A Roman Founding Myth and Aeneas, Action Hero

Agostino Carracci's 'Aeneas and his family fleeing Troy.' (1595)
(From Agostino Carracci, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons; used w/o permission.)

I figure folks have been hankering for the ‘good old days’ since long before we started keeping written records. And occasionally preserving them.

The records, I mean. Not the ‘good old days.’

Change happens, which is anything but a new idea.

“πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει”
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus; (ca. 500 B.C.) via Plato’s “Cratylus,” Diogenes Laërtius in “Lives of the Philosophers” Book IX, section 8; one of many translations/Wikiquote)

Since I’m a Catholic, I think this universe is in a “state of journeying,” “in statu viae.” It’s moving toward an ultimate perfection, but isn’t there yet. Everything and everyone in this world helps move it along. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 302, 306-308)

Or gets in the way.

We’ve got free will. Folks sometimes behave badly. But, happily, God is large and in charge. We do have reason to keep hoping. And working to make this a better world. (Catechism, 268-274, 309-314, 1730-1742, 1817-1821, 1928-1942, 2415-2449)


Large and In Charge? God, Human Nature, and Consequences

Location of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Wikipedia Maps.The mass murder in an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school has been headline news this week, so I’d better clarify “God is large and in charge;” and why my faith isn’t shaken when someone decides to hurt others.

God makes everything. Including us. God said that everything and everyone is “very good.” Then the first of us decided that their ‘I want’ outranked their relationship with God. We’ve been making daft decisions ever since. (Genesis 1:31; 3:1-19; Catechism, 385-412)

As I see it, humanity and human nature was and is basically good. But we’re wounded, dealing with consequences of a very bad decision.

I suppose God could have overridden our free will, making us into nice and orderly little robots. Can’t say that I see that as an appealing idea.

Instead, we’re still human: with all the authority, power and responsibility that goes along with our nature. I’ve talked about that before.1


This Week: Golden Ages, Troy and a Founding Myth

Screenshot from a 20th Century Fox trailer for 'Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes.' Marilyn Monroe and men in formal attire. (1953) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.Although I’ll occasionally get nostalgic, I’m convinced that trying to drag society back to some imagined golden age is impossible.

Which is a good thing, since the ‘good old days’ I remember — weren’t.

And I’m as sure as I can be, that we’ve never had Hesiod’s Golden Age.

Although some ‘good old days’ were objectively better than an unpleasant present.

This week I’ll be talking about Hesiod’s and other golden ages, Troy and the Late Bronze Age collapse, and one of Rome’s founding myths.


Once and Future Golden Ages

Scott Adam's 'Dilbert.' (April30, 1993
(From Scott Adams, used w/o permission.)

Calling the ‘good old days’ a Golden Age arguably started with Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” composed around 700 B.C. — assuming that Hesiod was Hesiod and that’s another topic.

At any rate, Hesiod described five ages: Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic and Iron.

Everybody got along during Hesiod’s Golden Age, nobody got old and everyone had enough to eat. Then pretty much everything and everyone went downhill.

Hesiod said that his ‘now’ — when the population of places like Athens and Knossos had grown to maybe 5,000 — was the Iron Age. And that life in the Iron Age is all toil and hardship, with nothing but the decline of all moral and religious standards ahead.

Sounds a lot like the doomsayers of my youth, actually.

And today’s headlines: not the same bogeymen, but the same ‘we’ll all die’ attitude.

Hesiod-style Golden Ages and their lower-case ‘good old days’ metaphoric analogs have been endemic in Western civilization ever since. Alternating with the equally-sensible apocalyptic visions of scaremongers.

Seeing ‘today’ as less than ideal isn’t uniquely Greek, or Western.

Yongxinge's photo: detail of a painting in the Long Corridor, Summer Palace, Beijing. (2006) Folks in south Asia have the Satya Yuga, AKA Krita Yuga, segment of the Yuga Cycle.

Folks in one of my ancestral homelands looked forward, if you can call it that, to Ragnarök: which would be anything but a golden age.

On the other hand, Völuspá says that survivors will get together on Iðavöllr and build the city of Gimlé. All of which is debatable and debated,2 although I see it as an example of a ‘good old days’ or golden age that hasn’t happened yet.

Fear, Phaedrus and Social Media

Hedwig Storch's photo of Thutmosis III cartouches in the temple at Deir el-Bahari. Photo taken May 14, 2011I see many ‘good old days’ and ‘golden ages’ as at least partly subjective.

