The spear of Achilles plunges into the Trojan prince’s throat, and Hector falls to the ground defeated in the (arguable) climax of the Iliad. (Il: 22.325) The entire Trojan War was filled with match ups like this: one divine hero pitted against another; leaders trying to out maneuver opposing commanders. However I would like to match up one hero from this legendary war against another hero of a different time and place: Aeneas against Jason. I seek not to have the two clash in mortal combat, but rather to see how their legacies stack up. Both men are clearly of great fame as their names and deeds are remembered through the ages, but is one more heroic than the other? Since heroics are not the only measure of greatness, one must also wonder which one proved to be the better leader? Despite the legendary status of Jason, I pose the argument that not only is Aeneas a greater hero, but that he is also the better leader.
In the world of Greek Mythology a hero is commonly described as someone usually of divine ancestry who possess great strength, courage, or skills and is favored by the gods. In this sense Aeneas is already ahead of Jason thanks to his mother. While his father Anchises was a mortal, the mother of Aeneas was the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Jason has no direct tie that close to himself, or that powerful with the closest tie being Hermes as his great grandfather. (Polymede being his mother) However, for my comparison I will not be measuring a hero by their ancestry or the special talents they are endowed with, but rather I will be defining a hero as one who puts himself into harm’s way for a greater cause or for the protection of others.
By my definition Jason begins his epic with a very heroic deed, one that even earned the respect of a god. Along his travels Jason finds himself presented with a raging river, and an old woman on its bank. Showing true heroism, Jason carries the old woman across on his back as he braves through the rapids that threaten to drown the two of them. Of course, this old woman is really Hera in disguise and Jason has passed her test, as well as mine, and is left with only a single sandal. (Arg. Intro p.20) Putting himself in danger of a watery grave to assist an elderly woman surely does qualify as a heroic deed, but Jason only goes downhill from there. When he sets out on his quest for the Golden Fleece he does not realize that there will be many challenges along the way; one such challenge being the harpies. These foul woman/bird hybrid monsters plague King Phineus making it impossible for him to eat. Luckily the Argonauts help Phineus out of the situation, only, it is not Jason who is of assistance, but rather two of his crewmen blessed with the ability to fly. (Arg. 2.273) This is the first act that forms a pattern of Jason not actually doing anything while taking all the credit. The following instances in this trend all occur later in his journey when he is faced with three tasks to acquire the fleece. Fire breathing bulls, seeds grown into soldiers, and a guard dragon: all foes that Jason claims to have bested. But did he really pass these tests? In truth Jason did very little in any of these challenges, but instead it was Medea who held the keys to his victories. Providing him with a fireproof salve got Jason past the bulls (Arg. 3.1039), a clever tactic of turning the plant soldiers against one another passed that test (Arg. 3.1350), and a sleeping potion to knock out the dragon (Arg. 4.140) got Jason the Golden Fleece. Not one of these solutions were of Jason’s doing. Truly it was Medea who succeeded in the quest for the fleece, Jason was simply the one to physically pick it up. Yet Jason claimed all the honors and the credit for these things he did not do. In thanks for her assistance, Jason did pledge loyalty to the sorceress, but a few years and two children later, Jason goes back on his word and abandons her in pursuit of a higher seat of power. This is not the act of a hero, but of a deceitful villain. By my standards Jason is not a great hero because he did not fight his own battles, and he was a dishonest man.
