The Glorious Twelfth

“That there was an art of making statues established in Italy also, and from an early date, is indicated by the Hercules dedicated in the Forum Boarium (Cattle Market), so they say, by Evander, who is called the triumphal Hercules and is dressed in triumphal clothes when triumphs are being celebrated; and also by the statue of Twin-faced Janus dedicated by king Numa, who is worshipped as presiding over peace and war, with his fingers so arranged as to indicate, by the sign of three hundred and sixty-five days, that he is also the god of time.”

A paragraph from Pliny the Elder (Hist. Nat. 34.33) which caught my attention a few months ago. There’s nothing original in what follows, but I’m thinking, on and off, about Hercules (Heracles, Verethragna, Vajrapani…), and this clarified some things for me about Hercules in Rome. There is no reason on Earth why my noodlings should be of any interest to you, needless to say.

Specifically, I was thinking, as I often do, about Hercules in Virgil’s Aeneid.

In Book VIII of Virgil’s epic Aeneas visits the future site of Rome, and is welcomed and entertained by the Greek king Evander, the alleged dedicator (Pliny is clearly sceptical) of that statue, who has settled there. Evander’s son Pallas will be crucial to the rest of the plot, his death at the hands of Turnus motivating Aeneas’ culminating revenge. But a lengthy section of this book is taken up by Evander’s account to Aeneas of Hercules’ exploits at Rome, how he had visited the site as he was herding the cattle of Geryon from Spain back to Argos, his tenth Labour, and slain a monstrous bandit called Cacus who was terrorizing Evander’s people.

Hercules is worshipped as a god by Evander (he has in the interim died and been deified), and it turns out that Aeneas has arrived on the very day of the festival of Hercules, suggesting a parallel between Aeneas and Hercules that Virgil periodically activates in the course of the poem. This festival, celebrated in Virgil’s day at the Ara Maxima, the shrine of Hercules in the Forum Boarium, fell on August 12, and that date opens up an entirely different dimension of significance.

Book VIII will end with the scene of Augustus’ Triple Triumph in 29 B.C., as represented by Vulcan on the shield he has forged for Aeneas. The triumph was a spectacular procession of troops, captives and spoils through Rome, staged by a successful Roman general, himself dressed in impressive clothing and riding in a chariot. In 29 Augustus celebrated triumphs, for military victories in Dalmatia and then over Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and in Egypt, on three consecutive days, August 13, 14 and 15. Augustus thus formally arrived at Rome, in preparation for these processions, on the day that Aeneas first comes to Rome, according to Virgil, but also the day on which Hercules had rid the city of the scourge of Cacus, and on which his delivery of Rome was to be celebrated thereafter. Denis Feeney (Caesar’s Calendar p.162) calls this a kind of wormhole, times widely separated, in the case of Hercules or Aeneas and Augustus by a thousand years, but identified in Roman minds by the sanctity of the day. It’s clear enough that Augustus had timetabled his triumphs so as to associate himself with Hercules in his role as Rome’s saviour, and that Virgil is elaborating on that.

What Pliny’s information about the statue of Hercules gives us is further reason for Augustus to align his own arrival in Rome with Hercules’s. What we learn from that “Triumphal Hercules” at the Ara Maxima, supposedly dedicated by Evander himself, and dressed up in the same elaborate clothing as a triumphing general during his triumph, is that Hercules could be understood to be the original triumphator, the model for every triumphing general, and that Augustus was in this respect as well something like a reincarnation of Hercules as he processed through the streets of Rome in 29 B.C.

Alba Fucens

As I say, there’s nothing remotely new about any of these observations. Here, for example, is Matthew Loar batting around similar ideas in greater depth and with much greater sophistication. What follows, furthermore, is provoked by a rereading on my part of Mary Beard’s The Roman Triumph, and some hints there of the depth of the connections Romans came to perceive, and Virgil was able to exploit, between Hercules and the triumph. It seems clear, at any rate, or at least clearer to me than it used to, that the very name of Hercules could evoke the triumphal ceremony. Horace in one of his Odes, 3.14, welcomes Augustus returning from campaign in Spain “in the manner of Hercules”, Herculis ritu, suggesting the Hercules who had also come to Rome from that direction, but also bestowing on Augustus’ arrival something of the character of a triumph.

