Roman reception of Greek cultural tradition was anything but passive or straightforward. After the first wave of translations and adaptations that took place in the third and second centuries BCE, remaking and rethinking Greek sources became the normal practice. This gradually led to their replacement by new literary production cast in the Latin language. Homer was superseded by Vergil; Hesiod by Ovid and Vergil again; Sappho, Pindar, and Callimachus by Catullus and Horace; Sophocles and Euripides by Seneca, and so on.
Still, even when approached against this background, Roman reception of Homer is a special case. On the one hand, it is highly symptomatic that the Odyssia, the translation of the Homeric Odyssey by Livius Andronicus (third century BCE), was the first literary epic to appear in Latin. On the other hand, at approximately the same time or perhaps even earlier,Footnote 1 the Romans, who aspired to acquire a prestigious past by securing a place within Greek heroic tradition, started to identify themselves as descendants of the defeated Trojans. This identification became especially prominent in the middle of the first century BCE, with the rise to power of Caesar and Augustus, who claimed to descend from Aeneas through his son Iulus. The silver denarius of Caesar showing Aeneas leaving Troy, minted in 47/46 BCE, is emblematic in this respect. Aeneas carries his father Anchises on his left shoulder and holds in his right hand the Palladium, the statue of armed Athena from the city of Troy. This was the first time when Aeneas replaced Romulus on a Roman coin. This also signalled the beginning of a new era in the reception of the Trojan War.
Romulus and Aeneas
The starting point of my discussion is an ode that Horace wrote in 27 BCE, the year of Augustus’ rise to power. It is usually supposed that the poem refers to the plan of transferring the capital to the East, which was reportedly being considered at the time;Footnote 2 it seems, however, that the extensive building program launched by Augustus in the city of Ilion (Troy) just a few years later (more later) should also be taken into account here.Romulus is being admitted to the circle of the Olympian gods. Juno welcomes a descendant of the ‘Trojan priestess’ (Troica … sacerdos, i.e. Rhea Sylvia), but she also issues a warning:Footnote 3
‘As long as the extensive sea rages between Troy and Rome, let them, exiles, reign happy in any other part of the world: as long as cattle trample upon the tomb of Priam and Paris, and wild beasts conceal their young ones there with impunity, may the Capitol remain in splendor, and may brave Rome be able to give laws to the conquered Medes’.
‘But I pronounce this fate to the warlike Romans, upon this condition; that neither through an excess of piety, nor of confidence in their power, they become inclined to rebuild the houses of their ancestors’ Troy. The fortune of Troy, reviving under unlucky auspices, shall be repeated with lamentable destruction, I, the wife and sister of Jupiter, leading on the victorious bands. Thrice, if a brazen wall should arise by means of its founder Phoebus, thrice should it fall, demolished by my Greeks; thrice should the captive wife bewail her husband and her children.’
Note that Horace both leaves room for the Romans’ self-identification as descendants of the Trojans and keeps the Greek tradition of the Trojan War intact. Troy had gotten what it deserved, but Rome inaugurated an entirely new beginning, represented by the figure of Romulus, and its affinity with Troy should not be overemphasized.
Yet Horace, with his characteristically Republican emphasis on Romulus rather than AeneasFootnote 4 and his idea of a single Graeco-Roman civilization, clearly implied in Juno’s warning, was far behind his time. The same can be said of his contemporary Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who also worked in Augustan Rome.Footnote 5 In his Roman Antiquities Dionysius not only tried to defend the idea of Greek origins of the Romans but also argued that the Trojans were in fact Greeks. This idea, however, obviously did not seem appealing enough to become universally accepted.When Horace wrote his ode, Vergil was already working on the Aeneid, a poem destined radically to transform the Romans’ attitude toward the tradition of the Trojan War. Vergil was much better attuned to the spirit of the epoch than Horace or Dionysius. Rather than downplaying the Romans’ identification with the Trojans as Horace did or claiming, together with Dionysius, that the Trojans and through them the Romans were in fact Greeks, Vergil chose to present the Greeks as inferior to the Trojans and, by all too obvious extrapolation, to the Romans as well. Consider, for example, the reaction of the ghosts of the Greek participants in the Trojan War at Aeneas’ appearance in the Underworld:Footnote 6
But the Greek chieftains, and the massed ranks whom Agamemnon had led, trembled in violent panic at the sight of their foe with his armour glittering amid the shadows. Some turned to flee as before they had fled to their ships, while others raised a whispering voice; but their attempt at a battle-cry left their mouths idly gaping.
