Book Review: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours


by Gregory Nagy

Cambridge, Ma.: Belknap Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xx, 728. Illus., gloss., notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 674073401

The Greek Concept of “Hero” for the Modern Reader

The curious title of this complex examination of the hero in Greek culture and literature relates to the fact that it consists of 24 chapters, based on a series of series of lectures that Prof. Nagy offered in an online course at Harvard.  The “24  hours” are divided into five parts, each examining the portrayal of the Hero – only occasionally female – by a various Greek poets, historians, playwrights, and philosophers, using their own words as much as possible.

Part I, the hero as portrayed the classic Greek poets, from the Iliad and Odyssey through Hesiod, Sappho, and Pindar.  

Part II, the image as portrayed in prose, primarily in the work of Herodotus, but also by some other historians, 

Part III, the Hero in tragedy, notably Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, but with occasional excerpts from lesser known dramatists.

Part IV, Plato on the idea of the Hero. 

Part V, “Heroes Transcended,” consists of Nagy’s conclusions. 

Although primarily a literary analysis, exploring why even The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours is by no means an esoteric work written for the specialist.  It’s quite readable, and any reasonably educated citizen might find it of interest, as it provides a good deal of insight into the image of the heroic individual as seen by the ancient Greeks.  To the Greeks, the “Hero” was a person of divine descent endowed with superhuman qualities and an object of religious or quasi-religious veneration.   So they were in many ways different from our modern concept of “hero”, yet they remain a part of the Western canon.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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