Hercules Inc.; or, Ovid and the bovids

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A few weeks ago my colleague Ed Bispham, after a visit to the archaeological museum at Chieti, alerted me to a piece of Ovidiana that was entirely new to me. It was a column excavated from the site of a sanctuary of Hercules Curinus on the slopes of Monte Morrone in Abruzzo, Italy, and among other graffiti scribbled on it were twelve hexameter lines of Latin poetry, with Ovid’s name NASONIS written in another hand above them.

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The lines are very hard to read, and what can be read doesn’t correspond to any surviving works of Ovid, so it’s assumed that they are being attributed to him rather than actually by him. Here is what is legible, anyhow, from M. Buonocore, L’Abruzzo e il Molise in età romana (L’Aquila, 2002), p. 178:

Text-from-Morrone.jpeg

What keeps it all quite intriguing, though, is where we are. Monte Morrone is just a few miles from Ovid’s hometown of Sulmo (modern Sulmona). The site of the sanctuary, largely covered by a landslip in antiquity, was in fact popularly regarded in the Middle Ages as Ovid’s villa, and the excavations that uncovered this column (and other items such as this very pretty statue of Hercules, also in the museum at Chieti) were commenced there in 1957, the 2,000th anniversary of Ovid’s birth. So it’s perfectly understandable that people have wanted to make something of the graffiti, even if it’s just, in its way, a modern version of the medieval impulse to believe that Ovid lived here.

A striking fact, though, is that Ovid, who has a lot to say about Hercules and a lot to say about his birthplace at Sulmo among the Paeligni, never makes any reference to Hercules Curinus, the most important religious foundation in the district.

What’s a blog for, though, if not to flog a dead horse? I’m going to suggest that we can still find the Hercules worshipped at Monte Morrone in Ovid’s work. This will involve a rapid survey of the Hercules cult in central Italy, and then some close reading of a moment in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The most important role that Hercules seems to have fulfilled in central Italy, surprising as it may seem, was as patron of pastoral activity and commerce more generally, in particular the herding of cattle between highlands and lowlands, and the trade in the critical commodity of salt which seems to have shadowed the movement of cattle. The sanctuary at Monte Morrone stood adjacent to the calles or drove roads along which these cattle were herded, and the networks were extensive: it’s no coincidence that the great sanctuary of Hercules in Rome, the Ara Maxima, stood in the “Cattle Market”, the Forum Boarium, nor that elsewhere in the Forum Boarium there was a place called the Salinae or Salt-pans: the Forum Boarium marked the termination of the Via Salaria, the “Salt Road” by which (Pliny the Elder informs us, 31.89) salt from the mouth of the Tiber was transported into the interior. At Alba Fucens, a Roman colony lying between Rome and Sulmo, there stood a major shrine of Hercules Salarius, Hercules in his aspect as patron of the salt trade.

Hercules’ patronage of this traffic could even turn him, a mediator through trade between the diverse peoples of Italy, into a god of Italy itself. In the Aeneid Virgil draws out the myth of Hercules’ tenth labour that underlies this connection with cattle, his killing of Geryon in Spain and herding of the monstrous herdsman’s cattle all around the north-Mediterranean littoral to Greece. In Aeneid 8, a book (in a poem) deeply concerned with Italy’s unity and divisions, Hercules, in reference to his violent suppression of the malefactor Cacus, who had attempted to steal Geryon’s cattle, is given a very suggestive epithet, the communis deus, “the god who is god for all” (8.275), a force for Italian unity. Aeneas will also unify this geographical space, but do it, as paradoxically as Hercules, by fighting a most divisive war within Italy.

As anticipated, a whistlestop tour of Herculean Italy there, but Filippo Coarelli can sum up the relevant bit: “in the great markets [Hercules] is always present as guarantor and intermediary. The cult of Hercules is thus closely connected with mercantile activity, especially in the Sabellic zone (i.e. central to southern Italy), where the divinity fulfilled the function of protector of herds and shepherds” (F. Coarelli and A. La Regina, Abruzzo-Molise. Guide archeologiche Laterza 9 (Bari and Rome, 1984), 87).

How can we drag this back to Ovid, though?

Well, Book 9 of the Metamorphoses (my favourite, as it happens) has a lot to say about Hercules, with Ovid having his characteristic fun at the expense of the greatest hero of them all. A key episode is the attempt by the centaur Nessus to carry off Hercules’ wife Deianira, under the pretext of carrying her safely across the river Euenus. Hercules shoots Nessus dead, but as he dies Nessus persuades Deianira that his cloak, soaked with his blood, will restore Hercules’ love to her should his affections ever wander. In fact, when Hercules does bring another woman home to Trachis, and Deianira sends to him “the shirt of Nessus” to win him back, Nessus’ blood (contaminated, as the centaur well knew, by the poisonous blood of the hydra with which Hercules’ arrows were tipped) causes Hercules a prolonged and agonizing death.

