The modern concept of the hero would not have been possible without the Renaissance. Previously, the Middle Ages had not looked favorably upon man's achievements. Living under the shadow of human sin, the Roman Catholic scholars of medieval Europe stressed the afterlife. Greatness came from God, not man, so the true heroes of Christendom were the martyrs, missionaries and priests preparing for salvation. The Renaissance challenged this bleak vision. Part of the challenge came from 14th century Italy's rediscovery of the classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome. The histories of Tacitus, the biographies of Plutarch, but above all the letters and speeches of the orator Cicero opened the classical world anew. What they all emphasized was man's capacity for greatness.
It was the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, known as Petrarch, who ushered in the new humanism. What excited Petrarch was the classical tradition of education — the aim of which, as Cicero had explained, was to cultivate not a narrow range of technical skills, but the single, noble virtue of manliness. This idea of virtus went on to inspire a Renaissance literature of advice books outlining what was needed to foster a well-rounded man. A manly man was proficient in warfare, scholarship, government, letters and even the art of seduction. In the city-states of 15th century Italy arose a new belief in human potential. The modern hero was born, and the ideal of the Renaissance man remains a heroic value today.
From this Renaissance culture — this new stress on the autonomy and virtue of man — came a series of histories in the late 14th century recounting the inspirational lives of great men. Petrarch's De Viris Illustribus (On Famous Men) ignored saints and martyrs, concentrating instead on the achievements of generals and statesmen. For Petrarch, heroism demanded the purposeful display of virtus: from Romulus, the founder of Rome, to the war leader Scipio, Petrarch celebrated heroes who conquered fortune, beat the odds and rose to the top. More than a few of the heroes in these pages fit that description.
There was, however, one dissenting voice: that of the disgruntled Florentine diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli. He ridiculed Cicero's lofty sentiments about virtus. In The Prince (1513), he turned these Renaissance truisms on their head. Where Petrarch had stressed the virtues of justice, clemency and honesty in great men, Machiavelli offered the chillier satisfactions of realpolitik. His heroes were those who thought it was better to be feared than loved; who practiced cruelty rather than charity; who didn't base their conduct on firm principles but on the winds of fortune. Machiavelli's hero was not the valiant General Scipio, but the scheming, manipulative prince Cesare Borgia. This notion of antiheroism represented a shocking reversal of thinking and secured Machiavelli his everlasting notoriety (and it finds its echo today in some scheming statesmen and princes of industry).
Yet Petrarch's more benign vision of classical heroism continued to dominate European culture for centuries to come. Only in the 18th century was the Renaissance man finally thwarted. The rationalists and philosophers of the Enlightenment had little time for the vanity of personal greatness: they advocated the heroism of humanity. Universal human reason was to be honored,...