Dramatic paths to glory are viewed with skepticism in our modern democratic age. As Tocqueville suggests, “amongst democratic nations ambition is ardent and continual, but its aim is not habitually lofty; and life is generally spent in eagerly coveting small objects which are within reach. What chiefly diverts the men of democracies from lofty ambition is not the scantiness of their fortunes, but the vehemence of the exertions they daily make to improve them.” Perhaps this is one reason why ancient poets such as Homer, with their accounts of obtaining glory through dominance and violence, are both shocking and thrilling to modern readers who must function in the day-to-day throes of mass culture. There is value in reflecting upon how such poems inform us about tensions between the desire for glory and longings for home and place. In this essay, I will consider how Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey suggest the relative value of home and place over the pursuit of glory; the glory espoused in the first poem seems both somewhat questioned there and, then, strongly questioned by Homer’s latter poem. Second, I will examine how Virgil’s Aeneid can be viewed as complementing this perspective, albeit it also demonstrates an obvious tension between pursuing glory and longing for home.
I. Subtle Reproaches to the Pursuit of Glory in the Illiad:
The mind of the modern, democratic man situated within the economically developed world is awestruck by the ancient heroes’ pursuit and attainment of glory during the Trojan War. This pursuit is blatant and considered normatively acceptable in Homer’s first epic poem. Western Civilization, with its post-Homeric Christian roots, has long socialized people to view such striving for self-serving greatness as taboo. Moreover, as the above quoted Tocqueville passage suggests, our contemporary, mass-democratic world often does not provide sufficient opportunity for (and frankly discourages) the widespread pursuit of glory. Thus, when a person today reads Homer’s Illiad, he or she is confronted with a foreign evaluative perspective. For some such an ancient order might even be strangely appealing (perhaps even more so than the democratic world in which he or she now resides).
When examining the Epic Cycle more critically, however, readers detect much implied criticism of the Greeks’ pursuit of glory [Note: Here I am grateful for Rufus Fears’ video lecture, “Homer, Iliad,” in Part 1, Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life, produced by The Teaching Company, 2005]. First, there is the shocking fact that their invasion opportunity has been purchased so inhumanely. Agamemnon allows his own daughter, Iphigenia, to be sacrificed in order to appease the gods so the Greeks could proceed with their campaign against Troy; albeit, there is dispute about whether Iphigenia is actually killed, for Euripides portrays her as being saved by the gods who substituted a deer in her place when the death blow was inflicted. Second, there is the controversial choice of demi-god Achilles electing for a shorter life of immense glory, rather than a long life of uneventful peace at his home. Despite the glory Achilles attains in the Illiad, Homer portrays his choice with circumspection through the combination of Achilles boldly announcing the choice given to him by his goddess mother, Thetis (in Book IX), and, then, a tender scene (in Book XVIII) of Achilles being consoled by Thetis after the death of his friend in which she says: “‘Then, my son, is your end near at hand- for your own death awaits you full soon after that of Hector.’” Achilles does not seem to have a problem with this, but the reader (and Homer) finds his lack of sensitivity to the tragic elements of his choice strange. Third, there is the merciless slaughter and desecration of the noble Hector, a deed which even proud Achilles seems to finally recognize as being excessive when he gives Hector’s body back to Priam (Books XXII-XXIV).
II. Stronger Intimations About the Problems with Glory and the Value of Home in the Odyssey:
In the Odyssey, Homer’s implied criticisms about the pursuit of glory are even stronger. The victorious Greeks face division and peril upon their return home. It is almost as if the sack of Troy has brought a curse upon them. Agamemnon returns, only to be assassinated by his unfaithful wife (Book XI). Throughout the Odyssey, we see how Odysseus is not able to return home for several years, and how he is forced to endure countless hardships both during the years of his foiled return and, then, later when he learns about the unwelcome suitors who plague his home and seek to wed his wife, Penelope, due to their presumption that Odysseus is long dead. We encounter Achilles, now in Hades, after having been killed in the Trojan War. He is sad and miserable. His choice for glory over long life was not wise (Book XI).
