Introduction to the book
00§1. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is based on a course that I have taught at Harvard
University ever since the late 1970s. This course, “Concepts of the Hero in Greek Civilization,”
now renamed “The Ancient Greek Hero,” centers on selected readings of texts, all translated
from the original Greek into English. The texts include the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey; the
Hesiodic Theogony and Works and Days; selected songs of Sappho and Pindar; selections from the
Histories of Herodotus; the Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides of Aeschylus; the Oedipus
Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles; the Hippolytus and Bacchae of Euripides; and the
Apology and Phaedo of Plato. Also included are selections from Pausanias and Philostratus.
These texts are supplemented by pictures, taken mostly from Athenian vase paintings. Copies
of those pictures will be shown in Hour 7.
00§2. The texts I have just listed are available free of charge in an online Sourcebook of
original Greek texts translated into English (chs.harvard.edu), which I have edited with the help of
fellow teachers and researchers. The process of editing this Sourcebook is an ongoing project
that I hope will outlast my own lifetime. All the translations in this online Sourcebook are free
from copyright restrictions. That is because the translations belong either to me or to other
authors who have waived copyright or to authors who died in a time that precedes any further
application of copyright. The texts of these translations in the Sourcebook are periodically
reviewed and modified, and the modifications are indicated by way of special formatting
designed to show the differences between the original translator’s version and the modified
00§3. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is divided into five parts. The number of hours
dedicated to each part is tightened up as the argumentation intensifies, and the hours
themselves get shorter. Part I, taking up Hours 1 through 12, is primarily about heroes as
reflected in the oldest surviving forms of ancient Greek epic and lyric poetry. Part II, Hours 13
through 15, is about heroes as reflected in a variety of prose media. Part III, Hours 16 through
21, is about heroes in ancient Greek tragedy. Part IV, Hours 22-23, is about heroes as reflected
in two dialogues of Plato. And Part V, confined to Hour 24, is about the hero as a transcendent
concept. In two of the Hours, there are additional sections. Hour 7 is followed by sections
numbered Hour 7a, Hour 7b, Hour 7c, and so on; similarly, Hour 8 is followed by sections
numbered Hour 8a, Hour 8b, Hour 8c, and so on. These sections will add more hours of reading,
and the reader may choose to postpone them in the course of a first reading.
About the dating of the texts quoted in the selected readings
00§4. The time span for most of these texts extends from the eighth through the fourth
centuries BCE (“Before the Common Era”). Some of the texts, however, date from later periods:
for example, Pausanias is dated to the second century CE (“Common Era”). When I say “ancient
Greek history,” the term ancient includes three periods:
archaic (from the eighth century down to roughly the middle of the fifth)
classical (roughly, the second half of the fifth century)
post-classical (fourth century and beyond).
A convenient point for dividing classical and post-classical is the death of Socrates in 399 BCE.
About the historical setting for the primary sources: “ancient Greece”
There is no place where one really feels at home any more. So, the thing that one longs to
get back to, before anything else, is whatever place there may be where one could feel at
home, and that is because it is in that place - and in that place alone - where one would
really like to feel at home. That place is the world of the Greeks.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power: Attempt at a Revaluation of All Values (1885)1
00§5. In the ancient world of the classical period, “Greece” was not really a “country”
or a “nation,” as we ordinarily think of these terms. Rather, it was a cultural constellation of
competing city-states that had a single language in common, Greek. In the classical period,
speakers of the Greek language called themselves Hellēnes or ‘Hellenes’.
00§6. Among the most prominent of the ancient Greek city-states were Athens, Sparta,
Corinth, Argos, and Thebes, all of them located in the part of the Mediterranean region that we
know today as “modern Greece.” There were also other prominent ancient Greek city-states in
other parts of the Mediterranean region. To the East, on the coast of Asia Minor, which is now
part of the modern state of Turkey, were Greek cities like Miletus and Smyrna (now Izmir);
facing the coast of Asia Minor were Greek island states like Samos and Chios. Further to the
North was a federation of Greek cities located both on the island of Lesbos and on the facing
mainland of Asia Minor. Still further to the North, guarding the entrance to the Black Sea, was
the Greek city of Byzantium, later to be called Constantinople (now Istanbul). Far to the South,
in African Libya, was the Greek city of Cyrene. Further to the East in Northern Africa, in Egypt,
was the arguably greatest of all Greek cities in the ancient world, Alexandria, founded by
Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. To the West were other great Greek cities like
“Man ist nirgends mehr heimisch, man verlangt zunächst nach Dem zurück, wo man
irgendwie heimisch sein kann, weil man dort allein heimisch sein möchte: und das ist die
griechische Welt!” - F. Nietzsche, Der Wille zur Macht: Versuch einer Umwertung aller Werte
(written 1885, first published in 1901, Book 2 Section 419). In the References, I give a more
Syracuse in the island of Sicily as well as Tarentum and Neapolis (now Napoli or Naples) in
what is now the modern state of Italy. Still further to the West, in what is now the modern
state of France, was the Greek (formerly Phoenician) city of Massalia (now Marseille).
00§7. The ancient Greeks would agree that they shared the same language, despite the
staggering variety of local dialects. They would even agree that they shared a civilization,
though they would be intensely contentious about what exactly their shared civilization would
be. Each city-state had its own institutions, that is, its own government, constitution, laws,
calendars, religious practices, and so on. Both the sharing and the contentiousness lie at the
root of the very essence of the city-state. What I am translating here as ‘city-state’ is the Greek
word polis. This is the word from which our words political and politics are derived.
