Aias to the Greeks, Aiax to the Romans, now known to us as the anglicized Ajax, he was ‘the best of all men that ever came to Troy, save only Achilles’.
However, Ajax’s status as number two in the Greek pecking order wasn’t always fully appreciated. After Achilles perished when the arrow fired by the Trojan prince Paris pierced his Achilles’ heel (oh the irony!) and Ajax gallantly carried his fallen comrade from the battlefield, it was assumed that the coveted armor worn by the slain hero would pass on to the number two warrior, Ajax.
However, the Greek commander Agamemnon and his brother, husband of the wanton Helen, Menelaus had other ideas. Persuaded by his eloquence, they decided to give the armor to Odysseus.
So what’s the big deal? Ajax is a wealthy prince and a mighty warrior, surely he doesn’t need Achilles’ armor, right?
The armor is not merely precious, useful and a wonderful souvenir which could rival a piece of the true cross, but it is hugely symbolic. It is so saturated in symbolic honor that to be denied it, Ajax has been forced to suffer a de facto demotion.
This snub is enough to tip a character, who is often portrayed as tactless, boorish and arrogant, totally over the edge.
He resolved to steal out into the night and enter the beach encampments of his fellow Greek commanders whereupon he would kill whomever he could and bring the rest back to his own tent for torture.
This, Ajax achieved… or at least thought he had achieved. Instead the goddess Athena, looking to protect her favorite, Odysseus, sent Ajax mad so that instead of mutilating Agamemnon, Menelaus et al, he butchered a flock of sheep.
It is at this point, with sanity suddenly returning to him, that Sophocles‘ Ajax begins.
However, an Athenian audience wouldn’t have been waiting with bated breath to see what was in store for the man whose stock has dropped from the heights of second greatest of all the Greeks to being a traitor and maniacal livestock botherer. They already knew his fate; he was to commit suicide.
Whilst myths are able to evolve and Athenian tragedians do often significantly change major details of stories, this one was perhaps a step too far even for the innovative Sophocles to tinker with.
Instead what he does is develop Ajax’s tragic flaw. Quite obviously pride would be the one to play up, but Sophocles mixes it with a shot of blasphemy to make a cocktail of hubris.
There is some minor evidence for such impiety in The Iliad. In book XI, Ajax won’t listen to the gods when they instruct the Greeks to retreat from the battlefield, but continues fighting nobly and bravely when the other heroes are making their tactical withdrawal.
Also, most Greek heroes are honored by a patron deity who watches over them. Odysseus and Diomedes have Athena, Achilles has Thetis; even the Trojans Paris and Hector have Aphrodite and Apollo respectively. However, Ajax is alone.
It is this theme that Sophocles nurtures as we learn that Athena did not merely send Ajax wild to save her dear Odysseus, but to punish the doomed man himself. The Messenger (a stock character in ancient tragedy) highlights just why this is:
“The gods have dreadful penalties in store for worthless and redundant creatures, mortals who break the bounds of mortal modesty. And Ajax showed he had no self-control the day he left his home. ‘Son,’ said his father – and very properly – ‘Go out to win, but with God beside you.’ ‘Oh,’ said Ajax with vain bravado, ‘any fool can win with God beside him; I intend to win glory and honor on my own account.’”
Thus Ajax is seen not only as a character with a deeply flawed personality, but one who is on the end of Divine retribution. So the question that crops up isn’t so much ‘did he deserve his fate’ as ‘can we feel any sympathy for him at all’?
Well… Ajax was honor-bound to come to Troy by the oath sworn during his courtship of Helen. In Sophocles, Ajax is less concerned with rescuing the stolen princess than with trying to please or even emulate his father Telamon, who himself sacked Troy in the previous generation along with Heracles – a feat, of course, which Ajax has been unable to better.
Telamon, “the man who never smiles”, is the only man who Ajax seems afraid of and indeed he comments timorously: “How will he welcome me, when I come home empty-handed?”
It feels like Ajax been pushed all his life to try and accumulate kleos (reputation) and succeed at every turn simply in order to be able to step out of his father’s shadow. The failure to gain Achilles’ armor would have be seen as unacceptable in Ajax’s own eyes and presumably also in those of Telamon.
