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On Sept. 12, 2001, Lucy Hughes-Hallett recalls, a banner at Ground Zero pleaded, “We need heroes now.” The word rang quaint; it implied conscription of an outdated concept for epically trying new circumstances. And, with the possible short-lived exception of Rudy Giuliani, nobody really stepped up to the job. The epithet is much bandied about these days, but to describe anonymous firefighters and soldiers, perfunctorily and in the plural. As Hughes-Hallett argues in Heroes: Saviors, Traitors and Supermen: A History of Hero Worship, a true hero’s name is legendary, and he is utterly singular.

Hughes-Hallett, a critic for London’s Sunday Times and a biographer of Cleopatra, has chosen an enticing subject and written a book packed with information and insights. Adopting a fashionable format, she profiles heroes throughout history, including Achilles, Cato, El Cid, Francis Drake, and Garibaldi. Heroes, of course, are exceptionally brave, larger than life. They are born of a society’s need for them, Hughes-Hallett argues: “It is in times of emergency that heroes are looked for, and found.” But the craving for heroes is a dangerous one. This study is “rooted in ambivalence,” because an “exaggerated veneration for an exceptional individual poses an insidious temptation. It allows worshipers to abnegate responsibility, looking to the great man for salvation or for fulfillment which they should more properly be working to accomplish for themselves.” Considered superhuman, a hero threatens democracy and encourages tyranny. And although a hero is great, he is not necessarily good. Her warnings make you wistful for superheroes of the comic-book variety, so benign in their capes and external underpants, swooping in to save damsels and then vanishing.

Lest the demographics of her subjects—all European males—raise politically correct hackles, Hughes-Hallett slips a caveat into her prologue: Surveying history, she concluded that it would be, alas, misleading to suggest that a significant fraction of people worshipped as heroes have belonged to her own sex. In fact, masculinity is a defining feature of conventional heroism (even as ideals of manliness change; preening Homeric heroes were veritable metrosexuals). And she stuck to the Western tradition because it is “a continuous and self-referential one,” and throughout the book she indeed seems to relish finding echoes between her subjects. She also discloses a practical motive for limiting herself to one tradition, which readers holding her hefty volume will heartily endorse: that “this book is plenty long enough as it is.”

Her opening chapter, on Achilles, starts the book off strong. Mining the Iliad for biographical material, she tells the engrossing story of a man (who may or may not have existed) who “chooses death, buying immortality at the cost of his life.” On the battlefield, the hero of the Trojan War is both more and less than human: His physical magnificence and absolute integrity are godlike, his fearless brutality bestial. He is outside of his society, his only peers other heroes now dead. As Hughes-Hallett incisively observes, “Death may be immortality’s opposite, but it confers a similar invulnerability. Death dealing and bent on dying, Achilles has achieved absolute freedom.” One of the author’s merits is her resistance to anachronistic interpretations. She is careful to contextualize her subjects’ behavior, reminding us how moral ideals have changed. Today, war is lamented—out loud, at least, and however hypocritically—as a tragic necessity. In Achilles’ era, as well as others depicted here, men could freely exult in the glory of battle.

We subsequently learn about Alciabiades, an Athenian diplomat and general in the Peloponnesian War, which raged from 431 to 405 B.C.E. Blessed with legendary erotic allure—Socrates numbered among his admirers—he also had so much charisma that, in the words of Plutarch, “no disposition could wholly resist it, and no character remain unaffected.” Alcibiades took advantage of these gifts to satisfy his outsized appetites. His wedding to a wealthy heiress “seems to have scarcely interrupted his scandalous series of liaisons with courtesans.” Cocky and prone to violence, he was alternately an object of worship and hatred in his hometown. After being implicated in a bizarre crime spree involving the mutilation of idols throughout the city, he was sentenced to death in absentia; later, he somehow managed a triumphant homecoming, and the people begged him to be their dictator. In the swings of his status, Hughes-Hallett sees the ambivalence of hero worship: the public “imagined superhuman power for him: They adored him for it, and they found it unforgivable.”

