Is Hercules Greek or Roman?
Do you know whether the stories of Hercules were more likely to be told in Athens or in Rome?
Hercules is known as a Greek hero, but the name we commonly use for him is Roman. To the Greeks he was Heracles, a name that incorporated that of his hateful stepmother.
Heracles was a character who underwent considerable evolution throughout the Greek era. He was a son of Zeus who was born mortal, but over time he came to be seen as a god in his own right.
Heracles was therefore Greek mythology’s first true demi-god. While other heroes lived and died as other men, he was the first to have been born human but brought to Mount Olympus instead of the underworld.
More than just a demi-god, Heracles was also one of the most popular mythological figures in Greece. His legends quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean.
One of the places they spread was to Rome. Unlike most other gods his name remained largely unchanged in Italy and he was known there as Hercules.
If the Greeks went from thinking fo Heracles as a hero to believing in his godhood, how did the character change once he reached Rome? Keep reading to find out how the early hero Heracles became the great Roman god Hercules!
From Heracles to Hercules
The story of Greece’s most famous hero was told throughout the Mediterranean. While the stories were similar, however, the name was sometimes different.
The character originated in Greek mythology, in which he was named Heracles. According to legend he had been given a different name at birth but had been renamed as a child.
In ancient Greek, Heracles translated as “glory to Hera.” The child had been named in the hopes of appeasing his stepmother, who was famously jealous of Zeus’s many mortal children.
Heracles was mentioned as a great hero in some of the earliest written texts we have from Greece. Both Hesiod and Homer wrote in the 8th century BC and included stories of the hero’s famous twelve labors and other adventures.
We know, therefore, that Heracles was well-known in the Greek world. Homer lived in mainland Greece but Hesiod never left him home in Asia Minor, meaning that the hero’s legends were not limited to a single region.
Over time, the story of Heracles expanded in Greek mythology. More stories were written about him, many presumably adapted from local legends of other characters.
Eventually, the belief arose that Heracles had been taken to Mount Olympus after his death to join the gods. While Homer had made it clear that Heracles had been a mortal hero, within a few centuries there is evidence that he was considered a god in some areas.
The Greeks never agreed on whether Heracles had been made a god or not. Even within a single city, there could be separate shrines at which he was venerated as either a mortal hero or a relatively new god.
The Romans adopted the character, as they had many gods of the Greek pantheon. He was called Hercules there, the name that is most often used for him today.
My Modern Interpretation
The Romans borrowed heavily from Greek mythology. Most often they kept many features of a Greek deity’s character but used the names and some traits of native Italian gods.
By the Republican era in Rome, Heracles was already widely believed to be a god. The Romans inherited a character who was not just a hero, but was a full Olympian.
In the case of Heracles, however, the name had already made its way to Italy. The Etruscans called him Hercle, from which the Latin-speaking Romans took the name Hercules.
The Romans recognized Hercules as a Greek hero. While his name did not retain its original meaning, as Hera had been replaced by the Roman Juno, those Romans who spoke Greek understood that the stories of Hercules were set in that land.
They believed, however, that Hercules had a unique connection to their own country. A popular Roman legend held that Hercules had visited Italy in the course of his tenth labor.
The giant Geryon, they believed, had kept his herd of cattle in the far west. While driving the animals back to Greece, Hercules had passed through Roman territory.
There he was the guest of a king whose mother prophesied that the hero would one day ascend to godhood. In order to be the first to win the new god’s favor, the Italian king set aside land for a temple of Hercules decades before the hero’s death.
Thus the Romans claimed that it was they, not any city of Greece, who first worshiped Hercules as a god. To the people of Rome, the first temple had ensured that Hercules was a special protector of their city and state.
To the Roman Emperors, Hercules represented an even more powerful idea than a link to the Greek past.
Heracles had been the first character in Greek mythology who could be considered a demi-god.
While other heroes with gods for fathers had done great things, they had all died and passed on to the same afterlife as other mortals. Heracles, however, had transcended mortality and become a true god.
As the Emperors gained power in Rome, they set themselves up as divine figures. While they typically claimed descent from at least one god, this did not differentiate them from the other patrician families of the city.
The leaders of Rome began to set themselves up as gods in their own right, rather than just the distant descendants of the gods. While the idea was not completely new in either Rome or Greece, with the emperors it became a part of the state religion.
Augustus seemed resistant to the idea himself, but helped to promote the cult of Julius Caesar. When Augustus was posthumously named divine by the Senate, however, it set a precedent of imperial divinity.
Later emperors did not always share Augustus’s hesitation to accept godhood, and many were active in promoting themselves as living gods during their reigns. For these emperors, Hercules served as a model for their own godhood.
Hercules was the first figure in Greco-Roman belief who had been born to a mortal mother but achieved full godhood after his death. The emperors promoted this story to explain how they too would eventually live as gods.
Emperor Commodus, for example, often had himself depicted in the hero’s lionskin cape and holding a club. Known to be quite proud of his physical prowess, the emperor even grew a beard to further his claim to be the reincarnation of the demi-god.
The character usually referred to today as Hercules was first a Greek hero by the name of Heracles.
He was one of many characters in Roman religion who had been adopted from Greek culture. While other gods were given new Latin names, his remained very similar to its Greek origin.
The Romans believed many of the same stories about Hercules as the Greeks had about Heracles. While they added new feats to his life, much of the mythology was the same.
The people of Rome differed from the Greeks, however, in believing that Hercules was a god. While the idea that Heracles had become an Olympian began in Greece, it was not universally believed there even through the Roman era.
Romans therefore always envisioned Hercules as a demi-god, one who had strong ties to their city. They took Hercules to be a protector of Rome and a symbol of their state’s strength.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the god’s link to the Emperors. To the rulers of the Roman Empire, Hercules was a model of a mortal turned god that they could use to illustrate their own purported divinity.