In pursuit of greatness: from Troy to Westminster

Foundation myths based on the lives of heroic figures are often used by leaders to affirm their own authority — but they can also inspire wider society.

Statues showing the mythological origins of Roman society in which a wolf suckles founders Romulus and Remus. Credit: LatitudeStock / Alamy Stock Photo
Statue showing the mythological origins of Roman society in which a wolf suckles founders Romulus and Remus. Credit: LatitudeStock / Alamy Stock Photo

The peoples of Greece and Rome were inspired by the idea of ‘Great Men’. These men were envisaged as having lived hundreds if not thousands of years before in a more glorious age. They were tall and strong and ate so much meat it is a wonder they were not afflicted by gout, and they consorted with women who rivalled goddesses in looks and strength. Many of them were said to have possessed divine blood. Both the mortal and divine ones fascinated the gods, who were described by the poets as orchestrating their lives. They were the sort of characters who populated classical foundation myths.

Every culture has produced foundation myths. These usually take the form of elaborate stories woven to explain the origins of a people and its customs. The Romans, including the historian Livy, wrote of Romulus overthrowing his twin brother Remus to establish their city on the Palatine Hill. The boys were the sons of the war god Mars and Rhea Silvia, the Vestal Virgin he raped, which accounted for the Romans’ bellicosity. They were famously nourished by a she-wolf, hence their unnatural strength, before being raised by a shepherd and his wife.

The Romans also venerated Aeneas, who, on a timeline quite incompatible with this story, fought in the Trojan War and escaped the burning citadel with a band of refugees to establish a new home in Italy. Aeneas brought with him his son Ascanius, known to Virgil as Iulus and thus imagined as a founding member of the gens Iulia, the family to which Julius Caesar and his great-nephew, the future emperor Augustus, belonged. Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid was, at its most basic, an extended foundation myth intended to legitimise, but also subtly critique, the new mode of rule introduced under Augustus following the collapse of the Roman Republic.

In the poem, Aeneas is made to travel through nascent Carthage on his way to Italy and witness for himself the development of a Carthaginian foundation myth. The people of Carthage, situated in the area of Tunis, had recently relocated from Phoenician Tyre (now in Lebanon) and were still in the process of building their new city. It was said that Dido fled her homeland after her brother, Pygmalion, murdered her husband out of desire for his treasure. She led a boatful of disaffected Phoenicians with her to North Africa, where she requested a patch of land only so big as to be covered by a single ox-hide. Dido cleverly cut the hide into the finest shreds, which she laid end to end upon the ground, thereby encompassing the perimeter of Qart Hadasht – the ‘new city’ of Carthage. The hill around which Dido supposedly laid her hide is still known as Byrsa, from the Greek for ox-hide. In the Aeneid, Dido prays that Aeneas will stay and become part of Carthage’s development, but the gods have other ideas for the heroic escapee of Troy.

The Trojan War was a foundation myth of another kind. Most people living in the classical world believed that a war had truly been fought at Troy, situated near the Hellespont at the west of Turkey, and that it marked the separation between old times and new. The war was believed to have been fought about 400 years before the Homeric epics were first written down. The warriors of this period, around the twelfth century BC, were envisaged as far superior to the men who came after them. They were very much of the Great Men mould — Diomedes, a Greek warrior, could lift a boulder that no one living in Homer’s generation could — and in many cases boasted divine parentage. We think especially of Aeneas, Achilles and Odysseus.

These fictional characters were on a superficial level the ancient equivalents of modern superheroes. It was not simply children who worshipped them, but grown men, particularly men with political ambitions. Throughout classical history, political leaders strove to claim them as ancestors. Until the sixth century BC, the Greek island of Lesbos was ruled by the Penthilidae, a noble dynasty with origins in Thessaly, north-east Greece. According to Aristotle, the Penthilidae authorised the use of violence against their citizens, who could be flogged or struck with clubs. They might have been far from heroic in their conduct, but the Penthilidae aspired to heroism and declared themselves to be descendants of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who led the Greek army to victory over Troy in the Iliad. In drawing this connection, they perhaps intended to present and justify their heavy-handedness as a legacy of their warrior ancestry. Hundreds of years later, Julius Caesar promoted his alleged lineage via Iulus from Venus, which readers acquainted with Caesar’s romantic life might agree was appropriate.

