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Hercules and the Stability of Gender

Matthew P. Loar

In “Omphale and the Instability of Gender,” Natalie Boymel Kampen’s own contribution to her seminal volume Sexuality in Ancient Art: Near East, Egypt, Greece, and Italy (Cambridge 1996), Kampen focuses on an early-third-century CE statue of a noble Roman woman depicted as Omphale. At issue for Kampen is why and how Omphale, a figure long associated with the dangerous feminizing power of the East, could suddenly serve as a positive paradigm for an elite Roman woman. To answer her questions, Kampen traces how literary and iconographic representations of Omphale evolve after the Augustan period, linking these changes with the concomitant cultural and political shifts that eventually enable Omphale to shed much of her negative baggage by the third century. Kampen thus concludes that Omphale productively illustrates the lability and flexibility of myths and gender, proposing that these changing and changed ideas about Omphale act as an index for how gender and sexuality were configured in the life and death of the woman represented by the third-century statue.

My paper will pursue a related argument about Omphale’s mythic counterpart, the über-man Hercules. Like Kampen, I will examine both literary and iconographic representations of Hercules. I will start with a brief selection from Ovid’s Fasti (2.305-356), in which Ovid adduces the Hercules-Omphale myth as an aetiology for the Luperci’s nudity during the Lupercalia. I will end with a late-first-century CE painting of Hercules and Omphale from the triclinium of the Pompeian House of Marcus Lucretius (Naples, inv. 8992; IX.3.5)—an image that Kampen herself cites in her article. While Kampen saw in Omphale a figure who emblematizes the instability of gender, I will argue that Hercules represents the opposite: although Hercules may countenance the possibility of unstable and destabilized masculinity, he continues to function as a masculine paradigm precisely because he is never irreversibly unmanned.

My paper will address in particular one thing consistently thematized in Augustan and post-Augustan iterations of the Hercules-Omphale myth: gazing at Hercules’ indomitably masculine body. Accordingly, I will use Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze as critical scaffolding, pointing up how Hercules inverts the normative syntax of both fetishistic scopophilia and sadistic voyeurism. In the Fasti episode, for example, the scene opens with Faunus seeing Hercules and Omphale from on high (vidit ab excelso, 2.306), and upon seeing Hercules, Faunus is incited with the lust that will impel him to attempt to rape Hercules. From the beginning, then, visual dominance is linked with potential bodily dominance, and the reader is encouraged to identify with Faunus’ gaze, to see him as the ideal ego who will enact the resolution of the sadistic narrative by subjugating (i.e. raping) Hercules. Moreover, in the lead-up to the near-rape, emphasis repeatedly falls on Hercules’ individuated body parts: hands (312, 322), belly (321), biceps (323), feet (324), and legs (348). In fact, from the beginning of the clothing exchange until Hercules’ successful repulsion of Faunus’ sexual advances, Hercules is never described as a whole (319-348); he is only ever presented in pieces. His body parts, however, do not at all conform to the erotically slender ideal that scopophilia expects. Instead, Hercules is large, hard, and hairy. Likewise, when Faunus is rebuffed and thrown from Hercules’ bed, Ovid highlights the transference of visual dominance: Faunus is not only laughed at (ridet, 355, 356), but also looked at (qui videre iacentem, 355). In the end, Ovid uses the gaze to endorse not objectification of, but rather self-identification with, Hercules.

This same dynamic will bear out in the House of Marcus Lucretius, where gazing at Hercules’ undressed body, I will argue, arouses not anxiety but reassurance. Even in the potentially destabilizing context of a banquet, Hercules still models stable masculinity. In other words, though Hercules may (gender-)bend, he will never break.

Session/Panel Title:

Sexuality in Ancient Art

Session/Paper Number

55.4

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