What interests me, though, is Hercules’ angry speech to Nessus (and Ovid’s account of its motivation) as the centaur attempts to make off with Deianira (9.118-28):

iamque tenens ripam, missos cum tolleret arcus,
coniugis agnouit uocem Nessoque paranti
fallere depositum ‘quo te fiducia‘ clamat
‘uana pedum, uiolente, rapit? tibi, Nesse biformis,
dicimus. exaudi, nec res intercipe nostras.
si te nulla mei reuerentia mouit, at orbes
concubitus uetitos poterant inhibere paterni.
haud tamen effugies, quamuis ope fidis equina;
uulnere, non pedibus te consequar.’ ultima dicta
re probat, et missa fugientia terga sagitta
traicit. exstabat ferrum de pectore aduncum.

And now he had reached the bank, and was picking up the bow he had thrown over,
when he heard his wife’s voice, and shouted at Nessus, who was preparing
to fail to honour the deposit: ‘Where is the empty security of your
feet carrying you, impetuous man? It is to you, two-formed Nessus,
that I speak. Listen to me, and do not steal my property.
If no respect moves you, the wheel
to which your father [Ixion] is attached might dissuade you from this forbidden union.
But you will not escape, however much you trust in your horsy advantage:
With a wound, not my feet, I will pursue you.’ Those last words
he makes good with action, and firing an arrow at Nessus’ fleeing back
he pierced it. The barbed tip jutted out of his chest.

Hercules is a character in an epic poem, and speaks like one. He’s a character in an epic poem, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that doesn’t take itself at all seriously, mind you, so he’s rather too blustering as he shouts at Nessus, tipping over into parody. But it seems to me that Ovid is using other ways of puncturing the pomposity of this epic hero, and it takes us back to the quite mundane associations we’ve considered that Hercules at Monte Morrone carried, especially in the eyes of a Roman elite that looked down on trade. What I mean is that Hercules’ and Ovid’s language here, particularly the phrases I’ve underlined (and struggled to translate satisfactorily), are strikingly commercial in character, nec res intercipe nostras especially (I wouldn’t go to the cross for any of the others, but cumulatively they amount to something, I think): Hercules describes his wife as if she is a commodity, and Nessus as some kind of commercial rival trying to defraud him, their relationship a commercial deal that has gone sour. If so, it’s classic Metamorphoses: the most heroic of heroes transformed into a businessman with his eye on the bottom line.

The business-savvy god was a familiar notion in this part of Italy, as much to a reader in Rome as anyone who had visited the Hercules Curinus, which any native of Sulmo surely had. So maybe we can see a faint connection between the shrine at Monte Morrone and Sulmo’s most celebrated son, after all.

Statua_di_Ovidio,_Sulmona

Ovid in Sulmona, from https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Statua_di_Ovidio,_Sulmona.jpg

While you’re here, and if you live in or close to Oxford, on June 15, 2019 there is one-off performance of George Sharpley’s dramatisation of selected scenes from the Aeneid, The Song of Arms and a Man. Performers, including Dame Emma Kirkby, will read Virgil’s original Latin, drawing out the beauty of his Latin verse. It will be a fantastic evening, and the tickets, which are absurdly cheap, are available here.

F. van Wonterghem, “Le culte d’Hercule chez les Paeligni. Documents anciens et
nouveaux”, L’antiquité classique 42 (1973), 36-48;
M. Torelli, “Gli aromi e il sale. Afrodite ed Eracle nell’emporia arcaica dell’ Italia”, in A. Mastrocinque (ed.), Ercole in Occidente. Atti del Colloquio Internazionale, Trento, 7 Marzo 1990 (Trento, 1993), 91-117;
Ll. Morgan, “A Yoke Connecting Baskets: Odes 3.14, Hercules, and Italian Unity”, CQ 55 (2005), 190-203;
T. D. Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy (Amsterdam, 2009).

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.

3 responses to “Hercules Inc.; or, Ovid and the bovids”

  1. Ross McPherson says :

    Marvellous article – beautiful prose, brilliant poetry, intoxicating exotica, and something to think about. Your best so far, I think. Is it flogging a dead horse or cutting it up for the pot, Mongolian style, much of the internet being a lifeless wilderness? Anyway, one criticism, no doubt ignorant – weren’t all the Roman elites profit-minded? Would they notice Ovid’s commercial hints any more than a fish might notice the morning’s mist dampening the surface of a lake? Or did they have to be antiquated Greeklings to catch on?

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      I think the Romans liked money, for sure, but they couldn’t always admit to it. The ideal, as with Cicero, tended to be a gentleman the actual economic underpinnings of whose prosperity were best left undelved. They also had a strong sense of poetic proprieties, and epic heroes, to some extent reflecting that elite ethos, really shouldn’t be tarnished with motivations as tawdry, from this snobbish perspective, as trade. So I do think a commercial turn of phrase, coming from Hercules, would stand out, but then I would say that! Thank you, by the way.

      • Ross McPherson says :

        I am thinking that the ultimate metamorphosis in the poem is the Greek into a Roman, the Roman marvelling at the strange foliage he has acquired. So it isn’t a commercial Hercules that is getting mocked, but the Greekish reader and their poet, who somehow can relate to this essentially uncommercial creature. It is self-mockery that makes the Metamorphoses so enjoyable, I think, otherwise it is a Colosseum of horrors. But then, the Colosseum was the Greek theatre in a monstrous form, and a genuine (if future) aspect of Ovid’s poem. But I am just toying with ideas (thanks for the stimulus!)

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