by Dr. John Scholl, Academic Dean and Rhetoric Director
This year, the TCS ninth graders are engaged in a four part study of the ancient world—Israel, Greece, Rome, and early Christianity—and at each stop along our journey we have analyzed heroes, men and women who were idolized by these cultures. Thus far, we have compiled a long list of men and women, including Abraham and Jacob from Israel, Achilles and Odysseus from Greece, and Mucius and Lucretia from Rome. These people are windows into the cultures they represent and are worthy of study because they show us what kind of people these cultures considered great and admirable.
I also find this study rewarding on a personal level. As a kid, I often thought about heroes, of course the superheroes who lived on TV, but even more so, historical American heroes: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and my favorite, Davy Crockett. I wanted to emulate them, so I dressed as Davy Crockett for Halloween and read several books about him. My heart thrilled with excitement as I learned his story: his rise from obscurity to the halls of Congress (he even considered running for President!), his journey to Texas, and his death at the Alamo, as he sacrificed himself for the liberty of his new home. It seemed like a marvelous story. It inspired me and shaped my vision of greatness.
Crockett would have fit easily among the ranks of Roman heroes. In the third quarter, the 9th graders read Books 1 and 2 of Livy’s History of Rome and there encountered many of Rome’s most cherished legends. The story of Mucius is a great example. Mucius became a hero when he attempted to assassinate a king who was marching against Rome. The assassination went awry, but rather than accepting execution meekly, Mucius stood before the king, jabbed his right hand in a fire, and casually burned it off, to display the courage and determination of the Roman people. His message was simple: Romans would sacrifice everything rather than accept the loss of liberty. Shocked by Mucius’ act, the king gave up his invasion. Livy argues that Rome’s greatness and glory were established by men and women like Mucius, lovers of liberty, models of courage, patriotism, and self-sacrifice.
Then Julius Caesar arrived on the scene (to oversimply the story just a bit). Caesar was certainly courageous but not terribly interested in self-sacrifice or liberty. He sought glory and was as much a Greek hero, in the model of Achilles or Alexander the Great, as a Roman one. His accession to power was a watershed moment for Rome. In accepting him as dictator for life, the Romans created a new heroic ideal, by which men became idols (in fact, many were deified) partly by wooing the people with gifts: food—ultimately free grain for a city of more than 500,000 people—and entertainment. This new type of hero, almost a complete opposite to the heroes of the past, was the standard for Caesar’s successors, the emperors who created Imperial Rome.
Why study this? Or what should we learn from this? I always struggle to answer those questions for my students. Applying the lessons of history can be a difficult task, one that is done poorly, in my opinion, more often than well. That said, I will offer briefly one lesson that I hope the 9th graders will learn from our study.
The rise of Caesar, and in him the creation of a new Roman ideal, is a great reminder that we need to choose our heroes carefully. Livy wrote his history to point out the dangers of the new imperial ideal and to call his fellow Romans back to the past, to the greater, higher heroism of men like Mucius. In a similar vein, one might call Americans back to our past heroes—surely a fitting pursuit in an election year. However, I want to take the lesson in a different direction. As a youth, I could love Davy Crockett only because I was ignorant of his faults. He was courageous and patriotic, yes, but also neglectful of his family and of God. He was in many ways, then, a great American—patriotic, courageous, passionate about liberty—but not a great Christian. American Christians can easily fall into the trap that captured me, lionizing American heroes while ignoring their pursuit of Christ. Sadly, many great Americans have not been great Christians. We must, therefore, be wary of following them too closely and look elsewhere for our heroes. That is what my students are considering as they study early Christianity in the fourth quarter.