Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.6.4

Stefan Ritter, Hercules in der römischen Kunst von den Anfängen bis Augustus. Heidelberg: Verlag Archäologie und Geschichte, 1995. Pp. 248 + 16 plates. DM 98. ISBN 3-980-1863-2-4.

Reviewed by Karl Galinsky, University of Texas at Austin,

This is a useful dissertation, which was produced under Tonio Hölscher's direction. The strengths and weaknesses come with the dissertation genre: on the one hand, a good collection of the material with full documentation and, in this case, scholarly argumentation that is concise and exceptionally free of dissertationese; on the other, there is too much of an earnest endeavor to tidy up and systematize a diverse phenomenon. Another drawback is the severe limitation of the number of illustrations. Still, it is immensely helpful to have the evidence available in this comprehensive survey that also incorporates the major literary sources.

The organization is largely chronological. After a brief introduction, Ritter discusses Hercules in archaic Rome and the early Republic. This involves mostly the cult at the Ara Maxima and the statue group from San Omobono. The discussion is remarkable for its economy and common sense, as evidenced by the author's judgment about the alleged Phoenician character of the cult. Hercules emerges mostly as a protector of trade; before the state took over the cult, his constituents were "private citizens who pursued peaceable enterprises" (p. 24).

The middle Republic and the second century come next. Ritter again discusses the artistic and archaeological evidence in the full historical, religious, and cultural context. The functions of Hercules expanded, ranging from Hercules triumphalis to Hercules Musarum, and including both public and private worship. There is an excellent discussion of the round temple in the Forum Boarium; likewise, Ritter well integrates Hercules into the process of Greek artistic imports to Rome, especially by the imperatores. On the minus side, this is accompanied by a lapse of perspective endemic to books focusing on a specific issue or personality. Such subjects tend to be seen at the center of their respective universe: "The Hercules of the second century B.C. was the vital patron of Rome's Helllenization and expansion of power" (p. 55). In fact, he was only one of several players in this process.

For the first century B.C. (down to c. 30 B.C.) Ritter well documents the increasing diversification of Hercules. In the political realm, he is appropriated by leaders such as Sulla and Pompey; the process is analogous to similar such privatizations of gods (e.g. Venus Victrix) who formerly belonged to the res publica. Cicero regards him as a model of virtue, whereas the artistic evidence from private collections suggests a strong emphasis on Hercules the lover and bon vivant. In the towns of Italy, such as Alba Fucens and Tibur, he continues to thrive as the protector of trade and commerce. The evident variety of the god's manifestations should have kept Ritter from dutifully following the path well trodden by other German scholars when it comes to Mark Antony's association with Hercules and Octavian's "response" to it by casting Antony and Cleopatra as Hercules and Omphale. In view of the overall context that Ritter so ably delineates, this would have been a good opportunity to put two and two together: in private Republican art, Hercules and Omphale were a favorite motif and no opprobrium attached to it. To enlarge the context further: Dionysus, too, was an immensely popular deity in Italy, and the dichotomous cliche of Apollo vs. Hercules or vs. Dionysus needs serious revisiting, both intrinsically and in terms of its effectiveness as "propaganda." After all, some 300 senators (including the two consuls) still made the one-way trip to Alexandria before Actium; arguably, the fabled Macht der Bilder was lost on them and, we may be sure, on many others.

For good reasons, the age of Augustus takes up close to half of the book. The discussion is sensibly tripartite: Hercules in politics, cult, and the world of private imagination. As is true of so many other aspects of that period, variety and experimentation abound and defy attempts to reduce them to a common denominator. A useful paradigm is Ritter's first topic, the Campana plates from the Palatine with Apollo, Hercules, and the tripod. First, to turn to the image itself. Ritter claims that it is distinguished by its "aggressive character" (kämpferische Note; p. 130). It is, of course, anything but that, as he admits in the next paragraph where he speaks of the "subduing, in the archaizing manner, of the dynamic of the action." He then continues to characterize the representation of the contest as "frozen, stiff, and de-intensified" (eingefroren, erstarrt und entschärft). All this is certainly quite different from the traditional representations of the incident and calls for further exploration1 which obviously should involve Hercules' longstanding association with the Palatine. Instead, Ritter concludes with pat phrases about "Octavian's propaganda" (as usual, the term is never defined) and the "highly political context" of the artifacts. Yet the very context -- artistic, architectural, topographical, and cultic -- of the Palatine, and its Republican and Augustan buildings and shrines, suggests the need for greater nuance. Instead, much of the ensuing discussion is framed in terms of "Staatsideologie" and the reappearance of Hercules in Augustan literature is viewed as a modest attempt to make our hero once more "salonfähig." Clearly, the role of Hercules in Augustan poetry in particular is a great deal more complex.

