Gaius Asinius Pollio and the first Public Library in Ancient Rome

“he was the first to make men’s talents public property…” Pliny

The Forum Romanum

Once in a while, as I do my research for the next book or blog post, or as I’m reading for pleasure, I sometimes come across a person of history who grabs my attention.

Of course, there are many historical personages who give me pause, but not all of their names stay at the back of my mind, whispering, willing me not to forget.

Gaius Asinius Pollio (76 B.C. – A.D. 5) is one of those people.

In my career outside of writing, I’ve worked a lot with public libraries. In fact, I’m a huge fan of public libraries as an institution, and believe they are more relevant than ever, despite the existence of the internet.

Where else can anyone go to learn, get free access to books, music, information, new technologies and more?

As an historian who still laments the burning of the great library of Alexandria, I have nostalgic spot for libraries, but as a writer and historian who believes in making history accessible to everyone, I think the library is a crucial part of any civilized society.

Artist impression of the Great Library of Alexandria

So… When I came across the name of Gaius Asinius Pollio in relation to the founding of the first public library in ancient Rome, I had to learn more!

Pollio lived during one of the most fascinating and pivotal times in Rome’s history. He saw the end of the Roman Republic and the Hellenistic Age, and the birth of the Roman Empire. He rubbed shoulders with some of the titans of Roman history, including Julius Caesar and Augustus.

Pollio was a soldier, a politician, an orator, a poet and playwright, a literary critic, and…wait for it…an historian! In fact, his work, though it does not survive, was supposedly influential on both Plutarch and Appian.

He was also consul in the year 40 B.C.

You could say that Gaius Asinius Pollio was something of an ancient Renaissance man.

The Roman Senate (A scene from the film, The Fall of the Roman Empire)

As part of Julius Caesar’s staff, he was there when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., and he occupied Sicily in 48 B.C. once the civil war was well underway. Also in 48 B.C. Pollio was apparently present as Caesar’s legate at the battle of Pharsalus, the decisive battle in which Caesar defeated the forces of Pompey the Great.

After that, he held a command in Spain from 44-43 B.C. where he was engaged in fighting with Pompey’s son, Sextus. Things didn’t go so well in Spain for Pollio, but he managed to survive and threw in his lot with Marcus Antonius after the murder of Julius Caesar.

In 40 B.C. he was consul, along with Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, another Roman general and senator.

muses of Sicily, essay we now

a somewhat loftier task! Not all men love

coppice or lowly tamarisk: sing we woods,

woods worthy of a Consul let them be.

Now the last age by Cumae’s Sibyl sung

has come and gone, and the majestic roll

of circling centuries begins anew:

justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,

with a new breed of men sent down from heaven.

Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom

the iron shall cease, the golden race arise,

befriend him, chaste Lucina; ’tis thine own

Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate,

this glorious age, O Pollio, shall begin,

and the months enter on their mighty march.

Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain

of our old wickedness, once done away,

shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.

He shall receive the life of gods, and see

heroes with gods commingling, and himself

be seen of them, and with his father’s worth

reign o’er a world at peace.

(The poet, Virgil, on Pollio – 4th Eclogue)

In his role as consul, Pollio was responsible for actively promoting the Treaty of Brundisium between Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus. This was the Second Triumvirate.

The Second Triumvirate – Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus

In 39 B.C. Pollio became governor of Macedonia. While there, he fought a campaign in Illyria against the Parthini and for his victories, he received a Triumph at Rome, not to mention a small fortune in booty.

At this point he retired from the battlefield. Not a bad way to go out on top, after a Triumph that is.

After the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., that fateful battle in which Antony and Cleopatra were defeated by Octavian and the Hellenistic age came to an end, Pollio hunkered down to write and pursue his literary interests.

He had remained neutral during the Battle of Actium, not wishing to go against Antony who had shown him some kindness in the past – Pollio had been his legate in 41 B.C. when settling veterans in northern Italy.

The broils that from Metellus date,

The secret springs, the dark intrigues,

The freaks of Fortune, and the great

Confederate in disastrous leagues,

And arms with uncleansed slaughter red,

A work of danger and distrust,

You treat, as one on fire should tread

Scarce hid by treacherous ashen crust.

Let Tragedy’s stern muse be mute

Awhile; and when your order’d page

Has told Rome’s tale, that buskin’d foot

Again shall mount the Attic stage,

Pollio, the pale defendant’s shield,

In deep debate the senate’s stay,

The hero of Dalmatic field

By Triumph crown’d with deathless bay.

E’en now with trumpet’s threatening blare

You thrill our ears; the clarion brays;

The lightnings of the armour scare

The steed, and daunt the rider’s gaze.

(Horace, on Pollio’s Triumph; Ode 2.1 to Pollio)

A Roman Triumph

Gaius Asinius Pollio then wrote his Historiae, an account of the Civil Wars from 60-42 B.C., ending with the battle of Philippi, in seventeen books. Sadly none of this work survives, but it’s preserved in its use by both Plutarch an Arrian.

Previously, Pollio had been a literary critic of Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, and Livy to name a few. But he was also highly praising of those whose writings he admired and saw merit in. He became quite an important person on the Roman literary scene in his retirement.

He held public recitals for writers and poets, and was himself the first Roman writer to read his own work in public. At one of his gatherings, his young friend, an up-and-coming poet by the name of Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil as we know him, did a reading of a piece he had been working on called The Aeneid.

The poet, Virgil

Well, it just so happened that some of Emperor Augustus’ family, or even the man himself, were at the reading and were very impressed with Virgil’s tale of the foundation of Rome and the role the Julii played in it. Thus, did Pollio help Virgil gain his most important patron!

With all of this, it should come as no surprise that Pollio would be responsible for the first public library in ancient Rome.

But, in a way, it is surprising, for until that time, any libraries that existed in Rome were purely private, the domain of the rich, those seeking to impress their peers or hoard knowledge.

In the past, Roman generals had been responsible for the destruction and looting of some of the finest libraries in antiquity. When Lucius Cornelius Sulla sacked the city of Athens in 86 B.C. he had burned the Academy of Athens and its library. When Lucius Aemilius Paulus defeated King Perseus in the Third Macedonian War, he took all of the kings books from the library and made them the first private library at Rome. And in the first century B.C., General Lucullus created a private library from the looted book collections of Mithridates and other Pontic Kings. Apparently, Lucullus did lend books from his private collection, the place ironically becoming a centre for literary Greeks in Rome!

Artist impression of an ancient library

But to that point, there had been no ‘public library’.

Julius Caesar, who is often accused of having burned the Library of Alexandria, the greatest library in the ancient world, did see the value of a public library for Rome and, no doubt after his time in Egypt with Cleopatra, he got the idea to create one at the heart of the Empire.

However, Caesar was killed before the project could come to fruition.

Enter Gaius Asinius Pollio.

With the funds and booty Pollio had accumulated during his governorship of Macedonia and the Illyrian campaign, he decided to establish the first public library in Rome.

The public library was founded during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, to whom Pollio seems to have remained aloof, no doubt due to his previous ties to Mark Antony.

Papyrus fragment with text of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ (Rylands Papyri Collection)

Pollio’s library seems to have had separate wings for both Greek and Latin texts, and is supposed to have been housed in the Atrium Libertatis, or the ‘Hall of Liberty’, the exact site of which is unknown.

