Fall 2017 HC 231H: War & Heroism in the Ancient World

Fall Term, 2017-2018

Professor: Michael Furtado

4 credits

  • CRN 12776: Tuesday & Thursday, 08:30 – 09:50 @ MAC 106

Are warriors and heroes synonymous? This is a question that is still relevant in our world today, and it is part of a legacy that dates back nearly two millennia. What qualities did the heroes of the Ancient and Medieval world possess, and how were those qualities related to the needs and expectations of the societies of which they were a part? Are the values and behaviors of heroes reflective of those from the society they represent, or are they prescriptive, meant to encourage others to aspire toward? Were the heroes of the ancient and medieval world always admirable people, or do they reflect the characters of the intended audience for their stories, warts and all? As we will discover, they may be something of both – though to understand them will require us to explore the unique historical contexts within individual values arose and were emphasized in tales of heroism when related to their protagonists.

In this course, we will engage texts ranging from the age of the Greek warrior to the medieval knight, as well as giving comparative attention to the Japanese Samurai and the Mongol warriors who created the largest land empire in world history. As we engage our readings, we will consider the relationship between the individual warrior and society or the “state” and how that relationship changed over time.

Central to our course will be the Greek Iliad, and the flawed hero Achilles, whose thirst for individual glory represented the hallmark of warrior virtue in his time; the Roman Aeneid, where Aeneas served as a model for the virtue of service to the state above all; the French Song of Roland, where the hero Roland seeks to balance a need for individual glory and honor with the higher responsibility to his emperor and God; and a variety of chivalric literature from both Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes, as well as the best of only three extant manuals on knighthood, Geoffroi de Charny’s A Knights Own Book of Chivalry, where the hero Charny attempts to rally French knighthood to reconcile their struggles for individual glory and honor with their obligation to the people and king of France.

Students will engage in close reading of these and other sources, as well as secondary historiography intended to help give us a broader perspective on the topics under consideration. In this way, we will be contextualizing warrior values within their appropriate historical contexts, as well as considering the important role of religious, economic, and political developments in the formation, transmission, and practice of shared values for warriors within their respective eras. We will then consider the traits associated with the “hero” in each of our primary sources and work comparatively to analyze the similarities and differences between each as we move through the course.