Monday, September 22, 2014

Individual vs Community: A Character Comparison between Achilles and Aeneas

The Classical epic heroes Achilles and Aeneas serve as the respective paradigms of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures that produced them. The Romans borrowed extensively from Greeks—after all, the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid was built directly upon the foundation of the Greek poet Homer’s Iliad, the Aeneid being a continuation of the story of the Trojan War. But much as the Roman mythology of artistry was rooted in Greek tradition, the heroic ideals of their cultures were distinctly different from one another.

Achilles and Aeneas are not entirely dissimilar. Both are only part mortal, with the goddesses Thetis of the Silver Feet and Venus (the Greek Aphrodite) as their respective mothers and protectors. Both heroes have destinies to fulfill: Achilles must choose between a long life and a glorious legacy, and Aeneas is destined to become the founder of the city of Rome. But, because the Greeks and Romans had different sets of priorities—Greeks for honor and glory, Romans for family and duty—these priorities necessarily produced two different, but equally iconic cultural heroes.

Achilles is a prime example of the Ancient Greek’s ideal of heroism: a brave fighter who prizes personal honor at all costs, Achilles seeks glorious victory in battle in order to enhance his reputation. This reputation is insulted when the Greek’s general Agamemnon steals Achilles’ spoil of war, the girl Bryseis, to replace his own lost Chryseis.  Agamemnon’s action deprive Achilles not only of the woman he had begun to care about, but it also denies his rightful share of the spoils. As the best warrior in the Achaian’s army, this is not just a personal affront to Achilles, but an attack on his all-important honor. Achilles’ reaction, withdrawing from the war and refusing to help the Greeks under any circumstances, is completely in agreement with the Greek emphasis on reputation.

Another factor included in the Greek heroic ideal is that of taking vengeance against those who have hurt one’s self or one’s loved ones. Achilles demonstrates this justified revenge when he kills Hector, the murderer of his best friend Patroclus. He also gets Agamemnon back for disrespecting him by simply not fighting, allowing the Trojans to get the upper hand while the Greek troops are dying in battle. In fact, his resolve not to help Agamemnon win the war is so strong that only his duty to avenge Patroclus’ death is enough incentive for Achilles to return to battle.

Finally, the fledgling concept of idealism is one characteristic which Achilles perhaps illustrates the best of all the Greek heroic qualities. His commitment to his sense of honor and justice, though it may seem selfish to modern readers, shows the priorities that the Ancient Greeks most held in high esteem. Instead of masses of foot-soldiers chaotically colliding and killing each other, the fighting scenes of the Iliad dispense with this sense of pandemonium in favor of the more honorable single-combat encounters between two great champions. One such example is the climactic duel between Hector and Achilles, in which the two individuals are set apart from the masses by both rank and skill, and fight as if they were the only ones on the battlefield. 
Just as Achilles represents the ideal heroic character of the Ancient Greeks, Aeneas is an amalgamation of all Roman values. Bearing the epithet “Aeneas the Pious,” Aeneas is an examples of the virtues indoctrinated into Roman society under the social reforms of the emperor Augustus Caesar. These virtues included an emphasis of fidelity to family, duty to the community, and the importance of self-sacrifice for the common good. 

In contrast with the Ancient Greek concept of individualism stands the Imperial Roman sense of duty to the community, personal responsibility to one’s family and to society in general. The character of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid exhibits this trait through his protective attitude to his family.  Apart from the family, the society of the Roman Empire was like the Greeks’ in that life was to some extent centered on the military and on military conquest. However, unlike the Greeks’ rules of honor which considered retreat as a sign of weakness equivalent to surrender, Roman military strategy was more pragmatic, and argued that continuing to fight a losing battle was useless. Aeneas, in contrast with Achilles’ tragic fight to the death, runs from the fallen city of Troy rather than continue in the futile effort to defeat the Greek invaders. 

In addition to social and familial accountability, yet another factor of the Roman heroic ideal is the concept of self-sacrifice. Despite his personal desire to fight the Greeks, Aeneas gives up what he wants in favor of saving his family. When he later falls in love with the Carthaginian Queen Dido, he abandons her in order to honor his duty to his fate.  In both circumstances, Aeneas must sacrifice personal desires in order to reach the epic’s goal.

The perfect goal of an epic is relative to the culture it is based upon. While the Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey are stories concerned with enhancing one’s glory through victorious battles and courageous quests, the Roman epic had much more of an emphasis on the fulfillment of fate and cultivating a sense of patriotism in the reader. Because of these different goals, it logically follows that the heroes of these epics would require different heroic qualities in order to succeed in these quests. 

If the roles of Achilles and Aeneas were reversed, the stories’ outcome would be drastically altered. Were Aeneas put into Achilles’ position, he would not have abandoned his Greek comrades-in-arms over a simple matter of injured pride. If the Greeks were losing a hopeless war, Aeneas would doubtless advise that they give up and go home, but if the victory over the Trojans was inevitable he would have persevered for the good of his people. The Greeks might have won the war sooner, with less loss of life in both armies.  What if Achilles had been in Aeneas’ place?  Rather than run with his decrepit father and little son to safety, Achilles would have rashly defended his city to the bitter end, dying before he could build Rome and ultimately failing to protect his people.  Even assuming that he was persuaded to flee from Troy, Achilles would probably have been too enamored with Queen Dido to leave Carthage; the ultimate mission of going to Italy and realize his destiny would not be as important as being with the woman he loved.

The epic hero must have the right strengths to complete their ultimate goal. For Achilles, his fighting prowess and impulsiveness are the traits which suit his role in the Iliad so perfectly. Likewise Aeneas’ loyalty to his people makes him the most appropriate character choice for founding a new community and for building the foundations of what will become the Roman Empire.  Neither hero could be considered entirely praiseworthy: through modern interpretation, Achilles is a selfish mama’s-boy, and Aeneas a heartless cad.  According to the modern heroic ideal, these characteristics contradict the contemporary reader’s romantic sensibility, but these flaws not only contribute to the believability of these characters, but also show the hazards of prizing one ideal only.  Having only a sense of justice or only a sense of self-sacrifice is not enough.  One must find a balance between the two.

Ostensibly Aeneas’ character traits are more admirable than Achilles’, but contemporary readers inevitably identify with Achilles more than his Roman counterpart, because while the Roman concept of self-sacrifice for one’s community is appealing on an abstract level, the issues of the individual are usually more sympathetic. After all, the individual is the foundation for the community, and when a society disregards the needs of the individual, that society has rendered itself worthless.

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