Another interesting thing about the library was that it was supposedly the first to also be decorated with statues of heroes and literary greats. Pollio loved Hellenistic art, and so his library was also an art gallery, a sort of multi-use facility for the ancient world.

One of the most famous sculptures that was supposed to have decorated Pollio’s public library was the group known as the Farnese Bull.

The Farnese Bull

Eventually, it became fashionable for rulers to establish public libraries.

Emperor Augustus founded two more libraries after Pollio’s – one on the Campus Martius, and the other on the Palatine Hill, beside the Temple of Apollo.

Emperor Trajan built the Bibliotheca Ulpia, and Hadrian, philhellene that he was, made right the wrong Sulla had done to the city of Athens and built a new library there. You can still see the remains of Hadrian’s Library in the Plaka neighbourhood of Athens’ modern tourist district.

Hadrian’s Library Athens

Gaius Asinius Pollio may not have been the most well-liked person of his age, but he seems to have commanded respect from his peers and those in power – how else might he have survived so tumultuous a time in Rome’s history?

Despite being quite the soldier and politician, literary critic and author, it seems that he is most often remembered, today at least, as the man who established the first public library in the city of Rome, and that in and of itself, is a good thing.

Thank you for reading.

Marrucinus Asinius, your left hand

you use not beautifully: in joke and in wine

you lift the napkins of the more careless people.

You think this is witty? It escapes you, inept one:

the thing is as dirty and as un-charming as can be.

You don’t believe me? Believe your brother Pollio,

who wants to change your thefts

even for a talent—for he is a boy

stuffed of charm and wit.

(Catullus Poem #12; addressing Marrucinus Asinius, Gaius Asinius Pollio’s brother, who was known for tasteless practical jokes)

Fresco thought to be from Gaius Asinius Pollio’s Public Library

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Ancient Everyday – Telling Time in the Roman World

Hi everyone!

Today we have the fourth and final part in our Ancient Everyday blog series on Time in the Roman World.

I hope you’ve enjoyed all the posts thus far, and that you’ve learned a little something with regards to how the Romans tracked the years, developed the calendar, and numbered and named the days and weeks.

In Part IV, we’re going to look at how the Romans told time.

The time of day is something that most of us obsess about, whether we want to or not. Almost everyone has a watch on their wrist, or a mobile phone in their pocket to check the time whenever they want.

But what did they do to tell the time in ancient Rome? How did they divide the hours of the day? How did they keep their appointments whether with one’s hairstylist, fuller, patron, or with Caesar himself?

Let’s have a look…

Sunrise over Roman Forum

In ancient Rome, the day was divided into twelve hours of night, and twelve hours of day.

Because of this, a daylight hour was not the same length as a nighttime hour, except during an Equinox! For example, a daylight hour in mid-winter was about forty-five minutes long by our reckoning, and in midsummer, it was about one and a half hours long.

Time was told in relation to the hour of night or daylight. For instance, midnight was the sixth hour of night, and midday was the sixth hour of day.

Time was expressed in terms like ‘first hour’. E.g. ‘I’ll meet you at the temple of Venus and Rome at the first hour’ (after sunrise).

If you were invited to someone’s home on the Caelian Hill for a late night party, they might tell you to be there at the ‘eleventh hour’, that is two hours before sunset.

Roman dinner party

Midday was known as meridies, and this is where we get the notion of A.M. and P.M.

A.M. stands for ante meridiem (‘before midday’), and P.M. stands for post meridiem (‘after midday’). Another thing the Romans did for us!

But what if you were out at a late night orgy, or drinking and gambling in the tabernae of the Suburan slums? What if you woke up late and your whole sense of time was thrown off. How would you be able to tell what time it was, and whether you missed that all-important meeting with your patron?

If someone else wasn’t around who could tell you what hour of daylight it was, you could always go and check a clock.

Yes! The Romans did indeed have clocks, or horologia.

Horologia could come in two forms. They could be solaria (shadow clocks or sundials) or they could be clepsydrae (water clocks).

Solarium Augusti on the Campus Martius

Solaria were apparently introduced to Rome sometime in the third century B.C. They were by no means perfect for telling the time as they needed scale adjustment for latitude, required seasonal corrections, and most obviously, relied on sunshine, so they could not be used at night.

I’m guessing that solaria in the far-away province of Britannia might have been more finicky than one on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean Sea!

Perhaps the most famous of solaria in ancient Rome was the one erected by Emperor Augustus on the Campus Martius in 9 B.C.

The Solarium Augusti as it was known was basically a giant sundial that used an Egyptian obelisk brought from Heliopolis, in Egypt, as the gnomon or staff of the sundial. Augustus dedicated this solarium to the Sun, making it the first solar dedication in the city of Rome.

Today, you can see the obelisk in the Piazza di Montecitorio.

The obelisk that was the gnomon of Augustus’ solarium

Waterclocks, or clepsydrae, were also used in ancient Rome and across the Empire.

Now, these also needed seasonal adjustment, but they could be used at night because they didn’t require sunlight. This made them especially useful in military camps for keeping the hours of the watch through the night.

A clepsydra was usually a vessel with holes for the outflow of water. As the water emptied, it measured time, sort of like an hour glass with sand.

A 17th Century sketch of Ctesibus’ water clock from Ptolemaic Egypt

Of course, like watches and clocks today, clepsydrae came in varying levels of quality and accuracy, as well as extra features.

One had to keep an eye on the water level in the smaller vessels that made up some clepsydrae, as once the water ran out, it would stop working and have to be set up again. This might be akin to having to wind clocks every so often.

However, there were more elaborate clepsydrae that had a constant supply of water, and this would allow for twenty-four hour operation.

An example of this high-end ‘time piece’ is the Tower of the Winds in the Roman Agora of Athens, also known as the Horologion of Andronicus, which was built in the first century B.C.

Tower of the Winds, Athens (Wikimedia Commons)

So, there you have it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this four-part Ancient Everyday series on Time in the Roman world.

I have to say, I’ve found it very interesting and even learned some new things myself.

There will be other installments of Ancient Everyday in the future, and much more!

So, thank you for reading, happy Summer, and we’ll see you next time…

Ancient Everyday will be back!

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Ancient Everyday – The Days and the Weeks in Ancient Rome

Salve readers!

We’re back in the Roman world for the third part in this mini Ancient Everyday blog series about, you guessed it: Time.

In the last two posts, we looked at how Romans tracked the years, as well as the evolution of the calendar in ancient Rome.

Today, we’re going to take a brief look at the Roman days and weeks which, in addition to many things, are one of their legacies to us.

Portion of a Roman Calendar showing the Kalends, Nones, Ides, and some festivals etc.

The Roman days of the month were not numbered serially as they are today. They were numbered in relation to three specifically named days. It was from these three specific days that the other dates were counted retrospectively.

So, what were these special days, you might ask? They were the:

Kalendae

(the Kalends – first day of the month, and origin of our word ‘calendar’)

Nonae

(the Nones – the ninth day before the Ides, or the fifth day of the month; seventh in a 31-day month; originally, the Nonae corresponded with the first quarter moon of the lunar month)

and

Idus

(the Ides – the thirteenth day; or the fifteenth day in a 31-day month; the Ides originally corresponded with the full moon of the lunar month)

The Ides of March – the date of Caesar’s assassination

So, those are the ‘special’ days in the Roman month. But how did they count the rest?

