Wednesday 9 January 2013

Was the Son of Achilles a Psychopath?

Neoptolemus kills Priam

by Caroline Lawrence

Pyrrhus will soon be here, soaked in the blood of Priam. He is the one who murders the son before the face of the father, and the father at the altar.
(Aeneid II.662-3 David West translation)

Virgil’s Aeneid is an epic poem telling the story of founding of what would become the Roman empire by the Trojan hero Aeneas. It is the the Latin response to Homer’s Greek epic poems, The Iliad (The Anger of Achilles) and The Odyssey (The Journey home of Odysseus). All three poems deal with the Trojan War and its aftermath. All three are considered to be great masterpieces of Western literature. Homer composed about 800 BC. Virgil was writing around 8 BC, eight centuries later. 

Virgil’s Aeneid is written in twelve books of dactylic hexameter. At the moment I’m attending a City Lit class to keep my university Latin fresh and we are currently reading Book Two. It is sublime. (My poor husband Richard, having endured many years of fear and the cane in Latin class, never even got the reward of Virgil at the end of his suffering, but only a passage of Caesar and his baggage stuck in a swamp.)

Book Two of Virgil’s Aeneid is about the Trojan Horse and the Sack of Troy. It is a nightmarishly beautiful work of art. It is one of the two books most favoured by those who want to read a portion of Virgil’s epic poem in the original Latin. (The other is the romantically tragic Book Four, which tells of the doomed love affair between Dido and Aeneas.)

Laocoön and his sons devoured by sea-serpents
In Book Two, Virgil tells the story of the destruction of Troy in a series of vivid scenes full of striking visual images some of which have spawned art through the ages: a sinister votive horse as big as a mountain (instar montis equus), the priest Laocoön and his sons writhing under the attack of two monstrous sea-serpents, Aeneas fleeing the burning city carrying his father on his back and clutching his son Ascanius by the hand.

Although Virgil was writing over two thousand years ago, his way
 of cutting from scene to scene always strikes me as cinematic. If he were alive today he might be making movies in the style of Guillermo 'Pan’s Labyrinth' del Toro or Ang 'Life of Pi' Lee. There is always movement in Virgil's scenes, and he often shows them from unexpected angles. Near the end of Book Two, Aeneas climbs on top of the palace of Troy’s aged King Priam. From there he watches the horrors that unfold below. His point of view is almost omniscient, but he is powerless to help.  

Open to view is the house within and the long courtyards lie exposed…
(Aeneid II.483)

The Trojan Horse
In one chilling scene from Book Two, Virgil shows us the horse at night as it 'gives birth' to the Greeks who have been hiding in its 'wooden womb'. The warriors emerge from their dark confinement to attack the hapless Trojans, asleep after celebrating the end of a ten year siege and blissfully unaware that their end is near. Some of the fiercest and bravest of the Greeks descend a rope in sliding spondees: Menelaus, Odysseus, and Neoptolemus, the teenage son of Achilles. 

In Homer’s Odyssey (Odyssey XI.526ff) there is another account of this incident in which we are told that Neoptolemus was the only one of the Greeks not weeping and shaking with fear. My first thought on reading this was how clever Homer was to imagine the terror of those usually brave heroes. This was not an attack made in the heat of battle, but a small band of men in a dark, confined space risking discovery and slow death. My second thought was why was Neoptolemus the only one of all the Greeks who was not afraid?  

I recently read Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test and was struck by some of the characteristics of people with psychopathic tendencies. One of the most surprising is that they do not dread pain as much as normal humans and therefore often seem fearless. In the mid 1960s, a prison psychologist named Robert Hare did a series of experiments with psychopath and non-psychopath volunteers.

He wanted to find out what distinguished psychopaths from the 'ordinary criminals'. He found that when they were told they would receive a harmless but painful electric shock, the psychopaths did not dread it as much as the others. Even when they had felt its unpleasant effects they were not bothered. Almost as if they lacked a certain ability to imagine pain. Hare's theory is that there is something different about the amygdala (the 'reptilian' part of the brain) in psychopaths.

Hare eventually came up with a list of twenty criteria for someone with psychopathic tendencies. The checklist includes the following:
 glibness/superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, need for stimulation/proneness to boredom, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse or guilt, callous/lack of empathy, juvenile delinquency and criminal versatility.

Another striking characteristic of psychopaths – and the most chilling – is their lack of empathy. Like a tiger, bear or snake, they kill with impassive eyes. Achilles’s son Neoptolemus has a nickname, Pyrrhus ('fiery'), for metrical reasons, but perhaps to describe his fiery red hair and temperament. (N.B. Pyrrhus son of Achilles is not to be confused with the historical Pyrrhus who gave his name to the term 'Pyrrhic Victory'.)

But Neoptolemus AKA Pyrrhus is not always fiery. Sometimes he is as cold-blooded as a snake: Standing on the threshold of Priam’s palace is Pyrrhus, exulting in his weapons and flashing bronze armour.  Like a snake that gorged on noxious grasses and wintered in the frozen earth, now he rises up into the light and sloughs off his old skin. Sleek with youth, he twists his slippery back, raises his breast to the sun, opens his mouth and flickers his three forked tongue. (Aeneid II. 469ff)

Greek and Latin poets had a certain latitude in describing mythical characters, but it fascinates me that Homer and Virgil both show Neoptolemus as cruel and unfeeling.

