Some Divergent Greek Views on Heroes: Pluralism in Ancient Poetry

Pindar Olympian 2.2

“What god, what hero and what man will we celebrate?”

τίνα θεόν, τίν’ ἥρωα, τίνα δ’ ἄνδρα κελαδήσομεν;


The Greeks have left us some evidence for attitudes about heroes that might surprise some modern readers. The line from Pindar above is a classic account of the hero as a mid-point between man and god, sharing in both worlds but truly part of neither.

One of the things that is different from our usage is that Greek heroes represent, in some readings, a particular generation in time (the race before ours, according to Hesiod in the Works and Days). And this race of heroes whose trials and tribulations give us so many myths included men and women, as the poet Corinna would remind us:


Corinna, fr.644 (Apollonius Dyskolus, Pronouns)

“I sing of the virtues of heroes and heroines.”

ἱώνει δ᾿ εἱρώων ἀρετὰς / χεἰρωάδων


This ‘race’ of heroes was appropriated to different contexts to different ends. As in our modern world, ‘heroes’ were sometimes portrayed as defenders of men and protectors of the community—and to an extent this is how they feature in the martial poetry of Kallinos of Sparta:


Kallinos, Fr. 1.18-21

“The loss is felt by the whole country when a brave man dies,

A man the equal of heroes;

Someone they see as a fortress before their eyes;

Someone who does the work of many even when alone.”


λαῶι γὰρ σύμπαντι πόθος κρατερόφρονος ἀνδρὸς

θνήσκοντος, ζώων δ’ ἄξιος ἡμιθέων·

ὥσπερ γάρ μιν πύργον ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὁρῶσιν·

ἔρδει γὰρ πολλὼν ἄξια μοῦνος ἐών.


But the Greeks, like everyone throughout time, were far from unanimous in their opinions about heroes. In the fragments of early comedy, for example, heroes are singled out for that which is their nature: being singled out, and different:


Myrtilus, fr. 2 (Titan-pans; Scholia to Aristophanes’ Birds)

“Heroes get ornery and mean when people get too close.”

οἵ ἥρωες δὲ δυσόργητοι καὶ χαλεποὶ τοῖς ἐμπελάζουσι γίνονται


And even in early epic, what it means to be a hero is at play. The Iliad and the Odyssey give very different versions of what it means to be heroic (and they oscillate among differing visions in the same narrative. Other epic fragments play with the debates offered in the Homeric poems.


Panyasis fr. 12K (=16 Benarbe) 8-9

“I would make the fame of the man who enjoys himself at the feast equal to the one earned by commanding the rest of the army.”

τοῦ κεν ἐγὼ θείμην ἶσον κλέος, ὅς τ’ ἐνὶ δαιτὶ

τέρπηται παρεὼν ἅμα τ’ ἄλλον λαὸν ἀνώγῃ


In part, the exploration of what it means to be a hero is a further step in the definition of what it means to be a man, to be a human being, and to live together as people in a city. One of the things that both the Iliad and the Odyssey dramatize is the danger that their heroes can both fend off and cause to their people. This was probably a current in the thought of early Greek philosophers and poets.


Xenophanes, Fragment 2. 16-19

“Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest—could never make a city governed well.”

οὐδὲ μὲν εἰ ταχυτῆτι ποδῶν, τόπερ ἐστὶ πρότιμον,

ῥώμης ὅσσ’ ἀνδρῶν ἔργ’ ἐν ἀγῶνι πέλει,

τούνεκεν ἂν δὴ μᾶλλον ἐν εὐνομίηι πόλις εἴη·

By the time of Classical Athens, it was clear that the outsized ambitions (and honors) of individuals could be undermining to the state. Herein lies the quandary: cities need great men to protect them, but their very strengths often bring ruin. This is dramatized in the heroic myths from Herakles through Odysseus and explored as well in Athenian tragedy.


And to end, some random, confusing samples:



Euripides, fr. 237 (Archelaus)


“A young man ought to be bold always,

Since no laidback man becomes famous.

Work gives birth to a good reputation.”


νεανίαν γὰρ ἄνδρα χρὴ τολμᾶν ἀεί·

οὐδεὶς γὰρ ὢν ῥᾴθυμος εὐκλεὴς ἀνήρ,

ἀλλ’ οἱ πόνοι τίκτουσι τὴν εὐδοξίαν.



