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the Complete Review
the complete review - dialogue / mythology

     

Heroicus
(Ηρωικός)

by
Philostratus


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Heroicus



Title: Heroicus
Author: Philostratus
Genre: Dialogue
Written: ca. 220
Length: 327 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: in Heroicus • Gymnasticus - US
in Heroicus • Gymnasticus - UK
in Heroicus • Gymnasticus - Canada
in Heroicus • Gymnasticus - India
Heroikos - Deutschland
  • Greek title: Ηρωικός
  • Edited and translated by Jeffrey Rusten
  • Previously translated as Heroikus by Ellen Bradshaw Aitken and Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean (2001)
  • The Loeb Classical Library volume also includes Jason König's translation of Gymnasticus and two very short discourses
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Greek text

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting dialogue on less familiar parts of Greek mythology/belief system and Homer's depiction of the Trojan War

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       Heroicus -- 'On heroes' -- is a dialogue set near Elaious (Ἐλαιοῦς or Elaeus; across the Hellespont from Troy), at the tomb of Protesilaus (Πρωτεσίλαος) -- the first be killed in the Trojan War. A Phoenician, traveling home from Egypt, stops off here; there's not enough wind for him to continue, so he takes a look around and runs into a local 'vinedresser' (αμπελουργός). The vinedresser tells the Phoenician that Protesilaus: "lives here, and helps me farm" -- a surprise to the visitor since the ancient hero has, of course, been long dead: "Has he come back to life, or what ?" he wonders. The explanation lies in Protesilaus' unusual nature, which is part of what the book focuses on: the nature of a specific type of 'hero', beings somewhere between mortals and gods who continue to exist (in some form) even after death.
       Protesilaus helps the vinedresser out -- and he also fills him in on the events of yore, including the Trojan War. The Phoenician is skeptical at first -- "I declare I am inclined to distrust mythical stories" -- but the vinekeeper recounts convincing evidence and he is fairly quickly won over. Sensibly, the Phoenician at first isn't convinced by hearsay -- story of gods, myth, and super-sized beings:

It seems I was right to disbelieve such stories, vinedresser; for you to say that you've heard something from your grandfather -- or perhaps your mother or nurse -- but you say nothing on your own authority, unless you talk about Protesilaus.
       Unfortunately, the Phoenician abandons this critical attitude as soon as the vinedresser pulls out the Protesilaus-card, speaking of the hero as if he were a close buddy who shares all sorts of secrets and stories with him (while also helping him tend to his land and crops). Of course, all this too is merely second-hand: the Phoenician (and the reader) has to take the vinedresser's word for all this, since Protesilaus never shows himself in person while the Phoenician is there.
       Regardless of plausibility, much of what the vinedresser then relates is what he's learned from Protesilaus -- and there's no question that he has some interesting stories to tell.
       Heroicus is of particular interest with regards to several less well-known aspects of classical Greek mythology and history. First, there's the stuff about the heroes, and while the debate about just how big they were (often over ten cubits (presumably at least fourteen feet) tall) isn't particularly convincing, the discussion at least gives insight into the hero-cults -- such as that (historic one) around Protesilaus in Elaious -- and what was and could be expected of the heroes.
       Heroicus is then also particularly of interest as a commentary on Homer's (and, to a lesser extent, others') accounts of the Trojan War. Protesilaus admires Homer -- "He calls Homer the founding hero of Troy, since it was through his lament for it that its fame began" -- but he does have a couple of issues with him and The Iliad -- notably (and amusingly):
Protesilaus also disapproves of Homer in this, that although his subject was Troy, he drops this story after Hector's death because he is in a hurry to get to the other one -- which he named after Odysseus
       Hence, Homer's account missed much of significance -- and the vinedresser also recounts some of these missing episodes that Protesilaus told him about. Protesilaus also points out some of Homer's errors -- most notably the idea that Helen was watching from the walls of Troy (when: "he knew perfectly well that Helen was in Egypt"). (Also making clear just where he stands, Protesilaus complains that Homer: "confuses the gods with men, and says great things about men , but about gods petty and insignificant things".)
       The Phoenician is rather easily won over by the vinedresser -- perhaps understandable, since Protesilaus' inside knowledge throws new and plausible light on much that he was already familiar with. Still, Protesilaus remains suspect as an authority and it's disappointing that the Phoenician doesn't press harder, as the vinedresser (and Philostratus) coyly dance around some of the questions -- so for example here:
Phoenician: Did you ever ask Protesilaus about Homer's birthplace, or who his parents were ?
Vinedresser: Many times.
Phoenician: What did he say ?
Vinedresser: He said that he knew; but since Homer himself had not said, to keep all ambitious cities claiming him as their own, and since perhaps some law of the fates ordained that Homer should seem to have no city, he would not please the Muses if he revealed the secret which had redounded to Homer's glory ever after.
       In his Introduction translator Jeffrey Rusten helpfully reminds readers that Homer has not always been the primary source of information about the Trojan War and that, for example, in the Middle Ages "knowledge of the Trojan War was based entirely on" the memoirs of the war by Dictys of Crete (Dictys Cretensis) and Dares the Phrygian (Dares Phrygius). Heroicus, too, offers a different perspective on parts of the Trojan War -- and, in its focus on (and as response to) Homer is more obviously approachable. Certainly, it makes for an interesting complementary text to Homer, and is of considerable interest in this regard.
       The dialogue is quite entertaining. Descriptions of Elaious and the cult-in-miniature (in the form of the vinedresser) around Protesilaus, as well as the whole 'hero' concept, help add variety to Protesilaus' revisionist history of more familiar tales from and about Troy; the addition of some entirely unfamiliar episodes is naturally also of interest.
       As always, the Loeb Classical Library edition is a bilingual one. Philostratus' Greek here is not terribly challenging but also not particularly remarkable (in other words, not necessarily worth the effort, except for the specialist); Jeffrey Rusten's translation reads comfortably, with the major hurdle to ready enjoyment the many names and references that follow in often quick succession in Protesilaus' version of historic events -- it helps to be up on your Homer. Rusten's lengthy Introduction is helpful -- also as summary -- and an extensive bibliography offers more than enough material for readers eager to delve into (m)any of the specifics.
       Primarily of interest as a secondary or supplemental text on the Trojan War and on Homer, Heroicus is a quite enjoyable and interesting dialogue -- if not first choice, so still definitely not just 'minor'.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 July 2014

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Links:

Heroicus: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       The sophist Philostratus (Φιλόστρατος) lived ca.170 to 250.

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© 2014 the complete review

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