hercules -- 10/10/23
Today's selection -- from Pax: War and Peace in Rome's Golden Age by Tom Holland. The myth of Hercules, so widely cherished by Romans:
“In ancient times, so it was said, the greatest of all Greek heroes had visited Italy. The story was a favourite among the Romans. Hercules was the son of Jupiter--a paternity that had thrown Juno, the queen of the gods, into a towering rage. So irate was she at her husband's adultery that she had sent a mist of madness down upon Hercules. His insanity had driven him to commit a terrible crime: the murder of his wife and children. For this deed the gods had sentenced him to a series of supposedly impossible labours--which, being a hero, and the strongest man of all time, he had duly completed. The first of the labours had provided him with his signature costume: the hide of a ferocious lion which he had throttled with his own hands, and worn ever afterwards as a cloak. Another labour, the tenth, had been more demanding. It had required Hercules to travel to a distant island beyond the setting of the sun to kill a three-headed giant, and then to drive the monster's cattle back all the way to Greece. It was in the course of completing this feat that he had arrived in Italy.
“Reaching what would one day be Rome, he had built a bridge over the Tiber and slain the local giant. Then, heading southwards, he had arrived in Campania, the rich and fertile land stretching inland from the Bay of Naples. Here he had found himself confronted not by one giant, but by an entire race of them. Never a man to duck a challenge, he had fought the whole lot at once. The dash had made the earth shake--but Hercules, aided by his divine father, had finally emerged triumphant from the battle. The defeated giants, their wounds still fiery from the impact of Jupiter's thunderbolts, had been chained and imprisoned by the victorious hero beneath the great mountain that rose above the Campanian plain: Vesuvius.
|Hercules battles Achelous, metamorphed into a serpent, 1824, by François Joseph Bosio. Louvre.|
“Hercules' feat had been much commemorated by poets and scholars. To celebrate it, so they recorded, he had led a triumphal procession--a pompe, in Greek--along the lower slopes of Vesuvius. Then he had founded a pair of cities. One of these, Pompeii, stood at the very foot of the mountain and commemorated in its name the hero's triumph. The other, Herculaneum, was situated on a promontory jutting out into sea and was famed for its cooling breezes. Whether Hercules had truly founded these two cities might, perhaps, be doubted by sceptics. Yet even if he had not, and even if he had never been anywhere near Campania; the stories told of his battle with the giants reflected something about Pompeii and Herculaneum that was indisputably true: they were both very old."