Euripides, fr. 257 (Archelaus)


A rash heart and a limited mind

Has destroyed many men: dual evils for whoever has them.


πολλοὺς δ’ ὁ θυμὸς ὁ μέγας ὤλεσεν βροτῶν

ἥ τ’ ἀξυνεσία, δύο κακὼ τοῖς χρωμένοις.



Euripides, fr. 275 (Auge)


Pray that all who rejoice in tyranny,

Or in some small monarchy in their city, die terribly.

The name ‘freedom’ is worth everything—

Even if he possesses a little, a man who has this is considered great.


κακῶς δ’ ὄλοιντο πάντες οἳ τυραννίδι

χαίρουσιν ὀλίγῃ τ’ ἐν πόλει μοναρχίᾳ·

τοὐλεύθερον γὰρ ὄνομα παντὸς ἄξιον,

κἂν σμίκρ’ ἔχῃ τις, μεγάλ’ ἔχειν νομιζέτω.

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Democritus, fr.61 [Stob. III 37, 25].

Democritus, that old laughing-philosopher, has some advice for all of us returning to work and school:



“Whoever has orderly ways also has an ordered life.”


οἷσιν ὁ τρόπος ἐστὶν εὔτακτος, τούτοισι καὶ ὁ βίος συντέτακται

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Work-Contests: Two Passages from the Odyssey about Manual Labor

A repeated motif in the Odyssey is Odysseus’ ability to do manual labor, often marked out in contrast with the suitors who just lay about consuming another man’s wealth.  While it is clear that this is not a revolutionary embrace of the lower classes’ life of labor, it nevertheless signals something of a Hesiodic appreciation for the difficulty of daily labor and the corruption of a life of leisure.


What better for Labor day than passages that make labor the subject of epic poetry?

(Even if it could be an example of aristocratic expropriation of the labor and labors of those who live beneath them…)


Odyssey 15.321-324


“No mortal could rival me in work:

No one could best me at building a fire or dry wood,

At serving at the table, cooking meat or serving wine–

All those tasks lesser men complete for their betters.”



δρηστοσύνῃ οὐκ ἄν μοι ἐρίσσειε βροτὸς ἄλλος,

πῦρ τ’ εὖ νηῆσαι διά τε ξύλα δανὰ κεάσσαι,

δαιτρεῦσαί τε καὶ ὀπτῆσαι καὶ οἰνοχοῆσαι,

οἷά τε τοῖς ἀγαθοῖσι παραδρώωσι χέρηες.”




Odyssey, 18.366-383



“Eurymachus: I wish the two of us could have a labor-contest

In the height of spring when the days are drawing longer,

In the thickening grass. I would grip the curved scythe

And you could hold the same thing, so we could test each other

At work, fasting right up to dusk where the grass was thick.

And then the next day we could drive the oxen, the strongest ones,

Bright and large, both stuffed full with their food,

A pair of the same age, equally burdened, their strength unwavering.

I’d wish for a four-acre parcel to put under the plow.

Then you’d see me, how I would cut a furrow straight from end to end.

Or if, instead, Kronos’ son would send me a war today,

And I would have a shield and two spears

Matched with a bronze helmet well-fit to my temples.

Then you’d see me mixing it up in the front lines

And you wouldn’t bawl about, belittling my hungry stomach.”



“Εὐρύμαχ’, εἰ γὰρ νῶϊν ἔρις ἔργοιο γένοιτο

ὥρῃ ἐν εἰαρινῇ, ὅτε τ’ ἤματα μακρὰ πέλονται,

ἐν ποίῃ, δρέπανον μὲν ἐγὼν εὐκαμπὲς ἔχοιμι,

καὶ δὲ σὺ τοῖον ἔχοις, ἵνα πειρησαίμεθα ἔργου

νήστιες ἄχρι μάλα κνέφαος, ποίη δὲ παρείη·

εἰ δ’ αὖ καὶ βόες εἶεν ἐλαυνέμεν, οἵ περ ἄριστοι,

αἴθωνες μεγάλοι, ἄμφω κεκορηότε ποίης,

ἥλικες ἰσοφόροι, τῶν τε σθένος οὐκ ἀλαπαδνόν,

τετράγυον δ’ εἴη, εἴκοι δ’ ὑπὸ βῶλος ἀρότρῳ·

τῶ κέ μ’ ἴδοις, εἰ ὦλκα διηνεκέα προταμοίμην.

