Some years ago, after receiving a rejection letter from a Cambridge college, I decided to go onto the Oxford website. I looked up the A-to-Z of courses available, from Archaeology and Anthropology to Mathematics and Theology and Religion. I crossed these off my list, and a couple more. But ‘Classics’ was sufficiently unfamiliar for me not to cross it out.
That was the start of a wonderful adventure. It is not one I can share with many where I live, Singapore, a city that is famed for good food and the general lack of chewing gum (it’s not illegal to chew gum, but it can’t be imported or sold). We are a modern nation, with swimming pools on a cantilevered rooftop, 16-storey-tall concrete and steel trees, and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall in our airport.
Besides a few copies of Robert Fagles’ 2006 translation of the Aeneid in the National Library, there are few opportunities to even hear about Classics in the first place. That is a shame, because Classics makes us think harder and differently about what it means to be human.
Once in a while, I come across little things in today’s world that drive this message home. It could be rapping (sometimes wrongly) about Romans, Trojans, and the Odyssey, wanting to smell like a Roman centurion, or some interesting tunes, as in this case…
The Chainsmokers and Coldplay’s 2017 electronic pop tune Something Just Like This starts off with the singer – let us call him Chris – doubting his worth as a partner, because he is no superhero:
I’ve been reading books of old
The legends and the myths
Achilles and his gold
Hercules and his gifts
And Batman with his fists
And clearly I don’t see myself upon that list.
His significant other replies that it is alright. She just wants a love that is simple and honest:
I’m not lookin’ for somebody
With some superhuman gifts
Some fairy-tale bliss.
It is not every day that we find Achilles and Hercules mentioned in the same breath as Spider-Man and Batman. To my mind, what divides them are what different understandings of ‘heroism’ entail and what different societies value. What unites them is far less their heroism than their conflicts and struggles despite their superhero abilities and feats.
What does it mean to be a hero? Taken together, gold, gifts (whether material or god-given), self-control, and fists form an intriguing combination of heroic references. Being a comic-book hero usually means saving the world. When we imagine Spider-Man and Batman, we may think of fighting crime and cosmic threats, or the famous clichés “with great power comes great responsibility” and “it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” In the Homeric world, hērōs (ἥρως) “signifies a warrior who lives and dies in pursuit of honour (τιμή) and glory (κλέος)”. Being a hero seems to mean more using one’s powers for oneself.
Let’s dive into some specifics, taking “Achilles and his gold” as our cue. Gold in Homer is often associated with the gods and immortality. It is surely associated with wealth, but sometimes it is not as highly “ranked” as we might think. In setting out the chariot race prizes in Patroclus’ funeral games, Achilles offers a brand-new cauldron for third place, but two talents of gold for fourth (Iliad 23.267–9). This opens up a whole conversation about symbolic and commercial value: what would we do if presented with choosing between a one-of-a-kind handcrafted kitchen appliance by a famed craftsman and a cash prize? The answer may be obvious, or not – the Iliad makes us think twice.
In any case, Achilles is not usually noted for his gold, even though he was rich in prizes and spoils. He tells us so in his great speech on honour and glory, when he rejects Agamemnon’s copious material compensation, which included seven whole cities (9.356–409). Others might say that the song lyrics refer to Homer’s famous ecphrasis, the shield and armour made by the god Hephaestus at the request of the hero’s mother Thetis (18.468–617). Achilles’ divine parentage and connection with the gods can go some way to explain why Chris does not see himself upon that list of superheroes.
To me, “Achilles and his gold” recalls the meeting between the hero and godlike Priam, who brings “countless ransom” (ἀπερείσι’ ἄποινα) for the body of his son Hector. This ransom included ten talents of gold (24.232; Agamemnon also offered this as part of his recompense in 9.122). It is a powerful and emotional scene (24.477–571). Evoking Achilles’ aged father Peleus at the start and end of his supplication, Priam
roused in Achilles the desire to weep for his father. He took the old man by the hand and gently pushed him away. And the two of them began to weep in remembrance. Priam cried loud for murderous Hector, huddled at the feet of Achilles, and Achilles cried for his own father, and then again for Patroclus: and the house was filled with the sound of their weeping.
Scholars raise many interesting points about the whole scene: there are themes of father-son relationships, memory, pity and anger, mortality and immortality, separation, and reconciliation with society. But what strikes us first is a sense of tender vulnerability amidst overflowing emotion. For all the heroic associations we make, we find fragility. Achilles tells Priam, “this is the fate the gods have spun for poor mortal men, that we should live in misery” (24.525–6). We see and feel little fairy-tale bliss.
