Antigone and Aeneid: theme of leadership in both
Greek society had strict standards as to what qualities males should possess to be called “leader”. There were four major components to the character of a man: courage, honor, virtue, and manliness. This concept was called arête. While courage finds its most prominent display on the battlefield, facing up to difficult leadership decisions can also be a method of showing courage. Honor, a key part of arête, can be obtained by honoring the gods, thus staying on their favorable side. By serving one’s community and state, one may also earn honor through either humble or glorified service. Virtue, perhaps the most interesting of the arête qualifications, has nothing to do with the modern definition of virtue which one might compare to morality, but rather involves looking out for the best interest of one’s state. Finally, manliness served as a key qualification of leadership in Greek society. In the very patriarchal Greek society, it is not surprising that manliness would be found as a qualification for an effective leader.
For the aspect of courage, Antigone rises to the forefront as one who faces down fierce opposition to what she believes. Even in the face of certain death, Antigone displays unrivaled courage in protecting the burial rights of her brother, Polynices. She displays her courage as she speaks to her sister about her unwillingness to help preserve Polynices’ burial rights saying, “So, do as you like, whatever, suits you best—I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be glory. I will lie with the one I love and loved by him—an outrage sacred to the gods!” (Antigone 63). Her resolve never fades even as the guards lead her off to her final resting place. Antigone’s courage finds rival only in Aeneas. His courage as a warrior in battle leads one to consider him, but his response when Mercury informs him that he should not be with Dido, attempting to run away before confronting her, portrays him as less courageous than the always faithful Antigone. Like Antigone, Creon firmly stands by his convictions, but rather than out of courage, he stands by his convictions out of pride and a shallow attempt to preserve his self respect. Dido’s courage finds itself masked by her marked passion for Aeneas, but she does display courage as she confronts Aeneas as he attempts to leave her without explanation. Her madness by the end of her life, however, prevents her from showing the kind of courage displayed by Antigone, even though both characters end their lives in similar manners.
Honor, as the second aspect of arête, can best be seen by observing how the characters honor the gods. Clearly, Aeneas and Antigone prove honorable before the gods as they give up personal comforts or pleasures for the desires of the gods. Aeneas shows himself to be more honorable than Antigone, however, as his sacrifice lives purely in the desire to follow his destiny set forth by the gods. Despite his great love for Dido, he almost immediately surrenders his every desire for her in order to follow his destiny to Rome. In his defense for leaving to Dido, Aeneas says, “Apollo orders, and his oracles Call me to Italy. There is my love, There is my country…I follow Italy not because I want to” (Aeneid 83-84). Aeneas’ loyalty to his destiny despite his wanting to stay with Dido shows his honor. Antigone displays almost equal honor as she follows what she knows to be the will of the gods in providing burial for Polynices. Tiresias confirms her honoring of the gods as he proclaims their judgment over the actions of Creon. Her motives, however, lack in purity, as she finds herself somewhat driven by the selfish desire to be united with her dead relatives. Though her primary purpose seems to be pleasing the gods, her secondary motive makes her honor slightly less impressive than that of Aeneas. In contrast with Aeneas and Antigone, Creon seems at least on the surface to fail miserably in honoring the gods as they leave him in torment with his wife and son dead as a result of his misdeeds, but he salvages some honor though his initial desire to please the gods of the city. He believes that the polis gods would never have a traitor honored in the same respect as a hero, and though his belief is incorrect, he gains honor from doing his best to look out for what he believes to be in the best interest of the polis. As to Dido, the edict of the gods that she fall madly in love with Aeneas skews Dido’s honoring of the gods because their command alters her life most dramatically. Her position of honoring the gods becomes somewhat confusing as she follows their will by loving Aeneas, yet in loving Aeneas, she wishes the destiny set forth by the gods for him altered. Her torn state leaves her lacking in the essential leadership honor displayed by the other three characters.
The characteristic most well displayed by all of the characters would be virtue, at least as virtue relates to serving the polis or nation. As queen of Carthage, the people of the city praise Dido for ruling with excellence. Aeneas shows his virtue by fighting in wars for Troy, and his greater loyalty to his future kingdom displays itself as he forfeits his love relationship with Dido for the promise of a future nation. Creon loves Athens, and displays his loyalty by serving as king and attempting to honor the city gods by punishing a traitor. Though his actions end in failure, one must recognize his genuine love for the polis, even if pride clouds his better judgment on occasion. Though defying the city’s laws sets her up as less than virtuous, Antigone regains her virtues as the gods support her defense of the city by justifying her burial of Polynices. Aeneas rises to the forefront in virtue, however, because his virtue does not fall prey to several of the criticisms suffered by the other characters. Aeneas lacks the pride that destroyed Creon, he never defies the laws of his country as Antigone does, and while Dido commits suicide, leaving her city without a queen, he pursues his future state regardless of difficult circumstances. Aeneas’ single-minded desire to govern and watch over his city can be seen clearly as he says, “If I had fate’s permission To live my life my way, to settle my trouble At my own will, I would be watching over The city of Troy, and caring for my people” (Aeneid 83).
