Thursday, December 15, 2011


Lydia Langerwerf, Cressida Ryan (ed.), Zero to Hero, Hero to Zero: In Search of the Classical Hero. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010. Pp. x, 211. ISBN 9781443823913. $59.99.

Reviewed by Vincent Tomasso, Ripon College (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The dust jacket of Zero to Hero, Hero to Zero offers an image of the Farnese Hercules, which is an interesting choice for this collection of essays on various aspects of heroism in the Classical world. On the one hand Hercules is the hero par excellence in his triumphs over the monstrous wilderness that threatens to destroy civilization; on the other he himself acts monstrously when he murders his own family. This ambiguity of heroic identity is the often unstated principle that runs through this volume's nine essays, which explore heroic figures and tropes in texts from a wide variety of genres and time periods, from the fifth-century B.C. play Alcestis to the 1974 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The essays that comprise this volume began their lives at the 2007 Annual Meeting for Postgraduates in Ancient Literature.

The Farnese Hercules, a Roman statue produced in the third century A.D. that was based on a statue by the Greek Lysippus of the fourth century B.C., is also appropriate for a volume that covers notions of heroism in the Greek and Roman worlds: three of the nine chapters are concerned with heroism in Greek texts, the other six with Latin texts. It is a bit disappointing that none of the essays addresses the issues of comparing Greek and Roman depictions of heroism, but that is perhaps inevitable given the limited length of these essays. It is refreshing that many of the essays are not focused on the subjects typically analyzed as heroes in Classical literature. The definitions of "hero" range freely throughout the various contributions—from the rather cowardly king Admetus to bold women in the early Roman Empire to the Everyman Argonaut hero Jason. Furthermore, more "traditional" heroes, such as Odysseus and Theseus, also have a presence, but are analyzed from angles that shed new light on their role as "heroes" in Greek, Roman, and American cultures. This results in a book that at times lacks overall cohesion, but also one that is very effective at challenging our preconceived notions of what heroism is.

While the dust jacket's Farnese Hercules indicates that the primary focus of the book will be Classical antiquity, the introduction shows that heroes can be ambiguous in the modern world as well. Editors Lydia Langerwerf and Cressida Ryan recount the rise and fall of Marco Kroon, a Dutch war veteran, who was awarded the Military William Order upon his return from Afghanistan. In 2011 he was put on trial for possessing illegal drugs and illegal weapons, though he was convicted only of the latter charge. During the investigation Kroon claimed to have received an anonymous threat, "from hero to zero." This phrase provides the inspiration for the title and neatly encapsulates a central aspect of the volume's essays: the tenuous and ambiguous nature of heroic identity in Classical literature.

The introduction explores the meanings of the word "hero" in Greece from Homer to Sophocles to Plato. This brings the reader from the start of Greek literature to the fifth century B.C., where the first two contributions pick up with Euripides. Dimitra Kokkini explores the opposite of the courageous, extraordinary Homeric hero in the Alcestis. Euripides presents a vision of "fragmented" masculinity in Admetus, an ordinary man afraid of death, and Heracles, an extraordinary man who wrestles with Death himself. But whereas the audience cannot identify with Heracles, they can with the ordinary Admetus. In the second contribution Ranja Knöbl explores Euripides and heroism from the meta-perspective of ancient biographical epigrams about the playwright's death written in the Hellenistic period. Her central claim is that these poems depict Euripides' death in ways that suggest the birth of the hero in cult, which is part of the process of Euripides' canonization by Hellenistic scholars.

In the third chapter Gail Trimble argues that in the Epistulae Ex Ponto and the Tristia Ovid problematizes the idea of the hero by alluding to mythological heroes who are faithful in their friendships with other heroes but unfaithful to their lovers.. Through these references Ovid depicts amicitia, the ideal social bond between two males in the city of Rome, and at the same time suggests the impossibility of such a relationship between himself and current residents of Rome because of his exile.

Eleanor Glendinning's contribution analyzes Tacitus' depictions of the deaths of five women (Agrippina the Younger, Boudicca, Octavia, Epicharis, and Pompeia Paulina) during the reign of Nero. Glendinning's primary argument is that these deaths have (male) heroic aspects in that the women show virtus (traditionally a quality attributed only to men) in taking (or attempting to take) their own lives, and through this Tacitus shows his audience just how disturbed Rome under Nero had become by reversing gender expectations.

Silius Italicus' first century AD epic Punica is the focus of the next two contributions. In the first Kiu Yue wrestles with a question that has persisted in the scholarship: "Who is the hero (or heroes) of the poem?" Yue answers that there are many different kinds of heroes in the poem, and though Lucius Aemelius Paulus, the Roman general at Cannae, seems like the ideal hero and Varro, his co-commander, his foil at first glance, Silius in reality gave heroic aspects to both characters. Yue's work raises, but does not answer, historical questions. What does Silius' fragmented and complicated vision of heroism say about the Flavian period and the poet's view of Roman society and the emperors? Are there any overlaps with other Flavian epics like Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica or Statius' Thebaid?

