This post has been prepared by Michał Kuźmiński, a student of Cultural Studies – Mediterranean Civilization at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw, within the Our Mythical Childhood Seminar. Michał is at the moment in Rome, at his Erasmus Plus stay, and, as much as the situation permits, he is reporting on the traces of some mythical heroes in Urbs aeterna.
Hercules was undoubtedly the most powerful and renowned hero in the Greek mythology. Like other numerous heroes and deities, he was adopted to the Roman pantheon and his cult became very popular and widespread. Hercules was worshipped by the members of almost every social class: beginning from the ordinary soldiers, farmers and merchants, up to the emperors themselves.
Apart from the customary rituals, Hercules earned his own place in local tales and myths which formed the traditions of the city of Rome. To make the Greek hero more familiar to the Roman worshippers, they developed and expanded the myth of his Twelve Labours. Virgil (among the other authors) described in his Aeneid how the terrifying giant named Cacus, son of Vulcan, used to terrorize the people living near the Aventine Hill (Wergiliusz, Eneida, VIII, 267-365, Polish trans. Z. Kubiak, Warszawa, 1987). It happened so that Hercules was coming back to Greece that way after completing the tenth labour. While the hero was asleep, Cacus stole some of the cattle which Hercules had previously stolen from Geryon as part of his tenth labour. The angry hero strangulated the giant, regained the cattle, and as a result he freed the area from that dreadful monster.
According to the Roman tradition, after killing Cacus, Hercules erected an altar, which was later known as Hercules Invicti Ara Maxima, meaning The Greatest Altar of Hercules the Invincible. It was located in the Forum Boarium (the cattle market; relation with the myth is clearly visible) which extended between the Tiber and the Capitoline, Palatine and Aventine hills. The archaeologists think that remains of the Ara Maxima are preserved till today. To see them, one need to go to the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. In its crypt there is a platform made of tufa which was identified as the remaining part of the Ara Maxima. Thus, the ancient cult space preserved its purpose, only the venerated god changed.
But just a few steps from Santa Maria in Cosmedin there is another place of Hercules’ cult which, in turn, did not change its appearance so much. It is a Temple of Hercules Victor, still in the Forum Boarium. The building is a tholos – a temple on a circular plan, encircled by the colonnade. Almost all of the twenty columns made of Greek marble and the inner wall remain in their positions till today.
These are the places related to the mythical presence of Hercules in Rome and the oldest places of his worship. But looking for the image of the hero in those venues would be in vain – to stand face to face with Hercules we need to visit the other parts of Rome.
In Antiquity the temples of all the gods were above all the dwellings of their images. Unfortunately, the statue of Hercules from his temple in Forum Boarium left it a long time ago. However, we may see what is believed to be the cult statue from this area in the other place. Not far from Forum Boarium, on the Capitoline Hill which was the religious heart of ancient Rome, we will find the Capitoline Museums with their splendid collection of antiquities. The Capitoline Museums are located in three buildings and it is Palazzo dei Conservatori (The Palace of the Conservators), where we should look for Hercules. Near the remains of the most famous Roman temple – the one devoted to Jupiter Optimus Maximus – there is an impressive, over-life-size statue of the standing hero. It was made of gilded bronze and most of the gold survived till today, which makes it look splendid and sumptuous. It depicts a naked Hercules standing in relaxed position, in one hand he holds his club and in the other the apples of the Hesperides. The statue was discovered in the Forum Boarium in 15th century and is believed to originate from the temple of Hercules Victor.
But this is not the only example of Hercules’ presence in the Capitoline Museums. A few steps further we meet a different but still extraordinary incarnation of the hero. There is a marble bust of a man with all the most distinctive attributes of Hercules: he wears a lion’s skin over his head and holds a club in one hand and the apples of Hesperides in the other. But it is not just another, traditional representation of a deity, the bust is in reality a portrait of the emperor Commodus in the guise of Hercules. This wonderfully preserved work of art is at the same time an intriguing example of a man of power fascinated by the icon of manhood, a superhero from the collective imagination. That is certainly a timeless situation which we could spot also at the present time.
Speaking of superheroes from pop culture, in Rome we may also look for a representation of Hercules which is far more modern and closer to us than the ancient depictions from the Museum. To find it we need to leave the historical center and move to the neighbourhood of Cinecittà Studios, a large film studio in the outskirts of Rome. In its vicinity the Italian artist Flavio Campagna Kampah painted in 2018 a huge mural depicting multiple figures of an actor and body-builder Steeve Reves, who was famous in mid-20th century for his roles of Hercules in Italian sword and sandal films. The mural involves also some symbolism: there are seven figures of Reves, just like the seven hills of Rome and each of them is painted on a background of a different colour. Together they form a range of colours which resembles the rainbow. According to the author (read here), the result is not coincidental, the mural was thought to celebrate the diversity of human beings and bring the optimism to the thinking about the future.
All these places indicate clearly the significance of Hercules in the landscape of Rome and the lives of its inhabitants. The hero has already been present in the city for a very long time – more than 2000 years! He played different roles: from the caring deity up to the icon of masculinity and example to follow. He could have been met in various places and disguises, but the most important fact is that Hercules is still present in Rome till today and he still possesses the power to inspire and influence people’s imagination.
Post by Michał Kuźmiński, placed by Dorota Rejter
Wergiliusz, Eneida, Polish trans. Z. Kubiak, Warszawa, 1987.
Claridge A., Rome. An Oxford Archaeological Guide, Oxford 2010, 287—290.
Graves R., Mity Greckie, Warszawa 1992, 424—426.
Leeming D., The Oxford Companion to World Mythology, Oxford 2005, 177.
Platner R., The Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, London 1929, 253—254.
The bust of Commodus in the guise of Hercules – link
The statue of Hercules from Forum Boarium – link
The interview with Flavio Campagna, the author of the mural with Steve Reeves – link
About the mural on the personal blog of its author: