Heroism through the Ages

What makes a hero? Is it their birth, their deeds, their virtues? This exhibit tracks the nature of heroism through works featured in the Humanities Sequence's Ancient World course. From the Trojan war to the Crucifixion, different ideas and ideals of heroism are examined. Are you a hero because of your divine birth? Because you have a glorious destiny? Because you fought bravely or died for a cause you believe in? Can you be a hero by enduring or by bumbling around in an entertaining way? If your great deeds are attained by leaving other people hurt or dead, can you truly be considered a hero? These ideas are examined throughout the works of the period. It is hard to determine what 'really' makes a hero out of all these conflicting accounts, but one thing is for certain: a hero makes for one memorable story. 

Achilles is the son of a goddess, trained to be a hero by the centaur Chiron. From the beginning, he is groomed to have a grand destiny.
Achilles is one of the Greek heroes of the Trojan war, famed for his ability in battle. He knows fighting will earn him death and glory, while refusing to fight will lead to a simple but longer life.
Achilles leaves the war when his honor is insulted, but he reenters it for vengeance. The hero carries on his shield the world he will never experience, giving a mortal edge to this godlike figure.
After defeating Hector, Achilles drags his corpse around Troy and Patroclus' grave. This bloodthirsty display turns the gods against him. Heroes must follow a moral code.
When Achilles accepts the ransom of Priam, he displays the humanity and empathy needed for a true hero. Violence is prized, but so is civility.
His observation of respect for the laws of supplication and ransom are important, since in the Iliad heroes are defined partly by their allegiance to social rules.
Next comes the Peloponnesian War. Are the men fighting for Athenian democracy or against tyranny heroes? The History does not glorify their deaths as the Iliad does. Instead, war is bleak and brutal.
Pericles is a good orator and strategist, but his 'democracy' has become a tyranny. He echoes the Homeric idea that the dead of Athens will live on in honor and glory, but the plague contradicts him.
Thucydides claims humanity is driven by self-interest. In that case, can we be heroic? Maybe heroism is overcoming that. Or maybe it fits in - Achilles fights and dies partly in interest of honor.
Protagonists are not always heroes. Medea commits crimes for Jason, but does that excuse them? She is described like a warrior, but her crimes are seen as worse than the gory deeds of the Iliad.
She murders her husband's new bride to be and father in law and then slays her own children before escaping, aided by the gods. This implies that they at least approve of what she has done.
Her witchcraft, foreign status, and failure to fit into a proper female mold make her alien and hostile, but the play's refusal to punish her leaves her status uncertain.
Jason is considered a hero, although he meets a shameful death after breaking his vow to Medea. Are his heroics stained by her crimes?
What about Job? Is it heroic to endure rather than fight, or is Job merely the victim of a divine scuffle?
Job is not patient. He questions God's justice and demands answers, believing that he has been treated unfairly. In the end, God rewards him for his behavior and restores his comfort.
Culturally, Job is presented as heroic for endurance, patience, and faith. In the poem, though, he is rewarded for questioning authority and injustice. His values have been reinterpreted over time.
What about a hero that runs away? Aeneas too is the son of a goddess and destined for glory, but he must seek it by surviving.
Aeneas flees his city while it is sacked, rather than standing and fighting, but he shows filial piety by protecting his father, and he goes toward a greater destiny.
Fate compels Aeneas to continue onward until he accomplishes the founding of Rome. Having a duty toward his people and his future is important, but it involves abandoning a woman who loves him.
In despair, Dido kills herself. Is she a necessary sacrifice for Aeneas's success, or is this a shameful blot on his story?
Many heroes face the underworld or 'belly of the whale' figuratively, but Aeneas literally enters the realm of the dead - a classic part of the hero's journey.
Jesus too is the son of divine power, destined for great things. He is the Messiah, meant to redeem mankind.
Unlike some heroes who confirm their worth by adhering to social norms, however, Jesus challenges existing beliefs and practices. He promotes new morals, values, and lifestyles.
His struggle against opposition does not come in violent battles but in spreading knowledge to all who will hear it, which often concerns those in power.
However, he too must face and accept his oncoming death. His disquiet as the time approaches shows the humanity in this son of God.
His death is not the end of his story though, or even the only reason why he wins 'glory'.
Instead, he goes a step further and defeats death while rescuing all of humanity.
Jesus' act of heroism is to win the human race forgiveness for its sins and provide a guiding light for how to achieve salvation through his example.
Can a hero be a simple bystander? In the Golden Ass, the narrator is not exceptionally skilled or brave. Often, he comes across as foolish.
However, his wit and stories - along with his role as narrator - make him the hero of his own tale. He is a hero of charisma and caprice, not epic ability.
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