‘Time in its five-year spans shall slip by till an age shall come when the House of Assaracus shall crush to subjection even Phthia and illustrious Mycenae, and conquer Argos, and hold mastery there.’
‘Over there is one who shall triumph over Corinth and drive his chariot to the towering Capitol in glorious victory after the slaying of Greeks. And another, there, shall uproot Argos and Mycenae, Agamemnon’s own city, and the Aeacid himself, the descendant of Achilles the mighty in arms; so he shall avenge his Trojan ancestors and Trojan Minerva’s desecrated shrine.’Footnote 8
The change of emphasis in the approach to the Trojan myth that these quotations demonstrate found its expression not only in poetry but also in the very topography of the Greek city of Ilion, founded on the site of Troy somewhere at the beginning of the first millennium BCE. Let us dwell briefly on its history.
The Background: Ilion (ca. 670–20 BCE)
Horace’s picture of Troy, as well as his plea not to restore the city, may create the impression that Troy had lain in ruins since Priam’s times. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The topos of the everlasting ruins of Troy, persistent in both Greek and Latin literary tradition,Footnote 9 finds no corroboration in the historical and archaeological record.By the early archaic period we already find the Greek settlement of the Troad firmly established. The settlers were Aeolian Greeks, who formed the first wave of Greek colonization in Asia Minor. The new settlement incorporated within its precincts what had remained of the Bronze Age Troy.Footnote 10 These were the monuments seen by the poets responsible for the formative stage of the Homeric tradition. The new landmarks of the Archaic Troad included the city of Ilion itself (Troy VIII), probably with the temple of Athena Ilias (anachronistically introduced in Iliad 6), and the seaport Sigeum, which in the course of the seventh and sixth centuries BCE several times changed hands between the Aeolians from nearby Lesbos and the encroaching Athenians, who sought to establish control over the grain supply from the Black Sea. It is in the context of the fight over Sigeum that the Aeolian settlement of the Troad first emerges in the historical record:
Sigeum, which city Pisistratus had taken by force of arms from the Mytilenaeans. … during very many years there had been war between the Athenians of Sigeum and the Mytilenaeans of the city called Achilleum. They of Mytilene insisted on having the place restored to them: but the Athenians refused, since they argued that the Aeolians had no better claim to the Trojan territory than themselves, or than any of the other Greeks who helped Menelaus on occasion of the rape of Helen.Footnote 11
The Athenian political rhetoric aside, note the double perspective on Troy and the Troad that transpires from this episode. For the Asiatic Aeolians, the Troad was first and foremost the place where they had lived for generations now; for the Athenians, it was a theatre of the Trojan War and, therefore, a Panhellenic domain. This early politicization of the Trojan space was highly symptomatic. As we shall see immediately, the Iron Age city of Ilion continued to serve as a playground of competing ideologies in the subsequent centuries as well.
In the Persian Wars the ideological aspect of the site of Troy became even more pronounced. As Xerxes’ visit to Ilion on his way to Greece (480 BCE) shows, by treating the sack of Troy as Greek trespass on the territory of Asia, the King of Persia symbolically represented the war that he initiated as an act of just retribution for past wrongs – or at least this is how Herodotus saw it. The visit was accompanied by a magnificent sacrifice to Trojan Athena.Footnote 12
At the time of the Peloponnesian War, Ilion was a tribute-paying member of the Delian League,Footnote 13 and it was definitely involved in the naval campaign in the Aegean.Footnote 14 After the defeat of Athens, Ilion, along with the other Greek cities of Asia Minor, became Persian as a result of the King’s Peace (387 BCE).