Having told the ghost of Achilles that Neoptolemus was the only one of the Greeks hiding in the Trojan horse who was not shaking with fear, Odysseus also says that in battle, Neoptolemus was fearless and always advanced far in the lead. (Odyssey XI.526ff)

Young, handsome and psychopathic?
He was one of ‘the handsomest man I ever saw,’ adds Odysseus (psychopaths are often charming and charismatic) and goes on to tell Achilles that his son sailed off unscathed with his prize. Tactfully, he does not mention that the 'prize' was Andromache, wife of Hector, or that Neoptolemus cruelly slaughtered one of old king Priam’s sons before his eyes and then killed the old man while he was clinging to the altar, which in that culture was supposed to offer absolute protection. Virgil describes the scene in Book Two of the Aeneid:

Look there! Slipping away from the slaughtering sword of Pyrrhus is one of Priam’s sons, Polites. He flees along the long porticoes, dodging weapons, dodging enemy soldiers, skirting the empty courtyards, wounded all the while. Pyrrhus follows – burning with a festering desire to wound him more – stretches out his hand to grasp him now, yes now! And presses the spear. At last the boy writhes away and falls before the eyes and open mouths of his parents, pouring out his life with a great gush of blood. 
(Aeneid II. 526-532)

Neoptolemus beats Priam to death with his grandson
When Priam first realised the trick of the Greeks and that his city was being attacked from within, he had put on the armour of his youth. Now, standing with his wife and children near the protective altar, he feebly throws a spear at Neoptolemus and curses him for his impious behaviour. The son of Achilles answers insolently and drags Priam, trembling and slipping in his own son’s blood, to the very altar. Neoptolemus winds the old man’s grey hair round his left hand and with his right raises the flashing sword high, pauses, then buries it up to the hilt in Priam’s side. (Aeneid II.549-553)

Virgil's depiction of the death of Priam is full of pathos. But many Greek and Roman artists show this act with even more relish; some vases even show Neoptolemus beating Priam to death with the body of his little grandson, Astyanax. (above)

In his play Dido Queen of Carthage, Christopher Marlowe revels in Neoptolemus’s horrific murder of the old king:
Not mov'd at all, but smiling at his tears,
This butcher, whilst Priam's hands were yet held up,
Treading upon his breast, struck off his hands…
Then from the navel to the throat at once
He ripp'd old Priam.

In another fascinating book I’ve been reading, Achilles in Vietnam, psychologist Jonathan Shay talks about how Homer got the mind-set of a warrior/soldier absolutely right in many instances. For example, soldiers then and now often experience a berserk state of mind. Often triggered by anger at the death of a comrade, this rage can take over and cause them to do feats of unimaginable bravery. In fact, says Shay, The Iliad was probably known as The Rage. The first word of the poem is menin (μῆνιν) – anger – and it tells of Achilles' fury at the death of his friend Patroclus.

Shay lists characteristics of people in a berserk state: Socially disconnected, beastlike, crazy, enraged, cruel without restraint or discrimination, insatiable, devoid of fear, insensible to pain and godlike in their feelings of invulnerability and power.

It sounds a lot like the behaviour of a psychopath. With one difference: a beserk state is triggered by specific events like extreme fear or anger. This was the godlike state of Achilles (and many Vietnam veterans) after the loss of a friend.

But the amygdala of a psychopath's brain puts him in a similar state without fear or anger and he actually enjoys the act of killing. 

Was Neoptolemus a psychopath or just running berserk in the heat of battle? One thing is certain: he is one of the most fascinating and terrifying characters of the ancient world. 


Jessica Hart said...


Sue Bursztynski said...

It wouldn't surprise me at all to think that Neoptolemus is a psychopath. He is a scary character. Richard Powell, Author of Whom The Gods Would Destroy seems to think so too; his Achilles is shown as unbalanced, but his son as mad.

Sue Purkiss said...

Gripping and horrific. I knew Priam was killed, but I had no idea how horribly.

You should do one of these documentary series, Caroline, bringing the Aeneid to life! You'd be brilliant!

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes, fascinating, and if Neoptolemus really existed - perhaps he did - and really was outstandingly cruel, you can imagine how stories about his character night have survived. Quite a thought.

Stroppy Author said...

Brilliant, Caroline!

You might also like Simon Baron-Cohen's Zero Degrees of Empathy on the psychology and neurology of psychopathy. I used it when writing a psychopath, but it would be just as useful when reading a psychopath.

Susan Price said...

Wonderful post, Caroline! Loved every word. Must speak up in defence of Marlowe, though. I don't think he is 'reveling' - or why would he use the word 'butcher'? To me the passage reads as grimly exact, but full of disapproval.
I agree with Sue Purkiss - I'd watch your TV series about these poems!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Hmm. I only meant Marlowe 'revels' in it as a writer for its great power as a dramatic scene. Yes, I'm sure there's a better word. Maybe 'makes the most' of it?

Stroppy, I've got Baren-Cohen's book started somewhere but found it hard-going. Must have another try!

Thanks for kind comments, one and all! :-)

adele said...

This is marvellous stuff! Thanks Caroline!

Annis said...

Powerful and brutal stuff indeed, touched with horror and pity.

I suppose there's always the question (theoretical given that we're taking about fiction) of whether Neoptolemus goes over the top because he is driven from a very early age to prove himself the equal of his legendary warrior father, or even to exceed Achilles' bloody deeds, in order to gain the respect of the Myrmidons and fulfill his prophesised role in securing a Greek victory.

Ken Catran takes this tack with some success in his gritty YA novel about Neoptolemus, "The Golden Prince".

I've often wondered if Alexander the Great might have been a pyschopath - he certainly appeared to show berserker qualities at times.

Konrad Hughes said...

Interesting perspective, I think you have a good argument for his psychological behavior. If you read into the later myths of Neoptolemus, aka the Greek tragedies, you might find even more evidence because his story only gets even more gruesome, ending with his death on the steps of the Shrine at Delphi.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Konrad! I'll check that out.