The pursuit of glory is portrayed as questionable, and the Odyssey’s main theme seems to be the value of home and the importance of recovering it when it is lost. The overriding desire of Odysseus is to return to his home, for his daring pursuit of booty and glory have continually resulted in tragedy. An elucidating vignette is how Odysseus’ adventurous spirit led him to explore the land of the Cyclopes, which results in the death and suffering of many of his men (Book IX). Through his many tragic mishaps after leaving Troy, Odysseus develops a steely resolve to return to his home in Ithaca.
Even his focus on punishing the wicked suitors seems more about regaining his home than achieving glory. The suitors have plundered his estate and disrupted his family, and justice demands that they pay for their crimes. As is common in epic poems, such punishment is severe, for Odysseus and his son carefully entrap and then slaughter the suitors (Book XXI- XXII).
Finally, the story ends with Odysseus, his son, and his father defending themselves and their farm against the wrathful fathers of the suitors (Book XXIV). Here, again, one’s home of origin is portrayed as a symbol of human happiness, and it is worth fighting for to maintain.
III. The Value of Home and Place in the Aeneid:
The notion that Virgil valued home and place more than the glory of empire is questionable due to the fact that Virgil’s Aeneid is frequently viewed as a legitimation myth for the new Roman Empire and imperial Romans, like Caesar and Augustus. Nevertheless, there are elements of the poem that provide profound insight into the tragedy of displacement, as well as the value of finding “home” after it has been lost.
The tragedy of displacement is shockingly vivid in Aeneas’ account of the sack of Troy. In losing the great city and its inhabitants, the survivors are robbed of much of their humanity as persons connected to a place and the community residing there. They were not only homo-sapiens who are capable of surviving with requisite food, water, and shelter; rather, they were also human people living within a cultural tradition that grounded their understanding of things human and divine (i.e., their moral, social, political, and religious understanding), and this tradition was developed within and inherently tied to a place, the city of Troy. Moreover, as an ancient city and based on the current archaeological evidence, Troy was likely a humanly enriching place in the sense of being an appropriately scaled local community that facilitated face-to-face interaction among its citizens. In having to abandon Troy during the murderous Greek invasion, Aeneas and the other Trojan survivors lost this physical locus of their cultural tradition. They became refugees who now had to maintain their tradition, which had completed their humanity in the sense of grounding of their fundamental worldview (i.e., a necessary condition for moral and religious understanding and action), outside of the physical place that had facilitated the development and preservation of this tradition. As their story and other historical examples suggest, this preservation task is not impossible, but it is often much more difficult and, hence, needs to be very deliberate. Moreover, for such an ancient people, their tradition inherently entailed being “Trojan” and, hence, living in Troy with that city’s gods and particular mores. Now that Troy was no more, their Trojan-ness had to be preserved in external physical and cultural environments that are often not be conducive to their Trojan tradition.
In fact, Aeneas and his Trojans are forced to live as foreigners in cultural environments that resist their Trojan ways and, hence, their particular manifestations of human life. In Carthage, the Trojan refugees risk losing their particularity (i.e., their specific cultural tradition), for remaining in Carthage would likely result in Aeneas and the Trojans amalgamating into the culture of that new city. Aeneas’s love affair with Queen Dido, for example, almost completely diverts him from his duties towards preserving and developing the remaining band of Trojan people (Book IV). Moreover, the Aeneas and Dido affair ultimately results in long-standing enmity between his people and the Carthaginians, and this become a pivotal seed for the later Punic Wars.
After elucidating the tragedy of displacement, the poem emphasizes the value of the Trojans developing a new home where their cultural tradition can take root and flourish. Their gods direct Aeneas and his displaced Trojans across the sea to Sicily in route to Italy. Latium is their new promised land. Still, however, they must struggle to truly possess their new place. This includes, among many things, Aeneas journeying into Hades where he learns about his new civilization’s ultimate destiny–e.g., the founding of Rome and its development into a powerful empire. Furthermore, the Trojans must fight and defend themselves in order to secure their new Italian home in Latium (Books VII-XII).
