Ancient History & Civilisation


Heracles was, however, always more than just a vehicle for aggressive Greek colonial expansion. In the frontier lands of the West, he developed as a multifaceted and indeed wildly contradictory figure, who accurately represented not only the aspirations of the Greek community, but also their often complex relations and interactions with the other populations of the region. On Sicily, Greek, Punic and indigenous communities intermarried and worshipped each other’s gods and goddesses as well as trading and making war and political alliances with one another. Heracles, that seemingly most belligerent of Greek heroes, came to reflect those geopolitical realities too.

Sometime in the late sixth century BC, a large temple with a double frontal colonnade of six columns and with a further seventeen side columns was built on the acropolis of the Greek city of Selinus, nearneighbour and often fierce rival to Carthaginian Motya. It is thought that the temple was dedicated to Heracles, since one of the metopes on its capacious frontage shows the Greek hero fighting against the giant Cercopes. This was Sicilian Greek art at its very best, for it was not a slavish copy of current fashions in the wider Hellenic world. As David Asheri has commentated, ‘the ferocious expression and the heavy, almost rigid, figures in these metopes . . . show a conscious local attempt to break away from the mere elaboration of imported idealistic models.’22 It was thus in the very frontier lands of the island that Sicilian art came of age. The Heracles of the Selinuntine metope might resemble ‘a [Greek] colonial symbol of civilizing power grappling with wild beings’, but the artist that created this marvellous relief was heavily influenced by the brutal expressionism of Punic art, particularly as found on terracotta masks. This piece represented the central paradox of Greek Sicily, namely that the culture which was its greatest threat and enemy was also an integral part of its very being.23

The complex, multilateral processes of acculturation discussed earlier are also much in evidence in the adoption by the Sicilian Punic population of new, Greek, artistic forms. Terracotta figurines of goddesses in classical Greek style, wearing the peplos, a richly embroidered garment that hung in intricate folds, and carrying the calathus, a type of basket, were produced in large numbers across the island.24 Rather than leading to mere mimicry, this familiarity with Greek art allowed the Punic population of the island to express themselves in new and powerfully original ways. Traditional Phoenician art forms such as anthropoid sarcophagi–stone coffins whose human heads, arms and feet protruded out from a piece of smooth stone like human pupae–acquired Greek dress and hair decoration.25

The most striking example of Punic art in this period comes from Motya. In 1979, archaeologists working on the island city discovered an oversized marble statue of a young man, standing at 1.8 metres tall without his missing feet. Although the arms had gone, it was relatively simple to reconstruct the pose of the left arm, as the hand had been carved resting on the hip. The head was framed by a fringe of curly hair, and had once worn a crown or wreath kept in place by rivets. All in all, the statue appeared to conform to the severe Greek sculptural style of the early fifth century BC, and indeed a very similar statue of an ephebe, a young man of military-training age, has been discovered at the Sicilian Greek city of Acragas.

It was argued that only a Greek sculptor could have created such a high-quality piece, and that the Motya ephebe was a looted Greek work.26 However, there was a problem with this. Unlike the ephebes represented in other statues from this period, who are depicted nude, the Motya young man is clothed in a fine long tunic, with flowing pleats bound by a high girdle. Many ingenious solutions have been proposed to explain this anomaly. The strange girdle and the hand position have led to the suggestion that the young man was either a Greek charioteer or a sponsor of a chariot race. However, the Motya figure is very different from other surviving statues of Greek charioteers. In fact the closest parallels are found within the Punic world. First, despite the clearly Greek sculptural form, the statue clearly follows the Punic convention of not displaying the nude body; second, the clothes and headgear worn by the young man bear a marked resemblance to the ritual garments worn by priests of the cult of the Punic god Melqart, with whom Heracles would enjoy an increasingly close association in Sicily.27 Neither Greek nor Punic but Sicilian, the Motya ephebe stood as a glittering testament to cultural syncretism.

From at least the seventh century BC, in the eastern Mediterranean Heracles had come to be increasingly associated with the Tyrian god Melqart. When Herodotus travelled to the great temple of Melqart at Tyre, he found compelling evidence that the temple of Heracles on the Greek island of Thasos had in fact started out as a sanctuary to the Tyrian god. In order to verify this information for himself, Herodotus then travelled on to Thasos, where the story was confirmed.28 Intriguingly, Herodotus commented that the Thasians perceived their Heracles as having two very distinct identities, who needed to be worshipped in different ways. The worshippers offered to one whom ‘they called the Olympian the sacrifices due to an immortal, whereas with the other they delivered funerary honours as with a hero’.29 On another Greek island, Erythrae, locals told how Heracles had come to them after a raft that was carrying him from Tyre ran aground in a shallow channel–surely a dimly recollected communal memory of the rites of egersis.30The Phoenician world was clearly also struck by the synergies that existed between Heracles and Melqart, particularly on the island of Cyprus, which, like Sicily, also had a large Greek population. By the sixth century BC, workshops in the Phoenician Cypriot town of Kition were producing statuettes of a lionskin-clad male figure with a club, in a clear replication of the established Greek iconography of Heracles but posing in the manner of a Near Eastern or Egyptian deity, with his weapon raised in his right hand while holding in his left a lion ready for the kill.31

What were the similarities that Greek and eastern Phoenician and Punic populations saw in Heracles and Melqart? All were, of course, polytheistic religious cultures that actively sought to forge syncretistic connections between their own gods and foreign deities.32 More particularly, a bilingual inscription from Malta is dedicated by two Phoenician brothers in the third/second century BC to ‘Melqart, Lord of Tyre’ in Phoenician and to ‘Heracles archegete’ in Greek.33 The Greek word archegete was usually used in the context of a founder or progenitor, a role with which both Heracles and Melqart were strongly identified.34 Melqart was as synonymous with colonization for the Tyrians as Heracles was for the Greeks. As protector of both the mother city and the new colonial foundations, Melqart helped to foster lasting links between the two. The temples in the newly founded colonies also provided a neutral and sacred space for the first contacts between Phoenician settlers and local indigenous peoples. Although Melqart was not the chief deity in Carthage, the god continued to fulfil his traditional role as the city’s influence over the new Punic community in the western Mediterranean developed.

