Who is the ancient Greek hero?

A while back, one of my Instagram friends @maankawas, kindly requested I elaborate on civic identity and the Greek hero. At the time, I’d been encountering, in Roman scholarship, descriptions of the Greek hero as ‘fighting for himself.’ This ‘selfish’ Greek (and presumably always male) hero was then contrasted with the Roman hero who did not seek ‘personal’ glory but glory for the Roman Empire. A further implication was that ‘Greek’ heroes had no meaningful civic identities while Roman heroes were defined by theirs.

Setting aside how we might feel about empire, my question was, is this contrast based on an accurate account of who the hero is in each civilization, to the best of our knowledge? There’s so much more to say than can fit into a short post, so perhaps we can think of this as starting a dialogue on the topic of heroism in antiquity.

As far as the Roman hero is concerned, the characterization seems based on Virgil’s Aeneas, and I defer to Latinists for their analysis as to how this may apply more broadly. In the case of ‘Greek’ heroes, these include men and women, and, I would suggest, the idea that they seek glory for themselves, are selfish, and lack a civic identity may stem from misunderstanding on three points.

First, perhaps the confusion arises because Greek heroes’ civic identities are smaller in scale—the polis of Athens or Thebes or Sparta as compared to the Roman Empire. This does not mean they weren’t meaningful and compelling identities for those who participated in them. Heroes are consistently referred to by their patronymic and place of origin. e.g. Odysseus, son of Laertes, from Ithaca. Local identity was a defining feature of the Greek hero, who is always fighting for his community, the people he belongs to and who belong to him. Which leads into my next point:

Second, the idea that the Greek hero seeks ‘personal’ glory overlooks the way the ‘individual’ is always interwoven into larger, nesting units. In the case of Achilles, for example, he and Patroclus are a unit, which is nested within the Myrmidon unit, which is nested within the Achaean unit, which is nested within the cosmic unit of which the Trojans and immortals are also a part.

Finally, what is translated as ‘glory’ in English goes by various terms in the Greek texts, encompassing (to name only a few) having proven one’s excellence, having one’s name on people’s lips, being honored with material rewards, being honored with divine favor. ‘Glory’ in English can feel undifferentiated and abstracted as compared to the various ways it’s talked about in ancient texts. This is turn can create opportunities for misunderstanding if we forget that we’re reading a translation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, insights, etc. on heroes and heroism.

2 thoughts on “Who is the ancient Greek hero?

  1. I loved this post on Instagram and reading it again is making my brain work this sluggish afternoon! I wish I had more to say but as I’m not an expert on any of these things, I don’t feel I can really contribute usefully to the discussion. But thank you so much for giving me so much to think about!

  2. I think they were all 10 percent doing it for personal glory but 90 percent for their country, the Roman for the Empire of Rome, and the Greek for the Glory of Sparta.

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