Ancient History & Civilisation


The Realm of Heracles–Melqart: Greeks and Carthaginians in the Central Mediterranean


When the first Greek traders arrived on the shores of the central and western Mediterranean, they had not come alone. They had brought with them not only their gods, but also many of the great heroes of the Greek mythological canon. Homeric figures such as Odysseus, Menelaus and Diomedes were portrayed as trailblazers who had roamed throughout the lands of the West in the long-distant past.1 Over the decades that followed, these heroes would play an increasingly important role not only in lending legitimacy and antiquity to subsequent Greek claims to newly settled land, but also in forging links with local indigenous elites, some of whom came strongly to identify themselves with particular Greek heroes. Thus the Etruscans in central Italy adopted the Greek hero Odysseus initially as their founder and then as the leader who had brought them to Italy.2

The most high-profile role in helping these new Greek communities as they sought to assert themselves over new and unfamiliar landscapes was played by the legendary strongman Heracles. As a famed terrestrial wanderer who roamed the lands of the West civilizing the indigenous inhabitants by abolishing savage customs and clearing away brigands and monsters, Heracles set something of a precedent for the Greek colonists’ sometimes aggressive dealings with the indigenous peoples.3 The developing relations between the colonists and the native populations were also reflected in the numerous offspring that the legendary womanizer was said to have sired through his congress with well-born local females.4 He was viewed not so much as a founder of colonies but rather as their initiator, who chose and secured locations before restlessly moving on, leaving it for those who followed him to settle there.5

Yet Heracles was far more than just a violent enforcer. The protection that he provided for the Greek colonists also encompassed the well-being of their harvests and livestock.6 Indeed, the succour that he afforded ranged from the highest-sounding heroic deeds to the absurdly mundane. In the Greek colonies of southern Italy, the hero was revered not only for slaying giants, but also for warding away the flies that plagued the summer flocks, and for keeping locusts away from the crops. Such was the enduring influence of the great hero that by the end of the sixth century BC, when the memories of the first settler leaders had begun to dim, and the desire to be considered as the equals of the Greek cities of their forefathers grew, a number of communities in southern Italy and Sicily began to claim Heracles as their actual founder.7

Souvenirs and relics long associated with his heroic labours in mainland Greece started to appear in these western Greek settlements. Thus the hide of the monstrous Erymanthian boar, the victim of one of Heracles’ famous labours ordered as a penance for his killing of his wife and children in a fit of madness, made the long journey from the Peloponnese to the temple of Apollo in the southern Italian town of Cumae. Colonists from the Greek city of Chalcedon relocated not only themselves but also Heracles’ famous battle against the giants to their new home in Italy.8 Heracles was thus gradually transformed from a talismanic figure strongly associated with terrestrial wandering and mercurial violence to an exuberant symbol of the success of the Greek colonial project in the West. The message that these legendary associations proclaimed was as clear as it was powerful: these colonists were no alien arrivistes. This was Greek land, bequeathed to them by none other than the son of Zeus.

By the sixth century BC western Greek writers–most notably the Sicilian poet Stesichorus, in his epic poem the Geryoneis–had associated Heracles’ presence in the West with the tenth and eleventh of his famous labours: the theft of both the red cattle of the monstrous ogre Geryon and the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides.9 In the fragments of the Geryoneis that still exist, Heracles travelled to Tartessus, where he borrowed a golden cup from the sun and floated across the ocean to Erythia, the mysterious island in the westernmost reaches of the world where lived Geryon. After killing his herdsmen and guard dog, Heracles eventually dispatched Geryon, took his cattle, and then returned to Tartessus to give the cup back to the sun, before driving the cattle overland to Italy and making his way back to Greece.10

Heracles’ epic journey took him and his cattle up through Spain, the Pyrenees and Gaul, and then over the Alps. Faced with such a challenge, Heracles dispensed with his usual gung-ho approach and prepared himself properly. After carefully spending three days loading supplies on to the backs of his cattle, he successfully crossed the mountains before passing through Italy and on to Greece. Thus, by the sixth century BC the legend of the Heraclean Way, the route of the extraordinary journey that the hero made with Geryon’s cattle, had begun to develop. For centuries it stood as a monument not only to Heracles the great traveller, but also to the hero who had tamed the West. And because the story of Heracles in the West had become so tied to the ongoing process of Greek colonization in the region, the Heraclean Way itself was always a ‘work in progress’, forever taking new eccentric detours and doubling back on itself as new settlements and authors staked a claim to this seductive inheritance.11


