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Intelligent Hercules and the Building of Rome

Hercules capitolino from Aedes Aemiliana
PORTUNUS by Piranesi.jpg

Once upon a time....

In those days....

"Heracles's TENTH Labour was to fetch the famous cattle of Geryon from Erytheia, an island on the Ocean stream ... Geryon was the king of Tartessus in Spain...." 


Thus begins Robert Graves' narration in his compendium of mythology, THE GREEK MYTHS, regarding the reason for Hercules's passing by archaic Rome shortly prior to the Trojan War, in fulfillment of the 12 impossible tasks.

When I settled in Rome in 2008 and began to learn about its archaeological history including "footsteps" of the mythological Greek hero, Hercules (Herakles in Greek), son of Zeus and the mortal Alcmene, I smiled at this godfathering into Roman history of a fabulous Greek superman: in essence, it was a way of saying, "Hercules slept here."


In fact, he acted here for the benefit of Romans, and then slept here, before going on to complete the roster of Labours that included the slaying of the Hydra and of the Nemean Lion, and the stealing of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides to give to mankind not merely golden fruit of forbidden trees, but the knowledge of the heavens and its golden stars, with its by-product : Navigation.


By directing, I thought, Hercules's 12-task itinerary so that he passed through Rome as he carried out the tenth of those missions, the city would one day pride itself of being part of that narrative of heroics, and it would teach new generations to see their good quality of life as somehow resulting from that heritage. This is why, too, Romans would build memorials to Hercules in the Eternal City for centuries to come. The Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii are but two other archaeological sites of the ancient Roman world that boast of Herculean pedigree -- as evidenced by their very names and by rich culttural troves including temples, statuary, fresco paintings, silver and gold finery, etc. Similarly, in Rome's ancient port town of OSTIA ANTICA, the Hercules pedigree is illustrated as well -- but not by stories of his having slept there, since the town was constructed during the days of the early Republic, in the 4th-century B.C., much after the Trojan War, but in  the "Hercules" places of cult and political life, in the urban fabric of the town.  This makes sense in a navigation center as ostia was. The port city of OSTIA, located on the mouth of the Tiber River, and it was a great import/export center for marble, foodstuffs, textiles, gold and silver, slaves, circus animals, and information in all its forms. Making Hercules present in a port town such as Ostia was a way of putting it on a global map of mythical and heroic proportions, and of elevating the tenor of those jobs in the town associated with commerce to an "Olympian" level.  But other stories of Hercules, perhaps of a minor scale, also vibrated in the Ostians' way of revering Hercules so that they would see the results in the education and athletics of the young (the Olympics were said to have been founded by Hercules in his day!), and in the systems of taxation and commercial tariffs regulating the rental, buying, and selling of goods or services in those urban centers.


The consequence of having a Hercules building or statue, or a Hercules "corporation" in the towns of ancient Greece or Rome, was a way to ensure that the citizenry, including those members of the population who were slaves, would see that if an underdog like him could rise up and fight his way out of superhuman challenges, anyone or Everyman could do this -- through imitation of Hercules-like thinking and acting as evidenced in his various exemplary narratives. In other words, he was a role-model.  


What made him such a role model was not always easy to see. For example, his murder of his own children is the subject of Euripides' play, The Madness of Hercules, written and performed in the 4th century B.C.



In the play, Euripides shows that his Twelve Labours were assigned to him by the Orcale at Delphi both as expiation for the murder of his children and as a way eventually to reclaim the inmortality he deserved as a natural son of Zeus.  While the causes of his genocide were sung by many oral traditions then to be the result of drunkeness, Heracles goes further back in the events of the hero's life and shows it as a consequence of his lack of self-control and of his excessive pride or hubris, stemming from his successes and early fame. This hubris blinds him to boast of his overcoming a tyrannical invader of the city of Thebes by desecration of his corpse and thus violation of funerary customs in the early Hellenic world, even with respect of the enemy: his stepmother, Hera, blinds him so that in a fit of rage he kills several of his children and those of his best friend Iphicles as they were performing athletic exercises. However, 4th-century B.C. playwright Euripides, in the aforementioned tragedy, shows the hero's contrition and despondence after committing this crime, and thus even his negative deeds become part of his roster of achievements, making him fit as an example or role-model of such atonement and repair of horrible crimes.  When in the autumn theater festivals held throughout the Hellenic world, The Madness of Hercules was performed, it was to teach audiences attending these shows how to live better lives, by the examples of the tragic figures in their plots. This also ensured that social prosperity and health were shown as intimately connected with right action and one's coming to one's senses in order to merit acceptance by the Immortals, as well as to the prosperity of the agriculture and the harvesting and commerce of the products of the lands where these plays were celebrated.

Be the reasons for his wide criss-crossing and travels of the Mediterranean world then, one of these two causes, or yet possibly the command by his step-mother Hera, wife of Zeus, to fulfill these tasks in order to gain acceptance to the company of all the Immortals on Mount Olympus, despite Hercules's birth out of wedlock, to a mortal lover of Zeus, Alcmene --- ancient Roman traditions, oral traditions, and later, texts like those of LIVY or Virgil or OVID, testify to the hero's stopping off  by a cattle market located in an area by the Tiber River where one day Rome would be located, with the herd of cattle belonging to the King of Tartessus (present-day Seville, Spain).


Moreover, Livy and other authors tell us that when Hercules disembarks at the Foro Boario (cattle market) of the Rome Tiber River, he finds commercial chaos there. A thug named CACO had been stealing the herds of cows from the pens of local cattleranchers  and terrorizing the entire population with his antics, so all market activity at the site had pretty much come to a halt!  (In Latin languages, the word "caco" denotes thief, thug.)

