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The Herakleion and Expressions of Political Identities at Gades from the Hellenistic to Early Modern Age

Pamina Fernández Camacho

Universidad de Cádiz

The Herakleion, a temple dedicated to the Phoenician god Melqart, who became identified through syncretism with the Greek hero Herakles, was the most significant building on the Western Tyrian island colony of Gades, off the southwestern coast of the Iberian peninsula. Founded at the same time as the colony in about 900 B.C.E., it is mentioned in classical sources more often than the city itself, as a center of religious worship frequented by various historical figures, as an oracle, and as an observation point for scientific phenomena connected to the end of the world, like the sunset and the tides. From all the information contained in classical sources, this temple must be understood as a monumental complex. It had shrines dedicated to both the Greek and Phoenician versions of Herakles and various deified abstractions; statues of heroes and generals like Themistocles or Alexander; a treasury full of symbolical objects, such as the girdle of Teucer or the golden olive tree of Pygmalion; and even a fountain whose strange behavior prompted wonder and speculation worldwide. Those elements were on display for the public to admire, and served, not only to boast of the temple’s “sanctity, antiquity and riches” (Mela 3.46), but also as building bricks of the city’s political identity in the Hellenistic world and later in the Roman Empire.

As a monumental complex, the Herakleion projected a very particular image of the ancient colony as a hybrid between its old Tyrian identity (used to claim kinship and preeminence over other commercial hubs in the area), and its new Graeco-Roman one, the latter reinforced as the city evolved from a Roman ally to an important municipium of Roman citizens (Rodríguez Neila 1980). The complex visually harmonized the different identities, presenting the old side by side with the new, the real cult elements side by side with mythical landmarks, hero keepsakes, and bodies of monsters which were originally a figment of Greek imagination. It was a public testament to the city leadership’s willingness to adapt in a changing cultural landscape.

This paper analyzes the contents of the Herakleion as described by ancient Greek and Roman authors, such as Polybius, Strabo, Pomponius Mela, Silius Italicus, Philostratus, and Porphyry. Previous scholarship has approached this monumental temple complex to gain a better grasp of Phoenician religion and the workings of Eastern temples (Will 1950-1951; Tsirkin 1981; Bonnet 1988; Marín Ceballos 2011), or to discuss the imaginary landscape of the Far West in Greek and Roman sources (Cruz Andreotti 1994; Marín Ceballos 2011; Fernández Camacho 2015). But the purpose of this paper’s analysis is to study the projection of the city’s political identity through the Herakleion. This new perspective recognizes the agency of this community of citizens, who have so often been reduced to the role of mere recipients of cultural colonization by studies that have focused on the Graeco-Roman view of the remote West.

Such a shift in focus agrees with the archaeological and literary evidence of the city’s importance during the Hellenistic and Imperial eras. There are clear parallels between the Herakleion and the great Eastern temples (Marín Ceballos 2011), where conscious adaptation of traditional cults to Graeco-Roman parameters had a political dimension, and was not part of a cultural effacement forced upon them by outside agents. As an enclave of an Eastern civilization in the West, Gades retained a similar measure of control over how it wished to be perceived by the successive powers who held sway over the area, in contrast with other Iberian peoples who were often forced into the paradigm of uncivilized savages.

The paper concludes with a brief survey of medieval and early-modern traditions that involved the survival of pagan imagery originally connected to the temple and its god under Christian avatars (Almagro Gorbea 2011; Fernández Camacho 2017). Evidently, the old practice of representing flexible identities in the face of cultural changes did not die with the Herakleion temple.

Session/Panel Title

Monumental Expressions of Political Identity

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