SFF and the Classical Past

SFF and the Classical Past, Part 3—Heroic Romans

quod si tantus amor menti, si tanta cupido est bis Stygios innare lacus, bis nigra uidere Tartara, et insano iuuat indulgere labori, accipe quae peragenda prius. (Virgil, Aeneid VI, 133-136)*

Last time, I talked about Greek heroes. It’s hard not to get a little carried away by folks like Perseus and Odysseus, to say nothing of Jason and Herakles and all the rest. Heroic Romans are altogether a sterner sort, starting from Aeneas—that is, if we count him as a proper Roman, and not a Trojan refugee.

In moving on to the Romans and the stories they told about themselves, I’m aware I’ve mostly skipped the rich vein of myth and drama of the Trojan Wars. Fear not! I intend to return to Troy at a later point: the windy plain of Ilium deserves further consideration. But I’d like to talk about Roman heroes first, not only because the political legacy of Rome is often more obvious in science fiction/fantasy than the descendents of the Hellenes, but because Roman heroic mythology provides an interesting contrast with that of the Greeks.

More than one scholar has qualified “Roman mythology” with the addition “what little there is of it.” Apart from the foundation narratives of the city recounted in the Aeneid and in Livy, one might be forgiven for the impression that the Romans had lifted most of their myths wholesale from the Hellenes. Aeneas and Romulus are names to conjure with—and, indeed, Ursula Le Guin has conjured with the name of Aeneas already, in her Lavinia—but Rome possesses no depth of mythological time to rival the stories of Greece. The heroes who have a claim on the Roman imagination are far more likely to have historical basis.

So what do folks like Gn. Pompeius Magnus, M. Atilius Regullus, P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, Cato the Younger, and G. Octavius Thurinus (better known to history as G. Julius Caesar Augustus) mean to the Romans, and to us?

A man worth honouring, to the Romans, needed to possess—or appear to possess—a number of qualities. The most important of these were virtues, manly valour, and pietas, respect for divine and social order. Not idly does Virgil call Aeneas the most pious of men: a stern and uncompromising piety is a hallmark of the self-presentation of many Roman statesmen. Among the other virtues lay iustitia, prudentia, and clementia, although this is by no means an exhaustive list. Unlike the Greeks, and unlike the rugged individualism expected of the archetypal modern hero, the Romans found their heroes in men who led armies, or caught and held public opinion. In men who won famous victories—or, perhaps even more—in men who died well.

The traditions surrounding the deaths of Regullus and Cato Minor hold them up as examples to emulate. Regullus’s fate is of uncertain historicity: tradition holds that, having captured him during the First Punic War, the Carthaginians sent him to Rome to present their terms for a peace. Regullus, so Horace would have us believe, urged the Roman senate to reject the terms and continue fighting, and honoured his parole to return to Carthage—where he was put to death in a suitably horrible manner.** Cato’s death, on the other hand, has impeccable historical credentials, being recounted in Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger. He tore out his bowels with his own hands rather than suffer to live or die at the mercy of Julius Caesar, whom he despised. Both Regullus and Cato were held up as models for the right, morally heroic thing to do—which is not something you see very often in fiction of any stripe, really, a heroic suicide. (Apart from a last stand or noble sacrifice, which is another thing altogether.) The closest I can think of in recent SFF is the death of Verin Mathwin, in the Wheel of Time’s The Gathering Storm.***

Pompey, Scipio Africanus, and Octavian were all also generals. Famously so. Pompey was a boy-general who portrayed himself as a new Alexander, his career founded upon military victory, his disregard for the traditional path to power as prominent as his success. Scipio, while he commanded, never lost a battle—though he faced the other most famous generals of his age, the Carthaginian brothers Barca—and was also famed for his graciousness.**** And as for Octavian? Despite that fact that M. Vipsanius Agrippa is likely to have been responsible for many of his military victories, his power rested upon his martial triumph. Imperator was, after all, the title with which a conquering general was acclaimed by his troops.

Octavian even has a literal namesake in fantasy in recent years. Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series has a strikingly Roman flavour, and the real name of its youthful hero, Tavi, turns out to be Octavian, and his career can be seen—with significant deviations, of course—to parallel the rise of Caesar’s adopted son.

Science fiction—space opera—is full of Roman-like goings-on. David Drake’s With the Lightnings, for one. Warhammer 40K, if you look at it from the right angle. Look closely at rising generals and would-be emperors, because something Roman might just that way go.

For now, ave atque vale.

[Read the other posts in the SFF and the Classical Past series.]


*“But if such love is in your heart—if such a yearning, twice to swim the Stygian lake, twice to see black Tartarus—and if you are pleased to give rein to the mad endeavour, hear what must first be done.”

**see Aulus Gellus, Attic Nights, VII.4.

***Though it’s kind of hard to have a hero who commits suicide, since most books are told from their putative hero’s point of view.

****And his Hellenophilia really pissed off the elder Cato. But M. Porcius Cato was a Stern Moral Authoritarian who had this to say about the Greeks: “They are a worthless and unruly tribe. Take this as a prophecy: when those folk give us their writings they will corrupt everything. All the more if they send their doctors here. They have sworn to kill all barbarians with medicine—and they charge a fee for doing it, in order to be trusted and to work more easily.” [Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 29.13-14]

Liz Bourke is reading for a research degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. A longtime genre fan, she also reviews for Ideomancer.com.


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