Another important consideration is Virgil’s portrayal in Book VI of Aeneas and his displaced Trojans becoming a new people, the future Romans. Their new place is Latium, not Troy. Through residing there over several generations, the Trojans will breed with the Italians to form a new race: “These are th’ Italian names, which fate will join With ours, and graff upon the Trojan line.” As a result of this mixing, Aeneas’s descendant, Romulus, becomes the founder of Rome. However, this is not just the creation of a new bloodline; while living in the new physical place and through graffing Italians “upon the Trojan line,” the Trojans’ refugee-tradition is also transformed into the Roman tradition; they will develop a distinct moral, socio-political, and other faceted worldview/tradition that will facilitate how they understand and act upon the world. Humanizing tradition, then, is inherently developed and tied to physical place.
Having said all of this, the Aeneid cannot be viewed as merely defending the values of home and place, for these are in tension with the pursuit of glory that is also in poem. The latter can be seen in both the poem’s (1) clear status as a Roman justification myth and (2) the glory of Aeneas and his band that is obtained through games and defeating their enemies in battle. With respect to the former, the poem explicitly includes a passage that ties the Augustan imperial regime to Aeneas and his Trojans. This can be seen in Book VI:
See Romulus the great, born to restore
The crown that once his injur’d grandsire wore.
This prince a priestess of your blood shall bear,
And like his sire in arms he shall appear.
Two rising crests, his royal head adorn;
Born from a god, himself to godhead born:
His sire already signs him for the skies,
And marks the seat amidst the deities.
Auspicious chief! thy race, in times to come,
Shall spread the conquests of imperial Rome-
Rome, whose ascending tow’rs shall heav’n invade,
Involving earth and ocean in her shade;
High as the Mother of the Gods in place,
And proud, like her, of an immortal race.
Then, when in pomp she makes the Phrygian round,
With golden turrets on her temples crown’d;
A hundred gods her sweeping train supply;
Her offspring all, and all command the sky.
“Now fix your sight, and stand intent, to see
Your Roman race, and Julian progeny.
The mighty Caesar waits his vital hour,
Impatient for the world, and grasps his promis’d pow’r.
But next behold the youth of form divine,
Ceasar himself, exalted in his line;
Augustus, promis’d oft, and long foretold,
Sent to the realm that Saturn rul’d of old;
Born to restore a better age of gold.
Afric and India shall his pow’r obey;
He shall extend his propagated sway
Beyond the solar year, without the starry way,
Where Atlas turns the rolling heav’ns around,
And his broad shoulders with their lights are crown’d.
Moreover, the language here and elsewhere in Book VI implies the pursuit of glory. Aeneas’s Rome is prophesied as realizing its glorious potential in “Augustus” who establishes a “better age of gold” and rules a glorious empire: “Afric and India shall his pow’r obey; He shall extend his propagated sway Beyond the solar year, without the starry way, Where Atlas turns the rolling heav’ns around, And his broad shoulders with their lights are crown’d.” Roman glory, then, is an inherent part of Aeneid.
Some of the poem’s emphasis on glory, however, can be mitigated through considering various factors. First, Virgil was a court poet and, hence, needed to appropriately please his patron. Second, the displaced Trojans, whom Aeneas leads, are searching for a new home in the face of humbling defeat, and they are compelled to face already established hostile forces within Italy to realize this end. On the one hand, their intrusion into an already settled Italy can itself be viewed as imperial. On the other hand, their combat with various Italians is just aimed at defending their settlement in Latium and making this their homeland. The resulting conflict among peoples is not aimed at attaining glory via sacking and, then, leaving a foreign city as the Greeks did to Troy; rather, it is the conflict of a people trying establish themselves in a new home.
Such epic poems provide insight into the importance of place and localism within the ancient Mediterranean world. Both Homer and Virgil seem influenced by these themes. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that human history, up until our own age of globalism and continental-sized and consolidated nation-states, has centered around local life in one’s place and home. Now that we can technologically spread-eagle across the globe via consuming natural resources, we often scorn and neglect the place-based living that was the only mode of living before our time. Thus, we are often placeless, and (hence) probably a lot less human (due to the difficulties of maintaining coherent moral and religious traditions without place). With this in mind, we are in dire need of remembering the importance of finding a place to make our home, and Homer and Virgil can help us remember.