The short section on ‘The Fall of Troy’ presents an almost anti-war sentiment, which stands in contrast to the tales of heroism and great deeds that preceded it. However, reviewing the ‘heroic’ tales, one sees that there is a subliminal message of the same kind present in the sad stories of ‘The Fall of Troy’ and later. In the stories Nestor tells, Caeneus is begins life as a woman, Caenis, and though he fights well during the battle between the Lapiths and centaurs, ultimately he is killed not by the hands of his enemies directly, but simply is crushed or asphyxiated under the weight of the timber piled on him [or he morphs into a bird that is, coincidentally, never seen again] (12.588-12.604), as Cygnus was beaten down and choked by Achilles. (12.159-172) Neither the centaurs nor Achilles could defeat their enemies straight out and therefore had to resort to underhanded means. Achilles also meets a questionably heroic end. Though his death was orchestrated by Apollo, he is officially struck down by cowardly Paris’ arrows. Paris is randomly shooting into the mass of Greeks when Apollo appears saying “Why are you wasting arrows on the rabble? If you care about your people, aim at Achilles and avenge your brothers’ deaths”. (12.685-690) Apollo’s suggestion is the smarter course anyway, since Achilles is the biggest problem; Paris is an idiot as well as a coward. Following these tales, the speeches of Ajax and Ulysses in the contest for Achilles’ arms show how flawed both were. Ajax accuses Ulysses of being a cowardly cheater who uses his cleverness to weasel out of difficulties, while Ulysses claims that Ajax is all brawn and no brains, that as a warrior he is not especially important, since there are others that equal him in ability. (13.6-141; 13.148-460)
Such is the glorious set-up to the fall of Ilium. The lines given to the description of the sack of Troy do not dwell on heroic battle scenes or spectacular and gruesome conquest, but rather are filled with Hecuba’s misery and the rape and kidnap of Trojan women. (13.481-515) The last few lines tell that Hecuba “[Was] found among the tombs of her sons, clinging to their graves, trying to kiss their remains”. (13.509-10) The scene is pitiful and sad and could not be further from the tales of violence and battle that came before, yet they all have one thing in common: criticism of the measure of a man. That is, Ovid seems to be making a statement about the ‘manly virtues’ and how inglorious and uncivilized they really are. Polyxena is one of the few characters to comport themselves admirably, and her biggest achievement is to die stoically, as would typically be expected of a hero. (13.48-13.575) Overall, the stories in these two books present a picture of war and heroism that is unflattering despite the veneer of appreciation.
2 thoughts on “Heroes or Zeros? Ovid’s Views on Manliness in Books 12 & 13”
I never really understood what I meant to be a man in Greek mythology. We’re so used to reading about aggressive males who lust for battle and raping women. Apparently those are supposed to be the true men??? But when we read about clever-minded men, they’re weak and pathetic. I feel like there should have been a different criteria ancient Greeks should’ve used in considering what a man is. I’m more of a fan of the clever minded character who knows more than others. It makes for better reading. Reading about bloodlust and rage gets boring after a while.
I completely agree with your interpretation that Ovid is critiquing the society in which the values of masculinity were violence and conquest. I feel that a lot of these stories show that a society that values a culture of violence is one that perpetuates it. It asks for blood. In Ovid’s perception, this is not a good thing or a “manly virtue”, but a downfall to everyone.
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