Ancient History & Civilisation

THE RISE OF HERCULES, THE INVINCIBLE

Among these Greek foundation myths, the cult of Hercules began to have an increasingly high profile by the time of Rome’s great Italian expansion in the fourth century BC. Although, as we have seen, the cult at the Forum Boarium stretched back into the archaic period, it had by this period divested itself of its earlier syncretistic properties, and especially any connections with Melqart. In 399 BC the cult of Hercules was accepted into the Roman religious calendar, and then in 312 it received the ultimate accolade of becoming an official state cult. The first official temple to Hercules Invictus, ‘the Invincible’–a clear nod to the triumphalism of the Hellenistic world–was also built around this time. And it is clear that the Herculean legacy had seeped into the private familial histories of Rome’s aristocratic elite, with one of the major senatorial families, the Fabii, claiming the hero as their progenitor.46

Although the story of Hercules’ association with Rome was a very old one, the myth of his visit to Pallanthium and the subsequent killing of Cacus may have been refined as late as the last decades of the fourth or the early third century BC, which suggests that the association of Hercules with Rome was very closely linked to Roman political aspirations in Italy.47 The claim that Pallanthium (the future site of Rome) was the location for the slaying of Cacus by Hercules certainly lent the city some prestige among its Latin neighbours. Indeed, in some versions of the story Hercules fathered Latinus, the eponymous founder of the Latin people, at the site of Rome.48 Armed with their own Herculean legacy, the Romans could not only claim a distinguished Greek pedigree, but also legitimize their political ambitions over the rest of Italy as establishing a Herculean commonwealth. Then there were the obvious connections with the venerable cities of Magna Graecia, many of whom claimed the great hero as their founder. With a Herculean legacy of their own, not only could the Romans claim to hail from as distinguished an ancestry as their Greek counterparts, but the association also promoted Rome’s political ambitions in the region.

Thus, through their investment in a supposed Trojan heritage and the promotion of the cult of Hercules Invictus, the Roman senatorial elite had by the late fourth/early third century BC come to culturally ally itself increasingly with the Greek world, a development which had important ramifications for Roman attitudes towards the Carthaginians. Romans certainly never thought of themselves as Greeks, but they had begun to view themselves as inhabiting the same side of the Greek-authored ethno-cultural divide that separated the civilized Hellenic world from the barbarian world, a category into which Carthage was emphatically placed. These foundation theories represented something far more potent than mere obtuse scholarly speculation. They were a body of ideas in which there had been considerable material and political investment, for they increasingly came to provide the intellectual justification for war being waged, territory being conquered, and treaties being signed. Rome’s membership of the club of civilized nations by dint of its Trojan antecedents was inherently a political decision open to periodic revision by opportunistic Hellenistic leaders (if circumstances dictated it). Indeed, the Romans themselves had been the target of a brilliant propaganda campaign waged by Pyrrhus, for silver tetradrachms that were minted under his authority were clearly designed to create a firm link in the minds of contemporaries with Alexander the Great. Among the portraits on them were the Greek heroes Heracles and Achilles.49

These images were aimed at the idea that Pyrrhus, like his heroic forebears, would lead the Italian Greeks in crushing the barbarian menace that now threatened them. Pyrrhus tried to use Rome’s supposed Trojan provenance as a propagandistic weapon to marshal the Italian Greeks under his banner, by declaring that he would copy the example of his famous ancestor, the great Greek hero Achilles, by conquering the Romans, the descendants of the Trojans.50 The political importance of ethnic categories was also highlighted later when in 263, during the diplomatic manoeuvring that signalled the escalation of the First Punic War, the Elymian city of Segesta killed its erstwhile Carthaginian allies and defected to the Roman side, citing their common descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas.51

The Romans’ growing interest in their Trojan and Herculean ‘inheritance’ was not in itself a major reason for the breakdown of the relationship with Carthage, although the Roman elite may have become more susceptible to Sicilian Greek stereotyping of Carthage as an aggressive and acquisitive power. It did, however, provide a powerful intellectual model for explaining the growing tensions and final breakdown of that relationship in the early decades of the third century BC. From the remaining fragments of his work, it appears that this was the particular historiographical approach that Timaeus favoured. Despite decades of exile in far-off Athens, he had grasped that, after the failures of Agathocles and Pyrrhus, the future of the central Mediterranean would now be decided between the Carthaginians and the Romans, with the Greeks very much on the sidelines.52With that painful (for western Greeks at least) reality very much in mind, he had constructed the elaborate fiction that Carthage and Rome had in fact been founded in exactly the same year, 813 BC.53 Through diligent research that had supposedly involved the actual interviewing of informants, Timaeus had satisfied himself of the Trojan origins of both the Romans and the Latin people.54

In the Timaean world view, Rome, as a Trojan–Greek city, was both the new counterweight to the menacing threat of Carthage and the potential champion of the western-Greek world–a view that the Romans may have been happy to encourage. Although very little survives of Timaeus’ account of Pyrrhus, we may speculate that a major theme was the terrible mistake that the western Greeks had made in allying themselves against Rome, a Trojan–Greek city, and a true heir of the Heraclean tradition (in contrast to Pyrrhus, who had falsely tried to claim that tradition for himself), rather than focusing their energies against their common enemy, Carthage.55 It was surely no coincidence that Timaeus was careful to emphasize the Heraclean antecedents of Italy in his work, with particular attention paid to the Greek hero’s progress down through the peninsula and Sicily with the cattle of Geryon.56

The focus on the southern-Italian and Sicilian travels of Heracles in Timaeus’ work may have been deployed in order to emphasize the western Greeks’ and Romans’ shared investment in the great hero’s legacy. Indeed, we know that this connection was not just the product of Timaeus’ imagination, but an idea in which the Romans themselves also had a growing investment. In 270 Rome minted an issue of silver coinage in commemoration of the final victory over Tarentum, and the obverse showed the famous image of Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf. The reverse, however, featured Hercules in the Greek iconographical tradition wearing a lionskin. The city states of southern Italy had a long and proud tradition of putting Heracles on their coins, and the hero had long epitomized the success of Greek colonial endeavour in the region. Now Roman coinage proclaimed Rome’s membership of the Heraclean tradition.57

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