Recreating a Past that has Passed

Back in Book Three of Vergil’s Aeneid,  we encounter another example of people attempting to recreate, exactly, what they have lost, so that they can continue to live in a vanished past.  When Aeneas and his people land at Buthrotum, on the Adriatic coast, they find that the Trojan exiles who have already settled there have created an exact replica of the lost Troy.  Aeneas sees a mock river Simois (Aeneid 3.302) and a monument to Hector that is, in fact, an empty tomb (Aeneid 3.303-305), at which Hector’s wife Andromache prays. The town, too, is an exact model of Troy:  As he approaches the city itself Aeneas sees “a miniature Troy”, as well as a dry creek bed named for the great Trojan river Xanthus and a portal named for the Scaean gate of Troy (Aeneid 3.349-351).

Helenus and Andromache and their band of Trojans seem to have achieved the dream of all Trojan exiles: They have Troy back again.  And yet, it is not a real Troy; even Aeneas identifies it to its inhabitants as a copy, rather than as a real and living city (Aeneid 3.497).  This model Troy is smaller, it is a replica, and a dry stream bed masquerades as the mighty river Xanthus.  The dry stream bed shows another aspect of this new Troy: nothing is growing or progressing.  There is no mention of fields and crops, or of growing families.  There is no advancement or progress, and no happiness: Andromache still weeps for her lost husband and child, and tries to call Hector’s ghost to her.   And in calling Hector’s ghost to come back to her, Andromache signals that she is too committed to the past to move on.  A dead Hector is, apparently, of more interest to her than a living Helenus.  She continues to identify as Hector’s wife, and to wish that she, like Priam’s daughter Polyxena, had died at Troy (Aeneid 3.321-323).  Andromache later tries to anchor Aeneas’ son Ascanius in this same Trojan past, claiming him for it by emphasizing his resemblance to her own lost son Astyanax (Aeneid 3.489).

Instead of moving on, the inhabitants of Buthrotum are stuck.  Seeing this, Aeneas himself determines to move forward to the new land that lies (literally: Aeneid 3.381-383) before him.  After spending several days as an honoured guest in the new, sterile Troy, Aeneas is eager to move forward and takes the initiative in asking Helenus, a seer, for divinely inspired guidance on how to move forward into an unfamiliar future (Aeneid 3.358).  Aeneas now accepts that the past is past, and that clinging to it too fiercely and with too much loyalty impedes progress toward the future that awaits.  Happiness and success cannot derive from recreating, faithfully and to the last detail, things gone by.  And so Aeneas moves away from Troy, both real and replicated, toward his future.

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When a plague strikes the Trojan refugees on Crete, Aeneas turns to his father, Anchises, for advice.  At this point in the expedition, although Aeneas is the nominal leader of the Trojan group, he relies heavily on Anchises for advice and plans for the voyage.

In this case, Anchises’ advice is to go backward:  “My father encourages us to go back again over the sea, to the oracle at Ortygia and to Apollo, to pray for mercy, to ask what the end of our struggles would be, what help there would be for our labours, and where we should turn” (Aeneid 3.143-146).

Aeneas is accustomed to taking his father’s advice, but on this occasion it’s exactly the wrong advice.  Going backward is not a good option on any journey.

Being an epic hero, Aeneas is saved from this misstep through divine intervention: the Trojan gods appear before him at night, and give him the correct guidance (Aeneid 3.147-171).  Although he does check in with Anchises in the morning (Aeneid 3.179-180), he then goes forward.

So, what does Aeneas do when voices around him are telling him to go backward, to retreat from an endeavour?  He gets more information from other sources, confirms his information, shares it with his team, and continues forward armed with more knowledge and determination.

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It’s always tempting to resist change. If things could only remain the same, and we could continue in the same comfortable old patterns, life would be good. And yet, inevitably, life and work, patterns and endeavours must change. How we adapt to and deal with the changes is a great determiner of success. This is the lesson that Aeneas must learn in the third book of Vergil’s Aeneid, as he struggles to lead the Trojan refugees to a new home out of the wreckage of the old.

Among the mistakes and setbacks of book 3, we find attempts to recreate, exactly, the original and lost Troy. The Trojans want what they had before, and nothing else. And so they try, repeatedly, to build “a new Troy”, instead of a new life. These attempts, predictably, lead to disappointment and failure, because it is impossible to move ahead while adhering to the past.

Aeneas sets out upon his journey with a mindset that must lead to failure: he actively seeks to rebuild and maintain exactly what he and his people had before. To this end he asks the gods to preserve “a second Troy” (Aeneid 3.86-87). He wants what he had before, and his efforts and attention are directed to that goal. The first real attempt to recreate the exact conditions of the past occurs when Aeneas and his team land at Crete. When they land there, Aeneas immediately sets about building a city, which he calls Pergamea: “Therefore I eagerly raise up the walls of the city we have longed for, and I call it Pergamea, and I urge the happy people to love their homes and raise a citadel for their houses.” (Aeneid 3.132-134) The name, of course, is the problem: in paying homage to their home city by naming the new after it, Aeneas is trying to create the future from the past. The people are expected, and urged, to find comfort and happiness in this re-created home. And so they all attempt to move forward, creating new farms and new families: “the young people were occupied with marriages and new fields.”(Aeneid 3.136) The joy of the Trojans in recreating their lost home in a new location is soon destroyed, as a drought and plague hit them:  When suddenly a wasting illness and a death-bearing year / comes upon our limbs from a corrupt corner of the sky, / and on the trees and crops. / The people leave their sweets spirits, or drag their sickly bodies about. / Then Sirius scorches the lifeless fields, / and the grass burns, and the poisoned soils denies us crops. (Aeneid 3.137-142).

Aeneas’ father Anchises suggests retreating, going back across the sea to the oracle of Apollo. Fortunately, the Trojan Penates speak to Aeneas in a dream and direct him to keep moving forward, keep moving westward, keep moving to Italy.  Only thus will they recover from this disaster.   The epic presents this disaster as the result of misinterpretation of the divine will, and gods using extreme measures to correct the course. But we can put it into more human terms? The plague and drought which afflict the Trojans at their new city of Pergamea reflect the problems caused by attempting to cling to a past that has passed. When we move on from something that is lost, we cannot recreate it faithfully and exactly, and expect to carry on as if nothing has really changed at all. Nor can we continue with the same old conditions and habits and expect to progress. Because of this basic fact, the laws and farms and families that the Trojans have embarked upon at Crete are violently halted in their tracks. They cannot progress, and yet cannot return to their starting point. They must move forward

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About the Classics Leadership Lab

Why The Classics Leadership Lab?

The texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans reflect a world at least as problematic as our own.

They also present stories and thought about human endeavours, successes and failures.  What human qualities contribute to those successes and lead to those failures?  What are the character traits, thoughts, and intentions that constitute leadership in the context of the Greek and Roman classics?

Through examination of ancient epics, histories, and philosophical texts, we can gain some additional and useful perspectives on leadership and human activity.  How these concepts translate between the ancient world and our own remains to be discovered.

What is the Classics Leadership Lab?

The CLL is a site for discussion of leadership examples and concepts as exemplified in ancient texts.

Who can play?

Some of the posts and discussions come from my own ongoing research.  In the short term, I am working on leadership examples and concepts in Vergil’s Aeneid and Georgics.

Scholars working on similar topics in other classical texts are invited to participate.  Please contact me if you would like to join the group, write some posts about your research, or participate in any other way.

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