In the aforementioned article, Charlesworth points to a passage from Procopius where he describes a bronze equestrian statue of Justinian, which was, the writer says, “arrayed as Achilles.” Charlesworth observes: “why should Justinian, in the sixth century, have chosen Achilles? Why not, e.g. Alexander the Great ? The answer may be, I fancy, that through all these centuries the Greeks had never forgotten their first and peerless hero, the first great champion of Hellenism against barbarism. The memory of Achilles must have lived on, deep-rooted and strong, no mere figure of epic, but a hero and a power. That is confirmed by two remarkable passages in Zosimus, who, honest pagan as he is, makes no secret of his conviction that disaster was befalling the Empire precisely because it had abandoned its old ways and its old gods. He relates how, about the year 375, an old man Nestorius, in Attica, was warned in a dream to pay proper honour to Achilles; but he was scoffed at by all those whom he consulted, and at last on his own prompting he made an image of Achilles, in an aedicula , and set it by the statue of Athena in the Parthenon. So it was that while all the rest of Greece was shaken by an earthquake that occurred in that year Attica alone was preserved from its ravages !”

More remarkably still is another example from 396: “Alaric, the barbarian from the North, has advanced irresistibly through Thessaly and Boeotia: Athens lies before him, an easy prey, with not enough men to defend her walls and famine threatening from the Piraeus. Yet Alaric stayed his hand, for as he advanced he saw ‘Athena Promachus making the circuit of the walls, armed and ready to engage the attackers, and in front of the walls was standing Achilles, the hero, just as Homer showed him to the Trojans, when in anger for the death of Patroclus he was warring with vengeance in his heart.’”

More on: Classics, History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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