This is where it gets complicated…

The day was numbered or named by its place so many days before (ante diem) the Kalends, the Nones, or the Ides of the month.

But! The day immediately before one of the three named days was called pridie.

If you ever try to read Roman dates, you will also notice that they are always abbreviated.

Fragment of the Fasti Praenestini for the month of Aprilis (Wikimedia Commons)

In ancient Rome, the official Calendar was drawn up by the pontiffs (priests) who ensured the inclusion of the dates for religious festivals – and in ancient Rome, there were many of those! These festivals would be indicated by a letter or abbreviation representing a particular celebration beside the date.

So, those are the days of the Roman calendar, but what of the weeks? Did they have the exact same weekdays that we do? Or rather, do we have the same ones as the Romans?

Not exactly.

A Roman market day

Early on, the Roman week was eight days long. The eighth day was a market day, or nundinae.

The market day was a day of rest from agricultural labour, a time to take the produce or livestock to market.

To confuse things a little more, the period of time between market days was known as a nundinum.

The eight-day week did not last however.

The seven day period that we are familiar with was used at first in the East, especially by Hellenistic astrologers.

In Rome, the earliest reference to a seven day week is supposedly from the time of Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 14). This was eventually officially adopted by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 321.

Emperor Augusts

Finally, what were the names of the days of the week in ancient Rome?

Well, they were named after the gods and planets, and to this day the names used in the various Romance Languages preserve the Roman tradition. Beginning with Monday, they are:

Dies Lunae (the day of the Moon)

Dies Martis (the day of Mars)

Dies Mercurii (the day of Mercury)

Dies Jovis (the day of Jupiter)

Dies Veneris (the day of Venus)

Dies Saturni (the day of Saturn)

Dies Solis (the day of the Sun)

There you have it, the Roman days and weeks!

The legacy of the Romans never ceases to amaze me.

Next week is the fourth and final part of this Ancient Everyday blog series in which we will be looking at how the Romans told the time of day.

Until then, thank you for reading!

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Ancient Everyday – The Calendar in Ancient Rome

Salve!

Welcome to the second part in this mini, Ancient Everyday blog series about Time in the Roman world.

Last week we took a brief look at how the Romans tracked and organized the years. If you missed it, you can read it by CLICKING HERE.

This week, we’re going to take a look at what is perhaps one of their greatest legacies – the Calendar.

Now, the Romans did indeed do a lot for us – you can check out this wonderful series hosted by Adam Hart-Davis to learn what the Romans did for us – and it goes without saying that we take a lot of it for granted today.

The calendar ranks right up there, and even though we take time for granted, it is actually something that we are constantly aware of. Quite the conundrum, if you ask me!

Roman mosaic representation of the months from North Africa

The word ‘calendar’, as well as the names of the months we still use today are of Roman origin.

However, the calendar went through some reform before it got to the version we are now familiar with.

The original Roman calendar, known as the ‘Calendar of Romulus’, was an agricultural, 10-month year. There were ten irregular months with a total of 304 days from March to December.

The names of these months originated then, and the gap of missing months accounts for the period of time in which no agricultural work was carried out. This was also a lunar cycle, so there was a degree of ‘seasonal drift’ compared to the solar cycle.

Working the fields

It is believed that the change to a 12-month calendar occurred in the sixth century B.C.

In the year 153 B.C., January was made the first month of the year, named after Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings.

But until Julius Caesar’s calendar reform, the Roman year was 355 days long, divided into 12 months. Four of these had 31 days (March, May, July, and October), seven months had 29 days, and February had 28 days.

Here are the names of the months on the Roman calendar:

Ianuarius (the month of ‘Janus’)

Februarius (the month of ‘Februa’, purgings or purifications)

Martius (the month of ‘Mars’)

Aprilis (uncertain meaning)

Maius (uncertain meaning)

Iunius (the month of ‘Juno’)

Quinctilis (the ‘fifth’ month – renamed ‘Iulius’ in 44 B.C. after Julius Caesar)

Sextilis (the ‘sixth’ month – renamed ‘Augustus’ in 8 B.C. after Emperor Augustus)

September (the ‘seventh’ month)

October (the ‘eighth’ month)

November (the ‘ninth’ month)

December (the ‘tenth’ month)

Notice how some of these names are a legacy of the 10-month agricultural Roman calendar year?

A reproduction of the Fasti Antiates Maiores (c. 60 B.C.) – Wikimedia Commons

There is apparently some evidence for ‘intercalation’, that is, the addition of days to adjust the year. This included the addition of 22-23 days every other year in February.

The act of intercalation was the domain of the pontiffs of Rome, but it was not accurate, and by the time of Julius Caesar, the civic year was about three months ahead of the solar year that was in use.

Caesar extended the year 46 B.C. to 445 days to remove the discrepancy.

So, from January 1st, 45 B.C. he made the year 365 days long with the months at their current numbers. Quite the legacy, no? He also introduced the leap year.

Thus, was the Julian Calendar born.

Gaius Julius Caesar

Today, the most widely used calendar is the Gregorian Calendar. However, the Gregorian calendar is basically the same as the Julian Calendar except for some small changes.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII omitted 10 days from the calendar year to adjust the discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the solar year. He also ordered that 3 days be omitted in leap years every 400 years.

So there you have it! A very brief look at the evolution of the calendar from ancient Rome to the one we use today.

Next week, in Part III of this series, we’ll be looking at the days and weeks in the Roman world.

Thank you for reading!

A Roman Calendar – this one showing the months of Iulius and Augustus

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Ancient Everyday – Tracking the Years in Ancient Rome

Salve!

This week on Writing the Past, we’re going back in time from the Middle Ages to ancient Rome once more.

I thought it might be fun to do a short series of Ancient Everyday blogs about something that concerned our ancient ancestors as well as ourselves. It’s something that, across the ages, we all wish we had more of: Time.

This isn’t going to be a philosophical series of posts on time, but rather a look at the practicalities of time and how ancient Romans organized it.

Saturn, among other things, the Roman God of Time

In this first post, we’re going to look at how years were counted and tracked in ancient Rome and across the Empire.

Today, dating is something we take rather for granted, but at times during the Roman era, there was a lot of thought put into this and the development of a system around it.

Early in the Roman Republic, the years were usually dated by the names of the Roman Consuls, the highest rank for an elected Roman official, and the pinnacle of the Cursus Honorem, the tried and true path of public offices for anyone seeking political success.

Two consuls served at once and, conveniently, they served for just one year, so that could be readily used as a method of dating. The lists of consuls were called fasti, and they exist from about the year 509 B.C.

Fragment of the list of the Roman consuls known as the “Fasti Colotiani” (Museo della civiltà romana)

This practice of dating using the names of Roman Consuls stopped in about A.D. 537 when Emperor Justinian I (the ‘Great’) switched to the regnal years of the emperors.

Prior to that, there were other ways in which the years were tracked and counted.