Can we find sympathy for a man whose every waking thought is centered round yearning for his father’s approval? Is this something which reinforces Ajax’s pathetic vanity? And in turn does it cause us to pity rather than despise him?
Sophocles includes a “family scene” which contrasts starkly to its inspiration in book VI of The Iliad. It involved Hector, his wife, Andromache and their son, Astyanax. Hector, knowing he was going into mortal combat from which he may not return, is depicted as a loving husband and gentle father.
The parody in Ajax shows the ‘hero’, not going nobly into battle, but about to selfishly and capriciously commit suicide. In these final moments they can share together he is very curt and snaps at his wife, Tecmessa. He hopes that his son, Eurysaces, will be as good a man as he is, only more lucky. Hector on the other hand desired that Astyanax would emulate him, going on to bigger and better things. This makes it seem like Ajax can’t bear to be outshone by anyone, not even his own flesh and blood!
Both men also worry about their wives being sold into slavery should they die. However, by committing suicide and Tecmessa being a foreigner, Ajax has all but guaranteed this fate for her.
The dramatic irony of this scene causes us to feel great pity for poor Tecmessa, an innocent victim of a self-destructive and proud fool who, instead of being the linchpin of victory in the Trojan War heaps woe upon woe, tarnishes his reputation, enslaves his loved-ones, bereaves his loyal and loving half-brother and leaves his father without an heir.
However, this is not the only way in which Sophocles creates suspense, pity and fear. Ajax falls on his sword just over half way through the story, the rest of the play is a struggle between Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer and the opposing, gloating siblings, the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus.
The tension comes about because Teucer is being denied by the Atreidai (the sons of Atreus) the right to bury Ajax.
Prohibition of burial rites might seem like more of an insult than a real tragedy to us, but it was of vital importance to the Greeks. It was not a matter of life and death, it was much more important than that!
Indeed, the importance of burial rites ties in with the fact that Sophocles has been, very wrongly, accused of making a hash out of Ajax due to the fact that the main character dies, and therefore the climax is reached, so early in the performance.
What these critics don’t understand is that the death is a foregone conclusion, common knowledge to all, but the burial of Ajax is far from guaranteed. Consequently, this sacred rite, the blasphemous denial of which would leave no Athenian theatre-goer sitting comfortably, creates tension and drama of the very highest order. Especially as all the men at the crux of the debate are edgy, angry and highly dangerous.
Indeed some interpret the play as reflecting the mental pressure on men in the appalling conditions of siege-warfare, far away from their homes and loved-ones and with the constant threat of slavery or annihilation hanging over their heads.
However, the play ends on a hopeful note thanks to a most unlikely source.
Odysseus, acting like a deus ex machina, manages to convince Agamemnon that Ajax, despite his faults, deserves a burial. Although Agamemnon doesn’t really concur and is amazed that Odysseus, mortal enemy of Ajax, wants to help Teucer, he allows him to do as he pleases.
And these are the words with which Odysseus guides the heart-broken Teucer through his darkest hour:
“I have this to say to you: I am your friend henceforth, as truly I was your enemy; and I am ready to help you bury your dead and share in every office that we mortals owe to the noblest of our kind”.
And thus Odysseus shows us that even in death, even through enmity, even when blood has been shed, bile been spat, even when hate and hostility trickle from the lips more readily than any words of friendship or conciliation…. even then there is still room for someone to step in and make things right, to honor the gods through a kind act and to lighten, even slightly, the weight upon a bereaved and dejected soul.
by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Many heroes from Greek mythology have inspired people across the millennia. We can think of warriors and adventurers like Achilles, Odysseus and Jason. Yet amongst theses names, there is a figure that is especially remarkable: Cadmus, the legendary founder of Thebes. What makes Cadmus distinct amongst these names is that he was a foreigner, or in Greek terms, a barbarian. Yet he is still considered by the Greeks as one of the greatest heroes before Heracles.
The Early Adventures of Cadmus
Cadmus was born in Phoenicia, and was apparently the son of King Agenor, yet his real father may have been Zeus. The etymology of the name may Camus mean ‘Easterner’, and this reflects his foreign origins. His sister was the beautiful Europa, from whom we derive the name Europe, and she was abducted by the great philanderer Zeus. Cadmus was sent to retrieve her and bring her home, but he had no success. In desperation he visited the Oracle of Delphi for some help in his search. He was told to abandon his search, and instead focus on founding a city. The Oracle ordered him to follow a cow with unusual markings. Where she lay down, he was to find a city.
