Gregory Nagy, The ancient Greek hero in 24 hours: Introduction to the book

Introduction to the book

The readings

00§1. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is based on a course that I have taught at Harvard University ever since the late 1970s. This course, “Concepts of the Hero in Greek Civilization,” centers on selected readings of texts, all translated from the original Greek into English. The texts include the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; the Hesiodic Theogony and Works and Days; selected songs of Sappho and Pindar; selections from the Histories of Herodotus; the Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides of Aeschylus; the Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles; the Hippolytus and Bacchae of Euripides; and the Apology and Phaedo of Plato. Also included are selections from Pausanias and Philostratus. These texts are supplemented by pictures, taken mostly from Athenian vase paintings. Copies of those pictures will be shown in Hour 7.
00§2. The texts I have just listed are available free of charge in an online Sourcebook of original Greek texts translated into English (, which I have edited with the help of fellow teachers and researchers. The process of editing this Sourcebook is an ongoing project that I hope will outlast my own lifetime. All the translations in this online Sourcebook are free from copyright restrictions. That is because the translations belong either to me or to other authors who have waived copyright or to authors who died in a time that precedes any further application of copyright. The texts of these translations in the Sourcebook are periodically reviewed and modified, and the modifications are indicated by way of special formatting designed to show the differences between the original translator’s version and the modified version.
00§3. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is divided into five parts. The number of hours dedicated to each part is tightened up as the argumentation intensifies, and the hours themselves get shorter. Part I, taking up Hours 1 through 12, is primarily about heroes as reflected in the oldest surviving forms of ancient Greek epic and lyric poetry. Part II, Hours 13 through 15, is about heroes as reflected in a variety of prose media. Part III, Hours 16 through 21, is about heroes in ancient Greek tragedy. Part IV, Hours 22-23, is about heroes as reflected in two dialogues of Plato. And Part V, confined to Hour 24, is about the hero as a transcendent concept. Interwoven with the 24 Hours are Comments that follow some but not all of these hours. These Comments, which are numbered to match the number of the hour after which they occur, will add more hours of reading, and the reader may choose to postpone them in the course of a first reading.

About the dating of the texts quoted in the selected readings

00§4. The time span for most of these texts extends from the eighth through the fourth centuries BCE (“Before the Common Era”). Some of the texts, however, date from later periods: for example, Pausanias is dated to the second century CE (“Common Era”). When I say “ancient Greek history,” the term ancient includes three periods:

archaic (from the eighth century down to roughly the middle of the fifth )
classical (roughly, the second half of the fifth century)
post-classical (fourth century and beyond).

A convenient point for dividing classical and post-classical is the death of Socrates in 399 BCE.

About the historical setting for the primary sources: “ancient Greece”

[[The online version will be correlated with World Map.]]

“One is no longer at home anywhere, so in the end one longs to be back where one can somehow be at home because it is the only place where one would wish to be at home: and that is the world of Greece.” –
Friedrich Nietzsche [[from part Two of “Der Wille zur Macht”]]
00§5. In the ancient world of the classical period, “Greece” was not really a “country” or a “nation,” as we ordinarily think of these terms. Rather, it was a cultural constellation of competing city-states that had a single language in common, Greek. In the classical period, speakers of the Greek language called themselves Hellēnes or ‘Hellenes’.
00§6. Among the most prominent of the ancient Greek city-states were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Argos, and Thebes, all of them located in the part of the Mediterranean region that we know today as “modern Greece.” There were also other prominent ancient Greek city-states in other parts of the Mediterranean region. To the East, on the coast of Asia Minor, which is now part of the modern state of Turkey, were Greek cities like Miletus and Smyrna (now Izmir); facing the coast of Asia Minor were Greek island states like Samos and Chios. Further to the North was a federation of Greek cities on the island of Lesbos and on the facing mainland of Asia Minor. Still further to the North, guarding the entrance to the Black Sea, was the Greek city of Byzantium, later to be called Constantinople (now Istanbul). To the South, in African Libya, was the Greek city of Cyrene. Further to the East in Northern Africa, in Egypt, was the arguably greatest of all Greek cities in the ancient world, Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. To the West were other great Greek cities like Syracuse on the island of Sicily as well as Tarentum and Neapolis (now Napoli or Naples) in what is now the modern state of Italy. Still further to the West, in what is now the modern state of France, was the Greek (formerly Phoenician) city of Massalia (now Marseille).
00§7. The ancient Greeks would agree that they shared the same language, despite the staggering variety of local dialects. They would even agree that they shared a civilization, though they would be intensely contentious about what exactly their shared civilization would be. Each city-state had its own institutions, that is, its own government, constitution, laws, calendars, religious practices, and so on. Both the sharing and the contentiousness lie at the root of the very essence of the city-state. What I am translating here as ‘city-state’ is the Greek word polis. This is the word from which our words political and politics are derived.
00§8. In the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle made a basic observation about the ancient Greek polis in a treatise known today as the Politics. Here is the original Greek wording, ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον (Aristotle Politics I 1253a2–3), which can be translated literally this way: ‘A human [anthrōpos] is by nature an organism of the polis [politikon zōion]’. We see in this wording the basis for a distinctly Greek concept of civilization. What Aristotle is really saying here is that humans achieve their ultimate potential within a society that is the polis. From this point of view, the ultimate in human potential is achieved politically. The original Greek wording of this observation by Aristotle is frequently rendered this way into English: ‘Man is a political animal’. Such a rendering does not do justice to the original formulation, since current uses of the word political do not convey accurately the historical realities of the ancient Greek polis.
00§9. Here are some basic aspects of Greek civilization that most ancient Greeks in the classical period could agree about:

