This is probably just silly. If so, all I can say is that it’s the last desperate days of summer term, I’ve just shared my pitiful lack of acting ability with a bunch of colleagues and students, and my grip on reality is tenuous.

What I’m thinking about a lot at the moment is Hercules and his role as a culture hero, one aspect of which is the way that his name was commonly associated with landmarks. Mountains, islands, geological peculiarities, roads and hot springs all might have Herculean stories attached to them, often to the effect that he had brought them into being by means of his superhuman strength.

The mythical travels of Hercules, in the course of which he overcame various monstrous antagonists and left these marks in the ancient landscape, extended from Spain to the Black Sea, from Pakistan to Morocco. In North Africa the opponent he most often faced in folklore was Antaeus, a gigantic (see below) son of Earth who challenged all comers to wrestle him and drew constant strength from contact with his mother; Hercules defeated him by lifting him up off the ground.

I’m in the very early stages of researching Hercules and Antaeus, with the aid especially of Irad Malkin’s Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (CUP, 1994), but the thought behind this blog (certainly daft, as I’ve indicated) occurred to me while preparing a poem of Propertius, 3.22, for teaching. In this poem Propertius encourages Tullus to return to his native country, hymning the praises of Italy even as compared with the manifold wonders of the wider world. In the latter category he mentions some remarkable locations in southern Spain and North Africa (3.22.7-10):

tu licet aspicias caelum omne Atlanta gerentem,
sectaque Persea Phorcidos ora manu,
Geryonis stabula et luctantum in pulvere signa
Herculis Antaeique, Hesperidumque choros…

Though you might look upon Atlas who bears the whole sky,
or Medusa’s head severed by Perseus’ hand,
Geryon’s stables, and the marks in the dust of wrestling
Hercules and Antaeus, and the dancing places of the Hesperides…

…there’s no place like home.

All these locations look to me like landmarks that Propertius considers identifiable. Travellers could visit, I interpret this as saying, not just the Atlas Mountains, but also places identified by tradition as Medusa’s head (maybe somewhere in the Gorgades Islands), the dancing circles of the Hesperides, goddesses of evening, the stalls where Geryon kept his cattle (before Hercules killed this monster too and made off with them)–and “the marks in the dust of Hercules and Antaeus as they wrestled”. In the case of Antaeus, the location of his bout with Hercules, as Malkin explains, shifts westward with Greek colonization, Hercules’ victory functioning as a template for Greek settlement in strange places, and continuing to do so as Greeks colonized more and more of the coast. No doubt the other places mentioned were equally mobile over time, even if Propertius seems to be thinking of precise locations in his day.

The travels and conquests of Hercules around the Mediterranean are typically understood by the Greeks and Romans as exploits imposing civilization on the wild or barbarian, and Diodorus Siculus (4.17.4-5) interprets the struggle with Antaeus in exactly these terms:

Setting sail, then, from Crete, Heracles put in to Libya, and first he challenged to a fight Antaeus, renowned for his physical strength and skill in wrestling, who put to death all strangers that he had defeated in wrestling; and Heracles grappled with him and killed him. Following this he conquered Libya, which was full of wild animals, and much of the desert (πολλὰ τῶν κατὰ τὴν ἔρημον χώραν), and tamed them (ἐξημέρωσεν), so that they were filled with farmland and all such other plantations as produce fruit, much of the land being vine-growing, and much olive-bearing. In general Libya, before that time uninhabitable because of the number of wild beasts throughout the land, he tamed and made second to no other country in its prosperity. Likewise by killing criminals and overbearing rulers he made the cities prosperous.

Libya, for Diodorus, is essentially North Africa west of the Nile valley. Hercules tames the land, renders it civilized, making it amenable to human habitation and sustenance. The dominant image of wildness is a prevalence of wild animals, but there is also a suggestion of land that is entirely deserted–something like our sense of desert–that Hercules restores to humanity and agriculture. The most pressing ecological issue in ancient as in modern North Africa was the desert to the south of the inhabitable coastal strip. I think we can understand what Diodorus had in mind when he describes a land that is fertile but needing protection from, so to speak, desertification: Hercules took the desert and made it bloom.

So what were Propertius’ “marks of Hercules and Antaeus in the dust as they wrestled”? Most likely some specific location pointed out to well-heeled Greco-Roman visitors, and Ross McPherson points out below that Pliny the Elder (5.1.3) records about Lixos in Mauretania (modern Larache in Morocco) that there, according to fable, were located regia Antaei certamenque cum Hercule et Hesperidum horti, “the palace of Antaeus, the contest with Hercules, and the Gardens of the Hesperides”, the latter on an island surrounded by an inlet from the sea (the serpentine character of the inlet explaining the serpent that guarded the Apples of the Hesperides). Pliny also records a tradition (5.5.31) that placed the Garden of the Hesperides at Berenice (Benghazi in Libya, formerly Euhesperides), which illustrates Malkin’s point that the scenes of Hercules’ exploits shifted as the Greeks travelled: Pliny writes grumpily about the “wandering tales of Greece”, and the conflict with Antaeus was progressively sited (Malkin p. 181) near Cyrene in eastern Libya, at Barca a little further west, Benghazi, and Tingis (Tangiers), where Sertorius dug up his supposed bones (Plutatch, Sert. 9.3-4, with Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters (2000), 121-6), as well as Larache (where the historian Gabinius, cited at Strabo 17.3.8, placed Antaeus’ sixty-cubit-long bones, possibly a mammoth but maybe a prehistoric whale…). But a location either at Tangier or Larache would suit Propertius’ purposes pretty well, in the far far West of the Known World.

All of which makes the theory I came up with even less compelling, but I’m committed now, so here goes: ancient wrestlers might fight on sand: the Latin word “(h)arena” means “sand”, “a sandy desert” and “an arena”, and the word for the surface on which Greek wrestlers fought might interchangeably be ἡ κόνις, “dust” (cf. Propertius’ puluis) or ἡ ψάμμος, “sand”, while Herodotus uses ἡ ψάμμος to denote the desert of Libya, 3.25, 4.173.* I found myself wondering, and I’ve explained the time of the academic year and my fragile psychological state, whether the marks in the dust left by the epic struggle of the giant wrestler Antaeus and the godlike hero Hercules, a location an intrepid ancient traveller might look upon, at least, were actually the dunes of the Sahara Desert.


Desert scene in modern Libya, from Wikipedia

* R. Katzoff, “Where did the Greeks of the Roman Period Practice Wrestling?”, AJA 90 (1986), 437-40.

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 “Sands”

  1. Ross McPherson says :

    If you’re right about “well-healed Greco-Roman visitors”, then the Propertian wonders were no doubt very conveniently located within a single town, not scattered across sand dunes. A quick Google search gives me Pliny Nat.5.1, mentioning Lixos in Mauritania, maybe a bit after the time of Propertius but a good sample of what to expect, since it puts the palace of Antaeus within sight of the garden of H. Interestingly too, Pliny explains the dragon that guarded the apples as a serpentine river (the Lixos), and maybe the dust marks you are looking for also had a natural explanation for clever guys like Pliny. Here is a site with pictures of Lixos plus the Pliny comments:
    I wouldn’t mind visiting it myself, if I had the time and the money!

    • Llewelyn Morgan says :

      Good stuff, and I think it’s very likely indeed that this is what Propertius had in mind (see now above). In other respects, I suppose Roman visitors couldn’t wander through the Atlas Mountains either, but they were something to see…

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