Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Two classical models of leadership: Achilles/Alexander and Aeneas/Augustus

Two of my biggest sources of comfort are music and books, especially old books. And the other day it occurred to me that the ancient Greeks and Romans depicted two important and different models of leadership in their mythology and history.

You can think of the first model as the Achilles/Alexander the Great model, or the conquer-and-destroy model. The second model is the Aeneas/Augustus Caesar model, where you ignore the haters and just focus on building.

These mythological heroes and historical figures go together naturally. First, the similarities. Achilles and Aeneas were both sons of goddesses, but still mortal, since they also had a mortal father. They also were known for their strength and leadership. Achilles starred in The Iliad, while Aeneas starred in The Aeneid. Meanwhile, Alexander the Great was ancient Greece’s great empire-builder, while Augustus Caesar was ancient Rome’s great empire-builder. However, their models of leadership couldn’t be more different.

Alexander the Great was frequently compared to Achilles; in fact, he's said to have sought to emulate him. Both died young after achieving great military victories. They were also both driven largely by wrath and a thirst for revenge and glory.

Achilles was largely responsible for the destruction of Troy, driven by his rage and desire for revenge, including for the death of his close companion Patroclus. Destruction was his legacy. And Alexander the Great is believed to have been responsible for burning the Persian Empire’s capital, Persepolis—including its library—to the ground, allegedly as payback for the Persians invading Greece and burning Athens over a century before.

The total destruction of Persian writings helped pave the way for the Greeks to be revered as the founders of civilization, even though the Persian Empire was richer and more powerful at the time, and even though the Persians had invented monotheistic religion with Zoroastrianism long ago.

Clever a general though he was, Alexander treated the Persians barbarically, raiding and burning Persepolis and forcing Persian women to marry his men. And his conquests did not last. When he died at the age of 32, his empire fell apart. So Alexander the Great ultimately didn’t build a lasting empire, and he completely destroyed the Persians’ writings (and legacy and ideas) in the process.

If you’d like an idea of how civilized the ancient Persians were in some respects, here are a few excerpts from Herodotus’ Histories. Herodotus was Greek, and is credited as being the world’s first historian. His Histories are a delight to read if you’re ever interested, and I wish more people wrote like him.

"Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone, - to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth."

"To my mind it is a wise rule, as also is the following - that the king shall not put any one to death for a single fault, and that none of the Persians shall visit a single fault in a slave with any extreme penalty; but in every case the services of the offender shall be set against his misdoings; and, if the latter be found to outweigh the former, the aggrieved party shall then proceed to punishment."

"They hold it unlawful to talk to anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies."

It would be nice to know more about these ideas as the Persians viewed them—ideas like the importance of proportional punishment and truth-telling—but Alexander the Great destroyed the Persians’ writings, so you have him to thank for that. This wasn’t creative destruction; it was just destruction.

(For context, few writings between Alexander the Great and the Arab Muslim conquest of Persia in 651 A.D. survive either, since the Arab invaders then destroyed those writings. It's all the more reason to cherish the few writings that do survive, including Zoroastrian teachings.)

One last thing to note before I move on to the Aeneas/Augustus model: The United States today is arguably more like the Persians’ Achaemenid Empire than the ancient Greek city-states, at least in terms of its wealth, power, and size. So I think it makes sense to try to see things from the ancient Persians’ point of view—as well as everyone else’s—whenever you read about them, whether in Herodotus or elsewhere.

Now, the Aeneas/Augustus model. It makes a lot of sense to compare Aeneas and Augustus Caesar because Virgil wrote about Aeneas explicitly as the founder of Rome and precursor to Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor. Virgil also wrote The Aeneid for Augustus Caesar.