Take Plato’s somewhat crotchety Socrates, in “Phaedrus,” for example.

“…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. … you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth … they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality…”
Phaedrus,” Plato, (ca. 370 B.C.) Benjamin Jowett, trans; via Project Gutenberg)

“External written characters” weren’t exactly new in Socrates’ day. Folks in Greece had been adapting Phoenician script to their language for at least three and a half centuries.3

But judging from Plato’s version of Socrates’ viewpoint, writing was still a newfangled and potentially disruptive force. In the eyes of folks who put high value on rote memorization, at any rate.

Ironically, we know about Socrates mainly because Plato and others wrote down his ideas. And that’s yet another topic.

Or maybe not so much.

Plato’s Socrates saw writing as something that would keep folks from really thinking about ideas. Sort of like today’s fears that social media makes folks into shallow nitwits.

More than 23 centuries later, I think Plato’s Socrates was right. Sort of.

I learned to read as a child, and have read a great deal. But I can’t recite even a short poem like Tennyson’s “Ulysses” from memory. Not without re-reading and rehearsing it.

My rote memory skills aren’t what they would have been in an unlettered society.

On the other hand, because I can read — I have access to Plato’s dialogues, translated into my native language. And a great deal more.

Forgetting, and Rediscovering, Troy

The Troy Excavation Archive, Canakkale's photo: bronze seal with Luwian hieroglyphs. Found in Troy VI. (1995)
(From The Troy Excavation Archive, Canakkale; via Smithsonian Magazine; used w/o permission.)
(A bronze seal with Luwian writing, found in the ruins of Troy.)

Other ‘good old days’ were objectively better than the then-current here and now.

Take folks who had been living in Troy, for example. Those who got out in time.

Seven centuries before Socrates was born, four or five centuries before Homer’s day, Troy was a great city of the northeastern Aegean.

It’s not there any more, and hasn’t been for millennia.

In 1995, an archaeologist found a Luwian hieroglyphic inscription on a bronze seal in the ruins of Troy. Some scholars think Trojans spoke Luwian back then, but we’re not sure.

Meanwhile, folks over in what would be Greece were flourishing, introducing new technology and innovative architecture. They were literate folks, using a written language we call Linear B.

Then, somewhere between 1200 and 1150 B.C., something went horribly wrong.4

The End of Civilization as They Knew It: Death, Destruction and Then the Greek Dark Ages

Finn Bjørklid's (?) map showing the Bronze Age collapse.Cities burned. Bodies in Karaoğlan were left unburied — that’s the site’s Turkish name, we don’t know what its people called their city — and survivors for the most part forgot how to write.

I don’t blame them. For some time, just staying alive would very likely have been a full-time job.

Survivors in Mycenaean Greece stopped using Linear B. It took them centuries to start redeveloping an alphabet based on Phoenician script.

Homer’s “Iliad” is the only account of the Trojan War I’ve heard of. Assuming that Homer actually composed the epic poem, roughly four centuries after the disaster.

And that the legendary author was really real.

I’ve read that since Homer didn’t really exist, he couldn’t have written the “Iliad,” and anyway he couldn’t write.

Can’t argue with logic like that. And that’s yet again another topic.

Somewhere between the time Odoacer deposed Augustulus and London’s Fleet Prison finally closed, Western scholars decided that Troy hadn’t ever existed. Then Schliemann found Trojan ruins.

Troy and the Trojan War was still a debatable, or debated at any rate, topic when I earned my history degree.

Then we learned that the Trojan War was just part of an apocalypse we now call the Late Bronze Age collapse.5


Roman Origins and Aeneas

Ron Beck/USGS Eros Data Center Satellite Systems Branch image of Rome, Italy, from Landsat 7 data. (August 3, 2001)
(from Ron Beck, USGS Eros Data Center Satellite Systems Branch, via NASA’s earthobservatory, used w/o permission.)
(Rome, Italy: an image from the Landsat 7 satellite. (August 3, 2001))

Folks have been living where Rome is today for at least 14,000 years. We’re pretty sure that what became the city of Rome got started around 770 B.C. — give or take a half-century.

Various Roman historians came up with their own ‘year one’ for Rome, using one or another of the Olympiads as reference points. Or, in Cato the Elder’s case, the Trojan War.

Putting Rome’s founding 432 years after the Trojan War meshes well with the “Aeneid:” Virgil’s tale of Roman origins.

The “Aeneid” could be based on actual events, since Trojan refugees would have been well-advised to head west, away from what we call the Late Bronze Age collapse.

