How does the ideal of heroic citizenship change from the Greek mythopoetic tradition through the emergence of Greek tragic drama to the late Stoicism of Roman imperialism? What elements remain the same in this development of the ideal, and what elements undergo alteration or adaption? What, in the end, is the essence of the heroic ideal?
The “hero” in literature is an idealized portrait of a person (or demigod) whose physical attributes, matched with his idealism, honor, loyalty, and bravery, cause his actions to overcome all adversities, especially those forces identified as “evil” by the protagonist’s society. Ancient manifestations emphasized the transcendence from merely human to supernatural powers, accompanied by natural forces and “the will of the gods.” When the Roman armies had so much success in war and conquest, the “hero” transformed into a particularly fearless warrior whose physical strength and bravery were emphasized, rather than his ethical/moral skills. The heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey were motivated by such abstractions as “honor,” “vows,” and, of course,” following the will of the gods.” Roman heroes, on the other hand, answered to the will of their emperor, with a genuine disdain for their “inferior” enemies; the only god they followed was Mars, the god of war. While the traits of fearlessness and bravery remained, the motivations were earthly – wealth, reputation, power. Aeneas, Hercules, and most other Roman “heroes” were warriors first and statesmen second. While many of the Roman heroes are direct borrowings from Greek (Hercules-Herakles), others were historical figures whose heroic contributions were confined to victories in important battles.