In The Aeneid, Aeneas has fled from Troy with a band of Trojans—the Troy that Achilles has destroyed. And it is now his long and lonely mission to venture to Italy, battle the natives there, and found Rome. Virgil continually describes Aeneas as pius—in Latin, driven by his sense of duty. This is a stark contrast to Achilles’ driving emotions: wrath and thirst for revenge. In fact, Virgil sets up an epic conflict between two forces: pietas (sense of duty) and furor (rage). It is actually the queen of the gods, Juno, who is driven by rage that Rome will unseat her favored Carthage, so she tries at every turn to stop him. Many of Aeneas’ opponents also are guided by furor. But Aeneas stays pius through almost the entire epic (though there are some notable moments when he also gives into furor, showing that we're all still human). Other gods, including his mother Venus (Aphrodite), the goddess of love, keep supporting him. And his self-restraint and devotion to his duty—to the gods, to his family, to his men, and to his divine destiny—guide him to victory. At the end, his legacy is enormous: He’s just founded the beginnings of one of the greatest empires of all time.

Augustus Caesar, similarly, is known for ending Rome’s civil war, bringing about the Pax Romana (Roman peace), and founding the Roman Empire. He was great at strategizing not just about gaining power, but also about wielding it. He expanded the Roman Empire significantly, but even then, he was self-restrained and did not declare himself emperor—instead, he said he was simply “first citizen.” The Roman Empire lasted for about 400 years.

From the perspective of creative destruction, Troy needed to fall for Rome to rise. But the nice thing about being just one person is that you aren’t responsible for doing all the work.

I think we all face a choice between being destroyers and builders. We can choose to be Achilles or Aeneas—Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar. We can focus on tearing down the things we don’t like, or we can focus on building things we like, in the image we want, to set a better example.

Sure, destruction is inevitable, but if you build something superior, then that destruction can happen naturally on its own, as what you have to offer outcompetes the status quo. But destruction without a better alternative to put in place is incredibly dangerous. Just put yourself in the place of the ancient Persians, who watched their capital city and writings get lost to a raging fire. I don’t think that’s a model anyone should support or emulate.

[I may edit this post later, and would welcome suggestions for changes.]


  1. Hi Bonnie, as an ex Naval officer, I’m familiar with Achilles/Alexander. Alexander was held up as a model of leadership because he led from the front (literally), was very aggressive, and able to motivate his men in difficult circumstances (a world and years away from home.)

    Achilles came more into my consciousness after serving in Vietnam, largely as a result of the work of Jonathan Shay. I read another version of this article that describes varieties of leadership styles according to Homer:


    About Aeneas/Augustus I know much less because of this story told, I think, by Ezra Pound: A salty old sea captain retires and wants to become educated so he hires a tutor to teach him the classics. They get to the Aeneid and after a few lessons, the tutor asks the captain what he thinks of the hero? The capt. “What hero?” The tutor “Why, Aeneas.” The Capt. “Ach, him a hero? Bi’god, I thought he was a pries!” So that lead me to never read it. Your description of Aeneas’s character/motivation lead me to understand why the Captain (and Ezra Pound) felt that way.

    So I mention all this to complicate things for you. One thought I have is that Achilles was a leader in war, while Augustus was leading a country. I know nothing of whether/how Augustus led in war.

    And all of this has been a great concern to me over my life. Like Shay, I share a great concern about leadership and PTSD. My blog discusses that quite a bit.

    Here’s a link to my post on military leadership.


    One small critique of your article: I think your last sentence is uncharacteristically understated. It reminds me of things I’ve written when I’m afraid of giving offense.

    So maybe the start of an interesting dialog.

  2. Insightful and provocative. That's a new and intriguing way of thinking about leadership from a historical perspective.

    Your characterization of Aleksandros and of the Persians differs from the sources I've read. Aleksandros was supposed to have embarked on his conquests in part to spread Hellenic culture to the barbaroi. Of course, that could just be propaganda to justify the slaughter.

    There's no question about the brutality of the Persians, though. Persian satraps regularly impaled and left to an agonizing lingering death those who had offended them. And one servant of the Persian king was described in glowing terms as "a person whom the sovereign had never had occasion to beat." Yikes!