The year 334 BCE was a turning point in the history of Ilion. The entry of Alexander’s army into the Troad, staged as a symbolic re-enactment of the Trojan War,Footnote 15 not only provided a powerful theme for Macedonian imperial propaganda but also inaugurated an unprecedented surge of urban development in the city of Ilion (Troy IX). All of a sudden, Ilion became important. The reason is clear: its existence legitimized Alexander’s campaign against Persia, helping to represent it as a new Trojan War, that is, another Panhellenic enterprise aiming to avenge the injury inflicted upon the Greeks by the barbarians of Asia. The subsequent growth and prosperity of Hellenistic Ilion was a direct result of its ideological importance in the eyes of Alexander and his successors.
In the Hellenistic period Ilion greatly gained in political importance. It became an autonomous polis and the religious and administrative centre of a koinon.Footnote 16 The temple of Athena Ilias, built under Lysimachus and the Seleucids (the end of the fourth to the third century BCE) is representative of the new status of the city. In material, in structure, in the subjects of the reliefs on the metopes this magnificent edifice deliberately evoked the Parthenon and aimed to establish a meaningful correlation, sanctioned by the tradition of the Trojan War at least since the time of Homer, between Athena Ilias and Athena Polias of Athens. Both temples delivered the same message of an epoch-making confrontation between the Greeks and the barbarians and the eventual triumph of the former. This, however, was not destined to last. A new power arose in the Mediterranean, and it was about to present the Trojan landscape and the Trojan War itself in an entirely new light.
The Transformation: Ilium (20 BCE–ca. 500 CE)The Roman tendency to approach the site of Troy in the perspective of the Aeneas myth can be traced back to the first entry of Roman troops into Asia at the beginning of the second century BCE.Footnote 17 Yet it was not before 27 BCE, the year of Augustus’ rise to power, that Ilion was placed in the focus of public attention. As we saw, it is in this same year that Horace wrote the ode in which he pleaded not to rebuild Troy. It is not out of the question that while writing these lines Horace also had in mind the events of the First Mithridatic War, in the course of which Ilion had been heavily damaged by the rebellious Roman legate Fimbria (85 BCE). The destruction, however, was apparently not as devastating as some of our sources would have it.Footnote 18 Moreover, the ruins of Troy were evoked in similar terms also by Ovid in 8 CE, after Troy had already been rebuilt on a large scale by Augustus:
[Troy was great in wealth and men … now humbled to the dust, she can but point to her ancient ruins, ancestral tombs are all her wealth.Footnote 19
That is to say, just like their Greek predecessors, Roman poets glorified the imagined ruins of Troy, ignoring the real city that existed in their place.Footnote 20
Politicians were, however, a different matter. In 20 BCE, in the course of his visit to the provinces of Asia and Bithynia, Augustus arrived in Ilion. He stayed in the house of one of the citizens, Melanippides, with whom he had been connected by bonds of ceremonial friendship. A telling testimony of this event is provided by inscriptions on the eastern architrave of the temple of Athena and by the basis of a column representing Augustus’ stay in Ilion and bearing an inscription which styles him a ‘relative’ (suggenês) and ‘protector’ (patrôn) of its citizens. (Let me note in passing that the ‘Trojans’ whom Augustus encountered were of course Greeks, descendants of the Greek colonists who had settled in the Troad at the beginning of the first millennium BCE.) However that may be, the ambitious building program launched in the subsequent years was the direct outcome of Augustus’ visit.