The final characteristic reveals the extreme role that gender played in Greek civilization. This characteristic of manliness leaves Antigone and Dido at a disadvantage, but by displaying characteristics generally attributed to effective men, both characters could overcome this disadvantage to be effective leaders. Antigone, if fact, overcomes her cultural disadvantage by assuming a powerful male-like role throughout the action of Antigone. In the face of attitudes like those displayed by Creon when he says, “Go down below and love, if love you must—love the dead! While I’m alive, no woman is going to lord it over me” (Antigone 86), Antigone stands firm on her beliefs even unto death, trading words with a king as an equal. Creon’s comment reveals an attitude of manly pride which ultimately proves to be his downfall. His love of his own reputation compromises his manliness, and thus his manliness functions as a foil to the Greek definition of manliness which exists for the express purpose of serving the polis and one’s family. Although a strong ruler of her country, Dido’s emotional outburst coupled with her irrational suicide destroys any redemption of manly qualities put forth by her strong rule of Carthage. A war hero, loved by women, and future king, Aeneas seems the epitome of Greek manliness, surpassing even Antigone’s great stand in the face of her disadvantage. Without the limitation of gender inequality, perhaps Antigone could be just as effective a leader as Aeneas, but severe cultural limitations waste her natural ability and strong character.
As a dramatic shift in leadership qualifications, the context of Vergil’s Aeneid provides an opportunity to see the virtues of Roman Stoicism. According the stoic beliefs, one should live in harmony with nature. Nature for the stoic, however, did not just involve the natural universe supplying the surroundings for one’s life, but also involved a much deeper idea by including the living in harmony with one’s own nature. As in Greek society, the idea of putting first the interest of Rome, rather than one’s personal interest found its place as one of the cornerstone virtues of Roman leadership. The ideal Roman leader would be a hardworking citizen who, at the call of Rome, drops personal projects in order to serve the state, and upon completing the work required by the state, returns quietly to the life of a hardworking citizen rather than promoting one’s self. According to the stoic philosophy, excessive emotion leads to unhappiness, thus an effective leader refrains from allowing emotion to cloud judgment.
Immediately, upon looking over the qualifications for an effective leader, Aeneas jumps ahead of all other characters in his portrayal of these utmost standards. Perhaps Vergil’s obvious favoritism for the character representing Emperor Augustus shows through best as Aeneas encompasses nearly every stoic leadership virtue. At harmony with his destiny and his own nature, Aeneas focuses clearly on the purpose set forth for him by the gods. He does not complain about his fate, but rather joins in harmony with it. On the aspect of putting the needs of the state ahead of one’s own personal pleasure, Aeneas steps clearly away from the other characters in comparison. When asked to sacrifice his love for Dido for the good of Rome, Aeneas unwaveringly accepts this verdict and does not allow his emotional connection with Dido to overwhelm his sense of duty, thus displaying the appropriate stoic emotional condition.
In view of the Roman standard of leadership, Antigone, Creon, and Dido fail to show the same kind of excellence displayed by Aeneas. Antigone, displayed as a good leader by Greek standards, once again shows favorable leadership skills. However, closer examination calls into question whether or not her motives in performing her courageous actions for her brother were truly for the good of the state. Her statement as guards lead her to her doom reinforces the questioning of her true motives as she says, “But still I go, cherishing one good hope: my arrival may be dear to father, dear to you, my mother, dear to you, my loving brother” (Antigone 105). She could have just as easily said that her good hope was her honor of the polis, but she instead cherishes honoring her family. Though courageous and ultimately in the best interest of the polis, her questionable motives make Aeneas seem the stronger Roman leader. As the state calls Creon to rise to kingship, Creon jumps into leadership and immediately attempts to protect the state, thus displaying some very important Roman leadership qualities. To his detriment, however, he does not seek to simply serve the state’s best interest and fade from glory. Instead, Creon’s first interest seems to be an overwhelming desire to protect and glorify his good name, as seen through his interaction with Haemon as he says, “The city is the king’s—that’s the law!” (Antigone 97). Creon believes that his interests as king come before the best interests of the polis, and in fact, that his interests are the only interests of the polis. This pride disqualifies him from obtaining the high standard of leadership displayed by Aeneas. Dido’s character suffers from gender characterization by Vergil. Vergil’s portrayal of Dido as an overly emotional and irrational woman serves to highlight Aeneas’ stoic resolve to do his duty. Portrayed as a strong leader initially, Dido’s emotional rollercoaster ride set forth by the gods ultimately culminates in her taking of her own life rather than facing the difficult circumstance of losing Aeneas, thus stunting her credibility as a strong Roman leader.
Throughout both the Aeneid and Antigone, the characters of Aeneas, Dido, Antigone, and Creon step forth as true leaders in their various contexts, but in accordance with both Greek and Roman standards of leadership, Aeneas rises above the rest as the strongest, most effective leader. While Antigone emerges from the pack as an almost equal rival by Greek standards, Aeneas’ qualities of courage, honor, virtue, and manliness make him an incredible Greek leader, while his excellent portrayal of the stoic Roman leader, in harmony with his own nature places him clearly ahead of the other characters in Roman leadership effectiveness. Gender clearly plays a prominent role in the characterizing of a strong leader, thus Aeneas shines forth as the most effective leader while Antigone remains constrained by society’s gender bias.