Sometimes years were dated from the founding of the city of Rome – ab urbe condita was the wording used. Rome is generally thought to have been founded in the year 753 B.C., so the years would be counted from that point on.

I wonder how widespread this dating was, compared with the use of the fasti. There were even more dating systems across the Empire, systems which had a local flavour; say, for instance, years counted from a particularly big event in the history of a certain place etc.

Emperor Justinian I ‘the Great’

From the late 3rd century A.D., the practice of counting years by indiction, or indictio, was also used. This was the announcement of the delivery of food and other goods to the government. So, basically, indictio referred to the tax assessment which took place, at first, in five-year cycles, but in a fifteen-year cycle from about A.D. 312.

Indictio was also often used to date the fiscal years in the Empire which tended to begin on the first of September.

It’s thought that the general population may have tended to know the indictio years better than the consular years. This isn’t surprising as we’re all aware of the dates when the government slashes at our purse strings!

What is thought to be a relief showing Roman tax collectors

The Christian reckoning of years using B.C. and A.D. (for Anno Domini – ‘Year of the Lord’) in the Julian and Gregorian calendars was introduced in the mid-sixth century by the monk Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor. In this reckoning, there is no year ‘0’, but rather 1 B.C. is immediately followed by A.D. 1. Nowadays, there is a movement toward using B.C.E (Before Common/Current Era) and C.E. (Common/Current Era).

Whichever method of dating you prefer today, it seems that the Romans had a variety of methods to choose from.

Were they as obsessed with time as we are today? I suspect not. But it was something they grappled with on certain levels.

Either way, ancient dates are likely less reliable before Julius Caesar’s calendar reform of 45 B.C.

I suppose we should thank the gods for circa, that is, ‘approximately’!

Thank you for reading!

If you are curious and want to check out a list of the consuls of Rome, you can do so by CLICKING HERE.

Come back next week for the next Ancient Everyday in this series on Time in which we’ll be looking at the Roman calendar and months.

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Mars – God of War and…Agriculture?

One of the things that fascinates me the most about studying the ancient world is the vast array of gods and goddesses. They all played an important role in the day-to-day lives of ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and others.

There were many deities associated with agriculture in ancient Rome, Ceres and Saturn, for example. Many gods and goddesses, major and minor, could affect crops, agricultural endeavours and the subsequent harvests.

When you hear the name of Mars, agriculture is not the first thing that comes to mind. When I think of the Roman god, Mars, I think of one thing.

WAR.

The Roman God of War was second to none other than Jupiter himself in the Roman Pantheon.

The Romans were a warlike people after all, and so Mars always figured prominently.

Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) vowed to build a temple to Mars in 42 B.C. during the battle of Philippi in which he, Mark Antony and Lepidus finally defeated the murderers of Julius Caesar. When Augustus built his forum in 20 B.C. the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger) was the centrepiece.

“On my own ground I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war.” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)

Artist impression of temple of Mars Ultor (the ‘Avenger’)

People often think that Mars was the Roman name given to Ares, the Greek God of War, as was the case with many other gods in Roman religion. This is not exactly true.

In the Greek Pantheon, Ares was simply God of War, brutal, dangerous and unforgiving. To give oneself over to Ares was to give in to savagery and the animalistic side of war. Fear and Terror were his companions. Most Greeks preferred Athena as Goddess of War, Strategy and Wisdom.

Mars was a very different god from Ares. He was a uniquely Roman god. He was the father of the Roman people.

Mars was the God of War, true, but he was also a god of agriculture.

Just as he protected the Roman people in battle, so too did Mars guard their crops, their flocks, and their lands.

War and agriculture were closely linked in the Roman Republic. Most Romans who fought in the early legions were farmers who had set aside their plows and scythes to pick up their gladii and scuta when called upon to defend their lands. One of the most cited examples of this is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC), one of the early Patrician heroes of Rome.

In his work De Agri Cultura, Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BC– 149 BC) speaks at length about the tradition of the suovetaurilia, a sacrifice that was made roughly every five years and occasionally at other times. This ceremony was a form of purification, a lustratio.

Relief of a Suovetaurilia ceremony

The highly sacred suovetaurilia was dedicated to Mars with the intent of blessing and purifying lands.

It involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull – all to Mars.

The sacrifice was done after the animals were led around the land while asking the god to purify the farm and land.

Cato describes the prayer that is uttered to Mars once the sacrifices have been made:

Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off, and remove sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vineyards, and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house, and my household. To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land, my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars…

(Cato the Elder; De Agri Cultura)

Cato the Elder

This is not a prayer to the bloodthirsty god of war that Ares was.

The words and actions above evoke a wish from a child to a supreme father and protector. We see the fears that would have occupied the minds of the Roman people. No matter how mighty in war they may have been, if crops failed and disease spread, they would have been lost.

Romans prayed to Ceres and Saturn for the success of their crops, for abundance.

But the prayer above was to Mars, he who held Rome’s enemies, the enemies of its lands, at bay.

In war and in peace, Mars was always the guardian of his people.

Thank you for reading

If you want a clearer understanding of the suovetaurilia ceremony, and the meaning of this interesting Latin compound word, here is a very short presentation: https://youtu.be/pz1KiILdW2s

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The Elusive Etruscans

Recently, while excavating piles of my research on various topics, I unearthed some photos from a vacation in Tuscany back in 2002. These photos were of an Etruscan tomb just outside Castellina in Chianti.

The site was simple and unassuming, but it had a great impact on my imagination, so much so that I used it in some parts of Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra. On that trip, I started to learn more about the Etruscans who inhabited the Italian peninsula from roughly the Tiber to the Arno rivers and beyond, to the Po valley and Bologna.

Going into the Etruscan tomb at Castellina in Chianti

So, my interest rekindled, I thought I would write a quick post on this fascinating people.

Not a great deal is known about the Etruscans, and I am by no means an expert, but from what I have seen and read, it’s a very interesting topic. Anyone who has studied ancient Greece and Rome will have had some contact with the Etruscans; the Greeks traded with them and were a great influence on Etruscan art and lifestyle, and Rome itself was ruled by Etruscan kings who brought that little backwater village by the Tiber out of the mud with a dash of civilization. In Tuscany itself, there are many sites where one can find remains of Etruscan civilization, places such as Cerveteri, Veii, Tarquinia, Volsinii, Volterra, Vulci and Arezzo.

Interior of an Etruscan tomb

Much of what is known about the Etruscans and their lifestyle comes from their tombs where elaborate paintings of banquets and sporting events such as the Olympics have been found. Many grave goods have been found in the tombs and there is an excellent collection of finds at the Archaeological Museums of Bologna and Florence.

The Etruscans traded a great deal, and so had much contact with the Greeks from other parts of Italy, Sicily and mainland Greece. The walls of the tombs depict chariot races and elaborate banqueting scenes with diners reclining on couches, drinking wine from kraters and being entertained by musicians. The scene is like many an ancient Greek depiction with one marked difference: in Etruscan art, women were shown dining right alongside the men, drinking wine and enjoying conversation. This would have been scandalous to an ancient Greek, as women the other side of the Ionian sea were not permitted to be in attendance at banquets or symposia.