Foro Boario with oxen and gates of custo


I am interested in the Roman myths of Hercules not only because, as archaeologist Filippo Coarelli explains in his prestigious archaeological guide, ROMA (2008),  several temples and altar inscriptions from pre-Christian eras provide archaeological evidence of at least a Hercules "cult" in the early city, but, moreover, because I see this mythical problem-solver as bestowing his "engineering DNA" to the long and glorious history of the city.  Since I began residing in Rome I have been fascinated by the Hercules presence
in or near the areas of the Isola Tiberina and Bocca della Verita. In my mind, this particular spot of ancient Rome is the veritable commercial cradle of the City, and the myths of Aeneas' landing there and of Hercules' own passing through thhis spot are more
than "just" myth.  My sketch of the bronze Hercules figure above is part of my own meditations on this subject.


Hercules, in "fact," figures out the trick used by the thief, CACO, to rob cattle that was not his, and he follows the thug to his lair atop nearby Capitoline Hill, and returning the animals to their rightful owners, only leaves Rome with his own commercial mission of delivering the cattle of Geryon of Seville/Tartessus, after he has helped the Roman ranchers create safeguards against such losses and corruption in the future. It is interesting that the hero's ability to 


The altars, statues, stories, and temple inscriptions dedicated to this mythical commercial hero, Hercules, invariably have this dimension. And I often propose to visitors or drawing students going to Rome's own Hercules site, that the rules which eventually established a table of official weights and measures for commerce at the Foro Boario, were similar to rules of ratio, proportion, and columns and molding types to be used in the construction of the market areas in the Cattle Market and also for the rituals and ceremonies to be carried out there henceforth to keep the memory of the Hero alive --- his memory, of course, and his intelligence, and his just weighing of numbers and things, to make trading and purchases or sales, equitable. 

Foro Boario architectural details and re


To sum up, the various drawings from my sketchbook on this page reflect my "Hercules research" or walks in Rome -- specifically in the so-called Foro Boario, or Cattle Market. For example, in the illustration immediately above, on the right, is a plan view of the old Temple of Fortuna Virilis (or of PORTUNUS), taken from one of the many engravings dedicated to this site by 18th-century artist PIRANESI. I placed these "Piranesian" analytical diagrams alongside my own studies of the triangular pediment of the temple, and of a corner of the building, featuring its high base podium and some of my own narrative imagery.


Often when I lead visitors through this site, I talk about the Romans' legacy of the Republican way of government as inspired in the text of the same name by Plato. THE REPUBLIC. In fact, I owe my close friend and professor of philosophy of Baltimore's Loyola University, Stephen Weber, my awareness of how Plato uses in this dialogue the famous Twelve Labours of Hercules to explain the nature of the most just type of city humanly possible -- which discussion lies at the heart of the famous IV-century B.C. work. It occurs to me that the Republican-era Temple of Hercules in the Foro Boario may have been erected there at that time to reinforce this element of standards-based principles and thought in the market area of the city. I also reflect on the exactitude and order of the tectonics of these temples (their angles, proportions, and  overall harmony) as the embodiment of the very qualities that Hercules himself seems to defend or make us aware of in his various adventures.



Finally,  the drawings from my sketchbooks on this page reflect my sense that the architectural and urban-space designs of this area of Rome purportedly originating in the days where it was s simple trading post for cattleranchers and sailors and tradesmen, etc., from  these areas of the river and even from out at sea in the Mediterranean, it begins to make sense that a simple common-persons' site for keeping livestock of storing grain from Egypt, yes, even providing places to rest or spend the night of see a doctor, would be designed according to standards of balance and beauty which travellers coming here would relate they would have seen in Athens or Egypt, or Tartessus. This is why there would be elegant temples and statuary in and around the pungent-smelling corrals or brothels of the site, or right next door to an open air gladiator competition area. This is why, when I  began to look with Platonic eyes or with Herculean myths at the site, the drawings had to underline variants of the perfect SQUARE, circles, and other Pythagorean forms recognizable to any slave or free citizen! Rome's  Foro Boario, it occurs to me, being a place of legends of Hercules in the Cattle Market talk about the role played by fairness and number in man's buying and selling of cattle or ...other commodities of life. Justice, heroics, art, and balance are all constituent essentials in the harmonious government of a city. 

This is the Intelligence of Hercules --- who was much more than a body-builder sent out on a mission across the world before the Trojan War -- to not only right the wrongs and punish criminals in his path, but to realize that his 12 Tasks could not be carried out without free passage and travel from one point to another. This is one of the reasons, too, why his temples and cult were intimately connected to commerce and travel, and why his overcoming of challenges remembered and revered in those places of ceremony 

Allow me to end the text of this page by quoting again from Robert Graves' GREEK MYTHS:

"... It has been said that when Heracles set forth on his Labours, Hermes gave him a sword, Apollo a bow and smooth-shafted arrows, feathered with eagle feathers; Hephaestus a golden breast-plate; and Athene a robe.... Athene and Hephaestus, it is added, vied with one another throughout in benefiting Heracles: she gave him enjoyment of peaceful pleasures; he, protection from the dangers of war. .... Heracles scorned armour, and after his first Labour, seldom carried even a spear, relying rather on his club, bow, and arrows ...., the club, on his visit to Troezen, he leaned against the image of Hermes. It struck root, sprouted, and is now a stately tree."  (Graves, THE GREEK MYTHS, Note F; pages 463-4; Penguin Books 1955.)


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