εἰ δ’ αὖ καὶ πόλεμόν ποθεν ὁρμήσειε Κρονίων

σήμερον, αὐτὰρ ἐμοὶ σάκος εἴη καὶ δύο δοῦρε

καὶ κυνέη πάγχαλκος ἐπὶ κροτάφοισ’ ἀραρυῖα,

τῶ κέ μ’ ἴδοις πρώτοισιν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι μιγέντα,

οὐδ’ ἄν μοι τὴν γαστέρ’ ὀνειδίζων ἀγορεύοις.

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Ausonius, Epigram I (Labor Day Edition)

“Phoebus, lord of song, and Tritonia, defender in battles, and you too, Victoria, descending with a light foot from the air, adorn the lightened brow with a double diadem, bearing the garlands which are the toga’s gifts and the prize of war. Augustus, powerful in war and speech, deserves a double honor of twin titles, since he mixes battles with the Muses, and tempers the Getic war with his Apollinian strain. Amidst the weapons, the brutal Chuni, and the thieving Sarmatians, wherever he finds a break from making war, he only indulges himself in the Clarian Muses among his camp. He has hardly put down the flying arrows, those screaming missiles, when he sets his hand to the reed of the Muses – he knows no idle leisure, and so when he puts down the reed he dashes off a poem. But it is not a soft and gentle poem – it recalls the awful wars of Odrysian Mars and the weapons of the Thracian Amazon. Rejoice, Achilles, for you will be celebrated once again by a great poet – we now have a Roman Homer!”

Phoebe potens numeris, praeses Tritonia bellis,
tu quoque ab aerio praepes Victoria lapsu,
come serenatam duplici diademate frontem,
serta ferens, quae dona togae, quae praemia pugnae.
Bellandi fandique potens Augustus honorem
bis meret, ut geminet titulos, qui proelia Musis
temperat et Geticum moderatur Apolline Martem.
Arma inter Chunosque truces furtoque nocentes
Sauromatas, quantum cessat de tempore belli,
indulget Clariis tantum inter castra Camenis.
Vix posuit volucres stridentia tela sagittas:
Musarum ad calamos fertur manus, otia nescit
et commutata meditatur harundine carmen;
sed carmen non molle modis, bella horrida Martis
Odrysii Thraessaeque viraginis arma retractat.
Exsulta, Aeacide, celebraris vate superbo
rursum Romanusque tibi contingit Homerus.

Some notes:
-Gibbon writes, in the first footnote of Chapter XXVII of his Decline and Fall, that “The poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age.” The emperor Valentinian had appointed Ausonius as tutor to his son, the emperor Gratian, about whom this epigram is written.

-The finale line recalls Propertius 2.34.65-66:
cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Grai:
nescioquid maius nascitur Iliade.

“Out of the way Roman authors, and step aside you Greeks:
something greater than the Iliad is born.”

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“Sweat is The Price of Virtue”: Some Greek Quotes for Labor Day

Plutarch, Perikles 1.4 5-6


“Often and quite contrarily, we look down on a laborer while delighting in his work”


πολλάκις δὲ καὶ τοὐναντίον χαίροντες τῷ ἔργῳ τοῦ δημιουργοῦ καταφρονοῦμεν


Hesiod Works and Days, 289-90


“The gods made sweat the price for virtue.”


τῆς δ’ ἀρετῆς ἱδρῶτα θεοὶ προπάροιθεν ἔθηκαν


Pindar, Isthmian 1. 47

“Men find different payment sweet for different work.”


μισθὸς γὰρ ἄλλοις ἄλλος ἐπ’ ἔργμασιν ἀνθρώποις


Hesiod Works and Days, 303

“Gods and men alike dislike a lazy man.”


τῷ δὲ θεοὶ νεμεσῶσι καὶ ἀνέρες ὅς κεν ἀεργὸς.


Is this an attempt to counter the type of complaint Achilles’  makes in the Iliad (9.320)?


Archilochus fr. 307


The trap does the sleeping fisherman’s work


εὕδοντι δ᾿ αἱρεῖ κύρτος


Euripides, Hippolytus 189-190

“The life of men is wholly grievous, nor is there any release from toil.”