Etruscan tomb of large family from Volterra

The Etruscans had their own rich culture and this is reflected in much of their bronze artwork and pottery. While some of it resembled ancient Greek art, or indeed was Greek art acquired through trade, much of it is quite unique. An excellent example of this is the famous bronze Chimera of Arezzo on display at the Florence Archaeological Museum.

Chimera of Arezzo

There is much debate about the origin of the Etruscans in Italy with no consensus yet in sight. Some believe the Etruscans were an indigenous people, others that they came from Lydia in Asia Minor. As far as the Roman scene was concerned, the line of Etruscan kings began circa 616 B.C. with the reign of Tarquin the Elder who was a Corinthian Greek named Lucumo who lived in Tarquinia and married an Etruscan woman named Tanaquil. The two were shunned for a mixed marriage and so moved to the growing centre of Rome where Tarquin became the fifth king of Rome.

The Etruscans were famous for their understanding of augury and prophecy, religious practices which would be widely used in Roman life for hundreds of years. Etruscan augurs would read portents and the will of the gods in animal entrails and organs, and this skill impressed the Romans. The Etruscans not only complemented Roman religious practices, but also helped to improve Roman building practices and it is to them that the Romans owe their talent for building aqueducts and sewers.

Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri

At the peak of their power and influence, the Etruscans were the dominant people of central Italy. They were however, never a truly unified nation and, like the Greeks who had influenced them and traded with them, their city-states never stopped fighting amongst themselves. With the Romans growing in strength and skill to the South, and the Celts expanding in the North, the Etruscans were in a superbly unenviable position and could not hold sway for long.

The last Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, who according to Livy took the throne by force and ruled through fear, was narrowly defeated in a series of battles between Etruscan allies and the Romans, led by Lucius Iunius Brutus. Many died on both sides, but Tarquin lived through the day and, though no longer King of Rome, lived out his days in exile in Tusculum. The wheels had been set in motion and Rome had become a Republic.

Tarquin the Proud (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, when I walked into the cypress-crowned tomb outside Castellina in Chianti years ago, I knew nothing of Etruscan history, nor how fascinating it really is. This short blog post is a tiny scratch on the surface, a mere taste – there is so much more to learn. There are not many books (fiction or non-fiction) on the subject, at least not in English. As far as historical fiction/fantasy, two great reads are Steven Saylor’s Roma, part of which takes place during Rome’s infancy, and the other book is Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderfully woven tale, Lavinia, which looks at the mythical foundation of Rome with the arrival of Aeneas after the Trojan War.

Winged horses from Tarquinia

If you ever find yourself in Italy, I highly recommend the archaeological museums of Florence and Bologna where you can see Etruscan artefacts for yourselves, and it goes without saying that visits to the archaeological sites mentioned are well worth the adventure. Just remember that snakes, as well as tourists, like nothing more than a dark, damp tomb in summer time.

Thank you for reading.

*If anyone has a favourite source for information on the Etruscans, please do share it in the comments below so that everyone can check it out!

 

Etruscan tomb fresco from Tarquinia (c. 400) – Greeks fighting Amazons

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Ancient Everyday: Paterfamilias – The Father in Roman Society

It’s been a while since our last Ancient Everyday post, so time to get back to it.

Today, we’re going to look at the father in Roman society, the paterfamilias.

As an example, we are going to use Quintus Metellus Anguis, one of the main characters from the book, Killing the Hydra.

Looking back on the writing of this book, I forget all the years of research that went into it. I take for granted the everyday Roman world I immersed myself in to write it and the rest of the series. It all seems quite normal to me now.

Republican portrait of a man

I’ve spent a lot of time with the characters – the good, the bad, the savage, the honourable, the beautiful, the mysterious etc. etc., but Senator Quintus Metellus Anguis was a difficult person to deal with. However, I’m not sure he would have been out of place in the early Republican era.

Quintus is a spiteful, hard man who is quick to anger and jealous of his son’s (that is, Lucius Metellus Anguis’) successes. He is of a mindset that was born in the very early days of the Republic when there were no emperors, when kings were killed, and when the father held supreme power in the family.

Then again, in some ways, Quintus Metellus could not be more out of place in early 3rd century Rome, the period during which the story takes place.

Imperial Family under Augustus

Let’s take a look at the father in ancient Rome and his role as paterfamilias.

First we should have a look at the word familia. In ancient Rome, a familia did not only include a father, mother and children. The word also referred to other relatives (by blood or adoption), clients, freedmen and all slaves belonging to the family. It included all the family houses, lands and estates and anyone involved with running those holdings.

The Roman familia went far beyond the nuclear family, and the paterfamilias was the head of it all.

Roman Man and his ancestors

During the early days of the Roman Republic, the role of the paterfamilias was largely determined by an unwritten moral and social code called the Mos Maiorum, or the ‘ways of the elders’. These governing rules of private, social and political life in ancient Rome were handed down through the generations. Because these rules were unwritten, they evolved over time. Values and social mores change, as is natural, and successive generations come into their own with ideas different to their predecessors.

The generational differences form a large part of the conflict between Lucius and his father Quintus in both Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra.

Roman Youth – in this case, Marcus Aurelius

Quintus Metellus, as a Republican, is against Emperor Septimius Severus. He has had a vision of his son’s social and political progress since before he was born. He has tried hard all his life to breathe life back into the ancient name of ‘Metellus’, but without success. Now, all the pressure is placed upon his son, Lucius, whom he wants to become a senator of renown after he completes his minimum number of years in the military.

But Lucius has other ideas. He does not want what his father wants. Lucius has found success in the Legions and has been praised and promoted by Emperor Severus, a man he is happy to serve. Unlike many equestrian youths, Lucius Metellus Anguis is not interested in pursuing a political career. He wants to be a career officer in Rome’s Legions – something that causes his father no end of embarrassment and frustration. In his opinion, it is not the way to further the family name and better their fortunes.

In the early days of the Republic, Lucius would have had to do as his paterfamilias dictated. There would have been no choice in the matter, no influence from his mother or older sister to help his cause. The paterfamilias’ word was law within the familia.

In ancient Rome, the paterfamilias had to be a Roman citizen. He was responsible for the familia’s well-being and reputation, its legal and moral propriety. The paterfamilias even had duties to the household gods.

And this is where Quintus Metellus fails. He has lost faith in the gods that have watched over them. In fact, he fears them and their apparent favour of his son. Quintus clings to the archaic role of the paterfamilias like a dictator with power of life and death over the members of his familia. He forgets that the paterfamilias’ role is also to protect his familia within the current world they live in, and to honour their ancestors and their gods through his behaviour, his example.

This is where Lucius fills the void in duties neglected by his father.

But it is never as easy as that. The Empire is large, and most men are susceptible to corruption. Lucius fights for honour and goodness in a world that has no qualms about dismissing honour, virtue and family in the interests of greed and political advancement.

Quintus Metellus is the paterfamilias of their branch of the Metellus gens, but his own shortcomings and archaic notions are at complete odds with his son and the times they live in.

It’s always interesting to compare previous ages and practices with those of our own. Certainly the role of the father has changed over the centuries, though it varies from family to family and culture to culture.

Roman husband, wife and children

Fortuna smiled on me with my own father who, thankfully, bore no resemblance to Quintus Metellus. But it was interesting to write such a character as Quintus, to explore his relationship with Lucius and the rest of the familia.

