Achilles, Aeneas, Hector; these are names which have already entered western society’s consciousness. All of them are heroes that have been immortalized in epics that have become a cornerstone of Western Culture. In the case of Achilles and Hector that work is Homer’s Iliad, for Aeneas, Virgil’s Aeneid. Both of these epics the hero is a foremost construction – more than being a simple protagonist character the stories of these epics revolve not around events but instead revolves around the few heroes whose lives shape the histories of entire nations and civilizations.
While one may summarize the Iliad as Homer’s retelling of the Trojan War, what one reads instead is the story of Achilles, leader of the Myrmidons during the siege of Troy. Homer paints an unrealistic picture of how the tides of war turn with the mood swings of Achilles. The fortunes of the Achaean army waver when Achilles sulks in his tent, refusing to fight for Agamemnon. Similarly, Aeneas is tasked with leading the people of Troy to Italy where he lays the foundations for Rome. In both stories, the hero plays a god-like role in the history of their people.
In this aspect, the classical Homeric and Virgilian heroes could be seen as “Great Men” when viewed through the eyes of philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the “Great Man Theory” of history. Carlyle’s “The history of the world is but the biography of great men” seems very apt when applied to Achilles and Aeneas. While this idealism might be a great purpose there is one criticism that could be leveled against both Homeric and Virgilian Heroes. Not anybody could become a hero. In both the Homeric and Virgilian epics, heroes were not made rather they were born. Additionally one couldn’t just give birth to a hero; one must have inherited a good bloodline, either as a descendant of kings, nymphs or even Gods. This birthright of a hero precludes ordinary mortals from being heroes. In this sense, the lives of the Homeric and Virgilian heroes could hardly be seen as empowering to their readers (or listeners). For the audience of these epics, heroism is something that they could never achieved and is only reserved for the select few who have won the genetic lottery.
One noticeable trait of the protagonists of the Iliad was their high valuation of honor. After all, the dishonorable act by Paris of stealing Menelaus’ wife Helen was enough reason to start the Trojan War. The Iliad’s heroes are expected to live to a high standard in order to preserve their honor. Heroes are expected to die fighting just to preserve the honor that their society places upon them. And in the case of the Iliad, to fight is the way for a hero to gain honor from society. For Homer, an individual is a warrior before he is a hero.
The concept of honor does not survive in isolation. One must earn honor from society. This reveals the social aspect of the Homeric heroes. Their honor rests upon living up to societal expectations. Whether it is to honor the fallen, to kill without mutilation or to fight to the death, a hero must be ready to perform what is expected of him. The quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad is indeed one of the low points of these two characters in the Iliad. Such an event is not supposed to happen as heroes are expected to forego their own selfish needs for their duty to the gods or to society. The Homeric hero is not an autonomous figure. The hero does not have the right to his own opinion or the right to control his own destiny lest he be called dishonorable for failing to do what is expected of him. Heroes are not to fear death or loss only dishonor. With this one can see how the seemingly trivial matter of Agamemnon taking Briseis from Achilles in the start of the Iliad could cause the grave sulking of Achilles. Honor is the reason that Achilles fights for Agamemnon and the spoils of war is the realization of his achievement of that Honor. When Agamemnon takes away his prizes, he is already taking away the honor of Achilles – the only thing that Achilles values.
A characteristic of Aeneas that sets him apart from his Homeric counterparts is his loyalty to his people. While the Homeric heroes were duty bound to their people, this was because their only loyalty is with their honor and societal approval is the only way to obtain honor. Homeric heroes could easily turn their backs on their people if their honor was disparaged as seen in the face off between Agamemnon and Achilles.
In contrast to the warrior hero of Homer, the defining characteristic of Aeneas is not his fighting prowess but rather his leadership. Achilles and Hector are the most skilled warriors of the Achaean and Trojan camps but they were at the best only leaders of their own men. Aeneas is the leader of all the refugees of Troy. Achilles and Hector are expected to fight and kill as many of the opposition as they can. Aeneas is tasked with leading his people to a new land and to start a new civilization.
Like Achilles, Aeneas is also a talented warrior. However, he fights not for honor but for his people. In this sense, his fighting has a higher purpose than his counterparts. As an example, Aeneas confronts Turnus in combat in order to provide a new city for his people. He also fulfills duties for his people beyond fighting. While on the North African coast, Aeneas becomes a provider by making sure that the Aeneads have enough to eat. He also takes on a greater leadership role as the Aeneid progresses.
Aeneas, Achilles and Hector, even though their stories were written thousands of years ago their characters still ring true today. Homer and Virgil have created in their heroes the character blueprints which have lasted into our times. Achilles is the hotshot know-it-all, Hector is the duty bound son who needs to do the right thing at the cost of his own well being, and Aeneas is the leader to the Promised Land. While Achilles, Hector and Aeneas are the heroes of the Achaeans, Trojans and Aeneads, their traits have become characteristics for heroes even in our present day and age.
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