– “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto“, or “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”
– “Know thyself.”
We are reading The Aeneid in my Ancient Literature class, and we’ve just spent a few days watching Troy burn to the ground. It is epic.
Most of us have seen the Trojan War from the perspective of the Greeks, and several of us have agreed that we are secretly pulling for them the whole time. But when you read of the fall of Troy from the Trojan’s perspective, it becomes difficult to maintain such a clear bias. Let me share some of the images that we have been experiencing.
Aeneas wakes from sleep, having just seen a vision of Hector’s mangled corpse warning him to flee–the Greeks have taken the city! Aeneas goes outside into the still night air and hears a strange noise coming from across the city. Sounds of battle. Troy is already burning.
In a flash, he sees it all: the deception of the Greek Liar Sinon, the soldiers pouring out of the belly of the horse like flies, the rest of the Greek army being let in through the gates. What despair he must have felt!
Troy is his mother, his home, the home of his children and ancestors; Troy is as dear to him as his own blood! I doubt if any of us in this near-rootless American society can immediately relate to this intimate connection to a place, but I think we can begin to try.
Aeneas is immediately resolved: if Troy must fall then he will fall with Troy. He grabs a few stray Trojans who know how to handle themselves and they set forth, to find an honorable death. One pack of Greeks is over-confident of their victory, and comes upon them too quickly–and are quickly cut down by the grim Trojans. They don the gear of the fallen Greeks and practice a bit of their own trickery: in the confusion and chaos of the sack, the unsuspecting Greeks fall easy prey to the soldiers in disguise. The bravery, courage, and resolve in the face of despair shown by Aeneas and his men is staggering when you stop to really imagine it.
Perhaps the most vivid, and disturbing, scene comes shortly after, when the fighting comes to King Priam’s palace: the roof is swarming with Trojans hurling down any kind of projectile they can find onto the attacking Greeks; the entrances of the palace are barricaded by soldiers; women rush to and fro, crying, calling out the names of their lost children; some are huddling by the alter, hoping to be spared the sword by virtue of the sacredness of the thing. As the doors are chopped in, and the roof begins to crumble and collapse, one of Priam’s sons comes running towards the alter where his father and mother are. He is already bleeding, wounded, and behind him is the bloodthirsty Pyrrus, Achille’s own son. Pyrrus brutally murders the boy in front of Priam–profaning Priam’s mind by forcing him to watch his own son be put to death. When Priam chastises Pyrrus, rightly saying that his father would be disgusted by his behavior, Pyrrus laughs coarsely and offers back some smart remark before dragging Priam–slipping and struggling through the warm slick of his son’s blood on the marble floor–up to the alter and murders him in cold blood.
That was the end
Of Priam’s age, the doom that took him off,
With Troy in flames before his eyes, his towers
Headlong fallen–he that in other days
Had ruled in pride so many lands and peoples,
The power of Asia.
On the distant shore,
The vast trunk headless lies without a name.
Now here’s the neat part: after class one of my students was asking me a question, and we got to talking about the story. We agreed it was intense. Then she said that as we were reading she had been imagining what it would have been like to be one of the children in the palace during all of that. She actually had to pull herself back, out of the story, she said, because she felt that if she continued, she would start crying and her classmates would think she was crazy.
And then it struck me: she was the only one that had actually read the story rightly. We all should have been weeping. I told my students the next day that I felt like a terrible failure that I had allowed them to read through that entire story without any of us shedding a single tear. If we can read How They Took the City and not weep, then we are not reading as we should be; if we can experience the fall of Troy and not weep, then we are not using our imaginations as we ought to be.
The imagination rightly understood is one of the primary prerequisites to learning how to Love. When we engage our imagination with a text, and allow it to cause us to experience its story, then we can put ourselves into another’s shoes and see the world from a perspective drastically different than our own. We don’t think often of the threat of our homes and cities being destroyed and burned, our wives and children raped and murdered, our temples desecrated and destroyed–and that is, I believe, not a good thing (it hinders Thankfulness, for one thing). When we can expand our consciousness to include The Other, it enlarges our soul and increases our capacity to Love. This is part of the reason that literature can be such a powerful tool to instill and inspire virtue. It tears our gaze away from our own precious Self for a few moments and gives us a worthy mirror by which to actually see ourselves apart from our own eyes.
“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”