There was clearly much to gain from forging connections with people who had founded thriving cities. Myth and early history were so closely intertwined that some of these lineages even carried a degree of credibility. Some people, such as the historian Thucydides, who claimed descent from the Homeric hero Ajax, probably believed their heroic connections to be real. The Penthilidae of Lesbos did not rest on the laurels of their own nobility. Their name might have been famous on the island and in their native Thessaly for generations, but it had nothing on that of Agamemnon. Claiming to share blood with a hero was not always simply an exercise in establishing legitimacy to rule. It was a way of instilling confidence in voters or in the public they represented. If their ancestors were successful then there was every hope they might be, too.

Foundation myths were often of personal as well as political interest to world leaders. Alexander the Great took a detour in Troy while on campaign to perform honours for Priam, King of Troy, as well as Athena and Achilles, to whom he believed he was related. Alexander kept an edition of the Iliad produced by his former tutor Aristotle under his pillow at night. The poem that gave life to the mythical heroes served as a sort of Bible. It might have echoed true events to a small degree — the veracity of the Trojan War is still much disputed — but for the most part it would be defined in modern terms as a work of fiction. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction was not drawn in antiquity. The poem contains eternal truths about ruling, serving, fighting and existing that transcend history. It was not wholly opportunistic to seek to establish authority through it.

Modern politicians would be hard-pressed to sustain the tradition and claim allegiance with any figure of the mythical past. Genealogy is now a highly developed discipline. Ancient heroes nevertheless continue to be namechecked. Boris Johnson kept a bust on his desk of Pericles, the populist strategos, or general, who oversaw the development of democracy in Athens in the fifth century BC, and has hailed him a personal hero. Born circa 493 BC, Pericles, who held the position of strategos every year between 443 BC and his death in 429, helped to direct the adornment of the Parthenon and served as a choregos (financial sponsor) of important plays in Athens. He was nevertheless far from perfect, and was, for example, implicated in accusations made against the Parthenon artist Phidias, condemned for impiety after allegedly inserting portraits of himself and Pericles into a sculpture of Athena. To the modern reader, Pericles can also seem a curiously prosaic figure. One of the most egregious quotes attributed to him is: ‘Great is the glory of the woman who is least spoken about, whether for good or for ill.’

In his final speech as UK prime minister in September 2022, Johnson referenced another classical hero, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a politician of fifth-century BC Rome. According to Livy, Cincinnatus had retired from his political life as a senator to tend his modest farm when he was summoned to return to frontline politics. An Italic tribe, the Aequi, had invaded Rome and the situation had become so desperate it was decided a dictator be appointed. Cincinnatus agreed to step into the breach and reportedly brought the conflict to a satisfactory conclusion in just 15 days. Having saved his city, he returned to his plough. Cincinnatus’s (alleged) return to power led some quarters of the media to speculate that Johnson intended to do precisely the same. His classical reference was overanalysed and taken as evidence that he believed his work in Downing Street was far from complete. The theory was tempered only slightly by his resignation as an MP in June 2023.

Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, certainly a much spoken-about woman, chose to quote Seneca the Younger in her own parting speech as prime minister in autumn 2022. ‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare,’ she said, ‘It is because we do not dare that they are difficult.’ Her words were believed to refer to the daringness of the mini-budget introduced during her record brief term. Seneca may lack the heroic cache of Achilles, but in the Roman world, he was idolised for the strength of his convictions. In opening his veins at Emperor Nero’s request, he died, according to the mores of  the time, a hero’s death. Truss’s resignation fell far short of being recognised as a heroic act.