By the 3rd century A.D. the paterfamilias’ power of life and death over his family was restricted, the practice all but dead.

But old habits and ideas die hard, and for Quintus Metellus there are other ways to kill a member of your familia and maintain your power as paterfamilias.

Thank you for reading.

 

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The Tragedy of Herakles

Alas! alas! lament, O city; the son of Zeus, thy fairest bloom, is being cut down. Woe is thee, Hellas! that wilt cast from thee thy benefactor, and destroy him as he madly, wildly dances where no pipe is heard.

She is mounted on her car, the queen of sorrow and sighing, and is goading on her steeds, as if for outrage, the Gorgon child of Night, with hundred hissing serpent-heads, Madness of the flashing eyes. Soon hath the god changed his good fortune; soon will his children breathe their last, slain by a father’s hand. (Euripides – Herakles)

In Part I of this series on Herakles, we looked at his triumphs, the Twelve Labours that set him down on the papyrus pages of ancient history as the greatest hero. He was a man of great strength, appetites, perseverance, and emotion. He traveled the world achieving feats that would have defeated any other man of his time.

The tales of Herakles’ heroics have inspired for centuries.

But, as with all tales from ancient Greece, triumph and tragedy go arm in arm in the hero’s life.

The tragedy of Herakles’ life actually began, as mentioned in Part I, before his twelve labours, when he was driven mad by Hera and ended up killing his wife, Megara, and their children.

Ah me! why do I spare my own life when I have taken that of my dear children? Shall I not hasten to leap from some sheer rock, or aim the sword against my heart and avenge my children’s blood, or burn my body in the fire and so avert from my life the infamy which now awaits me? (Euripides – Herakles)

Metopes of the 12 Labours adorning the Temple of Zeus at ancient Olympia

The twelve labours were a part of his atonement for this horrifying crime.

One would have thought that with the Labours he had paid the price, but that would be too easy. As we shall see in this brief post, Herakles would be made to suffer and live a life of rage and pain till the end of his days. There would be no sitting on his laurels.

As the following passage shows, even in the fiery realm of Hades, Herakles’ shade is dark and menacing, someone even the dead are afraid of:

Next after him I observed the mighty Herakles – his wraith, that is to say… From the dead around him there arose a clamour like the noise of wild fowl taking off in alarm. He looked like black night, and with his naked bow in hand and an arrow on the string he glanced ferociously this way and that as though about to shoot… (Homer – The Odyssey)

Herakles is often known as ‘Alexikakos’, the ‘averter of evil’, but this proved impossible when it came to himself.

Apollo and Herakles fighting over the Delphic Tripod

He was often helping others, such as when in Hades, he found Theseus, another hero, in his punishment, and raised him up to be free back on Earth.

But did others often help Herakles?

Sometimes. During his labours, he did receive aid from Athena, Atlas, Helios, and from his cousin, Iolaus, but most of the time, he had to go it alone.

After the Twelve Labours, Herakles seems to have become a sort of fallen hero.

When he kills Iphitus, the son of Eurytus who had refused to give the hero the hand of his daughter, Iole, he becomes diseased because of the murder; this is a punishment from the Gods.

Herakles goes to the Oracle at Delphi, but the Oracle refuses to answer him this time. In a rage, Herakles attempts to steel the sacred tripod which Apollo tries to take back.

Herakles and Omphale

Zeus steps in to stop the quarrel between his two sons, and the Oracle complies in giving Herakles an answer; he must sell himself into slavery for three years.

He is ‘bought’ by Omphale, a Queen of Lydia. It is during this time of servitude that Herakles joins the Argonauts, one of the most famous crews in history, in their search for the Golden Fleece. Even here, the hero is not allowed to be a part of the Argonauts’ success as he is left behind in Mysia to search for his friend, Hylas, who was abducted by water Nymphs.

The Argonauts

Once his service to Omphale was settled, Herakles seems to have set out on a fit of vengeance to settle some old debts.

He raised an army with Telamon and sailed to Troy where he captured the city and killed King Laomedon. He also killed all the Trojan princes too, except Priam.

Herakles about to kill Laomedon

Other acts of revenge included killing King Augeas of Ellis, and his sons, who had refused to pay up for the cleaning of his stables.

Herakles then marched to Pylos to face Neleus who had refused to purify him of the murder of Iphitus who was a guest of Herakles’ in Tyrins at the time. Herakles slew Neleus and all twelve of his sons except Nestor who was away at the time, and who would be a part of the later Trojan War.

On top of all this, Hera did not relent in her persecution of Herakles. She sent storms to pursue the hero, but it is at this point that Zeus finally says enough is enough. The king of the gods suspends Hera from Mt. Olympus with anvils tied to her feet.

Battle of the Gods and Giants – Siphnian Treasury at Delphi)

Then the Gods themselves need Herakles’ help at Phlegrae, in Thrace. The Battle of the Gods and Giants is one of the most widely depicted events in ancient Greek art. It is here that Herakles played a key role in aiding the Gods to victory.

But, exhaustingly, sadly, that is not the end for Herakles. It is not time to rest. He continues with his acts of vengeance, among them the sacking of Sparta, and the killing of Hippocoon and all his sons.

Our fallen hero has much blood on his hands at this point, but finally, after so much turmoil, he finds a measure of happiness in Calydon where he marries Deianeira, the daughter of King Oeneus. She is also the sister of Meleager, whom Herakles had spoken with in Hades on his twelfth labour.

Herakles and Deianeira

While in Calydon, Herakles helps his father-in-law to defeat his enemies. He and Deianeira have several children together. She is beautiful, virtuous, and loves her husband dearly.

But the idyllic time is short-lived. At one point, Herakles accidentally kills King Oeneus’ cup bearer, and so he, Deianeira, and their children are forced to leave Calydon. They settle in Trachis.

On one part of their journey, they must cross the river Evenus. While he is crossing the river, it seems that Herakles entrusts his wife to the centaur, Nessus, who tries to rape her.

Herakles’ rage takes over and he kills Nessus with one of his arrows dipped in the blood of the Hydra.

As Nessus lays dying, he whispers to Deianeira that his own blood is a powerful love charm, and that she should take some and keep it hidden if ever she needed it.

Deianeira saves some of the centaur’s blood.

While in Trachis, Herakles helps his host King Ceyx, to defeat his enemies. It seems that kings were happy to host Herakles if he helped them to defeat their foes. Herakles then helped Aegiaius to fight and defeat the Lapiths, and in that conflict, he killed Cycnus, the son of Ares, in single combat, as well as wounding Ares himself.

Iole

Bent on vengeance once more, Herakles raises an army and marches against Eurytus who had refused him the hand of Iole. Herakles takes the young girl as his concubine and, along with many prisoners, brings her back to Trachis.

The springs of sorrow are unbound,

And such an agony disclose,

As never from the hands of foes

To afflict the life of Heracles was found.

O dark with battle-stains, world-champion spear,

That from Oechalia’s highland leddest then

This bride that followed swiftly in thy train,

How fatally overshadowing was thy fear!

But these wild sorrows all too clearly come

From Love’s dread minister, disguised and dumb.

