A Herculean Emperor

This evening I was flipping through some textbooks on ancient art. I am currently developing curriculum for an introductory course on ancient art, and I am hoping to find a textbook which will enable me to teach the course through a case-study approach (similar to the other introductory course which is taught at my university). (That being said, if anyone has some textbook or curriculum recommendations, please let me know!)

Anyhow, while looking through one textbook, I came across an image of Emperor Commodus. The marble bust immediately caught my eye, since Commodus is represented as the god Hercules (c. AD 191-92, Capitoline Museum, shown right). I’ve seen Roman emperors to assume godlike characteristics (Augustus’ youthful statue from Primaporta (original dated ca. 20 BC) can be interpreted as a propagandistic statement – Augustus liked to advertise that he was the son of a god, since his father Caesar had been made a god after his death.) However, I’ve never seen another Roman emperor assume the lion skin and bear club of Hercules in portraiture. Commodus even carries the apples of Hesperides in his hands, which is a reference to one of Hercules’ most difficult labors.

Some sources list that Hercules was the particular patron of Commodus, while others go as far as to say that Commodus was thought to be a reincarnation of the god Hercules.1 It seems like Emperor Commodus was quite the character; he even fought in the arena in order to display his herculean strength and physical prowess.

Cassius Dio’s Roman History records that “a vast number of statues” were erected of Commodus dressed in Herculean garb. You can see an example of Commodus depicted as a young Hercules here. Cassius Dio also mentions that Commodus replaced Nero’s head on the Colossus statue with his own head, and then added a bronze club and lion to the statue so it would look like Hercules.

Commodus was pretty invested in maintaining his Herculean image, perhaps even to his detriment, since he didn’t seem to be a very good ruler. What about you? If you wanted to be depicted as a mythological god, who would you choose? I wouldn’t mind being depicted as Artemis/Diana.

1 For mention of Hercules as Commodus’ patron, see Marina Vaizey, Art: The Critic’s Choice

2 Cassius Dio, Roman History (published in Vol. IX of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1927), available online here. If you’re interested in reading more about Commodus, I would suggest that you read the whole chapter located at the link.

3 Ibid. (New York: The Ivy Press Limited, 1999), 20.

  • H Niyazi says:

    The more I learn about Commodus, the more fitting it seems that it was Joaquin Phoenix who immortalised him for a modern audience!

    I love the Augustus of Primaporta, I even have a small brass replica of it in my study. The Cupid/Dolphin were an allusion to the divine heritage you mention – in this case Venus, or Aphrodite. Having Cypriot heritage myself, I love seeing that link to our humble little island in that statue.

    I like the depictions some Emperors used on coins, of a bright star or comet. This was most famously used after the death of Julius Caesar – with a visible comet being interpreted as the fallen dictator ascending to the heavens.

    Thanks for sharing M! Very interesting indeed 🙂

    H Niyazi

  • heidenkind says:

    Aphrodite of Knidos all the way, baby! 😉

    Uhg, finding a good text that covers all of ancient art is a tough one. I've tried. I haven't read this book on ancient art yet, but it sounds like it might be promising.

  • H Niyazi says:

    @heidenkind. All in one texts are good starting points. The great thing is that when you get to subjects you like, you can look up the references and source the true authoritative texts on a particular subject.

    Related to this topic – I just heard a GREAT new podcast on Commodus at Mike Duncan's History of Rome podcast.


    A perfect historical supplement to Monica's lovely article

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

  • Rebekah says:

    I've recently swapped Athena for Hestia in my fantasy-god role swapping fantasies. But then again, if I'm Hestia, well, why bother? She's a little ~too~ approachable.

    How about Vladmir Putin as a contemporary Commodus?

  • H Niyazi says:

    Haha! Great observation Rebekah! All we need is for Putin to put one of those tigers he shot over his head and we have a near perfect match 🙂


  • M says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. Sorry for the delayed response (I've been out of the blogging scene for the past week.)

    The podcast about Commodus looks very interesting, H Niyazi! I'm planning on listening to it this week.

    heidenkind: I actually just chekced out that book ("The World of Ancient Art") from the library. It has potential to work for my class, but I need to study it in more depth. Interestingly, it seems like there are too many images and not enough text in the book (which is a little ironic). I'll let you know if I like it.

    Rebekah: I like the Putin reference too. And I think you'd make a great Hestia (in a hearth-y, practical sense). She seemed like a down-to-earth, no-nonsense goddess. 🙂

  • Hazar says:

    I would say that Augustus is represented as Mars there; because of the armour and Cupid, son of Mars. You also shall research greco-buddhist art, like this one; http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/Buddha-Vajrapani-Herakles.JPG

    Ah and i would choose Dionysus for sure.

  • M says:

    Thanks for your comment, Hazar! I've seen similar interpretations to your idea about Augustus as Mars. I think it's plausible. Either way, Augustus undoubtedly is trying to assert himself as being a descendant of the gods, and he uses the Cupid/Venus imagery to emphasize that fact.

    Thanks for including the Greco-Buddhist sculpture, too! I don't know very much about that type of sculpture, but I'd love to learn more. That's a very beautiful and interesting piece.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.