What Is a Classical Hero?

A classical hero is a person of noble or divine birth who is almost perfect, performs extraordinary deeds, suffers physically and dies in an unusual manner. This type of hero originated in Greek and Roman literature and heavily influenced Western literary culture.

In Greek and Roman culture, it was assumed that only those of good birth were capable of virtue and honor. Barbarians and common-born folk were incapable of being noble in action, though they could be brave. Partly for this reason, the classical hero’s honor was worth more to him than life, though after his death his deeds and honor could be claimed by the entire community. These heroes had a very specific list of virtues, including courage, pride, a sense of justice, honor and a personal magnificence.

The classical hero can be contrasted with the Christian medieval hero, who can be seen as a classical hero with Christian corrections to his motivation and behavior. Both types of hero follow Lord Raglan’s heroic journey and share some specific traits, but are otherwise very different. A medieval hero suffered and fought for his community rather than himself. Medieval heroes could be lowborn, provided their actions were suitably noble, though it was not uncommon for the lowborn medieval hero to be a noble in disguise. While Achilles is the ideal Greco-Roman hero, the ideal medieval hero is King Arthur, a very different character.