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Ancient and modern

Does Prince Harry think he's doing us a favour?

Homer and Cicero have lessons about duty for the reluctant royal

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

Asked about the monarchy, Prince Harry said his aim was to ‘modernise’ it. Not that any royal wanted to be king or queen, he said, but they would ‘carry out [their] duties at the right time. We are not doing this for ourselves but for the greater good of the people.’ It sounds as if he thinks he is doing us a favour.

The question of one’s communal obligations was first raised in the West in Homer’s Iliad (8th century bc). In a dangerous assault on the Greek camp, King Sarpedon, an ally of the Trojans from Lycia (S.E. Turkey), explained to his cousin Glaucus the reason for risking their lives in this way. He began by asking the crucial question: why in Lycia were they looked up to as gods, and given the best of everything? As a quid pro quo, he went on, for confronting the inferno of battle, which the Lycians agreed made them worth their privileges and concomitant glory. True, if they were immortal, they would not engage in such (pointless) activity. But since they were not, ‘and a thousand demons of death hover over us, which no mortal can escape’, then in they must go and risk everything to win victories to boast of — or die.


In other words, for all that men looked up to Sarpedon as a god in life, it was the inescapability of his mortality that drove him to risk death to win the only immortality open to men — eternal post mortem glory. This became a benchmark statement about the relationship between hero and community.

In the 1st century bc, the Roman statesman Cicero recalibrated the argument for peacetime. It was, he contended, greatness of spirit and love of justice that qualified one for that true gloria which every upper-class Roman desired. This, he argued, could be won just as much in peace as in war, through a commitment to honestas — the integrity that, by identifying one’s personal interests with those of the state, gained the respect, goodwill and admiration of the whole community.

So Prince Harry might consider whether his interest in ‘modernising the monarchy’ will be seen as quid pro quo sufficient to merit a glorious reputation in the eyes of the community that bestows so many privileges upon him — or not.


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