But whether Virgil’s Aeneas is based on a real Trojan survivor, or is a sort of Roman Molly Pitcher, depends on who’s talking.

And small wonder. The Trojan hero was mentioned by Homer: who didn’t exist, according to an occasionally-fashionable academic view.

The earliest stories about Aeneas left a paper trail that starts around 750 B.C., give or take. That’s about four centuries after the Trojan War.

Since then, his story has been re-imagined and re-told by Virgil, Gaius Julius Hyginus, Livy, Ovid, Snorri Sturlason — his Aeneas was named Mennon — Guido delle Colonne and others. So I’d be surprised if what we know about Aeneas wasn’t a trifle muddled.6

Getting back to Virgil’s Aeneas, he’s a larger-than-life hero who leads Trojan survivors through assorted adventures, finally settling on hills by the Tiber river.

Aeneas: Action Hero

Pieter Schoubroeck's 'Aeneas trägt seinen Vater Anchises aus dem brennendem Troja.' (1606))
(from Pieter Schoubroeck; via Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wikipedia; used w/o permission.)

Virgil’s “Aeneid” wasn’t so much a biography of Aeneas as it was Rome’s national epic or founding myth: an origin story for Virgil’s Rome and Romans.

Cornè's 'Landing of the Pilgrims.' (ca. 1803-1807)Sort of like the Great American Novel, as imagined by some.

Or, I’d say, more like the mythologized Pilgrim Fathers; as described in holiday specials during my youth.

Instead of trying to summarize Virgil’s 9,896 lines of dactylic hexameter, I’ll skip over the judgement of Paris, Trojan horse, Dido and a whole mess of Roman gods: re-telling what’s left as an action-adventure story.

Barely escaping Troy’s destruction, Aeneas leads a small band of refugees away from the flaming ruins of their city and their world.

After encountering monsters, heroes, a queen and other refugees who are trying to build a new Troy, Aeneas descends through the underworld and learns that he’s destined to found a great city. Which he does, at Pallanteum, which became part of Rome.

Virgil’s “Aeneid” casts the Roman goddess Venus as the mother of Aeneas, with other Roman gods and goddesses replacing the Greek originals.

His epic was arguably every bit as mythic as Homer’s.

So was his Aeneas: who lived a life of Roman virtues, with a selfless sense of duty toward his familial, religious, and societal obligations.7 Although from my 21st century perspective, the Dido incident didn’t fit that pattern.


History, Myth and the Apotheosis of Washington

Detail of 'The Apotheosis of Washington,' United States Capitol rotunda; Constantino Brumidi. (1865)
(From Constantino Brumidi, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Detail of the U.S. Capital rotunda’s “The Apotheosis of Washington” fresco. (1865))

I’m forgetting something. Let’s see.

Heraclitus. Uvalde, Texas. Hesiod’s Golden Age and Linear B. An ancient apocalypse. Right.

Virgil’s “Aeneid” is a founding myth, or — from some academic viewpoints — either a warning against or praise of Augustus Caesar’s rule. And that’s still another topic.

But I’ve been talking about the “Aeneid” because I suspect that Virgil saw Troy and Trojans as the setting and citizens of a long-lost golden age. And that one of his goals was to show Rome as the rightful heir of his era’s metaphorical Camelot.

I think founding myths are important parts of a culture’s folklore.

So are tales of golden ages.

If nothing else, our Camelots and Pax Romanas let us imagine a better world: and would ideally inspire us to correct what’s wrong with our era, and preserve what’s right.

I also think remembering that myths aren’t history is vital. A myth can ‘truthfully’ teach attitudes and values without being objectively true.

But mythologizing a culture’s heroes, no matter how well-intentioned, can lead to — ah — remarkable images like “The Apotheosis of Washington” on the ceiling of my nation’s capitol rotunda.8 And that’s — you guessed it — another topic. Topics.

I’ve got more to say about golden ages; Rome’s good times, bad times and Tarquin the Proud; and, probably, the Oath of the Horatii. But that must wait for another day.

Meanwhile, here’s the usual list of related stuff:


1 Human nature and the existence of evil:

2 Ages, golden and otherwise:

3 A poet, philosophers and writing:

4 ‘It was the best of times,’ for a while:

5 Skipping lightly over the most recent three millennia:

6 Heroes and heroines, myths and legends:

7 Virgil’s Aeneas — Trojan prince, refugee and founder of a great city:

8 Old, and new, stories:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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