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Cadmus: the Non-Greek Hero of Greece

by May 3, 2022

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).
Cadmus sowing the dragons’ teeth (Reubens)
Cadmus sowing the dragons’ teeth (Reubens)
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 Cademia (citadel) of Thebes, built by Cadmus
The Cadmea citadel of Thebes
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.

The Myth Of Sisyphus And Lessons In Absurdity

by April 28, 2022

By Van Bryan
The legend of Sisyphus begins with a man who, if we are to believe Homer, was one of the wisest and most prudent of mortals. Nonetheless he would fall out of favor with the gods of ancient Greece. He was taken to the kingdom of the underworld and was forced to endure one of the most pointless and excruciating punishments of ancient mythology. Everyday he would carry a massive boulder up a mountain, straining and sweating all the while. When Sisyphus reached the top of the mountain, the boulder would immediately roll back down the hill in a matter of moments. Sisyphus would then make his tired march down the hill where he would start this task over again. It is said that Sisyphus would be forced to endure this for all of time, performing a pointless, tired task until the end of existence.
Myth of Sisyphus
Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
What did Sisyphus do to anger the gods? There are several different accounts. The one that Albert Camus seems to favor in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, involves Sisyphus testing his wife’s devotion and love as he nears death. According to the story, Sisyphus asks his wife that, upon his death, she cast his unburied body into the town square. When Sisyphus dies he wakes up in the underworld only to find that his wife has indeed fulfilled his request. Sisyphus is angered that his wife would choose strict obedience to his word, rather than devoted love to his memory and dignity. Sisyphus is deeply troubled and (for reasons I don’t understand personally) asks Hades to return him to the world of the living so that he might scold his wife.
It would seem that Sisyphus’ wife is truly the tragic hero in this story, having followed her husbands request she is promptly confronted with a newly resurrected Sisyphus who scolds her for only doing as he asked. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but stick with me on this one. After Sisyphus returns to the mortal world he quickly decides that he does not wish to return to the underworld. He learns to love the trees, the cool oceans, and the feel of warm stone under his feet. He wishes to stay and so betrays Hades by refusing to return. It is only after Hermes swiftly captures the newly freed man, does Sisyphus return to the land of the dead. And there his boulder is waiting for him.
Albert Camus was born in Algeria in 1913. Only one year later, his father would be killed in World War I. Camus was raised by his mother in extreme poverty. At the age of 25, Camus traveled to France where he would develop into a highly successful author and existential philosopher. His book, The Plague, written in 1947, is particularly relevant today. He was involved with the French resistance during the Occupation of Paris during World War II. Editing and writing many underground newspapers during this time, Camus would attempt to undermine the Nazi control of Paris. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, only to die tragically in a car crash three years later.
Photo of Albert Camus
Albert Camus
In The Myth Of Sisyphus, his first essay published in 1942, Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus as a corner stone on which to build his unique school of existential thought. Following some of the teachings of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Camus’ philosophy would later become known as Absurdism. Absurdism teaches that human beings struggle with an internal, never ending quest for purpose and fulfillment in life. This search for purpose is in direct conflict with the apparent purposelessness of the universe. Struggling to find meaning in a universe devoid of any is at the heart of the human condition, a condition that tortures us the more we fight against it.
