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Identifying Demi-gods: Augustus, Domitian, and Hercules

Claire Stocks

Newcastle University

In the late 15th century CE, a gilded bronze statue of Hercules was discovered on the site of the Forum Boarium in Rome, during demolition work under Pope Sixtus IV (1471-81). This statue displays many of the key features associated with the god: the knotted club in his right hand and apples from the garden of the Hesperides in his left. Yet there is another feature that has also attracted attention: the statue’s apparent resemblance to the emperor Domitian. This identification is highly controversial, however, and therefore raises the question as to whether the association with Domitian has more to do with ancient source material that depicts this emperor juxtaposed with the demi-god, than it does with any concrete association between the two.

The paper takes this statue as a starting point and explores the complex relationship between Domitian and Hercules in material culture and literature, as well as considers the reliance of that relationship upon an Augustan model. Focusing primarily on literary evidence from Statius’ Silvae and epic Thebaid, in conjunction with the material culture, the paper aims to show that the problem of identification for the statue ironically reflects the problematic nature of Domitian and Hercules’ relationship at large. Ultimately, in focusing on this problem of identification, this paper draws attention to a wider theme: namely how emperors and the authors who wrote under them negotiated their way around models that could prove as problematic as they were empowering.

Scholarly works that draw attention to the supposed relationship between Domitian and Hercules are widespread (Tuck; Mols, Moormann, and Hekster). Butt there is no numismatic evidence to support an association, and of the 94 surviving portraits of the Domitian there is no sure case of the emperor depicted in the guise of the famed demi-god. The literary evidence, however, tells a different, and compelling, story.

The paper begins with an overview of possible material evidence that demonstrates a link between Domitian and Hercules and considers specific works that have attracted attention from scholars, such as the gigantic basalt statue in Palma (Palagia; Zanker) and the life-size portrait in Boston, identified by Vermeule as a head of Domitian donning a wreath of vine leaves in the guise of Hercules. From here, the discussion moves to the literary evidence, in particular Statius’ Silvae (4.6) and Thebaid (8.500-18). The literary evidence that survives which depicts a relationship between Domitian and Hercules dates predominantly from the end of Domitian’s rule and suggests an unequal relationship between the two, with Hercules (now divine) subservient to the emperor who is depicted as a “god on earth” (Sullivan; Dufallo). In Silvae 4.6, Statius describes a miniature statue of Hercules that was once owned by great generals of the past, but whose insignificance, both in terms of its stature and its function as a ‘party piece’, reflects the marginalized position of Hercules in Domitianic Rome. In the epic Thebaid (8.500-18), the deified Hercules shows deference on the battlefield outside Thebes to the goddess Pallas Athena. Since Domitian’s association with his chosen patron god, Minerva, was well-established (and highly visible through numismatic evidence), the paper argues that this epic encounter suggests that the divine Hercules is giving way not only to Minerva, but to Domitian himself.

The paper concludes by arguing that the marginalization of Hercules suggests that his value as an imperial model lay in highlighting Domitian’s superiority to him. Hercules had proved problematic as a model for the Julio-Claudians, and this paper suggests that Flavian writers’ ‘suppression’ of the demi-god (now divine) helped to mitigate these problems. Only after the fall of the Flavians, would Hercules regain value as an imperial model. 

Session/Panel Title

The Writing on the Wall: The Intersection of Flavian Literary and Material Culture

Session/Paper Number


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