Ancient History & Civilisation


According to the first-century-BC Greek writer Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was using earlier lost sources, after he had crossed the Alps Heracles was supposed to have made his way down through the Italian peninsula until he eventually pitched camp on the left bank of the river Tiber, at the settlement of Pallanthium, the future site of the city of Rome. While he slept, an ogre named Cacus, who had for many years terrorized the other inhabitants of the locality, stole several of his cattle. In order to cover his tracks, Cacus dragged the beasts to his cave on the Palatine hill backwards, by their tails. Heracles, on waking and discovering the theft, searched for his bovine charges in vain. However, eventually he found them by driving the rest of the herd past the entrance of Cacus’ cave, from where the stolen cows bellowed when they heard and smelled the others. Cacus then suffered the same grisly fate as all those who tried to separate the cattle of Geryon from Heracles: he was beaten to death with the giant club, before his cave was smashed down on top of his lifeless corpse.

Heracles then purified himself by washing in the Tiber and erected an altar to Zeus, where he sacrificed a calf in thanks for finding the cattle. When the indigenous peoples and Arcadians who lived in the neighbourhood discovered what had happened, they rejoiced at the fate of Cacus, whom they had long hated because of his thefts, and made garlands for themselves and Heracles. The hero was then invited to dine with their joint kings, Evander and Faunus.52 On discovering Heracles’ true identity, Evander in obeisance to a long-standing prophecy about the hero’s coming, erected an altar to the hero and sacrificed a calf upon it. Thus it was on the future site of Rome that the first altar to Heracles was set up. After performing the initial rites and sacrificing some of his own cattle, Heracles decreed that, ‘since they were the first who had regarded him as a god, they should perpetuate the honours they had paid him by offering up every year a calf that had not known the yoke and performing the sacrifice with Greek rites’. The remainder of the story told how Heracles had then taught two distinguished families, the Potitii and the Pinarii, the sacrificial rites that were to be performed in his honour at his altar, the Ara Maxima (‘Great Altar’) in the Forum Boarium, the ancient cattle market of Rome.53

Central Italy was the location of a large number of sanctuaries dedicated to Hercules and Hercle, the Italian and Etruscan interpretations of Heracles. Many of these temples were located on important links in key communication and transport arteries that traversed the Italian peninsula and acted as centres for trade, salt production and the seasonal movement of lifestock (an intriguing parallel with the myth of the hero and the cattle of Geryon).54 The popularity and growth of the cult have tended to be seen as a reflection of the strong influence of Hellenic culture on the inhabitants of central Italy, through their frequent interactions with Greek merchants and the cities of Magna Graecia.55

However, part of the story of Heracles in Rome appears to be an adaptation of a much earlier Latin tale. Originally the hero figure had been Recaranus, a local shepherd of Greek origin, with whom our wandering hero has been amalgamated.56 Cacus also appears to have started not out as the ogre of the Heracles myth, but as an indigenous divine seer. In fact the first identifiable artistic representations of Cacus were found not in Rome but in Etruria.57 In the earliest version of the story he was not a brigand but a dishonest slave of King Evander, whom the monarch himself unmasked as the thief.

At first sight, the Ara Maxima dedicated to Hercules in Rome appears to conform completely to this analysis.58 Its prestige and antiquity are proved by its position within the Pomerium, the traditional sacred boundary of the city. Furthermore, the old cattle-market district where it stood was on the nexus of two major transport links: the river Tiber and the land route which joined central Italy and the Sabine hills to Etruria (and thus fitting well with the familiar Herculean themes of cattle droving and trade). That it was Greek merchants who first brought the cult to Rome is strongly suggested by the widespread evidence that exists for their presence in the city during the archaic period, as well as the emphasis on the implementation of Greek rites for the cult in the Hercules and Cacus story.

This view appears to be confirmed by the discovery of a shrine dating to the mid sixth century BC in the Forum Boarium, under the church of Sant’ Omobono.59 The shrine was replaced by a more substantial temple with a podium in the late sixth century, reflecting both the growing prosperity of the city and the importance of the cult that was housed there. The presence of an almost life-size statue of Hercules with another of an armed female goddess strongly suggests that this is the archaic temple dedicated to the hero. As well as a large quantity of imported Greek pottery, the temple received a wide variety of offerings that included grains, hazelnuts, piglets, goats, sheep and cattle, as well as turtles, fish, geese and doves. The dedications left at the temple included loom weights, spindle whorls, perfume bottles, bronze pins, figurines, and carved amber and ivory plaques, and were also of a wide variety and exceptional quality for the period.60