In a different way, the premise of the Spider-Man character elicits the same feeling. Stan Lee explained how he created a superhero who “would lose out as often as he’d win – in fact, more often.” Peter Parker is a relatable teenager, self-absorbed, awkward, and misunderstood. As Brandon Wright explains, this could not have been farther from male DC superheroes, who were all the same: rational and in control, predictable, and wholly altruistic. Soon superheroes with “awesome powers and human shortcomings became the defining feature of Marvel Comics”, though in fairness I should mention that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy does well to draw out the conflicts and complexity of Bruce Wayne. Despite their gifted abilities, theirs are not the lives we unquestioningly yearn for.
Finally, the song’s reference to “Hercules and his gifts” opens up a whole new world of comparisons, the surface of which I can only scratch here. If we have in mind his literally god-given gifts of strength and bravery, then we have the whole epic content of the Twelve Labours to chew over – from hydra-slaying and Cerberus-petting to golden-apple-picking and industrial-scale stable-cleaning. But if we are to think instead of gifts given by Hercules, we may need to transition briefly into Roman epic. In Book 8 of Virgil’s Aeneid, we find a detailed account of the history of Pallanteum – or Rome-before-the-Romans – in which we’re told how Hercules gifted peace to the forebears of King Evander by defeating the monster Cacus (8.184–272). However, the graphic violence with which he vanquishes his foe, depicted so vividly by Virgil, and the evocation of good versus evil on an epic scale (Cacus’ very name evokes the Greek word for “wicked”, κακός), hint at the tremendous brutality and cost incurred during battles for peace and security. This suggests a clear tension in the character of Hercules: his legendary heroism struggles to manifest itself without violence.
In summary, I first suggested that the word “hero” has slightly different meanings in the comic book and epic poetry worlds. In the former, saving the world foregrounds the story, while in the latter, eternal honour and glory take centre stage. But when we dived deeper into the stories of Achilles and Peter Parker, we found some common ground that unites these seemingly incomparable characters: vulnerability and ambiguity lie at the heart of their characterizations. This means that they capture our imaginations less because we aspire to live like them, but because we find a little of ourselves in those moments where fragile humanity is amplified to suit the super-scale of heroes’ lives.
For now, let’s return to Something Just Like This. Chris’s anxieties about not living up to superhero figures are unfounded, just as his partner replies in the chorus. But whereas she says that she is not looking for fairy-tale bliss, we can tell them both that superheroes don’t actually have lives of fairy-tale bliss. Yet we can thank Chris for putting Achilles’ gold and Spider-Man together, because it made us delve deeper, think harder, and feel stronger about life and people in a way that perhaps only Classics allows.
Brian Theng works at a non-profit organization in Singapore. He studied Classics ab initio at Oxford and Cambridge.
Picking up and getting stuck into the epic poems of Homer (the Iliad and Odyssey) and Virgil (the Aeneid) is for me the perfect (re)introduction to Classics. Besides Fagles’ and Hammond’s translations mentioned above, two inspiring recent versions are Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey (W.W. Norton, New York/London, 2017) and Shadi Bartsch’s The Aeneid (Random House, New York, 2021).
|⇧1||Seth Schein, The Mortal Hero (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1984) 69; likewise, Michael Silk, Homer, The Iliad (Cambridge UP, 1987) 73.|
|⇧2||Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind (Cambridge UP, 2004) 30–3.|
|⇧3||Nicholas Richardson (ed.), The Iliad. A Commentary, Volume VI: Books 21–24 (Cambridge UP, 1993) 204; Adam Brown, “Homeric talents and the ethics of exchange,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 118 (1998) 165–7.|
|⇧4||Claude Brügger (ed.), Homer’s Iliad. The Basel Commentary, Book XXIV (De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston, 2017) 176–213.|
|⇧5||This translation is from Martin Hammond’s 1987 Penguin.|
|⇧6||See for example Richardson (1993) 320–36; Jinyo Kim, The Pity of Achilles (Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2000) 12–14; Nancy Felson, “Threptra and invincible hands: the father-son relationship in Iliad 24,” Arethusa 35 (2002) 46–9; also Brügger (2017) 176–213.|
|⇧7||For this paragraph I draw on Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation (Johns Hopkins UP, Baltimore, MD, 2001) 180–225.|
|⇧8||See firstly Llewelyn Morgan, “Assimilation and civil war: Hercules and Cacus (Aen. 8.185–267),” in Hans-Peter Stahl (ed.), Vergil’s Aeneid: Augustan Epic and Political Context (Duckworth/Classical Press of Wales, London, 1998) 175–98; Lee Fratantuono and R. Alden Smith (edd.), Virgil, Aeneid 8 (Brill, Leiden, 2018) 15–17, 305–82. The same themes come up in films like Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).|