This last question receives a partial answer in Dalida Agri's contribution. Agri's starting point is the long-standing debate about whether Aeneas' killing of Turnus in Book 12 of the Aeneid is driven by furor or pietas. Agri answers that pietas is an emotional force that drives Virgil's Aeneas to furor. Agri sees these contradictory demands as a crucial issue for epic poets after Virgil, who depict pietas as a cause of furor. However, whereas Aeneas directs his furor against an enemy of the future Rome, in the Punica fathers kill their children, and in the Thebaid Menoeceus kills himself in opposition to the explicit wishes of his father. While Agri deftly elucidates the complex reception relationship between Virgil, Silius Italicus, and Statius, she does not explicitly consider why the last two poets developed Virgil's construction of his hero. Flavian poets were making a statement about the changed nature of heroism and its relationship to Rome, but what was it?

Justine McConnell pursues a complex reception relationship in a novel by the African-American writer Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man is, she argues, the product of the influences of Homer's Odyssey, canonical literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and African-American folktales. McConnell describes several elements of the novel that resemble the Odyssey: the protagonist is an anti-hero, goes on a "nekuian" journey underground, confronts a Cyclopean figure, narrates his own story, and so on. These similarities are fairly superficial and unconvincing, until McConnell quotes Ellison as stating that he was influenced by "Ulysses" (p. 170; his exact relationship with the text, translated or otherwise, of the Odyssey is unclear). Ellison also integrated elements of African-American folktales, such as Brer Rabbit, into his protagonist, cobbling these two very different strands of tradition – the white Western canon and the black folk tradition – into a new symbol of the civil rights movement.

Toni Badnall's chapter is a fascinating journey from third century B.C. Hellenistic epic to twentieth century British film. Badnall describes a triangular relationship between Apollonius' Argonautica, medieval romances about King Arthur, and the modern comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. She explores this relationship through the trope of women in distress who threaten the male hero's quest with their sexuality. Because the authors of Arthurian romances could not have known about Apollonius' epic except through Latin intermediaries, Badnall argues on the level of epic tropes, not direct intertextuality. In Book 1 of the Argonautica the Lemnian women are the female threats who delay Jason and most of the other Argonauts for almost a year. In his quest for the Grail Galahad comes to the Castle of Peril, which is inhabited solely by women, but the knight is never tempted by the women, altering Apollonius' motif. Monty Python parodies both of these traditions by returning "Castle Anthrax" to the epic threat of an all-female community that threatens to disrupt the quest of Galahad. Badnall concludes by arguing that the gendered perspective of ancient epic and medieval romance is deconstructed by Monty Python, which questions the masculine values of heroes. In addition to being a fascinating study of the dissemination of a narrative trope, Badnall's study is a step forward in studies of the relationship between the Arthurian romances and Classical antiquity.

The preceding summaries demonstrate the enormous breadth of the material covered in this volume. At the same time, each contribution is focused on very specific texts; thus this book is too focused for an undergraduate course on heroes, since it requires substantial knowledge of texts that are too little studied in undergraduate courses to engage with the arguments being presented. Even graduate students and professionals probably will not be interested equally in every essay in volume with the exception, perhaps, of a scholar of reception studies.

The editorial work is on the whole good with a few minor typographical errors.1

One problem with many (though not all) of the contributions is that they are under-theorized. All of the essays address the mechanics of reception to a greater or lesser degree, and it would have made the arguments clearer if the authors made explicit what their observations mean for our understanding of the reception of the hero construct in a variety of different frames in Classical antiquity and modern cultures. Yet this under-theorization is also helpful, since it challenges the reader to think about the larger implications of the issues addressed.

Table of Contents

1. Lydia Langerwerf and Cressida Ryan, "Introduction"
2. Dimitra Kokkini, "Admetos as Everyman in Euripides' Alkestis"
3. Ranja Knöbl, "Death of a Hero? Euripides in Hellenistic Epigram"
4. Gail Trimble, "Thesea Fide. Heroic Faith and Faithlessness in Ovid's Exile Poetry"
5. Eleanor Glendinning, "Heroic Female Death in Tacitus' Annals 14 and 15"
6. Kiu Yue, "Dying Like a Hero: Paulus and Varro at Cannae in Silius Italicus' Punica"
7. Dalida Agri, "Madness, Pietas and Suicide in Statius' Thebaid and Silius' Punica"
8. Justine McConnell, "Invisible Odysseus: a Homeric Hero in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man"
9. Toni Badnall, "Monty Python and the Lemnian Women: Argonautic Resonances in the Medieval and Modern Quest Tradition"


1.   A sample: "Troades" is not italicized on p. 12, "Themsophoriazusae" should be "Thesmophoriazusae" on p. 50 n. 3, "comic" is repeated on p. 68, "Aeneas" is misspelled twice (pp. 141 and 143), "hand" should be "hard" in the translation at the top of page 85, there is a sentence fragment on p. 148, on p. 149 "who" should be "whom", and on p. 199 "indentify" should be "identify."

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