He followed the animal to Boeotia (land of cows), and she eventually lay down. After he sacrificed the cow to the goddess Athena, he laid the foundation for what later became the city of Thebes, one of the greatest cities in the Classical world. During the construction of Thebes, the first inhabitants were threatened by a dragon from a nearby spring. Cadmus, like any hero, naturally killed the dragon. In Greek mythology, the teeth of dragons had special powers when they were sown in the ground. Cadmus sowed the earth with the slain dragons’ teeth, and from these grew a race of armed warriors, who were called Sparti (or ‘the sown’ in Greek).
They immediately started into violence, and killed each other until only five were left standing. These five were enlisted by Cadmus and helped him to build a citadel in Thebes. The descendants of the five Sparti became the leading aristocratic families of Thebes.
The Later Adventures of Cadmus
Yet all was not well. Cadmus had unwittingly offended the god of war, Ares. The slain dragon was sacred to this Olympian. The hero had to serve Ares for eight years as a bondsman, little more than a slave. After the eight years were finished, Ares gave his daughter Harmonia to Cadmus as his bride. Their wedding was attended by many of the gods. One of the gifts that Harmonia received was a gift of a necklace made by Hephaestus. The couple had a son, Polydorus, and four daughters, Agave, Ino, Autonoë and Semele (who would become the mother of Dionysus). Myths relate that Cadmus also founded some cities in Illyria. In some stories, after a series of misfortunes, such as their grandson King Pentheus being torn apart, and civil strife in Thebes, the couple wished that they were black serpents rather than endure their miserable existence. Upon hearing this they couple were changed into black serpents by the gods. After some time as snakes, Zeus rescued the couple and brought them to Elysian Fields where they spent, eternity in a blessed and happy state.
The Meaning of the Myth
The Cadmus myth, like other fables, demonstrates that humans must respect the gods or face their wrath. Some have argued that the hero was based on a real-life king or warrior and point to some refences in a Hittite record. He was a cultural hero and his killing of the dragon, and the founding of Thebes can be seen as helping to create civilization. The myth of Cadmus may represent the influence of Eastern cultures, specifically the Phoenicians, on Greek culture. Certainly, the myth may have been used to explain the adoption of the phonetic alphabet from the Levant. The marriage of Harmonie and Cadmus may represent the union of Greece and the East. Furthermore, the years he spent serving Ares may reflect the employment of Eastern mercenaries in the Hellenic World. Finally, the story of Cadmus was used to explain the foundation of Thebes and other cities, which was common in Hellenic mythology.
Graves, Robert (1980). Greek Myths. Pélican : London.
by Andrew Aulner, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A quote attributed to Steve Jobs says, “You can tell a lot about a person by who his or her heroes are.” The ancient Greeks and Romans were certainly no different. In antiquity, poetry was considered one of the highest forms of cultural expressions, and no heroes are more central to the epic verse of Greece and Rome than the protagonists Odysseus and Aeneas, respectively.
What can the attributes of each of these legendary heroes show us about the differences between the cunning Greeks and the noble Romans?
Odysseus as the Guileful, Well-Spoken General in the Iliad
Odysseus (sometimes referred to by the Roman version of his name, “Ulysses”), is the king of Ithaca and the central character of the Odyssey, but he also serves as an important supporting character in the Iliad. Whereas the prideful, intemperate Achilles is the protagonist of the Iliad, Odysseus shines in both poems as the archetypal Greek hero: capable in battle, cunning in stratagem, and a master of oratory.
Early in the Iliad, a Greek loudmouth named Thersites insults the chief general-king, Agamemnon. Odysseus orders him to hold his tongue and follows his threat up with a blow across Thersites’s back, which sends the complainer into a fit of tears. The Greek soldiers, or as they are referred to in Homer’s work, the Achaeans, praise Odysseus for his physical skill, though a secondary motive for Odysseus’s violent action is soon revealed.
Odysseus is wise and cunning enough to foresee the danger of letting a blabber like Thersites diminish the Greek morale and thereby decrease their odds of success against the Trojans, so he keeps up morale by literally whipping Thersites into shape and following it up with a speech.
