, son of the goddess, tear yourself from the flames! … You have paid your debt you our king and native land. … Now, into your hands [Troy] entrusts her holy things, her households gods. Take them with you as comrades in your fortunes. Seek a city for them, once you have roved the seas, erect great walls at last to house the gods of Troy! (Fagles 84-85)

Aeneas makes the nobler choice, refrains from the suicide of battle and so preserves his civilization and its people.

When Agamemnon dishonors Achilles by demanding his war prize Briseis the king of the Myrmidons refuses to fight for the Greeks out of spite and pride. Achilles’ refusal to perform his duty in the war because of personal greed leads the Greeks to the brink of near destruction and is indirectly responsible for the deaths of many Greeks. Only when a friend of Achilles named Patroclus is killed does he return to the field of battle and not because of a new awareness of his duty but rather to seek vengeance, an impious bloodlust which climaxes with the desecration of the corpse of Hector. The selfish behavior of Achilles is in stark contrast to the nobler Aeneas who performs his duty even if it means his personal glory and honor would be limited.

Aeneas yearns to die in battle in Troy to gain glory but he knows that of greater importance is his duty to save his people and makes the nobler choice by choosing to fulfill the latter. Later in Carthage Aeneas falls in love with Queen Dido and is offered a chance to co-rule the Tyrian city alongside her (Mandelbaum 89):

Let us make, instead of war,
an everlasting peace and plighted wedding.
You have what you were bent upon: she burns
with love; the frenzy now is in her bones.
Then let us rule this people – you and I-
with equal auspices…

Aeneas has no desire to leave Carthage and Dido but forces himself to remain dutiful to higher ideals and the prospect of a grander future, realizing that if the Trojans were to settle in Carthage that the civilization would disappear and the dream that is Rome would never become a reality. Aeneas does not make any unnecessary stops on his way to Italy and remains absolutely devoted to the task of founding a new homeland for his people, only stopping to secure food or rest, and never at the expense of indigenous people.

Fulfilling a duty in hopes of reaching an ideal is more precious to the Aeneid hero than the riches, fame and capricious glory of Homer; Aeneas as a character is not swayed by temptation and does not surrender to his animal impulses because he realizes that doing so would endanger his people and his task. This conscious decision to transcend personal desire makes him a nobler, more civic hero. While the Greek heroes incite barbarism in their men Aeneas serves as a standing reproach to corruption and weakness, inspiring his men to act in accordance with his excellent virtue. Early in the Aeneid Aeneas watches his men greet Dido and is pleased with their fair and patient conduct. Later in book 9 while Aeneas is away at Pallenteum the warriors under his command left behind in a base camp at the mouth of the Tiber continue to act in a righteous fashion, without the need of his supervision or risk of punishment; Aeneas inspires men to be virtuous for the sake of virtue while the Greek heroes inspire indulgence of vices and passion.

While Aeneas is more dutiful, compassionate and prudent than the Greek heroes he is also more faithful, just and magnanimous. While the arrival of a Greek fleet usually signaled an impending raid, murder, rape and plunder, the arrival of the fleet of Aeneas brought civility, gifts and friendship. In Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey Odysseus is leading the forces of Ithaka home by sea when he decides (without provocation) to invade, sack, rape and pillage the lands of the Thracian tribe of the Cicones, destroying the city of Ismara and the surrounding environs. The Greeks slay all the men and children, set nearby settlements to the torch and enslave the women as prostitutes and servants. Eventually the Cicones repel the raid and slaughter many of the attackers who have become so overcome with greed, bloodlust and intoxication that they refuse Odysseus’s orders to return to ship.

Homer makes no comment on the barbaric behavior of the men of Ithaka and only seems disturbed that most of the attackers were unable to regain their composure and escape. This episode also reveals another flaw in the epic character of the Greek hero: non-Greeks are barbarians who should be exploited or destroyed at will. The Greek epic hero has implications of brutality removed from his consciousness and wages war as a sport, acting with brutality and injustice, more concerned with human and material prizes rather than the ethicality of his actions.

The flaws of Odysseus are three fold: he abandoned his duty by delaying his return home and endangering (and leading to the deaths) of his men, his obsession with his own impermanent fortune led him to act like a pirate rather than an inspiration to others, rather than a king and hero, and finally, he acted with intolerance, brutality, inhumanity and barbarism in the face of a people who were not only innocent of any wrongdoing but did not expect an attack. Later in the same book Odysseus repeats his barbaric behavior by landing at the island of the Cyclops Polyphemus and immediately raiding his cave, eating his food and looting his treasures. Again the greed and vain ambition of Odysseus would lead to the death of his men and with little moral consequence proposed by Homer.

When Aeneas lands at Carthago, a land inhabited by Tyrians who are ethnically alien to the Trojans and home to great wealth and beautiful women he exercises restraint and forwards his hand in friendship and love to the Queen Dido without ostentation and with a sincere modesty. While Aeneas could have raided Carthago and reaped destruction and rape he instead brings to it friendship and creation. Later in Latium Aeneas marries an Italian princess and begins to build the foundation of what would become Rome. Where the Greeks brought devastation, pain and exploitation for their own glory and prizewinning Aeneas brought civilization and peace (Mandelbaum 246):

in your new courage, child; o son of gods
and ancestor of gods, this is the way
to scale the stars. All fated, future wars
shall end in peace…

While the Greek heroes exercise deception and treachery in order to achieve their selfish ends as most clearly illustrated with the sacking of Troy by the Trojan Horse Aeneas exercises truthfulness, honesty and incorruptibility. As the Trojan War dragged on it became clear to the Greeks that a frontal assault on the gates, even after the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles, would prove futile.

In order to defeat the Trojans the Greeks crafted a great wooden horse and offered it as a tribute of peace before the gates, filling the hollow of it with their best men charged with infiltrating the city after dark and opening the gates for a Greek sneak attack. Also left at the gate was a Greek pretending to be an escaped slave Sinon who fabricated a story with false tears about the Greeks fleeing on their boats after being inflicted by a divine famine. The treachery of the Greeks paid off by exploiting the magnanimity of the Trojans and after dark a great slaughter and rape, not unlike the sacking of Ismara soon to come, ruined the city. Odysseus’s deception and treachery leading to vicious slaughter and plunder would come to be hailed by Homer as heroic.

In contrast the noble Aeneas exudes an honest character and remains faithful and truthful in his words and deeds to all, even to his enemies. After Aeneas had fallen in love with Queen Dido at Carthage he was soon reminded by Mercury of his true duty in founding a city for the Trojans. Honor bound by this charge Aeneas ordered his men to prepare the fleet for sail and set out to let his true love know of his intentions. While Aeneas was aware that Dido being queen could have easily forced him to remain in Carthage or in a rage may have slaughtered his people and taken him prisoner he nonetheless offered the searing truth in word to her and fearless of the consequences exclaimed “Troy is the city, first of all, that i’d safeguard, Troy and all that’s left of my people whom I cherish. (Fagles 139)”

Later in Italy we see the Aeneid version of gift giving when Aeneas honestly offers an olive branch of Pallas as a peaceful offering to the king of Latium and so is received as a friend. Unlike the deceitful Odysseus the Trojan prince does not exploit the magnanimity of those who receive his gifts and instead of slaughtering them offers his hand in friendship and alliance, ushering in a new age of civilization and order by the unison of the Trojans and Italians, a civilization which would later come to be known as Rome.