1. interpolitical festivals. Two primary examples are the Olympic festival (= “Olympics”) at Olympia and the Pythian festival at Delphi.
2. interpolitical repositories of shared knowledge. A primary example is Delphi.
3. interpolitical poetry. Two primary examples are a set of monumental poems known as the Iliad and Odyssey, attributed to a prehistoric figure named Homer, and another set of poems known as the Theogony and Works and Days, attributed to a prehistoric figure named Hesiod. [1]
00§10. I have used the term interpolitical here instead of international because I do not want to imply that each polis was a nation. In most of my published work, however, I use the term Panhellenic instead of interpolitical. The term Panhellenic or pan-Hellenic is derived from the ancient Greek compound noun pan-Hellēnes ‘all Greeks’, which is attested in the Hesiodic Works and Days (528) [2] in the sense of referring to ‘all Greeks under the sun’ [3] (526-528). [4] This use of the compound noun pan-Hellēnes in the absolutizing sense of ‘all Greeks’ helps explain the later use of the non-compound noun Hellēnes ‘Hellenes’ to mean ‘Greeks’ in the classical period; earlier, that noun Hellēnes had been used to designate a sub-set of Greeks dwelling in Thessaly rather than any full complement of Greeks. As the linguistic evidence shows, the non-compound noun Hellēnes acquired the meaning of ‘Greeks’ from the built-in politics of the compound noun pan-Hellēnes, the basic meaning of which can be paraphrased this way: Hellenes (as a subset of Greeks) and all other Greeks (as a notionally complete set of Greeks). [5]
00§11. I understand the concept of Panhellenic or Panhellenism as a cultural as well as political impulse that became the least common denominator of ancient Greek civilization in the classical period. And the impulse of Panhellenism was already at work in Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. In the Homeric Iliad, for example, the names Achaeans and Danaans and Argives are used synonymously in the universalizing sense of Panhellenes or ‘all Hellenes’ or ‘all Greeks’.
00§12. In the Classical period, an authoritative source goes on record to say that Homer and Hesiod are the foundation for all civilization. That source is the historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE. According to Herodotus (2.53.1-3), Homer and Hesiod are the repository of knowledge that provides the basics of education for all Hellenes. [6] And such basics, as we will see in this book, are conceived primarily in terms of religion, which requires an overall knowledge of the forms and the functions of the gods.
00§13. Here I make two points about the historical realities of ancient Greek religion:

1. When we apply the term religion to such traditional practices as the worship of gods in the classical period of Greek civilization as also in earlier periods, we need to think of such practices in terms of an interaction between myth and ritual. Here is a quick working definition of myth and ritual together. Ritual is doing things and saying things in a way that is considered sacred. Myth is saying things in a way that is also considered sacred. So ritual frames myth.
2. Not only were the gods worshipped in ancient Greek religion. Heroes too were worshipped. Besides the word worship, we may use the word cult, as in the term hero cult. Other relevant concepts are cultivate and culture. The concepts of (1) a hero cult and (2) the cult hero who is worshipped in hero cult will figure prominently in the readings ahead.
00§14. Our readings will start with Homer. This prehistoric figure, who is credited with the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey, represents an interpolitical or Panhellenic perspective on the Greeks. Homeric poetry is not tied down to any one polis. It presents the least common denominator in the cultural education of the elite of all city-states.
00§15. But how can a narrative or “story” like the Iliad become an instrument of education? This book offers answers to that question.


[ back ] 1. English-language translations of the entire Homeric Iliad and Odyssey and of the entire Hesiodic Theogony and Works and Days are available in the online online Sourcebook of original Greek texts translated into English (
[ back ] 2. πανελλήνεσσι.
[ back ] 3. ἠέλιος … πανελλήνεσσι φαείνει.
[ back ] 4. Nagy 2009a:274-275. Secondary sources such as “Nagy 2009a” are all listed in the Bibliography at the end of this book. In most cases, I will use abbreviations that can be looked up at the first page of the Bibliograpy. An example of such abbreviations is “HQ” in the note that follows.
[ back ] 5. HQ 39n40. From the start, I alert the reader to the fact that notionally is one of my favorite words. I use it to indicate that the statement I am making reflects not my own thinking but rather the thought patterns of others.
[ back ] 6. Commentary in PH 215-216 = 8§2.