Punic colonization and economic consolidation on Sardinia had a notable impact on the religious landscape of the island. Indeed, there is some evidence for an organized initiative to represent Carthage’s new relationship with the island through the establishment of new religious centres. This is well illustrated at the temple of Sid at Antas, where archaeologists have also discovered a dedication to Melqart.35 The close relationship between Melqart and Sid on Sardinia is confirmed in the work of the second-century-AD Greek travel writer Pausanias, who claimed that ‘The first sailors to cross to the island are said to have been Libyans. Their leader was Sardus, son of Maceris, the Maceris surnamed Heracles by the Egyptians and the Libyans.’36 ‘Sardus Pater’ was the name that Sid Babi came to be known by in the Roman epoch, and ‘Maceris’ almost certainly refers to Melqart, the Libyan Heracles.37 Indeed, epigraphic evidence points to the two gods having been closely linked with one another in Carthage.38 Unlike Sid, who was particularly associated with Sardinia, Melqart represented the overarching sweep of Punic colonization, and hence why the relationship between the two was represented as being unequal–with Sid as the son of Melqart–in Sardinia and in Punic iconography.39

The worship of Melqart on Sardinia was self-consciously linked with Tyre during the Punic period, for the epithet ‘L HSR (literally, ‘that is on the Rock’) was often applied to the god–surely a reference to the great sanctuary.40 This emphasis on Melqart in a period when the Carthaginians were exporting their own population to Sardinia, and strengthening their economic ties on the island, was a way of articulating the increasingly paternalistic relationship with the older Phoenician population while at the same time emphasizing a common Tyrian heritage.41 Indeed, an inscription dating to the third century BC refers to a series of monumental improvements to the sanctuary of Melqart at Tharros, lists the senior officials of Qrthdšt (Carthage), and thereby explicitly links the god with the North African metropolis.42

Heracles and Melqart shared a number of striking characteristics. Most importantly, both transcended the boundaries between humanity and divinity: Heracles, the son of Zeus and a human mother, had to earn the right to become a god himself through his heroic feats; Melqart, although a god, was also the first mythical king of Tyre and ancestor of its royal lineage.43 Other striking connections included the crucial regenerative role that fire played, for Melqart at the egersis and for Heracles during his apotheosis, when his body was burnt on a pyre before his spirit ascended to heaven and he took his place among the gods. Each year, after the ritual burning of his effigy, Melqart was symbolically reborn, thereby making the same journey between humanity and divinity.44 Indeed, the syncretism between the two can be detected at the temple of Heracles in the Sicilian Greek city of Acragas, built around 500 BC, which contained twin staircases that led up to the attic of the structure. A recent study has suggested that this unusual architectural feature, although unlikely to have still have been used for such purposes in the fifth century BC, was originally associated with the ritual celestial ascent of deities found in Phoenician–Punic religion, such as the egersis. The temple at Acragas was just one of a number of archaic-era temples found with these staircases in Sicily and southern Italy.45

Ironically, the likelihood is that the tradition of Heracles and Eryx was derived not from the Greek but from Phoenician occupation of a site. Dorieus’ mission may have been represented as the championing of Greek Heracles against the ‘non-Greek’ Heracles who at that time occupied Eryx.46The mountain, which rises to 750 metres above sea level, had been a sacred site for the indigenous Elymians before it had become the location for a temple to the goddess Astarte sometime in the second half of the sixth century BC.47 Melqart was widely recognized as the consort of Astarte.48

Indeed, even the Heraclean Way, that seemingly most strident of monuments to Greek colonial endeavour in the West, was not quite what it first seems. Its tortuous and often nonsensical itinerary reflected the rivalries and shared interests of both incomers and indigenous populations who sought to stamp their mark on what was clearly, in the sixth century BC, a region of unrivalled opportunity. Thus the terminus of the Heraclean Way may have been the city of Argos in Greece, but by the sixth century BC Greek authors were generally in agreement that Erythia, the legendary home of Geryon and the starting point of Heracles’ great western odyssey, was Gades, the oldest Phoenician settlement in the far West and site of the great temple of Melqart.49 Even the accounts of Heracles’ visit to Sicily, which could be construed as little more than the most aggressive kind of Greek colonial chauvinism, often contain small pieces of evidence that point to a far more complex set of relationships between the Punic and indigenous populations of the island. For instance, the genesis of Heracles defeating and killing the indigenous king Eryx very probably lay in the introduction of the Punic cult of Astarte into Eryx in the second half of the sixth century BC, which replaced a native Elymian shrine that had previously stood there. In this context, the story of Heracles appears to have been originally related to Melqart, who, as the consort of Astarte, was often worshipped in her temples.50 The Heraclean Way, rather than merely being the superhighway of Greek colonial ambition, instead represented the ubiquity of cultural exchange and religious syncretism in the archaic central and western Mediterranean. Nowhere was this clearer than on the Italian leg of Heracles’ great odyssey, which, with the Sicilian stage of the great hero’s journey, was already being written about by the fifth century BC.51

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!