The king of Ithaca displays an impressive use of rhetoric by encouraging Agamemnon and the surrounding Achaeans through an oration. Through both his physical action against Thersites and his motivational words of comfort to the troops, Odysseus shows that he is a strong man, a high-level orator, and a long-term thinker.
Throughout the Iliad, Odysseus is referred to as an almost peerless advisor and planner. Agamemnon himself says that the king of Ithaca overcomes other Greeks in debate skill, and the poem’s narrator refers to Odysseus as a rival to the chief god Zeus in his ability to render counsel. For example, after his rousing speech to the Greeks, Odysseus prudently advises Agamemnon to divide the Greeks by clan and tribe so that it can be ascertained which group is performing poorly in battle.
Helen of Troy describes Odysseus to the Trojans as a crafty tactician from a rugged country, “quick at every treachery under the sun” and “a man of twists and turns” (Iliad III.243-44). That these attributes are the first to leap to Helen’s mind as she observes the Greek champions from afar speaks volumes about the king of Ithaca’s defining characteristics. He is a tough, capable enough warrior who is most especially distinguished by his skills in quick thinking and long-term strategy.
Odysseus’s mental and tactical cunning shines through in non-deadly combat as well. During the funeral games for Achilles’s friend, Patroclus, Odysseus wrestles with Ajax, who is notable for his massive size. However, Odysseus proves to be nearly equal to Ajax in terms of sheer brawn and fights the larger man to a draw through technical wrestling skill.
As a powerful speaker and level-headed thinker, Odysseus is the natural choice to lead a delegation to implore Achilles to return to battle against the Trojans. Odysseus begins with a toast and uses his rhetorical skill to praise Achilles’s hospitality and describe the Greek army’s urgent need for Achilles. He appeals to Achilles’s pity for the common soldiers who are doomed to die without him and sensibly points out the dangerous nature of grudges, including the one that Achilles is harboring against Agamemnon over a woman.
Perhaps the closest thing to a deficiency in Odysseus’s character in the Iliad is his retreat from battle halfway through the poem, which takes place after Zeus uses his divine powers to turn the tide of the fight in favor of the Trojans. One of the dying Greek soldiers suggests that Odysseus is a coward for turning and running.
However, Homer does not condemn Odysseus as a coward in his narration, nor do any of the other characters do so after the battle. This may be a sign that the ancient Greeks sometimes valued doing something that was tactically smart even if it appeared to be dishonorable or cowardly in the moment.
Whether or not this instance was a failing on Odysseus’s part, he demonstrates plenty of martial courage in the rest of the poem. He engages in a covert mission to spy on the enemy, kills multiple named skilled Trojan warriors in pitched battle, and holds his own while outnumbered after his fellow soldiers flee from a Trojan counterattack. Odysseus bravely continues fighting even after being wounded until he is rescued by Menelaus.
Throughout the Iliad, Odysseus is shown to be just as brave and a clearer thinker than Achilles or Ajax, a better speaker than Menelaus, and a more cunning leader than Agamemnon.
Odysseus as the Cunning Survivor in the Odyssey
Odysseus’s brilliance after leaving Troy in the Odyssey is legendary. In one of the most famous incidents from The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men escapes being trapped in a cave by a Cyclops named Polyphemus.
The king of Ithaca provides the giant with a false name, “Nobody,” then he distracts the Cyclopes with drink and leads his men to gouge out the giant’s single eye with a wooden stake. Odysseus’s naming ruse succeeds when Polyphemus is unable to ask for help from his fellow Cyclopes, who are confused when he says that “Nobody” attacked him.
Odysseus later outwits the witch Circe through the use of a magical herb, has his men escape the lure of the Sirens through plugging their ears with beeswax, and skillfully navigates the narrow sailing space between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. Finally, he is the only crewmember self-disciplined enough to avoid eating sacred cows belonging to the sun god Helios, so he alone is spared from death by shipwreck.
Odysseus continues to rely on his wits even after returning to Ithaca. He first disguises himself in order to perform reconnaissance in his kingdom, thinking on his feet well enough to maintain the illusion even with his own swineherd. After reuniting with his son, Telemachus, Odysseus obtains his last crucial piece of military intel by meeting both his wife’s suitors, who mistreat him in his disguise, and his wife Penelope herself, who confirms her fidelity to her husband.