Much like Jason, Aeneas was not without help during the challenges he face, but it is clear that this man fought his own battles. Upon the battlefield of the Trojan War Aeneas watches Diomedes, one of the greatest Greek warriors, slaughtering Trojans, “wrecking the ranks of warriors.” (Il 5.166) Seeing his brothers in arms cut down, Aeneas takes action and engages the Greek. The two battle valiantly, and while Aeneas falls to Diomedes, he succeeds in allowing his comrades to get away. At this moment our hero may have perished if it were not for Aphrodite’s intervention whisking him away to safety. (Il 5.311) Retreat is rarely seen as heroic, and Aeneas is even chastised for this escape later by Achilles, but his mother’s actions by no means discredit the heroics of Aeneas in fighting Diomedes. Much later in the Iliad Aeneas finds himself in a similar situation, this time challenging Achilles. To be face to face with this man would put fear in the heart of any opposing warrior, yet Aeneas is unfazed and even replies to him, “Do not hope by words to frighten me!” (Il 20.200) While Jason was fearful at first of the thought of fire breathing bulls, not even Achilles himself could waver Aeneas’s courage. Again to save his comrades Aeneas engages a great Greek warrior, this time the greatest of all. It also must be noted that Aeneas was the only man on the battlefield who was ever put dread into the heart of Achilles. During their exchange Aeneas’s spear plunges into the godly shield making it grown and Achilles, “held the shield away from him in fright.” (Il. 20.261) It is true that the battle ends in Achilles’ favor, with a godly intervention again saving the Darden leader, but the act of challenging and unbeatable warrior and almost besting him is surely a heroic act of great proportions. The end comparison is this: a man who did very little while taking credit for greatness, versus a man who consistently gave all he had for the sake of his comrades. It should be easy to tell which one is the greater hero.
Steven Pressfield wrote, “A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him.” Only one of these heroes follow those guidelines. Jason is well known as the leader of the Argonauts- a team of heroes that set out to complete the impossible and recover the Golden Fleece. Gathering such a tremendous team would certainly require a great deal of inspiring and a high level of charisma, two traits of a great leader. Yet was it really Jason himself who brought this band together, or was it something else entirely that united the Argonauts? The idea of a journey for the Golden Fleece was well known as the highest of challenges; every hero knew of it. That type of task would surely be accompanied by incredible reward and glory is one were to succeed. So perhaps it was the enticement of riches and legendary status that coaxed these warriors into joining Jason, rather than the man’s presence as a leader. Instead of a small ship and its crew, Aeneas was in charge of the Dardens, an entire nation that came to the aid of Troy. Going beyond the war, Aeneas is placed in another leadership role as he leaves the city, saving some of its population from certain death. These people do not know where they will go (or that Aeneas is fated to found Rome) but they unite behind him because they know of his deeds and what kind of man he is. Now one might say that Jason was a good leader because of his tactics, siting the navigation of the Symplegades as example. The only issue with that logic is that it is yet another example of someone giving Jason the answer, rather than he passing a test by himself. While it was a genius strategy to let a bird fly between the rocks first to make them crash together before the Argo sailed safely past, it was not an idea of Jason’s mind, but rather advice from King Phineus. (Arg. 2.329) While “tactician” is not a leadership quality possessed by Jason, Aeneas shows great strength in a different attribute. In a squad of paratroopers the leader is the first one to jump out of the airplane because it is his job to set the example. Leading by example is one of the most important characteristics a leader can have, and Aeneas embodies it numerous times. Leading the charge against two of the best fighters the Greeks have to offer not only sets the example for his men, but surely inspires great levels of courage within them. Furthermore, Aeneas’s leadership goes on to found an entire new city and race: Rome. His legacy is one of the greatest civilizations of all time, whereas Jason’s is nothing close to that. Jason’s leadership of the Argonauts ends when the crew disbands, and his only claim to leadership following that comes when he leaves his wife Medea to make a run for a throne. This bid for power backfires of course when his sorceress ex-lover takes away everything he holds dear. A great leader does not betray his allies, but inspires them instead.
A great commander of the Roman army named Maximus Decimus Miridius proclaimed that our actions echo through eternity, and the actions of both Aeneas and Jason have certainly resonated for centuries earning them their places among heroes. When compared side by side however it is plain to see that Aeneas far surpasses Jason in heroics and in the category of leadership excellence. Aeneas possessed unwavering courage and tenacity on the battlefield when facing unbeatable odds, whereas Jason was never able to complete any challenge without an immense helping hand. Aeneas also proved to be a trustworthy commander who led by example as opposed to Jason who showed little talent for guidance and betrayed those who trusted him most. As further illustration of the comparison, Aeneas’s legacy was Rome; Jason’s legacy was two children murdered by their own mother. It would be very difficult to say who would come out on top if these two were to take up arms against one another in single combat, but when their stories are compared to one another Aeneas is clearly the greater hero, and the superior leader.