on the heroes of the past

A friend of mine once asked me which of my historical heroes I would dine with if I could choose.

Strangely enough I had no answer. I didn’t want to dine with any of my historical heroes.

An historian, I pontificated, studies dead things partly because of the very fact they’re dead. We don’t like these comfortably inert and manageable things to start telling and showing us what we hadn’t imagined.

And besides, I’m quite sure that none of the great captains of antiquity would make great dinner company. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao were monsters, to be sure; but what, beside the magnitude of their murders and their twisted, vicious minds, sets them so far apart from other killers lionised since by the ages?

Great King Darius showed a very Gadaffi-esque ruthlessness in putting down revolt; Caesar committed what was tantamount to genocide in Gaul, while Alexander did much the same in Bactria and the Hindu Kush. The fascistic Lakadaemonians; the brutal Roman conquering and occupying forces; the breathtaking cruelty of the Parthians and Sassanians on their great raids; Belisarius, the last Roman, who condemned an entire generation of Italians to ruin and civil war; the demented, homicidal self-righteousness of the Byzantine autocrats and generals; the twisted heresies of the Roman church drunk with power, the extremists who alternately supported it and felt its wrath; how celebrated would these be had we felt their sting? Do I honestly want to ruin my saccharine, white-washed images of the past with its immediate and very real phantoms-come-to-life?

No, this is just as well. Dead heroes should stay dead. A dead hero can be lionised to his admirers’ hearts’ content, celebrated with poems and tombs. A live hero is a living, changeable being, but still just a man, and corrupted by power and self-importance.

I forgot where I first heard the saying, but it was expressed perfectly by Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Marshal Petain is a great example: hero of France in 1918, but 20 years later the man who sold his country to the Nazis. The emperor Titus on the other hand died young, and for that reason, chuckled Cassius Dio, he remains beloved.

These historical heroes were heroes in their time; but I wouldn’t revive them lest they become before my very eyes the monsters they in some cases might have been, and in other cases, definitely were.

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