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
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."