At the climax of the Odyssey, Odysseus achieves victory by winning an archery competition in disguise before revealing himself and slaughtering the predominantly defenseless suitors. This moment is the marriage between Odysseus’s cunningness and his martial skill, though the victory over mostly unarmed men is not the most honorable feat. Lastly, his rhetoric is put to use once more when he separately proves his identity to his wife Penelope and his father Laertes through his words.
Aeneas as the Duty-Bound Leader in the Aeneid
Both Odysseus and Aeneas are formidable warriors, each of them near the top of their army’s foremost military champions. However, whereas Odysseus is defined more by his cunning and strategic ability than his sheer martial capability, Aeneas is characterized by a combination of military strength and intense devotion to duty, being referred to throughout the Aeneid as “duty-bound Aeneas.”
Virgil begins his epic by declaring Aeneas to be a man of war who is destined to reach Italy. This sense of unwavering intention is a key part of Aeneas’s character, and it is a strong demonstration of the honor-based culture of the ancient Romans. Aeneas possesses certain social, familial, and religious commitments that he is obliged to uphold, regardless of his personal desires.
Aeneas’s priorities are to those around him, especially his family. After the Greeks finally conquer Troy through the schemes of Ulysses (remember, that’s the Roman name for Odysseus), who crafts the Trojan Horse, Aeneas attempts to beat back the invaders before realizing that he can’t save the city by himself. Aeneas instead turns his focus toward saving his family, including his son, wife, and father. Unfortunately, Aeneas’s wife dies during the escape, but Aeneas nevertheless succeeds in putting his loved ones first and ensuring the safety of the rest of his family members above his own.
With Troy sacked, Aeneas leads his family and the other survivors out to sea. After receiving a prophecy that he is honor-bound by destiny to find Italy, he undergoes sea wanderings that parallel the Odyssey, including encountering the whirlpool Charybdis and finding the island of the Cyclopes.
Aeneas’s sense of honor and duty is so strong that, even after falling in love with Dido, the queen of Carthage, Aeneas returns to his sea voyage after the gods remind of his destiny, which will also determine the fate of his family. Tragically, Aeneas’s choice of duty over love leads Dido to kill herself.
Honor and fair play are at the center of the funeral games that Aeneas later holds in honor of his departed father, Anchises. The Trojan leader presides over the games with a consummate sense of fairness and implores both winners and losers to play well and avoid grudges. Such nobility is a sign of Aeneas’s honorable leadership.
The Trojans finally land on Latium in western Italy, where they encounter several native peoples, including the Latins. Thanks to the meddling of the gods and the hotheadedness of a rival king named Turnus, war breaks out between the parties. Aeneas’s friend Pallas is killed, and Aeneas responds in kind by killing a friend of Turnus’s named Mezentius, although Aeneas honorably faces him in single combat rather than kills him through subterfuge.
As the war progresses, the honorable Aeneas is contrasted with Turnus when the latter turns down the offer of single combat, which would save the lives of Turnus’s soldiers but would likely lead to his death. After demonstrating his military prowess and leadership in another skirmish, Aeneas is finally able to confront Turnus, whom he defeats in a duel.
In the ending lines of the poem, Aeneas contemplates heeding Turnus’s plea for mercy, only to catch sight of the enemy in possession of the slain Pallas’s sword belt. Filled with rage, Aeneas kills the defeated Turnus. While Virgil died before he finished editing the Aeneid and may have intended a different ending, this scene between Aeneas and Turnus still serves as a stark portrayal of an honor-based culture that is not tempered by what Shakespeare called “the quality of mercy.”
Odysseus is warrior-king who is equal parts clever, tough, and well-spoken. These attributes reflect the Greek values of cunningness, martial strength, and rhetorical skill.
Aeneas is a warrior-king who fights well and always puts duty to country, family, and the gods first. These characteristics were important for the Romans, who observed a strict code of honor and valued patriotism, familial ties, and religious devotion.
From each of these two great heroes, we gain fabulous insights into the societies of classical antiquity.
Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles. New York, Penguin Books. 1990.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Random House, 1983.
by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
He is a towering figure of ancient myth.
He fought at Troy and appears in the Iliad. Yet he is remembered for something much greater. He was seen by the Romans as a paragon of virtue, and one of the founders of their city. One of the world’s most enduring and influential pieces of literature, the Aeneid, was written about him. But who was Aeneas?