The increasing tendency to see Troy as the antecedent of Rome exerted a visible influence on the city and its surroundings. The myth of Trojan origins of Rome reshaped Ilion into Romana PergamaFootnote 21 and resulted in a thorough reinterpretation not only of the Trojan saga but also of the Trojan landscape itself. The Greek participants in the Trojan War and the monuments associated with them came to be seen in a negative light, whereas the palaces of Assarakos and Priam, the house and the tomb of Hector became firmly established as new landmarks of Roman Ilium. These changes emphasized the image of Troy as the starting point in the history of Rome and legitimized Roman presence in Asia. For all practical purposes, Troy was reborn.The dramatic turn in the reception of the Trojan landscape that took place in the Roman period is epitomized in an epigram on the tomb of Hector at Ophryneion, composed by Germanicus on the occasion of his visit to the city in 18 CE. The epigram, addressed to Hector, is concluded with the following words:
Look, the glorious Ilios is raised up again, and though the race that inhabits it is not equal to you in the matters of war, it is still a friend of Mars. Hector, tell Achilles that all the Myrmidons have perished, and Thessaly is subject to the great descendants of Aeneas.Footnote 22
Anxious to distinguish himself by noble pursuits, and the reputation of an orator, he advocated the cause of the people of Ilium, and having eloquently recounted how Rome was the offspring of Troy, and Aeneas the founder of the Julian line, with other old traditions akin to myths, he gained for his clients exemption from all public burdens.Footnote 23
Ilion had never been more popular than in the three subsequent centuries. Emperors visited it; it became a major tourist attraction issuing souvenir coins with Trojan heroes and scenes from the Trojan War.Footnote 24 And yet, since the fourth century CE, probably because the Christianization of the empire stripped the city of its ideological importance, Ilium’s name disappears from the record. This was a signal of its decline. In the middle of the fifth century, the agora began to be used as a cemetery, and after a series of earthquakes circa 500 CE the city was abandoned.Footnote 25 Troy returned to what it had always been in the imagination of the poets – a city in ruins. With time, even the ruins disappeared, not to be seen again till the end of the nineteenth century. Yet the image of the Trojan War carved out by poets and politicians of the Augustan era survived much longer.
Rome and Beyond
One of the results of the revision of the Trojan tradition initiated in Augustan Rome was that the Greek participants in the Trojan War came to be presented as inferior to the Trojans not only in Latin but also in Imperial Greek literature. Thus, in his Trojan Oration, addressed to the citizens of Ilium, Dio of Prusa (ca. 40 – ca. 115 CE) could already afford to represent Homer as a liar and the Trojans as the victors in the Trojan War. According to the Trojan Oration, Troy had never been sacked by the Greeks: in fact, it is the Greeks who had lost the war because of their unprovoked attack on Troy. Dio repeatedly praises the Trojans (read: Romans) and elevates Aeneas, a hero virtually ignored by other Greek authors. Even if the speech was meant as a rhetorical exercise rather than a serious treatment of the Trojan theme, Dio’s pro-Roman orientation is unmistaken, and it is made explicit at the end of the oration, when he asserts that the truth about the Trojan War can now be told because ‘the situation has changed … for Greece is subject to others and so is Asia’.Footnote 26
The Trojan Oration was part of a trend.Footnote 27 The latter produced not only such acknowledged masterpieces as Lucian’s True Stories and Philostratus’ Heroicus but also two accounts of the Trojan War written in Greek prose somewhere between the first and the third centuries CE: the History of the Destruction of Troy by ‘Dares the Phrygian’ and the Journal of the Trojan War by ‘Dictys of Crete’. Although far from masterpieces, these two compositions were to become the foremost sources on the Trojan War for a millennium and a half. Both are presented as eyewitness accounts and therefore as far superior to Homer. The image of the Greek participants that they communicate, although not invariably negative, is far from flattering.Footnote 28 This is especially true of Dictys’ Journal where, for example, Achilles kills Hector in a night ambush (3.15) and kills Memnon when the latter is already wounded by Ajax (4.6). But it is the Latin translations of Dictys and Dares, apparently made in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, that became overwhelmingly influential in the subsequent centuries.
It is true, of course, that such post-Augustan epics as Statius’ Achilleid (96 CE) and the Posthomerica by Quintus of Smyrna (fourth century CE) displayed an attitude to the Trojan War that did not essentially differ from the tradition bequeathed by Homer.Footnote 29 Yet in the late antique, medieval, and early modern West it was Dictys and Dares rather than Statius and Quintus who became, as one scholar put it, ‘the foundational texts of Trojan historiography’.Footnote 30 The fact that Homer was no longer available was far from being the only reason for the enormous popularity these two texts enjoyed.