“The Absurd” is the feeling that Camus describes when we are forced to confront the apparent meaninglessness of our existence. It is the uneasy realization that all purpose we may believe we have does not exist out there in the universe, but only in our own hearts and minds. And so life is an endless struggle to perform tasks that are essentially meaningless; we are born into this world, we fight vainly for understanding, and we are eventually sealed away by death.
It is not hard to see how Camus would find inspiration for this thinking from the myth of Sisyphus. The unfortunate mortal is unduly bound to his boulder. He will suffer for all eternity, straining all the while to perform a task that serves no purpose and inevitably must be repeated. It is this realization that would prompt a human being to tackle what Albert Camus considers the most important philosophical question. He poses this fundamental problem, rather bluntly, within the first few lines of his essay…
“There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” -Albert Camus (The Myth Of Sisyphus)
Photo of the philosopher Camus
Albert Camus
It is important to remember that Camus is not necessarily advocating suicide, but he does admit to consider it, at least partially, to be justified when faced with the absurdity of life. Camus writes that any healthy man is capable of considering the possibility of suicide, even if he never acts on it. And much like Hamlet when he muses “to be or not to be…”, Albert Camus makes an eloquent consideration for the prospects of taking ones own life. Camus writes that he is not so interested in the observation of the absurd, but rather the consequences of realizing it. He explains that we can either ignore the absurd, continue to search for meaning in vain, or reject the absurd and rebel against the purposelessness of the universe. In his own words…
“There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” -Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)
Despite how it may appear, and this is the important part, The Myth of Sisyphus is not the musings of a mad man bent on self destruction. It is instead a manual for happiness. Camus tells us that as the boulder rolls back down the hill, Sisyphus must slowly descend to retrieve the rock to repeat his punishment. It is at this moment that he reflects on his punishment, much like the human being must become conscious of the absurd predicament of life. And yet it is in this moment of self reflection that we are happiest. By accepting the absurd we can likewise accept the fact that life is meaningless, and it is at this time that we are capable of living fully.
Our lives become a constant revolt against the meaninglessness of the universe and we can finally live freely. All at once the universe is quieted, the gods that might wish to control us cease to exist. Our lives become our lives alone, not dictated by any outside force. Our fate becomes a human matter that can only be settled among men.
Shakespeare quote
To be or not to be…
To accentuate this point, Camus retells the horrors of Oedipus. A man who tried to outrun fate, he inadvertently falls prey to it. It is only near his final hours, when he is blind and broken, does he cry out “…all is well”. Oedipus has accepted his condition, accepted his actions as his own. And he is free. Camus points to this as the recipe for victory for the absurd hero. He writes… “Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism”.
The legend of Sisyphus would appear tragic. A man condemned to struggle eternally, he never accomplishes anything of value. The philosopher Albert Camus would tell us that, much like Sisyphus, our lives are devoid of any real meaning or purpose. Our struggle to find purpose that does not exist is the root of human despair. It is only when we accept the absurdity of life, only when we rebel against the meaninglessness of the universe, do we truly become free. Life is lived all the better if it has no purpose. We become captains of our own ships, authors of our own story. And it is only at our most fragile, most uncertain times that we may say ‘All is well’…