It is probably because of Stesichorus that his home island of Sicily became part of Heracles’ itinerary, despite it making no geographical sense at all in the context of travelling from Italy to Greece. The story told how an errant bull from the herd had supposedly broken free in southern Italy and swum across the Strait of Messina to Sicily, with the hero in hot pursuit.12 Eryx, a local Sicilian king–founder of a settlement on a mountain which both took his name–and a son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had found the bull and placed it into his own herds. Heracles eventually tracked it down, but the king would return it only if the hero could beat him in a wrestling bout. After defeating Eryx three times, Heracles brought the competition to an emphatic end by killing the monarch. Reclaiming his errant bull, Heracles agreed to hand over Eryx’s territory to the local indigenous people, as long as they gave it back to his descendants if they ever presented themselves in Sicily.13 Before leaving the island, Heracles engaged in an eclectic variety of activities, including the foundation of cults and shrines, the creation of a lake, and a great victory over the indigenous Sicans, an indication of his centrality to the Greek settlers’ claims to the ownership of the colonial landscape that they inhabited.14

The next episode within the Heracles and Eryx story highlights the extent to which the stories of Heracles’ wanderings in the West were open-ended reflections of current geopolitical realities. The Greek historian Herodotus, among others, related how Dorieus, a prince of the royal house of Sparta, in 514 BC received permission to go to found a new settlement on the Libyan coast. Dorieus chose the location of his colony well, for Cinyps fell between the influence of the powerful Greek city of Cyrene to the east and of Carthage to the west. Dorieus’ endeavours were, however, soon cut short by a combined Carthaginian and local Libyan force, which drove him and his followers out during the third year of their occupation.15 Carthage’s aggressive response appears to have stemmed less from the geographical position of Dorieus’ settlement than from his ambitions to extend the territory of his colonial foundation westward into the fertile region of Syrtis Minor (a major object of Carthage’s own territorial ambitions). Indeed, soon after this Carthage founded the city of Leptis Magna 50 kilometres away from the ruins of the abandoned Greek settlement, partly in order to head off any future Greek attempts to colonize the area.16

The late sixth century BC was, however, a period when the possibilities provided by the western Mediterranean still seemed limitless to many adventurers from the East. Defeated but unbowed, Dorieus and his companions returned to Sparta, where plans were soon hatched for another expedition, this time to the island of Sicily. According to Herodotus, the story of Heracles’ agreement with the people of Eryx regarding the claims of his descendants to the territory was well known in Greece. The Spartan royal family claimed direct descent from Heracles, and, after receiving advice to ‘found Heraclea, the one in Sicily’, and receiving what he perceived as confirmation of success from the oracle at Delphi, Dorieus set off with a new expeditionary force. After he had taken Eryx and established a new colony, however, the settlement was attacked and destroyed by a combined Punic and Elymian force, and Dorieus and most of his fellow colonists were killed.17

The legacy of Heracles could be extremely threatening to both Punic and indigenous populations on the island. It is surely no coincidence that Pentathalus, the leader of the earlier Cnidian/Rhodian attempt to found a colony near Motya, also claimed descent from Heracles.18 What these stories show is that, as western colonization had become inextricably bound with the Heraclean story in the Greek cultural imagination, myth came to legitimize colonization and colonization created new myths.

The long reach of Heracles was certainly not restricted to Sicily. Across the sea in North Africa, the Carthaginians also gained first-hand experience of his legacy, which provided the ideological rationale for a Greek colonial endeavour which saw cities sprouting up on the Libyan coast, to the east of Carthage.19 North Africa now became the supposed location for Heracles’ epic wrestling bout against the brutal giant Antaeus, who was said to have drawn his huge strength from his mother, the Earth. All those who were unfortunate enough to cross the path of this giant bully were forced into a wrestling match with him. After he had defeated and killed them, their skulls were then added to his extensive trophy collection. Heracles vanquished Antaeus by depriving him of his power source, holding the giant off the ground while he throttled him. Ominously for the Carthaginians, the precise spot where this brutal encounter was meant to have taken place crept ever westward as Greek colonies sprang up ever closer to their territory.20 The capture of Geryon’s cattle was thus not the only Heraclean labour that provided a mythological canvas for Greek colonization in North Africa. The closest Greek settlement to Carthaginian territory was the city of Euhesperides, founded around the middle of the sixth century BC and named after its supposed proximity to the garden of the Hesperides, from which Heracles as his eleventh labour was tasked to steal its golden apples.21

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