Hercules

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The Roman version of the Greek celestial hero Heracles, son of Jupiter and the human Alcmene, is Hercules.

Hercules is known for his strength and his countless epic exploits in Greek mythology. Under the moniker Hercules, the Romans borrowed the Greek hero’s iconography and tales for their literature and art. Hercules, as opposed to Heracles, is the moniker of the hero more frequently employed in later Western art, literature, and popular culture. Hercules is a complex character with contradicting traits, giving later authors and artists the freedom to choose how to depict him. An introduction to Hercules portrayals in later tradition is given in this article.

Head from statue of Herakles (Hercules) Roman 117–188 CE from villa of the emperor Hadrian at Tivoli, Italy at the British Museum
Head from statue of Herakles (Hercules) Roman 117–188 CE from villa of the emperor Hadrian at Tivoli, Italy at the British Museum (source)

Hercules was viewed as a great defender and the champion of the helpless in Roman mythology, yet he had personal issues from the moment he was born. Two witches were dispatched by Juno to stop the birth, but one of Alcmene’s servants fooled them and sent them to a different room. Then Juno sent snakes to slay him in his cradle, but Hercules killed both of them by strangling them. According to one version of the tale, Alcmene left her kid in the woods to escape Juno’s anger. However, the boy was later discovered by the goddess Minerva, who took him to Juno on the pretense that he was an orphan who needed food. When Hercules bit her nipple while sucking at Juno’s breast, she pulled the child away, spreading her milk across the night sky and creating the Milky Way. She then returned the baby to Minerva and instructed her to care for the child on her own. The goddess unknowingly gave the kid more strength and power by nursing him from her own breast.

Hercules (Hatra, Iraq, Parthian period, 1st–2nd century CE)
Hercules (Hatra, Iraq, Parthian period, 1st–2nd century CE) (source)

Through Etruscan, where it is expressed in many ways as Heracle, Hercle, and other forms, the Latin name Hercules was acquired. Hercules was an Etruscan artist’s favorite subject, and he frequently appears on bronze mirrors. There were other stories about Hercules that were uniquely Roman. One of these is Hercules’ victory against Cacus, a tyrant who terrorized Rome’s countryside. Through his son Aventinus, the hero was connected to the Aventine Hill. He was regarded as a personal patron god by Mark Antony and Emperor Commodus.

Featured image: Hercules in Olympus with Juno and Minerva, fresco from Herculaneum, 1st century CE

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