The Myth of Tantalus: Crime and Punishment

by April 21, 2022

by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
He was one of the first generation of mortals, and his offense against the Olympian Gods led to him suffering a gruesome and terrible eternal punishment. It was because of his crimes that the famous House of Atreus was cursed, whose tragedies were the themes of works by Aeschylus and other great writers. He is Tantalus, a figure of Greek myth with a legacy so vast, it has found its way into modern language. So, what exactly do we know about him?
The Background to the Tantalus Myth
Tantalus may have been a historical king. In mythology, he is said to be the ruler of Sipylus, which was located in Asia Minor (Modern Turkey), and was fabulously rich. As for parentage, the myths differ; he is believed to be the son of a Lydian king, but there are some sources which claim that he was really the son of Zeus. Most sources claim that he was married to Dione, a daughter of Atlas and among his children were Broteas, a legendary hunter, Niobe, who was the archetypal mourning mother in Greek myth, and Pelops, who was a great hero. Tantalus was known for his arrogance and curiosity. He belonged to the first generation of mortals, and at this time humans and the Gods frequently dined together.
The Crime of Tantalus
Tantalus, like other humans, would attend banquets and enjoyed the hospitality (xenia) of the Olympians. There are a number of different versions at what happened at one of the banquets. In one, Zeus punished Tantalus for misbehaving at a dinner. He was either rude or gossiping about the Olympians, and this was hubris, or disrespecting the divine order. In the best-known version of the myth, Tantalus committed a depraved act. He was determined to see if the gods were really all-seeing. He decided to murder his own son, Pelops. After the killing of his son, the king had the body butchered for meat. Tantalus then put the flesh of Pelops into the food of the gods, which was served at a banquet. When Zeus and the other Olympians were served meals with human flesh, they knew what had happened and were outraged. Only Demeter, who was grieving after the abduction of Persephone, ate some of the remains of Pelops. In other version of the Tantalus myth had the king punished for stealing a golden dog or even ambrosia.
The Feast of Tantalus
The Feast of Tantalus
The Punishment of the King
Zeus cursed the king. In Greek mythology, a curse from the gods was a death-sentence which also doomed one’s descendants and home to ruin. In the afterlife, Tantalus was consigned to Hades and to Tartarus, which was reserved for those who had committed great sins and crimes. Here he was punished for eternity. Tantalus was forced to stand in water up to his neck and right under the branch of a fruit tree. When he tried to eat some fruit, the boughs would go higher and when he tried to drink the water would flow away. In another version of the myth a huge rock hangs threateningly over his head for all eternity. The punishment of the king is now synonymous with temptation and inability to be satisfied. From this we get the word tantalize.
The House of Atreus
Pelops was put together again by the Gods. They could not find his shoulder, so they gave him a prosthetic made of ivory. Poseidon later taught him the art of the chariot. He later organized a chariot race in honor of the Olympians at a funeral games, and these became the basis of the Olympics. Pelops was the father of Atreus, who became the King of Mycenae and established the House of Atreus. Pelops’ grandsons were Agamemnon and Menelaus who are both well-known from the Iliad.  The divine curse placed upon Tantalus passed on to his sons and their family. The god-cursed descendants of Tantalus committed unspeakable crimes against each other, such as patricide, matricide and brother killing brother. The tragedies of the House of Atreus, such as the sacrifice of Iphigenia by Agamemnon and his subsequent murder by his wife Clytemnestra were a direct result of Tantalus and his crime.   
Pelops driving a chariot from a bas-relief
Pelops driving a chariot from a bas-relief
Meaning of the Myth
The myth has many interpretations. In general, the myth can be seen as a warning to humans to respect the gods and not to commit hubris. The myth also shows the power of the gods who punish not only individuals for their sins, but also their descendants. This story is important, as it demonstrates that the Greeks believed in eternal punishment for crimes when alive.,as seen in Tantalus’ torturous punishment in Tartarus. The crime of the king of Sipylus resulted in the murder and mayhem among his descendants. This was a demonstration of the unforgiving nature of the Olympians. Yet Tantalus, his punishment, and his damned family also inspired many great works of Classical literature: His punishment has, ironically, ensured an enduring legacy.