Cato, her next subject, was in many ways the anti-Alcibiades. In fact, he is an exception to multiple rules of this book. He was not a military figure, and by contemporary standards, he comes closest to being a good guy. Cato lived from 95 to 46 B.C.E. in Rome, during the twilight of the Roman Republic. Unbendingly principled, he was so ascetic and utilitarian that he “disliked gardens: land was for tilling and grazing.” His typical vacation was a “reading holiday,” on which he trekked to his country estate with a posse of philosophers and book-laden donkeys. After serving in various capacities as a prominent Roman politician, he ultimately killed himself when his nemesis, Caesar, triumphed in the civil war and anointed himself dictator. His suicide, Hughes-Hallett writes, was “made inevitable by the mismatch between his own integrity and the imperfection of the world he inhabited.” Through Cato, Hughes-Hallett’s readers get a fascinating glimpse of Roman politics. Over the course of his career, he was spat on, stripped of his toga, and pelted with dung, among other public indignities. Reading this history will give Americans a new appreciation for the comparative civility of our political scene: At least U.S. Senators don’t pelt dung at each other. (Then again, imagining certain politicians, we might regret that such tactics have lost currency.)

In light of Cato’s integrity, Hughes-Hallett’s next two subjects look all the more crass to modern eyes. El Cid, the great warrior in 11th-century Spain, and Francis Drake, the ruthless British pirate who terrorized Spain in the 1500s, both fought for riches. Again, the author scrupulously contextualizes, explaining that to an 11th-century knight, plundering was “in no way incompatible with honor or even with piety.” El Cid, as a lord, was obliged to provide for his vassals, and the quantity of plunder correlated directly with the vassals’ loyalty. And there was an additional practical motive: Money came in handy for purchasing eternal life. Drake, also driven by financial pragmatism, rarely killed his enemies. “Why should he? A corpse was valueless; a ransomable prisoner was a source of income.”

“Heroes are not necessarily amiable,” Hughes-Hallett muses in her chapter on Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein, who led an army on behalf of the Holy Roman Empire in the 17th century. This understatement, clear to the reader by this point, applies especially to Wallenstein. A “truly frightening man,” he relied on his talent for terrorizing to keep his men in line. But the book’s final hero, the European sex symbol Guiseppe Garibaldi, does seem refreshingly likable. Passionate and bumbling, he campaigned for a unified Italy in the 19th century. He often lost battles, somehow without diminishing the brilliance of his star. His wife, Anita, an intriguing character in her own right, insisted on joining him in combat, as his “lieutenant by day, his lover by night.” Again we notice a contrast with present-day political habits: Garibaldi, when giving inspirational speeches to enlist supporters, promised “weariness, hardship and battles,” as opposed to, say, tax cuts. When he visited England, snippets of his long red-blond tresses were coveted by British ladies, and he obligingly submitted to a haircut. “The locks of Garibaldi’s hair in circulation,” Hughes-Hallett notes dryly, “were soon almost as numerous as fragments of the True Cross.”

Hughes-Hallett must have spent as much time poring over archives as her subjects spent battling enemies. Having done all that research, she seems to have been loath to exclude any of her findings. The balance between facts and insights, which she strikes nicely in the chapter on Achilles (by far the shortest), is thereafter heavily skewed in favor of facts. Presumably less information was available about the apocryphal hero; the Achilles profile resembles literary criticism, and she pulls it off well. But then, in the chapter on Garibaldi, for instance, she reports, “On August 18, he finally gave the order for half of his force to set out, not from Faro, as most of his supporters and all the Neapolitans expected, but from Taormina. He had two unarmed steamers to transport an army which now numbered 3,360 men. One of them sprang a leak. Garibaldi, seaman that he was, plugged it using a mound of manure,” and so on. Such excessive detail, uncalled for in a popular history, turns Heroes into rather a slog. Hughes-Hallett also is given to repetition of her points, further bloating this 400-plus-page tome.

Further quibbles with this formidable accomplishment: Although she is a proficient, occasionally witty, writer, Hughes-Hallett’s prose is sometimes cumbersome. (The prologue starts unpromisingly with a reference to “people who have been considered by their contemporaries to be so exceptionally gifted as to be capable of something momentous.”) Had she jettisoned some minutiae, she could have spent more pages exploring the intriguing questions raised by her topic, such as the mindset of hero-worshippers. Except in the chapters on Alcibiades and Garibaldi, the enthralled public doesn’t get much attention. Some of her subjects—Francis Drake, Wallenstein—seem to have been feared more than revered; she leaves the phenomenon largely unexamined.

In the prologue, Hughes-Hallett quotes Brecht’s maxim: “It’s an unhappy land that needs heroes,” adding, “Now it is fashionable to lament the littleness of those accorded celebrity within our culture—so many football players and rock stars and models, so few great spirits—but such collective frivolity should be cherished as one of the privileges of peace.” But peace is not, in fact, a privilege we enjoy, as that forlorn sign at Ground Zero attested. (She’s British, true, but ask tube riders or limeys in Iraq about peace). Hughes-Hallett argues that we find heroes when we need them. She doesn’t consider what may be our special sorrow: both to need heroes and to lack them.CP