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Zero to Hero, Hero to Zero: In Search of the Classical Hero

Reviewed by Vincent Tomasso

The dust jacket of Zero to Hero, Hero to Zero offers an image of the Farnese Hercules, which is an interesting choice for this collection of essays on various aspects of heroism in the Classical world. On the one hand Hercules is the hero par excellence in his triumphs over the monstrous wilderness that threatens to destroy civilization; on the other he himself acts monstrously when he murders his own family. This ambiguity of heroic identity is the often unstated principle that runs through this volume’s nine essays, which explore heroic figures and tropes in texts from a wide variety of genres and time periods, from the fifth-century B.C. play Alcestis to the 1974 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The essays that comprise this volume began their lives at the 2007 Annual Meeting for Postgraduates in Ancient Literature.

The Farnese Hercules, a Roman statue produced in the third century A.D. that was based on a statue by the Greek Lysippus of the fourth century B.C., is also appropriate for a volume that covers notions of heroism in the Greek and Roman worlds: three of the nine chapters are concerned with heroism in Greek texts, the other six with Latin texts. It is a bit disappointing that none of the essays addresses the issues of comparing Greek and Roman depictions of heroism, but that is perhaps inevitable given the limited length of these essays. It is refreshing that many of the essays are not focused on the subjects typically analyzed as heroes in Classical literature. The definitions of “hero” range freely throughout the various contributions—from the rather cowardly king Admetus to bold women in the early Roman Empire to the Everyman Argonaut hero Jason. Furthermore, more “traditional” heroes, such as Odysseus and Theseus, also have a presence, but are analyzed from angles that shed new light on their role as “heroes” in Greek, Roman, and American cultures. This results in a book that at times lacks overall cohesion, but also one that is very effective at challenging our preconceived notions of what heroism is.

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