Titans of Greek Mythology

by April 18, 2022

Okay, today we are talking about the Titans of Greek mythology.
Now, of course there are a lot of sources when it comes to discussing ancient Greek mythology, but we are going to use Hesiod’s Theogony, which is sort of like the Bible of the ancient Greek world.
So first, what is a Titan? Titans are the children of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth). According to Hesiod, there were 12 original Titans: the brothers Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, and Cronus and the sisters Thea, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, and Tethys.
Chart Showing Greek Mythology Genealogy
The Genealogy of the Titans of Greek Mythology
As all Greek mythology goes, the Titans have a pretty dramatic tale, filled with violence, revenge and punishment… and it all started with mother earth (Gaia) who encouraged her children to rebel against their father after he had shut them up in the underworld (Tartarus).
The brothers and sisters chose Cronus as their leader and once he had disposed Uranus, he became ruler.
This, however, did not last long. Cronus’ son Zeus rebelled against him and a 10 year battled ensued called the Titanomachia. The Titans lost and those who sided with Cronus (his siblings) were thrown back into the underworld, Tartarus.
Painting of the Titanomachia
The Titanomachia as painted in The Fall of the Titans by Cornelis van Haarlem in 1588–1590
Perhaps surprisingly, the Titans are not pictured by Hesiod as evil monsters who the gods fortunately overthrew… but a happy golden race. This idea is continued by the Romans who saw Cronus as Saturn.
Here is a breakdown of the original 12 Titans. You’ll notice some are much more important than others…
1. Mnemosyne – She is the goddess of memory. “Mnemosyne” is derived from the same source as the word mnemonic, that being the Greek word mnēmē, which means “remembrance, memory”. Mnemosyne is the mother of the nine Muses.
Mnemosyne painting
Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction of Mnemosyne.
2. Tethys – Sister and wife of Titan-god Oceanus, mother of the Potamoi and the Oceanids. Tethys had no active role in Greek mythology and no established cults.
3. Theia – Also called Euryphaessa “wide-shining”, her brother/consort is Hyperion, a Titan and god of the sun, and together they are the parents of Helios (the Sun), Selene (the Moon), and Eos (the Dawn).
4. Phoebe – She had two daughters, Leto, who bore Apollo and Artemis, and Asteria, a star-goddess who bore an only daughter, Hecate. Given the meaning of her name and her association with the Delphic oracle, Phoebe was perhaps seen as the Titan goddess of prophecy and oracular intellect.
5. Rhea – She is known as “the mother of gods” and therefore is strongly associated with Gaia and Cybele, who have similar functions. The classical Greeks saw her as the mother of the Olympian gods and goddesses, but not as an Olympian goddess in her own right.
Statue of Rhea
6. Themis – She is described as “[the Lady] of good counsel”, and is the personification of divine order, fairness, law, natural law, and custom. Her symbols are the Scales of Justice, tools used to remain balanced and pragmatic.
7. Oceanus – Believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to be the divine personification of the sea, he is an enormous river encircling the world.
8. Hyperion – With his sister, the Titaness Theia, Hyperion fathered Helios (Sun), Selene (Moon) and Eos (Dawn).
Painting of Greek Deities
The three children, depicting different times of day.
9. Coeus – He played no active part in Greek religion and appears only in lists of Titans. Coeus was primarily important for his descendants.
10. Cronus – He was the leader and youngest of the first generation of Titans. He overthrew his father and ruled during the mythological Golden Age, until he was overthrown by his own son Zeus and imprisoned in Tartarus.
Painting of Cronus and Uranus
Cronus castrating his father Uranus
11. Crius – As the least individualized among the Titans, he was overthrown in the Titanomachy.
12. Iapetus – He was the father (by an Oceanid named Clymene or Asia) of Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius. Iapetus is sometimes thought as the progenitor of mankind, similar to Japheth (יֶפֶת), the son of Noah, based on the similarity of their names and the tradition.

Odysseus and Aeneas: Ancient Ideals of Heroism

by April 14, 2022

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.
Odysseus and Thersites
Odysseus and Thersites
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 and the Sirens
Odysseus and the Sirens
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.
Aeneas flees the burning Troy with his family
Aeneas flees the Fall of Troy with his family
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.

