HERAKLES, THE GREATEST GREEK HERO
Herakles (Hercules to the Romans) was the son of Zeus and the mortal Alkmene, the wife of king Amphitryon of Thebes. As his name suggests, his mythology is closely tied with the goddess Hera, Zeus’s wife. When Hera learned of her husband’s infidelity with Alkmene, she set out to plague the child at every stage of his life. As Alkmene was about to give birth, Zeus proclaimed that the first male child born on that day would be destined to become a king. Hearing her husband’s boast, Hera rushed to Argos and persuaded the birth goddess Eleithyia to hasten the arrival of Nikippe’s child to ensure the distinction would not go to Alkmene’s. Her son Eurystheus was born first, and would become the ruler of Argos. He would go on to play a major role in the life of the hero. Alkmene meanwhile, fearful of Hera’s rage, abandoned the infant. The god Hermes rescued him and put him to the breast of the sleeping Hera. Herakles was able to drink enough of the divine milk before the goddess awoke and flung him away that his immortality was assured. Thus the child was endowed with divine strength. Intent on Herakles’s destruction, Hera sent two serpents to his crib, but the infant grabbed one in each hand and choked them to death.
As a young man Herakles wandered the countryside armed with a club made from a huge olive tree that he pulled from the ground. On one adventure he encountered the ambassadors from Orchomenos who were on their way to collect the annual tribute of one hundred cattle from the city of Thebes. Herakles cut off their noses and ears and sent them back with these as the tribute. The consequence was that Orchomenos sent an army against Thebes, which Herakles single-handedly defeated, thus freeing the Thebans from their oppressors. Kreon, the King of Thebes, gave his daughter Megara to him in gratitude. The couple lived happily for several years until Hera drove him to madness. In a fit of rage he unwittingly killed his own children. Seeking purification for this horrible deed, Herakles sought the Delphic Oracle, who instructed that after completing a period of servitude to Eurystheus, now king of Mycenae, his father would grant him immortality. The king, fearful of the hero’s strength, sent him on a series of tasks, each ultimately designed to bring about his death.
THE TWELVE LABORS
Despite the danger, Herakles successfully completed each task. First Eurystheus sent him to kill an enormous lion sent by Hera to ravage the Nemean countryside. Impervious to weapons, the hero wrestled the beast and used its own claws to flay it. Hereafter he wears the pelt as a cloak, sometimes with the lion’s head positioned over his own, with the paws knotted at his chest.
Next up was the invincible Hydra, a many-headed serpent terrorizing Lerna. Whenever a head was cut off, two others would instantly grow in its place. To defeat the Hydra, the hero’s companion Iolaos seared the wounds with burning stakes as soon as Herakles cut off the heads, which ultimately proved successful.
The following Labors included capturing the golden-horned deer of Keryneia, who lured hunters into the mountains to their death; killing the Erymanthian Boar, who devastated the countryside; scaring away the Stymphalian Birds, a nasty flock that preyed on men and fouled the area; cleaning the filthy stables of King Augeias in one day by changing the course of the rivers to flood them; defeating cruel King Diomedes by feeding him to his human-eating horses; saving Crete from the mad bull ravaging the island; capturing the belt of the Amazon Queen Hyppolyte, given to her by her father Ares; and killing the triple-bodied monster Geryon on the island of Erytheia with poison-tipped arrows.
The Eleventh Labor concerns the Apples of the Hesperides, which grew in a hidden garden inhabited by three nymphs, the daughters of Hesperos. To find the garden he was directed to Nereus, the old man of the sea, who Herakles forced to reveal the garden's location. The tree that bore the golden fruit was a wedding present to Hera, and it was guarded by a serpent that never closed its eyes. One version of the story has it that the Titan Atlas volunteered to get the apples if Herakles would take his place holding up the earth. Atlas returned with the apples but decided, having experienced his freedom, that Herakles should forever take his place. The hero pretended to agree but asked the Titan to hold the earth for a moment while he fetched a pillow for his shoulders. Herakles of course fled with the apples in hand.
The final Labor was the capture of Kerberos, the triple-headed hound of Hades. For this he had to descend into the Underworld. Without the aid of weapons, as proscribed, he was able to complete the Labor by chaining the beast and dragging it to the world of the living.
Now freed from Eurystheus, Herakles set off on many other adventures that were popular subjects among Greek and Roman artists. The most notable of these was a brief stint as crewmember of the Argonaut, his enslavement to the Lydian Queen Omphale, who was said to have coerced him into cross-dressing, and his incidental but important role in the Trojan War, when the poisoned arrows that he bestowed to his friend Philoctetes were retrieved by Odysseus and Diomedes as a pre-requisite for the Greeks' defeating the Trojans. On one adventure Herakles met Deianeira, daughter of King Oineus of Kalydon, who was given to him in marriage. In another fit of rage, the hero killed a servant, and once again he set off, with Deianeira, to purify himself. The two encountered the centaur Nessos standing on the bank of a river. Nessos offered to carry Deianeira across. When the centaur began to violate her, Herakles shot him with one of his poison arrows. The dying Nessos tricked Deianeira into believing that she could bind their love forever as long as Herakles wore a garment stained with his blood. When she later gave him the blood-stained cloak, his body began to burn with an unquenchable fire. The hero built himself a pyre, and finally Zeus sent a cloud to carry his son up to Olympos. (See J.P. Uhlenbrock, Herakles, Passage of the Hero through 1000 Years of Classical Art, New York, 1986; and J. Boardman, et al., “Herakles,” in LIMC, vol. IV, Zurich and Munich, 1988).
A COLOSSAL ROMAN MARBLE TORSO
The splendid torso presented here is a rare and original depiction of the hero from the Roman period, not known from any other surviving examples in the round but surely based on or inspired by a Greek sculpture of the Late Classical Period. As Boardman informs (p. 792, op. cit.), "The 4th century witnessed the creation of the greatest number of sculptural types of Herakles, many of them copied and adapted in later periods." It likely depicts the hero standing at rest following the completion of the Labors.
Closest to our marble in terms of the treatment of the muscular body is a version of the Albertini Herakles [Fig. 1] in the Museo Nazionale, Rome (no. 289 in Boardman, op. cit.), but here the lionskin is draped over the left arm rather than the shoulder. This type is known in several surviving versions, and Boardman informs (op. cit., p. 792) that it "can be dated around 385 B.C. It is attested almost simultaneously in South Italy and Attica."
Closer still to our marble is a depiction of a statue of Herakles on an Apulian red-figured column-krater [Fig. 2] in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (no. 271 in Boardman, op. cit.) where a sculptor attends to the finishing touches by applying color to the lionskin. Here the skin is worn over the shoulder, but the left arm clutches the drapery, the hand emerging. On the vase the hero is extending his right arm, the hand resting on his club, which is supported on a separate plinth. Despite the differences in the treatment of the lionskin, this is likely the original pose of our marble.