The same is true of the ascendancy of Mars under Augustus which, according to Ritter, amounts to a displacement of Hercules. Again, however, the perspective deserves to be enlarged. Take, for instance, the neglect, noted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, of the kataskeué of the Ara Maxima. Such desuetude had good company that points up the irrelevance of "Staatsideologie": Lavinium, the Latin cradle of the Trojan-descended Romans and Julians, was in a condition of neglect, too, and there is no trace of an Augustan restoration. Vergil did what was necessary to arrangiarsi: the Lavina litora in the end turn out to be the mouth of the Tiber. My simple point is that res Augustae simply are not as monolithic as they often are made out to be. The resort to "Staatsideologie" and (by other scholars) "subversiveness" as defining parameters is too superficial a polarity to do this culture justice.

Ritter himself raises another methodological point. By the time of Augustus, Hercules came with a welter of associations and possibilities therefor. The larger perspective is again that he is, in that regard, no different from other, major mythological heroes. They all have positive and negative baggage and capabilities. Once we make allowance for "elliptical allusiveness," where does the associative space end? Ritter gamely struggles with the issue in connection with Vergil's Hercules and Cacus, and comes to the conclusion that "the literary diffusion of the myth of Hercules and Cacus reflects the questionable nature of the new Augustan pietas" (p. 157). He then returns to more congenial terrain in various areas of Augustan art, starting with Arretine ware, where, alas, Hercules and Omphale again turn out to be a favorite subject. In conjunction with its appearance in Augustan poetry, Ritter sensibly concludes that the popularity of the pair had little enough to do with politics and instead was linked with the world of otium. And he rightly stresses the (typically Augustan) openness and multiplicity of possible meanings of this myth.

Ritter's useful and informed analyses of individual works of art or types of Herculean representation are the backbone of this book in the Augustan chapter as elsewhere. His discussion of the much debated "Herakles Moson" type is a good example: the scholarship is up to date; previous interpretations are discussed without tedious regurgitation; and new and sensible perspectives are introduced without polemics. I have doubts, however, about the assertion that the Augustan theater public considered itself as "demanding", especially in view of the pantomime (Ritter should have checked on Herculean titles) and the testimonia by Suetonius and Horace.

By contrast, Ritter's discussion of cameos and painting follows somewhat more predictable lines. He sees the style of the former as reflecting the "characteristic Augustan classicism" (p. 190) while recognizing that such classicizing tendencies are already alive and well at the end of the Republic. Moreover, Ritter fully realizes that various strands of artistic period styles, including both "classical" and "Hellenistic," coexisted in Augustan times. He nonetheless tries to force the non-classicizing Hercules images on gems into the straitjacket of "a demonstrative refusal of classicizing forms" with their "moral claims"2 and expressing "a certain distance from the reigning mentality and [what else] the Zeitgeist" (p. 196). The bad fit of such schemata is patent as the inspiration of the Hellenistic age is pervasive in Augustan art, architecture, and literature. Understandably, it would be too much to expect from a German dissertation to challenge this heavy-handed orthodoxy. The classicistic label, therefore, is de rigueur even in some of Ritter's discussion of Pompeian third-style painting, such as the picture of Hercules and Nessus in the Casa di Iasone. At the same time, he sensibly refuses to follow Schefold and others in seeing to deep a meaning in other wall paintings and, especially, in the constellations of statuary in Augustan villas, where decorative purposes predominate. Further, in connection with the Lovatelli urn, Ritter acutely observes that it belongs to an "experimental phase," an aspect, I might add, that again is more characteristic of the Augustan age than static classicism.3 The Conclusion is a final, valiant attempt to systematize all this Augustan diversity.

My disagreements should not obscure the obvious merits of this monograph. It laudably goes beyond the scope of a catalogue raisonné and tries to offer an interpretive guide to the great number of relevant artifacts from the period. Instead of contenting himself with a narrow art-historical perspective, Ritter discusses them in their cultural context, incorporating history, literature, and religion. If there are, in the opinion of this reviewer, some inevitable stumbles and a certain lack of sophistication especially in regard to the poetic treatments of Hercules, that is still preferable to a mere taxonomy of the artistic and archaeological evidence. This is a helpful and well-informed book that is written intelligibly and will be useful for anyone interested in Roman Republican and Augustan culture and in the fortunes of one of the most important mythological figures from antiquity.


  • [1] A notable omission from the bibliography is M. J. Strazzulla, Il principato di Apollo. Mito a propaganda nelle lastre Campana dal tempio di Apollo Palatino (Rome 1990).
  • [2] The underlying misconception is a confusion of artistic valuations, which is all that the relevant Hellenistic and Roman texts express, with moral values.
  • [3] See now my Augustan Culture. An Interpretive Introduction (Princeton 1996).