The origins of Aeneas
The Greek version of Aeneas is related in two sources: the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and the Iliad. According to legends, he was the son of Anchises, a Trojan royal prince. His mother was the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology). Aphrodite had made Zeus fall in love with a human woman; in retaliation, he made her fall in love with a human too, namely Anchises. Aeneas was then born on Mount Ida, and was at first raised by nymphs before being taken to his father in Troy.
In ancient Greek, he was known as Αἰνείας (Aineías). Aeneas is a Latin form of the Greek. It has been speculated that the Greek name Αἰνείας meant originally ‘terrible’ or agony. This could refer to his martial prowess, or relate to the fact that his mother predicted his life of struggle when he was born.
In the Iliad, Aeneas is a fairly minor figure, but he is still portrayed as a noble warrior who is notably pious. At first in the epic, he holds back from the fighting, because he is angry that he has not received recognition from Priam. Later, he leads a mission to retrieve the body of his brother-in-law Alcathous. He is shown as a commander of a group of Trojan allies. During his time in Troy, Aeneas is rescued twice by the gods because he is destined to have a great future…
Aeneas, the founder of Rome
The legend of Aeneas was later adopted by several Roman writers. The Trojan hero was popular with Romans because he embodied qualities that they valued such as ‘pietas’ or commitment to native land, family and duty. The best-known version of the myth of Aeneas is told in Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, one of the greatest works in all of Classical literature.
In Roman mythology, the focus is on Aeneas and his adventures after the destruction of Troy. During the fall of the city, Aeneas leads his family and a small group to safety. He then leads them on a mission to find a new home for the surviving Trojans. They attempted to find a new city several times, but each time they failed. Eventually, Aeneas’ father Anchises died in Sicily. Later, Juno sends a storm that drives the Trojans to the shores of Carthage.
There, Aeneas has a six-year affair with the Phoenician Queen Dido. Committed to his duty, he eventually leaves Dido to find a new home for his people. In despair, Dido commits suicide. After arranging funeral games in Sicily, Aeneas lands on the western shores of Italy with his small band. At this time, Aeneas journeys to the Underworld and meets Dido and his father, who predicts that he would establish a great city (Rome).
Aeneas and the Foundation of Rome
Returning from the Underworld, Aeneas continued his journeys. The King of the Latins welcomed the Trojans and allowed them to settle in his territory. Aeneas became engaged to the Latin King’s daughter, Lavinia. This leads to a war with Turnus, the Rutulian King and his allies. In this bloody war, Aeneas emerges victorious. The story makes clear that Aeneas won because his cause was right. At this point in the Aeneid, the story of Aeneas ends abruptly, possibly because of the death of Virgil. The story of Aeneas was completed by writers such as Livy and Ovid. After his victory over Turnus, Aeneas founds the city of Lavinium, named after his wife Lavinia. The hero had many descendants. One of them became King of Alba Longa, and was the progenitor of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. After his death, Venus had Jupiter make him immortal and he ascended into the heavens to live like a god.
Aeneas and Roman Culture
The myth of Aeneas was of great cultural significance in Roman civilization. In ancient societies, myths were used to tell the history of peoples and to explain their origin. The story of Aeneas and his adventures was used to explain the foundation of Rome and justify its imperialism. Similarly, the tragic love affair between Dido and Aeneas was used to explain the enmity between Carthage and Rome. Aeneas was seen as the embodiment of Roman virtues, especially his pietas. The story of the Trojan prince was used to promote social and cultural ideas that had come to be considered essential for Roman greatness. They were also instrumental in teaching and reinforcing Roman ideas on morality and also justifying its empire as something moral and noble.
The stories of Aeneas demonstrate the power of myths and how they can be adapted. The Trojan was a minor figure in the Trojan War. Yet, when the Romans adopted him, he became something of a ‘national hero.’ Aeneas and his adventures were a common subject in Roman literature and art, and the legends of the Trojan were used to explain the history of Rome.
Elliot, A., 2013. Aeneas. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 20(3), pp.1-8.
There’s probably no other Greek figure that has had more movies, TV shows, and other adaptations based on their tales. Although, in a lot of these cases, it’s not the character’s original Greek name, Herakles, that is used. Rather, we may know him better by his Latinized name of Hercules, as used by the Romans.
