A few of the well-known plots of Greek and, subsequently, Roman myths involve the references to specific political concerns, for example, when one party strives against another for the throne. Such mythological concept did not appear occasionally, but rather it was a lesson, conveyed through the story to the hearers of the myth. The literary sources have always been an easy source for reshaping and served as a convenient platform for spreading contemporary political opinions. However, there were numerous reasons for the introduction of such political subtext into the fabric of the mythological narrative, and this research intends to address some of them, citing authoritative sources.
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Most of the known literary sources of Ancient Greece belong to the Archaic.
The period when myths were transformed from oral to written stories and eventually took on their final form, and the Classical Period, when Greek tragedians and historians have reached the peak of their creativity, leaving various written sources, some of which have survived until the present day1. At least three of the most famous literary masterpieces of antiquity, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” and Hesiod’s “Theogony” belong to the archaic period of Greek history.
All of them include instances of political opposition, both real and allegoric. For example, the Iliad shows the confrontation between men, manifesting in a war between Troy and Greece, and gods, illustrated by examples of Poseidon opposing Apollo, with an allegoric meaning of water standing against fire, et cetera. The rulers of Troy represent the opposing qualities, as well: Priam is shown as a kind and compassionate but weak ruler who is unable to override the decisions of the corrupted council and his own son, Paris.
At the same time, Paris is seen not as a single villain of the story, but more of an egoistic and self-centered youth, who puts his desires above everything else, and who is corrupted enough to bribe the council of Troy to confront the decisions of his father. Homer is the first teller of the ancient myth about the Trojan war to both attract sympathy for the Trojans and warn against the flaws of such a government. Indeed, the rulers of Troy in the Iliad are seen as the main source of trouble from the human point of view, without regard to the will of gods.
Hesiod’s “Theogony” is a perfect illustration of patriarchal forces and the fight for power. According to Barry Powell, “Greek myths … report a cosmic history that begins with mighty powers of nature and ends in the organization of the universe as a monarchic, patriarchal state … mythical traditions make use of the motifs of succession and dragon-combat.”2. The history of world creation, as seen by ancient Greeks, is an endless battle of several generations for power and glory, where either party often descends to treachery and cunning, along with brute force and political bias. Some researchers also claim that such paradigm and its mythological reflections signified the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal culture, and the new philosophy had to be established in the mindset, for example, through mythology.
Roman culture, being largely a successor to Greek, has incorporated into its own mythology the same political concerns that were characteristic of the myths of Ancient Greece. However, for Romans, the stories and myths have become even a more convenient and flexible tool for putting into effect various contemporary political ideas. Such subtext can be found in peculiar Roman myths, such as the praise of the civil duty in a story of a man who burned his left hand to show an enemy his stoicism, or the myth of the foundation of the Roman Republic, which has been altered and told in such way that it would “acknowledge the success of those who defended the Republic, and the failure of those who tried to destroy it.”3.
The more basic, cosmogonic, and heroic myths were also altered according to the needs of the politics to fit the specific requests of the contemporary rulers or philosophers. Barry Powell, in his book “A Short Introduction to Classical Myth,” notes that “several Roman poets … told stories to explain the origins of Roman power and its obligations to the Roman ruling class. Myth, for such poets, was a kind of propaganda, reinforcing the high ideals of the Roman government.”4.
He continues then that the Roman gods of family and household, keeping the native traditions of the Roman people, as opposed to the deities borrowed from Greek culture, have been able to transform the understanding of the state to see it as a larger family. The key to the change in the mindset was the vision of gods as abstractions instead of anthropomorphic essences, thus, these entities were able to extend their grace and protection from a certain family to another abstraction, the state.5.
Another important Roman myth was told in the “Aeneid,” written by Vergil around 19 BC. This myth follows the Greek story of Aeneas, the Trojan hero who managed to escape the war downfall of Troy. The Romans have immediately found in Aeneas an ancestor with divine blood, as he was born from a mortal man and goddess of love, Aphrodite. The myth had been elaborated and updated in such a way that Romulus and Remus, the founders of the Roman Republic, could have traced their own origins down to Aeneas himself. This myth has quickly become one of the most respected and favored among others in Rome, and many rulers and emperors have tried to take advantage of it.
From the abovementioned examples, it can be seen that mythology has always been a source of delight and entertainment but also served the purpose of spreading political opinions and concerns. This can be easily explained, as Powell notes, because “humans are myth-making animals, retelling ancient stories to fulfill present needs.”6.
Course Notes: Unit 1 to Unit 14. Canada, 2015.
Powell, Barry. A Short Introduction to Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2002.
- Course Notes: Unit 1 to Unit 14 (Canada, 2015), 4.
- Barry Powell, A Short Introduction to Classical Myth (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2002), 94.
- Course Notes: Unit 1 to Unit 14 (Canada, 2015), 67.
- Barry Powell, A Short Introduction to Classical Myth (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2002), 193.
- Barry Powell, A Short Introduction to Classical Myth (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2002), 196-197.
- Barry Powell, A Short Introduction to Classical Myth (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2002), 202.