The Trojan Legend

by March 14, 2022

by Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
To literary-minded ‘Moderns’ (if we can be so contrasted with the ‘Ancients’) the broad contents of the Iliad and Odyssey are quite familiar. Indeed, tales of wrathful Achilles, fearsome Ajax, tragic Hector, Sirens, Cyclopes, Circe, Suitors etcetera are well-known even to those who have not read both epics – so deep are they in the literary collective consciousness that they even make up parts of popular speech (e.g. “Achilles’ heel”).
Therefore it is perhaps surprising, given that the ancients’ knowledge of the wider Trojan myth would have been a sine qua non, that it is not something that has pervaded mainstream modern literary knowledge… even if the highlights of the Homeric epics have.
Granted, we all know about the golden apple and, yes, you’re right, Helen’s abduction gets plenty of press, but what about the details? What happened between the elopement and the first spear being thrown? And how many of us are aware that the battle royale between Achilles and Hector was the dramatic climax of the second Trojan War? For most of us, there are big gaps in our appreciation of this magnificent myth.
So, without further ado, let’s try to put that right!
The First Trojan War
The most obvious place to start is with the last point mentioned, i.e. TWI.
This was an expedition made two generations prior to that of the Homeric heroes Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon et al.. That the campaign is not more famous is really quite remarkable considering that it was led by none other than that uber-hero himself, Hercules!
Hercules’ casus belli for sacking the great citadel and putting every infant prince, save only the Homeric Trojan king, Hector’s father, Priam, to the sword was probably a far most justifiable and understandable reason than that given for the second war.
N.B. Priam was originally known as Podarkes, but, as he was spared because of a ransom paid for his life, he took the name Priam (from priatos, ‘ransomed’).
The King of Troy during TWI, Laomedon, had been given two horses by King of the Gods, Zeus, which were so swift that they could run on water; a reparation for Zeus abducting the beautiful Trojan boy, Ganymede. These horses were promised to Hercules by Laomedon should the former slaughter a terrible sea-monster that was threatening the latter’s fortress.
With flexed muscles and the hair on his buttocks standing up “like the quills on the fretful porpentine” (apparently he had an unusually shaggy posterior – otherwise I’d never have tried to show off with that quote from Shakespeare [Hamlet; act 1, scene 5 if you’re interested]), Hercules fulfilled his end of the bargain. Laomedon did not.
N.B. This was well in keeping with Laomedon’s form – the sea-monster had only been sent in the first place because he’d refused to pay Poseidon for building the walls of Troy.
Of course, such a rich saga conjures up images of a great and ancient city fortified for centuries against the machinations of fate. Not so! In fact, Laomedon was only a third generation Trojan. His grandfather, Tros, gave the land its name while Tros’ son, Ilus, was the man who founded the citadel, in turn giving it his name, i.e. Ilion, after which the world’s first literary masterpiece is named.
Anyway, enough of our early days of Troy lecture… what of the origins of the second (i.e. famous) war?
Root Causes
Well, there’s the aforementioned tale of the apple: Eris, the goddess of discord, is barred from attending the wedding of Achilles’ parents so she lobs a golden apple with ‘to the fairest’ inscribed on it through the doorway. Predictably, Hera, Aphrodite and Athena bicker over who should have it. Zeus, bored and irritated, sends them off to be judged by the Trojan prince, Paris. After some naked strutting and, more importantly, bribing, Paris awards the apple to Aphrodite in exchange for the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Menelaus’ wife, Helen.
Cronus mutilates his father, Uranus
Cronus mutilates his father, Uranus
However, this is not the root cause, for that we must go into the dark and troubled corners of the wrathful mind of Zeus. Zeus only acceded to his lofty position as King of the Gods by overthrowing his father, Cronus. Cronus had come to the throne by… you guessed it, overthrowing his own father, Uranus. Consequently, Zeus was a little paranoid the same fate might befall him.
So, what better way to rid the world of a whole series of his demi-divine loin-fruit whilst at the same time giving the world a much-needed population cleanse than to engineer the Trojan War?
Whichever of these two motives was true, we can understand why Zeus is the only Olympian to take no side in the Trojan War – as long as men lie on the battlefield with dogs and carrion birds feasting upon their rent flesh, Zeus is happy.
The Greek Coalition
So, a recently sacked city has a war started against it via a combination of the caprice of one god, the mischief of another and the libido of a prince, but why did all the Greeks agree to fight? Helen was Queen of Sparta and Greece was far from a unified state – indeed Greek cooperation against a foreign foe was to remain the exception, rather than the rule, for centuries to come (this blurring of history and literature is not something the Greeks would have apologised for).