(Sophocles – The Women of Trachis)

Deianeira mourning

Deianeira realizes that her husband loves the quiet, beautiful Iole, and decides to use the supposed ‘love-charm’ of the centaur’s blood.

At this time, Herakles was in Euboea sacrificing to Zeus for his many triumphs over his enemies. He sent to Deianeira for his finest robe for the ceremonies. With this act of piety, Herakles seals his doom, for Deianeira smears the blood of Nessus on the robe thinking that it will make Herakles love her again.

The blood begins to eat into Herakles’ flesh like acid, killing him slowly.

When Deianeira hears from their son, Hyllus, what she has done, she kills herself in despair. The nurse to the Chorus:

When all alone she had gone within the gate,

And passing through the court beheld her boy

Spreading the couch that should receive his sire,

Ere he returned to meet him,—out of sight

She hid herself, and fell at the altar’s foot,

And loudly cried that she was left forlorn;

And, taking in her touch each household thing

That formerly she used, poor lady, wept

O’er all; and then went ranging through the rooms,

Where, if there caught her eye the well-loved form

Of any of her household, she would gaze

And weep aloud, accusing her own fate

And her abandoned lot, childless henceforth!

When this was ended, suddenly I see her

Fly to the hero’s room of genial rest.

With unsuspected gaze o’ershadowed near,

I watched, and saw her casting on the bed

The finest sheets of all. When that was done,

She leapt upon the couch where they had lain

And sat there in the midst. And the hot flood

Burst from her eyes before she spake:—‘Farewell,

My bridal bed, for never more shalt thou

Give me the comfort I have known thee give.’

Then with tight fingers she undid her robe,

Where the brooch lay before the breast, and bared

All her left arm and side. I, with what speed

Strength ministered, ran forth to tell her son

The act she was preparing. But meanwhile,

Ere we could come again, the fatal blow

Fell, and we saw the wound. And he, her boy,

Seeing, wept aloud.

(Sophocles – The Women of Trachis)

Back on Euboea, Herakles, in great pain, knows it is his time and has a pyre built for himself on Mount Oeta. He climbs up onto the pyre and asks for help lighting it.

But no one will help the hero.

Poor Herakles…

Finally, a passing shepherd by the name of Poeas, who is looking for his sheep, decides to help Herakles. As a gift, Herakles gives Poeas his great bow and arrows.

Now my end is near, the last cessation of my woe. (Sophocles – The Women of Trachis)

As the pyre burned, thunder raged in the sky, and Herakles is taken to Mt. Olympus to join the ranks of the Immortals.

Apotheosis of Herakles (Francois Lemoyne)

After all the pain and hatred, he and Hera are finally reconciled, and he is married to Hebe, the Goddess of Youth.

As an eternal monument to his long-suffering son, Zeus sets Herakles in the stars where he kneels to this day.

Herakles Constellation

Before I had written these posts, I had never looked at the triumph and tragedy of Herakles as a whole. I had grabbed at bits and pieces of his life for inspiration, for short story, for entertainment, like a literary carrion crow.

But the epic life and journey of Herakles, as a single life lived, leaves me breathless and shaking with emotion.

After his initial madness and the slaying of Megara and his children, death and the burning halls of Hades might have been an easier path than the one he took.

I don’t think immortality was ever Herakles’ goal.

How might Herakles have felt, remembered as he is after his apotheosis?

To have travelled so far, to have lived, and loved, and fought, and conquered, and suffered enough for many lifetimes…is a thing unimaginable to this mere mortal as he types these words.

Herakles’ life is not only the stuff of legend, it is the essence of art, and poetry, of lesson, and of inspiration.

As Theseus, in Euripides’ play, says to Herakles when he finds his friend mourning his dead wife and children:

Yea, even the strong are o’erthrown by misfortunes.

Thank you for reading.

If you would like to read more, follow the links below to get free downloads of the following works:

The Women of Traches and Philoctetes by Sophocles

Alcestis and Heracles by Euripides

For coherent histories of Herakles’ life you can view the works of both Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus on theoi.com

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The Triumphs of Herakles

Some of the most timeless stories in western literature are about the heroes of ancient Greece.

For millennia people have been inspired by Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus, Achilles and Odysseus. Many an ancient king and warrior has tried to emulate the actions and personae of these heroes, and even claimed descent from them.

Far and away, the greatest hero of all was Herakles.

There are so many stories related to Herakles (‘Hercules’ of you were Roman) in mythology that it’s impossible to cover all of them in a simple blog post. A book would be required for that.

So, this post is going to be the first in a two-part series on the hero. There are countless triumphant deeds associated with Herakles, but for our purposes here, I’m going to cover the most famous of all – The Twelve Labours.

The Twelve Labours of Herakles have been the subject of art, sculpture and song for ages. Their portrayal decorated the ancient world from the images on vases to the metopes on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In our modern age, we’ve seen him in comics, television shows, and movies.

Aerial view Tiryns

But who was Herakles? Where did he come from?

Herakles was born in the city of Thebes. He was the son of Zeus who begat him on Alcmene, a granddaughter of Perseus and Andromeda. Zeus came to her in the guise of her mortal husband, Amphitryon, and so Herakles was born.

From the beginning, Herakles showed that he was not a ‘normal’ person. Out of jealousy, Hera, Queen of the Gods and wife of Zeus, sent two snakes to kill the baby Herakles in his cot. Herakles strangled the snakes with his bare baby hands.

When he was 18 years of age, Herakles began to really make a name for himself by slaying a lion on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron after hunting it for fifty days. During that time, he stayed with the king of Thespiae who was so impressed with the youth that he had him beget children on all fifty of his daughters.

Herakles was a man of extreme prowess, deeds, emotion and appetites.

King Creon of Thebes rewarded Herakles for helping him against his enemy, Erginus, king of the Minyans by giving him the hand of his daughter Megara, with whom the hero had several children.

This is where things sour for the young hero. After all, this is a Greek story, and tragedy is never far behind to bring even the mightiest of heroes back to Earth.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Hera stepped in to afflict Herakles with madness, causing him to kill his wife and children. When his sanity returned, he was overcome with grief and went to the Oracle at Delphi for advice.

The Oracle told him to go to Tyrins and serve its king, Eurystheus, for twelve years, as punishment for his brutal crime. He had to complete all tasks set for him by the king, and this is the origin of The Twelve Labours.

It’s curious that the name ‘Herakles’ means ‘Glory of Hera’, since she persecuted him so much throughout his life. Then again, perhaps as Hera is the root cause of his Labours, his triumphs reflect on her?

I – The Nemean Lion

This first labour is probably his most famous, and takes us to the ancient land of the Argolid peninsula. The lion that was terrorizing the hills about Nemea had skin that was impenetrable to weapons and so Herakles, when he faced it, choked it to death with his brute strength and then used the claws to skin it. It’s this skin, which he used as a hooded cloak, that the hero became known for in art. If you see someone with a lion’s head on their own, it’s likely Herakles, or someone trying to emulate him.

Region of Nemea

As a side note, Nemea was thereafter the site of the Nemean Games, one of the four sacred games of the ancient world, which also included the Isthmian Games, the Pythian Games, and the Olympic Games. You can read more about ancient Nemea by CLICKING HERE.

