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Advancing an Eschatological Conversation: An Interpretation of Via Latina’s “Hercules Cycle” through the Eyes of the Late Antique Roman Viewer

Katie Hillery

Hillsdale College

The Hercules cycle of Cubiculum N of the Via Latina catacomb provides a window into late antique Roman culture by reflecting the interactions of Christians and Pagans. Based on archaeological evidence for the type of burial, scholars have argued that the Hercules cycle evidences either Pagan, Christian, or some synthetic eschatology. Although the conclusions have differed, scholarship has been united in approaching the Hercules cycle through the eyes of the commissioners. However, interpretation based upon contextual evidence about the patrons is problematic for two reasons. First, as this paper briefly explores, new archaeological evidence supports mixed burial within the catacombs, rendering definitive identification of burial types nearly impossible. Second, both Christian and Classical motifs in catacomb frescoes align stylistically with Roman funerary art to the point that figures like Jonah are only distinguishable from Endymion by small contextual clues. With burial type much less certain, the need arises for a more nuanced interpretation of Catacomb frescoes based upon something other than burial context. Instead of interpreting the Hercules cycle using contextual evidence about burial type, this paper proposes a new framework for interpretation—the perspective of the viewer.

Based on this framework, the Hercules cycle invites viewers of all religious convictions into a conversation about eschatology. This paper puts forth the nature of catacomb visitation and the proximity of the stylistically and thematically similar images of Cubiculum O as evidence for this interpretation. Catacomb frescoes were created not just to commemorate the dead but also to be seen by the living. Cubiculum O’s portrayals of biblical scenes like Lazarus’ resurrection and the miracles of Moses thematically and stylistically mirror Cubiculum N’s Pagan scenes of Hercules’ salvation of Alcestis and his labors. The repetitive themes of death, resurrection, and salvation offered in the Hercules cycle and again in the neighboring images of Cubiculum O create parallels between Christian and Pagan eschatology. A brief look at Christ’s depiction with a wand in the scene of Lazarus’ resurrection supports the perception of harmony between the Classical and Christian motifs of Cubicula N and O. Shaped by this trend that occurs elsewhere in Catacomb art, the late antique Roman would have been familiar with the conjunction of Greco-Roman tradition and Biblical narratives. The synthesis of traditions suggests that artists and viewers alike were comfortable seeing parallel truths between the two heritages. This paper argues that the context in which the Hercules cycle is situated would have prompted the late antique Roman viewer to engage in dialogue with the images along their own exegetical lines.

Interpreting the Hercules cycle through the eyes of the viewer, as the progression and nature of the images suggests, allows for what Levente Nagy calls “the complexity of the late antique gaze” (Nagy, “Myth and Salvation in the Fourth Century,” 351). Whether or not Hercules was meant to have obvert Christian significance in cubiculum N, he certainly would have possessed some theological undertones to Christian viewers just as Christ raising Lazarus would have had theological undertones to Pagans. Such an interpretation of the Hercules cycle suggests a greater harmony between Christians and Pagans, which tend to be reduced to mutually exclusive and combative religious and cultural forces. The Hercules cycle invites its viewers to view the emerging Judeo-Christian doctrines as part of a conversation with Greco-Roman tradition. It can give insight into the culture of late antique Rome, shedding light upon the relationship of Pagans and Christians and reflecting the blending of the Judeo-Christian and Classical heritages.

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The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

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