What’s in a name, though?
Quite a lot, actually.
In Greek mythology, a character’s name can have very resonant meanings. A brief example would be Antinous from the Odyssey, one of the leaders of the feckless and wasteful suitors. With Odysseus having left his home of Ithaca twenty years previously to fight at Troy, Antinous hopes to wed Odysseus’ wife Penelope in the Greek hero’s absence. His name is a compound of anti, meaning “opposed” (a meaning it still holds today), and nostos, the Greek word for homecoming. Antinous’ name reflects the role he plays in the Odyssey – he opposes the homecoming of Odysseus. The French academic Nicole Loraux described such instances of Greek names as being ‘micro-narratives’.
Similarly, Herakles’ identity is encoded within his name. Herakles isn’t even his real name. He is born Alcaeus, and later took on the name Herakles himself. But why?
The name Herakles is a compound of the name of the goddesss Hera and the word kleos, an important concept in Greek society, meaning glory or fame. Herakles’ name, therefore, literally means “the glory of Hera”.
Yet this is deeply ironic. Hera is both Herakles’ stepmother and his aunt, but she is not loving towards her demigod relative. Rather, she is furiously antagonistic towards Herakles. Even as a child, she sent snakes to kill him, which he strangled in his cradle. This is because Herakles is one of many of Zeus’ illegitimate children, having been born of the mortal woman Alcmene, a granddaughter of Perseus. As a living symbol of Zeus’ infidelity, the Greek hero is an object of relentless scorn to Hera. The queen of the gods, therefore, dedicates many efforts to destroying Herakles.
Even before he was born, Hera sought to undermine him. Before the birth of Herakles, Zeus made a proclamation that the descendent of Perseus born the following day would become King of Mycenae. Hera then contrived to delay the birth of Herakles, so that her favoured figure, Eurystheus, could instead be born first, thus allowing him to become King, instead of Herakles. This established a dynamic which is invoked in the Iliad as a reflection of the distinctions between Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles, like Herakles, is the figure of greater heroism, yet is socially inferior to the much less heroic figure of Agamemnon (or his counterpart, Eurystheus).
As an adult, it is Hera who caused madness to descend on Herakles, leading to him killing his children (and in some versions, his wife). This, in turn, led him to seek atonement by visiting the court of his cousin and champion of Hera, King Eurystheus, who then sends Herakles on his famous twelve labours.
It is on these labours that Herakles battles such enduring figures of myth as the Hydra, or Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to Hades. Yet, it is from these hardships that he gains his glory. Her attempts to destroy Herakles ultimately backfire, and inadvertently grant the hero greater and greater renown. Herakles, therefore, draws his glory (kleos) from Hera. Herakles chooses his name to reflect this.
The linguistics of the name Hera itself open up further layers. The name Hera is linguistically related to two other very relevant Greek words – the first of which is hōrā (plural hōrai), meaning ‘season’ or ‘the right time’. This is the word from which we get the modern word hour. The name Herakles, therefore, also carries this connotation within it. He is, in a sense, ‘the glory of the right time’. This again is ironic, as Herakles was born, seemingly, at the wrong time. Yet, just as Hera’s other attempts to destroy him backfired, so did this original attempt to undermine him. His late birth is ultimately what put on him on the path towards the glory gained in the twelve labours. Maybe he was born at the ‘right’ time after all.
These themes of time and ‘untimeliness’ with regards to the myths of Herakles are explored further in Euripides’ play Herakles, one of a number of Greek tragedies dealing with the demigod. It is somewhat similar to his play on Helen, in that it presents a notable departure from the more famous versions of the tale. Strangely, Herakles is presented as having returned from his labours before the frenzy of madness that causes him to kill his family takes place. Although this may seem unusual at first, it is part of a broader examination of the role of time and timing within the myths of Herakles.
Much like one of Euripides’ most famous plays Medea, Herakles deals with the horror of the violence of Homeric warfare entering the world of the oikos, or home. When Herakles is in the midst of his frenzy, he believes that he is fighting his enemy Eurystheus while committing these acts of violence. Within the Homeric code of Euripides’ own day, Herakles actions would be justified by being on a battlefield, yet they are, naturally, horrific when they occur within the home. According to the Homeric code, Herakles actions themselves weren’t wrong – the timing was simply wrong. Euripides, it seems, doesn’t find fault with Herakles himself, but with the prevailing moral code of his day, where the same actions can be rendered just or unjust by something as arbitrary as timing. This reinforces the irony of the hero’s name having the connotation of ‘the glory of the right time.’
