Greeks on Greekness: Francesca Mestre

Greeks on Greekness Colloquium Abstract

Francesca Mestre, University of Barcelona

“Heroes And Heroism As Patterns Of Greek Identity In The Roman Empire.”

This paper focuses on one of the figures the Greeks used for this purpose, the traditional hero: what he is, what he represents, the ways in which the legend could be exploited, and what new functions the figure could take on inside this attempt to establish a Greek identity. Using the model offered by the traditional hero, heroic values, and the concept of heroism as my starting point, I will also describe the new heroes created by the Greek elites under the Empire, and the attitudes, events and thoughts in which heroism is reflected.

The hero is a character of the past; he is in a certain way a part of history, albeit an imaginary history. This allows him to serve as an example: either for good, or for bad. The hero constitutes a mold for the Greek identity – or greekness – under the Roman Empire, both because he is the representative of the values that the Greek elite probably sought for itself, and because he offers a pretext for the revival of traditional religiosity, which by then was almost a spent force. And, as I said, heroes had a high exemplary and educational value.

I have divided my appraisal of heroes into two parts. The first considers the treatment of traditional mythological heroes, taking examples from Dio Chrysostom, Lucian, and Philostratus. The second contends that via the reformulation of the hero and traditional heroism, new heroes are presented: in the novel, in Plutarch, and again, in Philostratus.

The result of this analysis is that the authors’ use of the hero of myth – and in this Dio, Lucian and Philostratus coincide even though their approaches and aims are probably different – is a way of expressing their own ideas. For Dio, Lucian and Philostratus the hero is a key element for referring to the tradition, but also for producing something new inside this tradition: perhaps a paradigmatic (allegorical?) model of human behavior.

Finally, the last part of my paper considers the creation of new heroes, through the reelaboration or reformulation of the treatment of traditional ones. Clearly, in addition to the use of traditional hero, Greek literature of the Imperial period creates new heroes, new paradigmatic patterns. In what way are the main characters of the novels heroes? What kind of heroism do they represent? And Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tiana, who is in a way initiated by the ghost of Achilles?

But I think the best example is Plutarch’s Lives. In Plutarch’s parallel presentation of a Greek and a Roman we observe that Rome needs to create its heroes, whereas Greece needs only to give human form to the heroes of ancient times, in the sense they represent real men. Nonetheless, for Plutarch, the values he praises in his heroes need no longer be defined as Greek; for the readership of Imperial times it is clear that these values are the values that define Hellenism, even though they are applied to the Romans.

So it might be said that the values represented by these new heroes – literary and paradigmatic heroes – are Roman as well, since they represent Greek tradition.