More than anything else, the popularity of Dictys and Dares was an outcome of the lasting dialogue with the Roman past that ran deeply in the veins of Western tradition. This dialogue involved both identification with Rome and challenge to its authority: the first found its expression in the myth of Trojan ancestry, the second in the adoption of Hector rather than Aeneas as a model hero (more later).Footnote 31 The earliest attribution of Trojan origins to a northern European people is attested as early as the mid seventh century CE: the people in question were the Franks, with the Britons following them one hundred and fifty years later.Footnote 32 Throughout the Middle Ages, more and more peoples, states and dynasties lay claim to Trojan ancestry: Venice, Sicily, Tuscany, Naples, Calabria, the Danes, the Normans, Belgium, the Saxons, the German Emperors, the Capetians, and this is just a partial list.Footnote 33
It should also be taken into account that the idea of the Trojan War promulgated by Dictys and Dares went very well indeed with what could be found in Vergil’s Aeneid (see aforementioned), and the Aeneid continued to be read and imitated throughout the Middle Ages.Footnote 34 Last but not least, as Katherine King put it, ‘the Trojans were considered to be the ancestors of most European peoples, while Achilles and Odysseus were the representatives of the somewhat untrustworthy Eastern half of Christendom’Footnote 35 – so much so that the myth of Trojan ancestry was even mobilized to justify the Latin conquest of Constantinople (1204).Footnote 36
All these created a suitable background for Dictys’ and Dares’ revisionist attitude towards Homer’s picture of the Trojan War not only to be perpetuated but also to be taken further. In 1160, Benoît de Sainte-Maure made the account of Dares and, to a lesser degree, of Dictys the basis for his 30,000-verse-long Le Roman de Troie. The poem consistently presented Hector as a supreme hero and the Trojans as unambiguously superior to the Greeks; Achilles, on the other hand, became an object of vilification.Footnote 37 The popularity of Le Roman de Troie was overwhelming. It was soon translated into Spanish and German, adapted into French prose, and used as the basis for Italian poems. In the East it was translated into Greek as The War of Troy (Ὁ Πόλεμος της Τρωάδος), by far the longest medieval Greek romance. Since the early thirteenth century, Historia destructionis Troiae, the Latin version of Le Roman de Troie by Guido delle Colonne, became no less popular and was adapted as frequently.Footnote 38 In the subsequent centuries, the picture of the Trojan War established in Le Roman de Troie and Historia destructionis Troiae prevailed in both high and popular culture. It influenced Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare. The popular medieval list of the Nine Worthies featured Hector as one of the three foremost heroes of pagan antiquity, the other two being Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.Footnote 39
To recapitulate, Vergil’s idea of the inferiority of Greece before Rome and its imaginary antecedent Troy enjoyed a much longer life than Horace’s and Dionysius’ vision of a single Graeco-Roman civilization, a vision which happens also to be our own. The latter re-emerged only in the wake of the cultural transformation effected by the Renaissance and was not firmly established until the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries.Footnote 40 The same would also be true of the picture of the Trojan War found in the poems of Homer, whose authority was re-established at approximately the same period.Footnote 41
Whatever its historical and cultural background, by the time of its being reinvigorated in the mid first century BCE the myth of Trojan origins of the Romans had been universally taken for granted. There was more than one way to negotiate the convoluted relationship between Greece and Rome that it implied. One way was to continue privileging Romulus and the old foundational legend by marginalizing the myth of Trojan origins along with the antagonism between Greece and Rome that inevitably followed from it: this was the way Horace followed. Another way was to neutralize the antagonism by claiming that the Trojans and, consequently, the Romans were in fact of Greek descent: this was what Dionysius tried to accomplish. But it was also possible, rather than avoiding the antagonism, to bring it to the fore by presenting the Trojans and, by implication, the Romans as superior to the Greeks. This was what Vergil did.
On the face of it, Vergil’s solution was the least obvious of the three. But it was the one that suited best the new geopolitical reality and the imperial ambitions of Rome. This transpires not only from the Aeneid references to Roman military victories over Greeks or the epigram of Germanicus amounting to much the same but, especially, from those imperial Greek authors who, similarly to Dio of Prusa, overtly recognized that the old narrative of the Trojan War did not suit any longer the world in which they lived. The revised Trojan narrative they promulgated fit to perfection the distribution of power within the Roman Empire. To quote Dio again, ‘the situation has changed … for Greece is subject to others and so is Asia’. It was this change of situation that was above all responsible for the thorough revision of the Trojan tradition that took place in the Imperial Period.