What Mary’s book made me think of more, though, was food. There is a persistent association, albeit hard to pin down in detail, between Hercules, the triumph, and feasting. Athenaeus, citing the Stoic philosopher Posidonius, a visitor to Rome in the first century B.C., describes a feast at Hercules’s shrine (presumably the Ara Maxima), laid on by the triumphing general, the generosity of which, Posidonius remarked, was itself “Heraclean” in the provision of wine and food (Deipnosophistae 4, 153c; cf. 5, 221f). There seems to be some connection here to a ritual described by Plutarch (Roman Questions 18) whereby wealthy men would gift 10% of their wealth to Hercules at the Ara Maxima by throwing a massive dinner for Roman male citizens (women were forbidden access to the Ara Maxima).


Plutarch on the Hercules tithe, courtesy of Lacus Curtius

Quite what the connecting threads were between the dinners at Hercules’ shrine and the triumphal dinners is elusive, but one thing all this emphasis on feasting illustrates is a fundamental, and fascinating, tension in the Greco-Roman perception of this, their greatest, hero. Hercules was a god-like bringer of peace and order, but Hercules was also an all-too-human and notorious carouser, according to Plutarch somehow both gluttonous (ἀδηφάγος) and frugal in his lifestyle (ἀπέριττος  τῷ βίῳ).

At the Ara Maxima in Rome he was all of these things, on the one hand one of Rome’s many founder figures (like Romulus, and Aeneas himself), and on the other the instigator of unrestrained self-indulgence. Propertius 4.9, which playfully continues Hercules’ story in Aeneid VIII after his conquest of Cacus, exploits this contrast to comic effect, depicting a Hercules ravenous with thirst after his exertions begging for entry to the shrine of the Bona Dea, a sanctuary that excluded men (just as his shrine excluded women). The statue in the photo above is from Alba Fucens in Central Italy (now in the Museo archeologico nazionale d’Abruzzo in Chieti), a cult of Hercules closely related to that in the Forum Boarium (involving a further dimension of Hercules, as a god of commerce, but that’s another story). He strikes a relaxed pose, wine cup in his left hand (perhaps the wooden scyphus that Servius at Aen. 8.278 tells us Hercules brought with him to Italy) and garland on his head.

It is with feasting at the Ara Maxima in honour of Hercules that the day ends in Aeneid 8, too, before Evander leads Aeneas through Rome-before-Rome to Evander’s simple hut on the Palatine hill. This feasting is seemingly as strong an allusion to triumphal ritual as anything else.

Was it a statue like the one from Alba Fucens, Hercules relaxed and tipsy, that was decked out in the elaborate gear of a triumphing general, I wonder? It would capture something essential about this culture hero if it was.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

2 responses to “The Glorious Twelfth”

  1. Will Ford says :

    Another thought-provoking post – thank you! It only occurred to me recently, introducing the opening of the Aeneid to a Year 10 Class. Civ. class, that Virgil paints his Aeneas in a Herculean light from the very beginning. He (who? the ‘man’?! nifty use of antonomasia!) is introduced as ‘fated to be an exile’; and the detail of his being hounded by the ‘Queen of the Gods’ to ‘such endless hardship’ fits deliciously well with Hercules’ profile. So much so that my students thought Virgil ought to have called his epic the ‘Herculeid’.

    Regarding your thoughts on Hercules/triumphator/feast, one source that immediately springs to mind is Statius’ Silvae 4.6 – that brilliant bite-sized poem of mega-meta proportions describing Hercules ‘At the Table’, whose setting is a feast no less, the host of which is appropriately named ‘Vindex’.

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Yes, it’s a Herculeid (and a Romuleid, too–and of course an Augusteid). And yes, good call, Silv. 4.6 is always relevant: a figure in the same basic pose as the Alba Fucens statue: Coleman has a discussion in her comm of the ambiguities of the epithet epitrapezios, Hercules *at table*, or (as here) *on the table*!

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