In Brief

According to Joyce's schemas the "art" of Nestor is history, and the chapter begins in the middle of a lesson on ancient Greek and Roman history. Centered on the figure who gave the world the term "Pyrrhic victory," it represents something different for the Protestant-oriented school than for the Catholic characters in Ulysses.

Read More

Starting in the middle of the action, Nestor shows Stephen asking Cochrane, "what city sent for him?" The boy correctly answers "Tarentum, sir" and remembers that "There was a battle, sir." Further questioning shows that the boy remembers the date of the battle, "279 B.C.," but cannot remember the place. Stephen, who probably does not remember the place either, glances at his book and says, "Asculum." The boy volunteers another piece of memorized information: "And he said: Another victory like that and we are done for." Only then does Stephen's next question reveal who is being discussed: "— You, Armstrong, Stephen said. What was the end of Pyrrhus?" This question does not get answered.

Pyrrhus (318-272 BC) was a Hellenistic-era Greek general who in 280 agreed to bring an army to the defense of the Greek colony of Tarentum, in the instep of the boot of Italy, against the Roman armies that were poised to conquer it and the other cities of Magna Graecia. His victories at Heraclea (280) and Asculum (279) were very costly, and Plutarch recorded Pyrrhus saying that one more victory like Asculum would ruin him. Seven years later he was killed in a street battle in the ancient Greek city of Argos. An Argive woman, watching the confused fighting in the streets below her, threw down a roof tile which knocked Pyrrhus senseless, and an Argive soldier decapitated him. When the Tarentines learned of his death they quickly surrendered to Rome. In Aeolus Lenehan trivializes these consequential events: "— Boohoo! Lenehan wept with a little noise. Owing to a brick received in the latter half of the matinée. Poor, poor, poor Pyrrhus!"

Nestor is about the tyranny of the past. Early in the episode Stephen thinks of Irish leaders that "For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop," and later he  tells his employer that "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Fittingly, the chapter opens with a scene of Irish schoolboys being instructed in the futility of a Greek general's resistance to the growing power of Rome. It is probably no accident that they are learning this lesson in a school run by an Anglo-Irish, ardently pro-British headmaster. Arguably Mr. Deasy's curriculum is indoctrinating Anglo-Irish boys in the need to submit to imperial power. It has also been argued that the hockey games played at the school are preparing the boys for military conflict, specifically the Great War that would chew up so many of the youth of Europe.

Five chapters later Aeolus proposes symbolic parallels that would reverse these values. Professor MacHugh denounces Roman power and practicality and exalts Greek intellect and spirituality: "I ought to profess Greek, the language of the mind. Kyrie eleison! The closetmaker and the cloacamaker will never be lords of our spirit. We are liege subjects of the catholic chivalry of Europe that foundered at Trafalgar and of the empire of the spirit, not an imperium, that went under with the Athenian fleets at Ægospotami. Yes, yes. They went under. Pyrrhus, misled by an oracle, made a last attempt to retrieve the fortunes of Greece. Loyal to a lost cause."

John Hunt 2012
Bust of Pyrrhus in the Museo Archeologico Nationale, Naples.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Pyrrhus' campaign on the Italian peninsula, 280-275 BC. Source: Wikimedia Commons.