πᾶς δ’ ὀδυνηρὸς βίος ἀνθρώπων
κοὐκ ἔστι πόνων ἀνάπαυσις.

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Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.361-8 (Odysseus to Ajax)

“Your right hand, so useful in battle, is your special talent, but it needs my guidance. You exercise your strength mindlessly, but I consider the future; you can fight, but it is with my counsel that Agamemnon selects the moment of battle; you help out with your body alone, but I put my mind to good use; and by as much as a captain surpasses an oarsman, or a general his troops, thus far do I surpass you.”

…tibi dextera bello
utilis, ingenium est, quod eget moderamine nostro;
tu vires sine mente geris, mihi cura futuri;
tu pugnare potes, pugnandi tempora mecum
eligit Atrides; tu tantum corpore prodes,
nos animo; quantoque ratem qui temperat, anteit
remigis officium, quanto dux milite maior,
tantum ego te supero…

NOTE: For those unfamiliar with the myth, a contest was held following the death of Achilles, which was to determine who would inherit his magnificent arms; they were, ostensibly, to be given to the best living warrior among the Achaeans. Ajax (a stout and powerful warrior) and Odysseus (a really tricky bastard) contended for the prize. Odysseus wowed the audience with his speech, and was awarded the arms. Ajax then, as the story was told by Sophocles, resolved to kill all of the Greek leaders. Athena prevented him from carrying out this resolution by the happy substitution of sheep for the Greeks; after learning that he had been deceived, Ajax killed himself. In The Odyssey, Odysseus encounters Ajax in the underworld, but the latter ignores him completely. Odysseus makes some vain protestation about wishing that he had never won the arms, but one can be forgiven for thinking that his regret was not entirely sincere.

Odysseus was never regarded as a particularly kind character, but Ovid does an excellent job of bringing out his wily character in a quite long and convoluted speech, from which this is excerpted.

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Euripidean Fragments and Bellerophon’s Atheism

Here are two fragments from the lost Euripidean Bellerophon in which the eponymous hero denies that the gods exist. He does not seem to say that there are no gods at all, but his complaints are like those of Xenophanes who complains about the misbehavior of Homer’s gods.

Instead, Bellerophon’s complaints are based on the fact that since the world seems unjust and the gods are supposed to ensure justice, therefore they must not exist (either totally or in the form man makes them).

Things turn out badly for Bellerophon, as one might imagine.


Euripides, fr.286.1-7 (Bellerophon)


“Is there anyone who thinks there are gods in heaven?

There are not. There are not, for any man who wishes

Not to be a fool and trust some ancient story.

Look at it yourselves, don’t make up your mind

Because of my words. I think that tyranny

Kills so many men and steals their possessions

And that men break their oaths by sacking cities.

But the men who do such things are more fortunate

Than those who live each die piously, at peace.

I know that small cities honor the gods,

Cities that obey stronger more impious men

Because they are overpowered by the strength of their arms.”


φησίν τις εἶναι δῆτ’ ἐν οὐρανῷ θεούς;

οὐκ εἰσίν, οὐκ εἴσ’, εἴ τις ἀνθρώπων θέλει

μὴ τῷ παλαιῷ μῶρος ὢν χρῆσθαι λόγῳ.

σκέψασθε δ’ αὐτοί, μὴ ἐπὶ τοῖς ἐμοῖς λόγοις

γνώμην ἔχοντες. φήμ’ ἐγὼ τυραννίδα

κτείνειν τε πλείστους κτημάτων τ’ ἀποστερεῖν

ὅρκους τε παραβαίνοντας ἐκπορθεῖν πόλεις·

καὶ ταῦτα δρῶντες μᾶλλόν εἰσ’ εὐδαίμονες

τῶν εὐσεβούντων ἡσυχῇ καθ’ ἡμέραν.

πόλεις τε μικρὰς οἶδα τιμώσας θεούς,

αἳ μειζόνων κλύουσι δυσσεβεστέρων

λόγχης ἀριθμῷ πλείονος κρατούμεναι.



Euripides, fr. 292.6 (Bellerophon)



“If the gods do a shameful thing, they are not gods.”


εἰ θεοί τι δρῶσιν αἰσχρόν, οὐκ εἰσὶν θεοί.

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