The Sant’ Omobono temple, however, does not vindicate but rather questions the scholarly orthodoxy that the cult of Hercules was simply a Latin/Roman adaptation of a purely Greek rite. The statue of Hercules discovered there, while following some of the standard Greek iconography associated with the hero, also shows clear artistic parallels with a series of statuettes of Heracles–Melqart produced in Kition. This raises the strong possibility that the Sant’ Omobono male figure is Heracles–Melqart, and the armed goddess his divine consort, Aphrodite–Astarte. 61 The discovery of a deposit of Euboean, Pithecusan, Cycladic and Corinthian pottery dating to the eighth century BC close to the temple also strongly suggests that early Rome may have been connected into the Tyrrhenian trading circuit. Was early Rome, like Pithecusa and Sant’ Imbenia, a mixed community where Greek, Phoenician and indigenous populations lived and economically cooperated with one another, and is the Sant’ Omobono temple evidence of the same kind of cultural and religious syncretism that we witness in archaic Sicily?62

There are certainly other interesting parallels between the cult of Hercules at the Ara Maxima and what we know of the religious practices associated with the worship of Melqart at Tyre, Thasos and Gades, of which the most striking are the banning of flies and dogs from the precinct, the exclusion of female celebrants and pork from the sacrifices themselves, the giving of tithes of 10 per cent of profits by merchants and other wealthy individuals, and the choice of the autumn equinox–the time of the annual rebirth of Melqart–as the season to practise many of the rites associated with the cult.63 Other famous landmarks around the Forum Boarium hint at the presence in archaic Rome of deities and religious rituals associated with the Phoenician/Punic world, and Melqart was certainly not the only Punico-Phoenician deity to have a considerable impact on the central-Italian religious landscape of the archaic period. His consort, Astarte, came to be closely associated with a startling array of Greek, Etruscan and Italian goddesses, including the Latin warrior goddess Juno, later queen of the Roman divine pantheon.64

Another important Roman connection was between Astarte and the goddess Fortuna. Scholars have long recognized the intriguing parallels between the twin temples supposedly built in Rome by the seventhcentury-BC king Servius Tullius for Fortuna and Mater Matuta, a fertility goddess, and the religious complex at Pyrgi, where famous tablets promising part of one of the twin temples to the worship of Astarte were found. Indeed, the strange story that Servius Tullius actually engaged in sexual relations with Fortuna in her new temple may be an allusion to sacred prostitution taking place there.

Then there was the tomb of Acca Laurentia, which stood in the same area. A beautiful young woman of reputedly loose morals, Acca Laurentia had been won by Hercules in a game of dice and had been subsequently locked up in his temple with his other prize, a sumptuous feast. Later she would take Hercules’ advice and marry a rich man whose considerable wealth she bequeathed to the Roman people on her death. In gratitude, the Roman king Ancius Marcus supposedly set up a tomb for her in the Forum Boarium, as well as an annual festival that was held in her honour on 23 December. Another version of this story merely records that she was a prostitute who used her vast wealth for a public feast for the Roman people. Were these strange stories a distant memory of a time when Phoenician/Punic sacred prostitution was practised in Rome?65

Once again the sanctuary at Pyrgi provides some interesting parallels. It has been argued that the Pyrgi Tablets themselves allude to the sacred marriage of Melqart and Astarte through which the welfare of the people and the fecundity of the new season were guaranteed.66 The presence of a series of small rooms within the temple complex may confirm a brief Roman textual reference that sacred prostitution, a custom strongly associated with the worship of Astarte, was practised at Pyrgi.67

Later, Rome’s ancient history would be comprehensively rewritten in order to provide the city with a pedigree that befitted its new position as a great Mediterranean power. However, these fragmentary and often obscure reminders of a very different, long-forgotten past would remain embedded within this new triumphant narrative, hinting at an archaic Rome where the Carthaginian ambassadors sent to conclude the 509 treaty would have found much that was familiar to them. Whether in the end it was Phoenician, Punic or eastern-Greek merchants who first brought Heracles to Rome is in fact relatively unimportant.68 What is striking is the extent to which both Phoenicians and Greeks had brought to this new world not just the age-old rivalries that existed between them, but also the syncretism that had developed over the long centuries of interaction in the eastern Mediterranean.69

Very soon, however, these synergies would be challenged, and eventually eclipsed, by a far more dramatic, if erroneous, narrative of inter-ethnic hatred, and the brooding threat that Carthage supposedly posed to the very survival of the western Greeks.

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