Adrastia: The Goddess Who Punishes Hubris And Arrogance

We have observed that one of the themes of ancient literature is the concept of Fate or Fortune.  We find it first expressed in the plays and heroic poems of the Greeks; the idea then seeped into the writing of history and biography.  Closely associated with this concept is the idea of divine retribution for offending the gods.  Those who showed contempt for divine or human law would be humbled by the harsh blows of Fate:  no man could expect to thumb his nose at the laws of the universe and get away with it.

So Sallust reminds us that Catiline and Jugurtha went down to ruin because their blind hubris caused them to scorn the laws of decency and human society.  Livy and Polybius practically endorse the idea that Rome rose from nothing to rule the world because the gods had fated that it should be so.  Tacitus and Suetonius chronicle every pernicious vice of the Julio-Claudian emperors to make the point that they deserved to go down in ignominious destruction.  Cicero’s philosophical writings are occasionally flavored by this idea as well.

The idea of Fortune or Fate as the arbiter of human destiny persisted for many centuries; we could even argue that the Catholic Church, through the writings of early Church fathers like Augustine, Jerome, Tertullian, simply substituted or imposed a new model on what had already existed before.  In the Renaissance, the humanists (especially Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini) enthusiastically endorsed the idea of Fortune.  Yet for some reason modern man is uncomfortable with this idea.  He likes to believe that he is in total control of his fate.  He wants to believe his destiny is in his hands.  More importantly, he recoils from any attempt to impose limits on his arrogance, greed, and desires.  Anyone writing about the dangers of hubris today is not likely to find himself wildly popular.  We live in an age of braggarts, big mouths, preening fools, and arrogant idiots; it is an age where ignorance is lauded and celebrated as wisdom, and the gutter is displayed to the public as something to be emulated.  The price for all of this will inevitably be paid.

And this will be the cause of our undoing, if it has not already happened.  One cannot just do whatever one wants in life.  You do not make your own rules.  You are not an emperor unto yourself; you are not an island of your own, isolated from the mainland of humanity.  The Greeks of late antiquity had a goddess they called Nemesis, and her function was to deliver punishment to those who were guilty of hubris.  She was the punisher of undeserved good fortune, and the chastiser of those who overreached themselves.  Her name in Latin was Adrastia.  You have probably never heard of her, and this very fact goes a long way to proving my point about the narcissistic streak of our modern culture.

The best description of Adrastia is found in the late Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus.  Writing in the fourth century A.D., he interrupts his narrative to remind us who really has the final say in human affairs:

These and many other similar examples are often the operation of Adrastia, the punisher of wicked deeds and the patron of good deeds (and let us hope it is always so!).  We may call Her by her secondary name, Nemesis.  She is the subtle law of an inexorable higher power; as some men believe, She is located above the orbit of the Moon.  Others maintain that She is a kind of general guardian over the fates of individuals.  The ancient theologians have pictured Her as the daughter of Justice; and from a far-off eternity She looks down on all earthly affairs.

As the queen of causes [regina causarum] and the arbiter and decider of human affairs, She handles the urn [for choosing lots] with its probabilities and causes fortunes to change, sometimes producing for us results that were very different from what we had originally intended.  Many acts She twists into something very different.  Restraining the always-expanding mortal arrogance with the chains of fate, and tilting the scales of gain and loss (as she knows how to do), She undermines and lowers the haughty necks of the arrogant.

She elevates good men from the lowest rung of society to a blessed station in life.  Tradition has provided Her with wings so that She might be able to visit anyone with all deliberate speed; and it gave Her a helm to grasp and a wheel under Her, so that as She runs through the elements, no one will ever forget that She commands the fate of the universe.  [Res Gestae XIV.11.  Translation mine.]

These are powerful words.  For Ammianus, there was no doubt about who was really in charge of events.  It was not man, with his pathetic, puny schemes that existed to feed his own ego.  It was Adrastia, or Nemesis, who would decide who was rewarded and who was punished.  Unearned good fortune would be punished; arrogance would be punished; hubris would be punished.  Adrastia was the great equalizer, the dispenser of divine justice to those who would prefer to forget the laws of nature.

It seems to me that we have forgotten this lesson, much to our society’s detriment.  One of the benefits of classical studies is their ability to provide moral instruction and guidance; we learn to humble our pride, to live according to rules, to respect the rights of others, and to discipline ourselves to put our passion and greed in check.  Yet much of this seems to be ignored today.  One wonders what Ammianus would have made of this quote, attributed to Karl Rove, the advisor to president George Bush, in which he gave his views of how the United States should its foreign policy:

That’s not the way the world really works anymore.  We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

In Rove’s view, a president should be able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to do it, and the consequences be damned.  He “creates his own reality” and then the world just has to deal with that reality.  It is a disturbing picture of hubris and incredible arrogance that can only end in tragedy and ruin.  It goes without saying, of course, that people like Rove never have to deal with the direct consequences of their policies.  Neither they nor their children serve in the military.  They do not visit the places they destroy, or the communities they decimate.  It’s simply a matter of being able to do whatever one wants, without fear of repercussions or consequences.

