In Part Two, Chapter IV, Hamilton tells the story of Phaëthon, the son of the Sun-god by a mortal woman. The doubtful Phaëthon goes to visit the Sun to verify his parentage and ends up joyriding on the Sun’s chariot, only to be shot down after losing control of it. Like Icarus, who flies too high on wings of wax only to have them melt, Phaëthon is an archetypal case of overreaching one’s place by an act of reckless arrogance. Tragedy inevitably befalls those mortals who confuse their position and worth with those of the gods.
Yet these two brief lines also contain a second, brilliant counterpoint to the lesson of humility in the story of Phaëthon’s tragic mistake. If the first line demonstrates the ill fate that overtakes him for overstepping himself, the second line subtly heroizes him. Phaëthon falls into disaster, but has striven equally far for greatness. As much as Greek and Roman myths caution humans against arrogance, they also pique our curiosity at, and celebrate those who have achieved, dazzling and original acts of triumph.
[I]f I must slay
The joy of my house, my daughter.
A father’s hands
Stained with dark streams flowing
From blood of a girl
Slaughtered before the altar.
Agamemnon speaks these anguished words—quoted from Aeschylus in Part Four, Chapter I—after learning that the Greek ships cannot sail for Troy unless his daughter, Iphigenia, is sacrificed to appease the angry Artemis. Though the very idea of the act is ghastly and repulsive to him, Agamemnon follows through with it, as it seems the only honorable way to perform his duty to his fellow Greeks and uphold the oath he has sworn to help his brother Menelaus reclaim his wife, Helen. Agamemnon’s allegiance is with his social brotherhood more than his family, for he feels the dishonor of preventing the Greeks from sailing is greater than the dishonor of murdering his own child. Already, Agamemnon couches his response as something he “must” do, not as something asked of him. He believes that any mandated duty to a god is justified, even if it is entails a horrible crime like murdering one’s own daughter.
Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, takes a violently different view when he returns home, slaughtering him in revenge. Yet paradoxically, the very principle by which Clytemnestra justifies her action is the same upon which Agamemnon based his, because she obviously feels the duty of avenging her daughter outweighs the crime of killing one’s own husband. With this quote, thus, we see both the theme of the self-perpetuating nature of bloodshed as well as the complexity of the moral dilemmas that formed the subject of much Greek tragedy.
We stand at the same point of pain.
We too are slaves.
Our children are crying, calling to us with tears, “Mother, I am all alone.
To the dark ships now they drive me,
And I cannot see you, Mother.”
These lines, spoken in Euripides’ The Trojan Women at the fall of Troy, appear in Part Four, Chapter II. True to the sophistication of the Greek playwrights, Euripides does not, in his consideration of the Trojan War, rest with a simple glorification of the Greek military victory. Rather, he depicts the useless devastation and catastrophe that war brings alongside its glory. We feel the sorrow of the innocent—a sorrow infinitely multiplied when we recall that the only cause of the war is a spat over the lovely Helen.
Although Homer’s Iliad does not address the sophisticated aftermath of the Trojan War in the way that The Trojan Women does, the Iliad does portray the conflict as more than just a simple struggle between good and evil. We see heroism, strength of character, wisdom, and honor on both the Greek and Trojan sides. The Iliad ends with the death of Hector, the brave Trojan, portraying his loss as a great tragedy equal to the tragic death of the Greek Achilles. Both Euripides’ play and Homer’s epic depict humans caught in a web of circumstances beyond their control, facing their difficult situations and making the only ethical decisions possible, even when the clear consequence is death. The quotation, then, captures this moral complexity of war with an insightful snapshot of the human condition beyond the glory and spoils of a proud battle.
“What creature,” the Sphinx asked him, “goes on four feet in the morning, on two at noonday, on three in the evening?”
The answer Oedipus gives, in Part Five, Chapter II, is “[m]an.” As a baby, man crawls; in maturity, he walks upright on his two feet; near the end of his life, he walks with a cane. Answering this riddle, Oedipus saves the city of Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx, who kills herself. Oedipus does not, however, realize the implications the riddle has for his own life.
At this point, Oedipus is chronologically between the two major criminal acts that make up his tragedy, though he commits them unknowingly. He has just killed his father, Laius, and he is about to—again unwittingly—marry his mother Jocasta. These actions divide Oedipus’s life into three stages of its own. First is the early part of his life in which he grows up as the adopted son of Polybus, from whom he flees in order to avoid fulfilling an oracle’s prophecy and committing patricide. Second is his triumphal stage, as he becomes king of Thebes and marries its widowed queen, Jocasta, after defeating the Sphinx. Third is his blinded stage, as it is revealed that Jocasta is his mother and that he has inadvertently slain his true father, Laius, on his flight from Polybus. We see that Oedipus’s life itself corresponds to the Sphinx’s riddle. At his birth, his true parents abandon him because of another prophecy, and he is forced to rely on the kindness of Polybus. At the second stage, when man stands erect, Oedipus finds himself on top of the Theban world, glorified as a hero, deemed a king, and married with children. The last stage, when man needs a cane to aid his lameness in walking, corresponds to Oedipus’s self-inflicted blindness, when he is disappointed and impaired but still alive to continue the last leg of his journey.
[The Roman race] left to other nations such things as art and science, and ever remembered that they were destined to bring under their empire the peoples of earth, to impose the rule of submissive nonresistance, to spare the humbled and to crush the proud.
Hamilton ends her account of the Aeneid in Part Four, Chapter IV, with this strange declaration of Virgil on the nature of “the Roman race.” In order to understand it, we should bear in mind both the legacy to which Virgil is responding as well as the contemporary backdrop to which he addresses himself. The original Romans had a very indistinct and undeveloped religious worldview, in which deities were little more than barely personified forces. As a result, the Romans responded well to the colorful and engaging body of stories the Greeks had compiled. Consequently, when the Romans came in greater and greater contact with the Greeks, they took over the entire Greek system, only bothering to change some names to harmonize the new gods with existing traditions. They also adopted Greek philosophy, science, and artistic practices.
With so much cultural and intellectual matter adopted from another race, the Romans suffered a lingering void in their national identity. To counter the impression of such an absence, the Romans turned to the areas in which their own culture excelled. In Virgil’s time, the Romans had military prowess and a strong, organized state. The current emperor, Augustus, had expanded and consolidated the geographic possessions of Rome into an empire of unprecedented scope and status. Virgil’s remark is rather defensive, implying that the Romans had voluntarily laid aside the projects of art and science—no doubt to the Greeks, as well as to other civilizations—in favor of achieving world dominance. Interestingly, the last part of Virgil’s statement almost likens the Romans’ role to that of the gods in describing them as arbiters of humility and pride. In fact, Augustus initiated a long tradition among emperors by deifying the deceased Julius Caesar, officially declaring him a god and forcing the empire’s subjects to worship him.
Take a Study Break!