Utimately, Euripides’ version of Herakles is granted a different sort of atonement, through the friendship of Theseus, and by implication, the city of Athens. To Euripides, it seems that it wasn’t violence on the battlefield or great deeds that made Herakles great, but rather his innermost character of nobility and decency, the qualities that ensure his friendship with Theseus.
Finally, Hera is also linguistically connected to the Greek word hērōs, meaning hero. This means that the name could be read as “the glory of the hero.” A fitting title, then, for the most enduring of Greek heroes.
by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
One of the most remarkable figures in all of Ancient Mythology is that of Memnon. He was a great hero, not Greek nor Roman, but an African. He was a king of the Ethiopians and he played a critical role in the Trojan War.
Origin of Memnon
Memnon was the son of Tithonus, a prince of Troy, and Eos, the goddess of the Dawn. According to legend the goddess swept the Trojan Prince away and took him to the farthest reaches of the earth, known as Oceanus in Greek mythology. The goddess of the Dawn bore the Trojan a son. He was referred to as bronze-armed Memnon and he grew up to be a great warrior.
Memnon enjoyed the great favor of the gods and he retained it for all his life. At some point, Memnon became the king of the Ethiopians. This was an area due south of Egypt and it encompassed not only modern Ethiopia, but also what is now Northern Sudan. Memnon ruled a great kingdom and commanded a large army.
As a warrior, he was considered to be superior of all the Greek heroes, except for Achilles. Some stories claimed that he conquered great swathes of the east. He was considered to be a very handsome man and possessed all the masculine virtues. It appears that he maintained close ties with the home city of his father. At some point Memnon married a Trojan Queen, Troana Ilium.
Little is known about the early life of the great hero because the epic poems based on his life have sadly been lost.
Memnon and the Trojan War
When Achilles killed Hector, it appeared that Troy, without its great champion was doomed. Priam, the King of Troy implored the Gods to help him and his people in their darkest hour. The Gods heard his pleas and told Memnon to leave Ethiopia to fight the Achaeans. According to a post-Homeric account of the Trojan War, the Ethiopian king traveled to Troy with a huge army. This included specialist units and soldiers that all had ‘a terrifying warlike appearance’. He and his men were so numerous that they had to camp outside the walls of the city because it could not accommodate them all.
Memnon and the Trojans attacked the Greeks and a brutal battle ensued. The Ethiopian king was described as riding in a chariot and killing many Greeks. Then in many accounts, Memnon dueled with Antilochus, the son of Nestor. After single combat Memnon killed Antilochus, who was considered to be one of the greatest warriors in all of Greece.
After the death of Antilochus, the Greek army panicked and was driven back almost to their ships; it seemed that they were on the verge of a complete defeat. Then along came mighty Achilles and he challenged Memnon to single combat. The two great heroes were evenly matched. While the two were both the favorites of the Gods, the Olympians agreed not to help one or the other.
In the fight, Achilles was simply too quick and strong for Memnon. He was able to thrust his spear through the shield of the Ethiopian King, pierce his side and then he finish him off with a thrust of his sword to the throat. With the death of their leader, the mighty Ethiopian army fled in terror. According to legend, some stayed with their king to bury him and they were turned into birds that would remove the dust from their dead lord’s tomb.
According to another tradition, Zeus, the king of the gods, was so moved by the tears of the goddess of the Dawn that he raised Memnon from the dead and he became become immortal.
The legend of Memnon
Both the Romans and the Greeks revered him. He was the subject of many works of art. Memnon’s image appeared on vases and there are many sculptures depicting the great Ethiopian. Tragically, a Greek epic poem on his death has been largely lost, and we only have fragments of the work.
There are many who believe that Memnon was possibly based on an Egyptian Pharaoh. Some academics argue that instead it was one of the Nubian kings from the Kushite Dynasty, that ruled Egypt for over a century. Others still think that he was based on the great Egyptian ruler, Amenhotep III.