II – The Lernean Hydra

When he faced the Hydra in the Peloponnesian swamps of Lerna, it’s a good thing that Herakles brought along his nephew and companion, Iolaus. Facing the monster, he discovered that when he cut one head off, two more grew back in its place. And so, after each head was cut, Iolaus would cauterize the stump before it could grow again. When the Hydra was dead, Herakles dipped his arrows in the blood which was poison, even to Immortals. These arrows would come in useful in later episodes of the hero’s life.

Heracles fighting the Hydra

III – The Ceryneian Hind

Eurystheus, this time, thought he would set Herakles against Artemis with this third labour by telling him to capture a deer with golden horns that was sacred to the goddess. But Herakles pursued the hind for a whole year until he finally captured it and brought it before Eurystheus who, by this time, was always hiding in a jar whenever his cousin would return. The hind was allowed to go once it was brought before the king and so Herakles was able to avoid Artemis’ wrath.

The Cyreneian Hind

IV – The Erymanthian Boar

Herakles delivers the Erymanthian Boar to Eurystheus

Around Psophis, in the Arcadian region of the Peloponnese, a massive boar had been giving the locals trouble and so Herakles was sent to capture it. He did so by pursuing it through deep snow in the mountains until it was so exhausted that he was able to capture it. Such a massive specimen would have made quite a sacrificial feast!

V – The Stables of Augeas

Athena aiding Herakles to clean the Augean Stables

Augeas was the King of Elis, and he had a cattle stable that had never been mucked out, EVER! In this case, it was not a monster that terrorized the locals, but rather the monumental stench. In this very different labour, Herakles was told he had to clean out the stables. So, what did he do? What all heroes would do, he diverted the rivers Alpheius and Peneius so that they flowed through the stables and washed the titanic stink away. It’s no wonder the land thereabouts is so fertile!

VI – The Stymphalian Birds

In Stymphalia, there were flocks of man-eating birds with bronze beaks that infested the woods around the Lake of Stymphalus, again in Arcadia. Herakles was told he had to get them out. So, he scared them all from their hiding places and then shot them down with his great bow. No more birds.

Lake Stymphalos

VII – The Cretan Bull

For his seventh labour, Herakles had to leave the Peloponnese for the Island of Crete to capture and bring back the Cretan Bull. This was no ordinary bull. This was the bull that Poseidon sent to Crete for King Minos to sacrifice. When Minos refused, Poseidon made his wife, Pasiphae fall in love with it and from that union was born the terror that was to become the Minotaur. The Cretan Bull rampaged all over Crete until Herakles arrived, wrestled it to the ground, and brought it back to Greece. The hero’s friend, Theseus, would come back to Crete years later to take care of the Minotaur.

The Cretan Bull

VIII – The Mares of Diomedes

Once more, Herakles was forced to deal with another group of man-eating animals. But this time they were not birds, but rather horses! The mares of Diomedes were in Thrace.

When Herakles arrived in that northern kingdom, he had a run-in with Diomedes himself and so, to tame the horses, Herakles fed them their own master. After that, the mares followed him back to Eurystheus.

The man-eating Mares of Diomedes

IX – The Girdle of Hippolyte

Herakles fighting the Amazons

Near the River Thermodon, just off the Black Sea, Herakles and his followers, including Theseus, went to the Amazons and their Queen, Hippolyte. The story goes that Herakles just asked this lovely daughter of Ares for her girdle, or belt, and she said ‘Yes’. Hera decided to step in and whispered to the rest of the Amazons that their queen was being abducted.

The Amazons attacked Herakles and his men who fought back, and in the bloody engagement, Hippolyte herself was killed. Herakles managed to get the girdle, but the cost of this labour was indeed heavy.

The River Thermodon

X – The Cattle of Geryon

The tenth labour is a sort of epic cattle raid. Herakles was told he had to bring back the red cattle of the three-bodied giant, Geryon, from the Island of Erytheia which was far, far to the west. This took the hero on a long journey into the Atlantic. On his way, he set up the Pillars of Hercules to mark his way.

Herakles driving off the Cattle of Geryon

But Herakles began to grow weary with the heat, and so Helios, God of the Sun, lent Herakles his great golden bowl or boat so that he could sail the rest of the way to Erytheia. Herakles succeeded in raiding the cattle and sailed in Helios’ boat back to Spain. From Spain he travelled to Greece and had many adventures on this mythic cattle drive.

There is a whole list of adventures he had on his way home, but the one I would like to highlight brings him in touch with the Romans. When Herakles arrived in Rome he came into conflict with a monster named Cacus after the beast killed some of the cattle. Herakles killed Cacus in what must have been a great battle of strength.

Temple of Hercules, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s interesting that in Rome, there are some steps leading off of the Palatine Hill called the Steps of Cacus which is where the monster is said to have lain in wait for passers-by. In the Forum Boarium, or cattle market, near the banks of the Tiber, there is a round Tholos temple dedicated to Hercules, commemorating the hero’s time in Rome.

XI – The Golden Apples of Hesperides

Hesperia was the garden of the gods, and Herakles must have been exhausted when he discovered that he had to go back to the Atlantic. Some believe Hesperia was located on the Atlantic side of the North African coast. The garden was said to be beyond the sunset, where Atlas, the Titan, was holding up the sky.

The Golden Apples of Hesperides

The labour was to pick the golden apples that were guarded by a giant snake. In some stories, Herakles asks Atlas to pick the apples for him while he holds the heavens in his stead. In others, Herakles picks the apples himself and kills the serpent.

XII – Cerberus

There is one archetype that is common to most hero stories, and that is the journey to the Underworld. And this is where Herakles must go in his final labour, to bring the three-headed hound of Hades back to Eurystheus.

Herakles and Cerberus

To get to the Underworld, Herakles gets help from the god Hermes, who travelled there regularly. Supposedly, they entered through the gate at Taenarum, in the southern Peloponnese.

There is a fascinating episode when they arrive in Hades’ realm. The shades of the dead flee from Herakles who wounds Hades himself with one of his poison arrows. The only shades who do not flee are Meleager, famed for bringing down the great Calydonian Boar, and Medusa, the Gorgon slain by Perseus.

Gate to Hades at Taenarum

Herakles drew his sword against Medusa, but Hermes told him to leave her be. But Meleager told the hero his sad tale. Herakles, inspired by Meleager, said that he would marry the sister of such a noble man. And so, the shade of Meleager named his sister, Deianaira, to be Herakles’ wife. This at the end of his long penance for killing his family. Was it a new beginning?

Hades told Herakles that he could take Cerberus if he could bring him to heel without using his weapons. In true Heraclean fashion, he wrestled the hell hound and then brought it to Eurystheus.

Afterward, Hades got his dog back.

Herakles resting after his Labours

The Labours of Herakles are not just adventure stories. They are stories of atonement, of courage, of strength of mind and body. Over and over, the hero is taken to extremes until he attains his final triumph, and his debt is paid.

But this is a Greek story. There is no celebration. For laurels dry out on the brow of even the greatest of heroes.

There is much more to Herakles’ story. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of these tales.

Next week, in the second part of this series, we are going to be looking at the tragedy of Herakles.

Thank you for reading, and until then, stay Strong!

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