00§8. In the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle made a basic
observation about the ancient Greek polis in a treatise known today as the Politics. Here is the
original Greek wording, ho anthrōpos phusei politikon zōion (Aristotle Politics I 1253a2–3), which
can be translated literally this way: ‘A human [anthrōpos] is by nature an organism of the polis
[politikon zōion]’.2 We see in this wording the basis for a distinctly Greek concept of civilization.
What Aristotle is really saying here is that humans achieve their ultimate potential within a
society that is the polis. From this point of view, the ultimate in human potential is achieved
politically. The original Greek wording of this observation by Aristotle is frequently rendered
this way into English: ‘Man is a political animal’. Such a rendering does not do justice to the
original formulation, since current uses of the word political do not convey accurately the
historical realities of the ancient Greek polis.
00§9. Here are some basic aspects of Greek civilization that most ancient Greeks in the
classical period could agree about:
1. interpolitical festivals. Two primary examples are the Olympic festival (= “Olympics”) at
Olympia and the Pythian festival at Delphi.
2. interpolitical repositories of shared knowledge. A primary example is Delphi.
3. interpolitical poetry. Two primary examples are a set of monumental poems known as
the Iliad and Odyssey, attributed to a prehistoric figure named Homer, and another set of
poems known as the Theogony and Works and Days, attributed to a prehistoric figure named
ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον.
English-language translations of the entire Homeric Iliad and Odyssey and of the entire
Hesiodic Theogony and Works and Days are available in the online online Sourcebook of original
Greek texts translated into English (chs.harvard.edu).
00§10. I have used the term interpolitical here instead of international because I do not
want to imply that each polis was a nation. In most of my published work, however, I use the
term Panhellenic instead of interpolitical. The term Panhellenic or pan-Hellenic is derived from the
ancient Greek compound noun pan-Hellēnes, ‘all Greeks’, which is attested in the Hesiodic Works
and Days (528)4 in the sense of referring to ‘all Greeks under the sun’5 (526-528).6 This use of the
compound noun pan-Hellēnes in the absolutizing sense of ‘all Greeks’ helps explain the later use
of the non-compound noun Hellēnes, ‘Hellenes’, to mean ‘Greeks’ in the classical period; earlier,
that noun Hellēnes had been used to designate a sub-set of Greeks dwelling in a region known
as Thessaly rather than any full complement of Greeks. As the linguistic evidence shows, the
non-compound noun Hellēnes acquired the meaning of ‘Greeks’ from the built-in politics of the
compound noun pan-Hellēnes, the basic meaning of which can be paraphrased this way:
Hellenes (as a subset of Greeks) and all other Greeks (as a notionally complete set of Greeks).7
00§11. I understand the concept of Panhellenic or Panhellenism as a cultural as well as
political impulse that became the least common denominator of ancient Greek civilization in
the classical period. And the impulse of Panhellenism was already at work in Homeric and
Hesiodic poetry. In the Homeric Iliad, for example, the names Achaeans and Danaans and Argives
are used synonymously in the universalizing sense of Panhellenes or ‘all Hellenes’ or ‘all
00§12. In the Classical period, an authoritative source goes on record to say that Homer
and Hesiod are the foundation for all civilization. That source is the historian Herodotus, who
lived in the fifth century BCE. According to Herodotus (2.53.1-3), Homer and Hesiod are the
repository of knowledge that provides the basics of education for all Hellenes.8 And such
basics, as we will see in this book, are conceived primarily in terms of religion, which requires
an overall knowledge of the forms and the functions of the gods.
00§13. Here I make two points about the historical realities of ancient Greek religion:
ἠέλιος ... πανελλήνεσσι φαείνει.
Nagy 2009a:274-275. Secondary sources such as “Nagy 2009a” are all listed in the References
at the end of this book. In most cases, I will use abbreviations that can be looked up at the first
page of the References. An example of such abbreviations is “HQ” in the note that follows.
HQ 39n40. From the start, I alert the reader to the fact that notionally is one of my favorite
words. I use it to indicate that the statement I am making reflects not my own thinking but
rather the thought patterns of others.
Commentary in PH 215-216 = 8§2.
1. When we apply the term religion to such traditional practices as the worship of gods in
the classical period of Greek civilization as also in earlier periods, we need to think of such
practices in terms of an interaction between myth and ritual. Here is a quick working
definition of myth and ritual together. Ritual is doing things and saying things in a way that
is considered sacred. Myth is saying things in a way that is also considered sacred. So, ritual
2. Not only were the gods worshipped in ancient Greek religion. Heroes too were
worshipped. Besides the word worship, we may use the word cult, as in the term hero cult.
Other relevant concepts are cultivate and culture. The concepts of (1) a hero cult and (2) the
cult hero who is worshipped in hero cult will figure prominently in the readings ahead.
00§14. Our readings will start with Homer. This prehistoric figure, who is credited with
the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey, represents an interpolitical or Panhellenic perspective
on the Greeks. Homeric poetry is not tied down to any one polis. It presents the least common
denominator in the cultural education of the elite of all city-states.
00§15. But how can a narrative or “story” like the Iliad become an instrument of
education? This book offers answers to that question.