Cincinnatus and Seneca are no longer so famous as to constitute part of a universal language. Today’s politicians do not quote ancient figures in order to clarify their thoughts. They in fact risk obfuscating their points and driving a wedge between themselves and the public by having recourse to a world that comparatively few now study. So why look to antiquity at all?

Many in Westminster today are naturally aligned with the politicians of the ancient world. They are not seeking to impress with the loftiness of their learning, still less confound with references that many would find oblique. Rather, they reach into antiquity for affirmation of their own authority, in much the same way the rulers of Lesbos did when they promoted their alleged connection to Agamemnon. Contemporary political figures cannot pretend to be blood relations, but they can evoke the spirit of a glorious, now mysterious past. Figures from antiquity, even mythical ones, still have weight in the modern world. The eternal truths that Alexander found in the Iliad have come to be attached to antiquity more widely. Ancient wisdom seems almost oracular owing to the mystery that envelops it in the modern imagination. One does not need to understand it to believe that it carries some kind of long-lost truth.

It is in this way that foundation myths continue to grow. There was a tacit assumption in antiquity that kleos — an immortal reputation aspired to by Homeric heroes and the politicians who sought to emulate them — could outweigh human flaws. Agamemnon continued to be admired in spite of having sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigenia, to secure a fair wind for his voyage to Troy. His wife Clytemnestra murdered him after he returned home from the war. Cincinnatus was by no means a hero to the plebeians or less wealthy members of Rome, whose interests he did little to champion. One might have expected such factors to render these figures personae non gratae in today’s flagrantly judgmental society, but we are perhaps more realistic in our approach to the classical world than we are to many later periods of history. Our quest for some hallowed truth in the mists of time propels us to take the bad with the good.

Most importantly, we implicitly understand that heroism is a valuable fiction. This is arguably the most useful lesson to draw from the worlds created by Homer, Virgil and other classical authors. Aside from the flaws individual to each hero — from sulking Achilles to autocratic Augustus — there are flaws inherent to the concept of heroism itself. In the first book of Homer’s Iliad, Nestor, the elderly King of Pylos, tells Agamemnon and Achilles they are inferior to some of the men he has known in his lifetime, the likes of which, he says, he is unlikely ever to encounter again. It is striking that even Homeric heroes could be outshone by earlier champions. That there is nothing truly ‘super’ about heroes of the past is important. People embrace them today knowing they are, in many cases, as flawed as they themselves are and thus fundamentally human.

There is an emptiness to instilling greatness in figures of the past, then, because those self-same figures instilled greatness in their own ancestors, giving rise to a continuous cycle of projecting virtue onto people one can never truly know. This is what Hesiod, Homer’s near-contemporary poet, was describing when he outlined the five ages of man in Theogony and Works and Days. The first of these, the Golden Age, gave way to an inferior Silver Age, which was succeeded in turn by an even worse Bronze Age. There was some respite in the development of the Heroic Age, in which the Trojan War was said to have been fought, but then began a depressing and seemingly endless Iron Age. We recognise in this lineage the fallacy of ‘golden-age thinking’ and, through this, the fallacy of foundation myths. As fortifying as it may feel to forge connections with the past, in doing so we lay ourselves bare to accusations of not being good enough, not because we fail to measure up in this long descent of man, but because the quest for absolute greatness is ultimately impossible to fulfil.

Seeing as this is so, there is an argument for keeping the ancient foundation myths alive by embracing even their most flawed and double-edged characters, for we are unlikely to find any better. These myths and their reception highlight the fruitlessness of seeking perfection. This is a particularly pertinent consideration in an age of so-called cancel culture, which frequently holds historical figures to account for failing to live up to modern standards of behaviour and ethics. Politicians, ancient and modern, who associate themselves with classical figures for public or private affirmation of their authority, provide a useful service. For all that their adoption of classical exempla may seem purely opportunistic and arrogantly fanciful, it serves to remind us that it is possible to distinguish good qualities where bad exist and to push against the false narrative of eternal decline. The quest for greatness, doomed though it may be, constitutes an essential part of history and our efforts to situate ourselves within it.


Daisy Dunn