Well, this goes back to Menelaus’ betrothal to Helen.
Helen’s earthly father, Tyndareus (Zeus may have actually sired her), made the countless suitors vying for Helen’s hand swear that they would defend the marriage of whomever his daughter wed – thus when Helen was abducted, and after a failed effort from Menelaus and Odysseus to resolve the dispute diplomatically, the cuckolded king petitioned his brother, the most powerful of all the Greek kings, Agamemnon, to call in the debt promised by oath.
Thus a bevy of Greek kings and princes made their way to Troy – though not universally willingly.
Menelaus and Helen
Menelaus and Helen
True, many saw it as an ideal chance to gain riches and glory (some, like Achilles, only fifteen years old at the time, had not even sworn the oath to honour Helen’s marriage), but Odysseus, that great trickster, decided to feign madness rather than fulfil his sacred vow.
Thus, when Palamedes arrived on Ithaca to sign Odysseus up, the wily Master of Stratagems began ranting, raving and sowing his fields with salt. However, Palamedes was not to be fooled so easily, he placed Odysseus’ infant son, Telemachus, in front of the plough (or, in other accounts, simply threatened to run him through) and Odysseus, reluctantly, was forced to break character and take the King’s shilling.
This moment, which would come to cost Odysseus twenty years of his life, was never forgotten by Homer’s second son. He ended up framing Palamedes for treason, a move that saw his recruiter unjustly stoned to death.
So, finally, the Greeks could set sail for Troy, but, with the slight disadvantage of not knowing where it was, actually landed in Mysia where they engaged in battle with Hercules’ son, Telephus before being scattered to various shores by the winds. Telephus had been incurably wounded by the Greeks and so sailed the seas in order to seek them out and be healed (this did, for some reason, seem to make sense!). When he was finally restored to his former glory he told the Argives the way to Troy as a thank you.
Although some disclaim this venture from the narrative, others assert that it was very much a key part of the story… and a part that set the expedition back by up to eight years!
More Set-backs
Regardless, when the thousand-plus strong flotilla finally convened (or reconvened) at Aulis, they were ready and willing to finally bring the fight to Troy, to win glory or die trying. Unfortunately, they were not actually able to do so.
The goddess Artemis, peeved with the hubris of Agamemnon, had stopped the winds from blowing Troy-wards and would only reactivate them if he sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia. This, he eventually did – a move that would prove to be his undoing when he returned home after ten years to his—understandably—rather cross wife.
Preparing for the sacrifice of Iphigenia
Preparing for the sacrifice of Iphigenia
Like with the stories of the trials, tribulations and trysts of the members of the Greek pantheon, there are various different accounts of these stories, all with their own embellishments and contradictions. This, however, did not seem to be an issue for the Greeks. Indeed, the Athenian playwrights used a great deal of artistic licence in tweaking various details of the myths in order to create new and thought-provoking plotlines.
It should be stressed that what is given above is merely a brief précis of the back-story to the works of Homer. Though these tales may be seen today as a useful adjunct to the main event, for the Greeks they were essential and assumed histories – parts of the plot that every educated, and perhaps even uneducated, person was required to be familiar with.
To be unaware of the origins of the Greek coalition would be to be unaware of the Thirteen Colonies, of the Boston Tea Party, of Washington’s cherry tree and wooden teeth, of Hancock’s liberal use of paper, of Franklin’s suicidal kite-flying and… ahem… ‘loving’ nature.
History vs. Literature
Indeed, the comparison is a poignant one as the Greeks didn’t see the Trojan War and the works of Homer as mere literature, but actual history. True, some certainly took the more fanciful and divine parts to be allegorical or a result of artistic licence, but few seriously doubted that such a war, with such characters, really took place and really defined the fate of their nation.
Thus, to truly understand and appreciate Homer beyond his talent as a poet and story-teller, it is helpful to have a curiosity about the wider, Greek, mythological world.
Not that such a renowned source needs much of a plug from us, but Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths is an entertaining and accessible prism through which to view the beauty and splendour of the Ancient oeuvre for those whose appetite has been whetted, but not sated.
Though now, dear reader, we leave you with, hopefully, a greater interest, understanding, curiosity or appreciation of the world surrounding the Homeric tradition. For as traditions go, it is one worth appreciating and absorbing. After all, there aren’t too many that have lasted for nearly 3000 years… and even fewer that only get more fascinating with each year that passes, and each reading that is completed.