There are many national leaders today who have forgotten the ever-present reality of Adrastia (if they ever knew it in the first place, which is more likely).  These leaders strut around on the world stage, beating their chests and talking loudly, creating havoc and consternation among their fellow-men.  Coddled and nurtured from birth as spoiled children, they care nothing for their duties of office, or for their responsibilities as citizens.  But in a larger sense they are the leaders we deserve, for they reflect the state of the culture.  A great humbling is unavoidable.  The universe has a way of leveling things out, of imposing limits on greed, arrogance, and hubris.  Either you fix the problem yourself, or Adrastia will fix it for you.

Adrastia, would that thou comest, and that right soon.  


Read more about hubris and related subjects in my acclaimed, bestselling translation of Cicero’s On Duties:

21 thoughts on “Adrastia: The Goddess Who Punishes Hubris And Arrogance

  1. You speak of Adrastia here in two senses: 1) as a set of myths or stories which have a lesson to teach about the dangers of hubris and a sensibility for the balance (or aurea medicritas) between too much good fortune and too little hard effort., and 2) as a goddess who reward the faithful and punishes the misguided efforts of infidels.

    Say I were your pupil, and that I placed my sense of cosmic justice in the hands of another deity altogether. How would hope that live out the lessons that the myth of Adrastia teaches, without me having to betray my faith in a different deity. Or, perhaps better put, how would you recommend I heed the warnings of the Adrastia stories (with the fidelity of a faithful adherent), without proselytizing a belief in the goddess Adrastia?

    I ask, since, as a public school teacher, I can’t advocate for a particular belief system, yet am finding myself simultaneously responsible for insulating a sense of moral virtue in students.

    It’s a tight spot to be in. Certainly, it’s like swimming upstream, culturally speaking. In a society that bemoans personal responsibility, we are, as C.S Lewis put it, “removing the organ while demanding its function; we castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another old saying that seems to have disappeared is ” the bigger they are the harder they fall” . which is a simple way of saying that the magnitude of your excesses will dictate the severity of the consequences of those excesses .
    Rove is the main author of our destruction. He is the driving force behind the consolidation of power in the GOP by the bush family . He controls the super-PACs that fund establishment GOP congressmen and drive non-compliant congressmen from office . He makes sure the GOP elected officials keep the borders open for the cheap labor lobby, in defiance of the wishes of 80% of the GOP base.
    He is also the driver of the neocon military adventurism and the patriot act destruction of constitutions protections of the W administration . Obama continued and expanded these two policies.
    He makes nero look modest.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Allow me to put the question this way as well: to what extent do you promote a “hubris brings nemesis” mentality before the inevitable suggestion of “are you saying that our outsized carbon consumption has brought upon us a nemesis-like retribution in the form of unprecedented natural disasters, or, say, the American legalization of gay marriage brought the same” carries away your classroom discussion?

    Victor Davis Hanson wrote, “There may have been a number of scientists who stated on the record that two large late summer storms in 2017 were not proof of global warming. Surely there is room for reasoned debate? Again, no. All the pop-culture talking heads, from somber pundits to late-night television hosts, explained Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in a drearily similar way: Americans’ wasteful consumption of carbon energies had heated the planet and brought down upon them a Biblical retribution of bad weather.”

    My question is how do you avoid this sort of connecting-the-dots-style of assumption that steers away from your original, cogent moral argument?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting indeed. Informative too. I’d overlooked learning about the Roman’s Adrastia in favor of the Greek’s Nemesis. In the classic dynamic, hubris attracts Nemesis — the two forces contradict each other. What I’ve noticed is that rare leaders sometimes arise who embody both forces — they have enormous hubris, and also want to be the Nemesis of an external force they accuse of greater hubris. That is, they have a “hubris-nemesis complex”. Modern exemplars include Hitler, Mussolini, Castro, Ahmadinejad, and Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab (also, maybe some self-exalting hypercritical talk-show hosts?). I’d add Donald Trump to the list too.

    If an analyses about this would interest you, I have write-ups available in several places, including these two:


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  5. […] This is not something that a man of action can easily do.  Trained to act, to decide, and to intervene in the chain of causation, he will find it difficult to take a back seat and let another steer the vehicle.  Yet it is a necessary skill to master.  One cannot know everything; one cannot master all outcomes, or reduce them to an easy trajectory of predictability.  I am not advocating a passive submissiveness to chance:  that I want to make very clear.  What I am saying, instead, is that once we have exhausted all of our available remedies, we must call on the assistance of the Ultimate Decision-Maker. […]


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