When Was Hercules Born?
Hercules was born in the last months of 1286 BC.
It may seem impossible to pinpoint the birth of a demi-god so precisely, but ancient Greek legends provide all the clues needed to create a timeline of mythological events.
The Greeks did not place their legends in a time so far removed from their own that it was forgotten. Instead, they believed that heroes and gods had many of their adventures just a few hundred years before they were first written down.
Because kings and rulers traced their lineage back to these heroes, detailed genealogies were given that dated back to the Bronze Age. The connections to the gods may have been fictitious, but the lines of rules allowed historians to reconstruct a timeline of ancient events.
Modern archaeology has been able to confirm many of the estimated dates proposed by these ancient writers. In the case of Hercules, ties to Troy help to narrow down the window of time in which he could have been born.
A detail of his story and the predictability of the moon’s orbit, however, has allowed historians to take this dating a step further. While Hercules may not have been a historical Bronze Age figure, modern science has shown that the Greek estimation of his age fits the mythology better than ever thought possible!
Hercules factors into a lineage known as the Argive genealogy, which connects the legendary rulers of Argos to both the gods and Greece’s most famous heroes. Because he was descended from the kings of Greece’s most powerful cities, the supposed genealogy of Hercules is extensive.
The Greeks also believed that the events of their myths were not very far removed from their own time. Rulers in the Greco-Roman world still claimed direct ancestry from the gods and members of the Argive genealogy, and believed their famous lineage went back only a few generations.
The early poet Homer believed when he wrote the Iliad and Odyssey that he was describing events that happened only a few hundred years before his own time. The Greek Age of Heroes roughly corresponds to the archaeological Bronze Age.
Homer lived in the 8th century BC and the events of the Trojan War were thought to have taken place about four hundred years earlier. This is important in estimating the lifetime of Hercules because Homer includes the hero in the legend.
Before the events of the Iliad, Troy had also been sacked by Hercules. Having been betrayed by King Laomedon, Hercules went to the city and killed all but one of the king’s sons.
The remaining son, Podarces, saved his own life by offering Hercules a gift. Podarces was later renamed Priam and was the king of Troy during the Trojan War.
This means that Hercules was alive only a few decades before the Trojan War.
A few centuries after Homer’s time, Herodotus attempted to provide a definitive timeline of the events of the Heroic Age in his Histories. Linking royal genealogies of his own time, historical events, and descriptions in older texts, Herodotus settled on a date of roughly 1251 BC for the start of the Trojan War.
Later writers such as Apollodorus of Athens expanded on the work of Herodotus. Their chronology puts the Trojan War at about 1200 BC, the installation of Priam as king about forty years before, and the birth of Hercules roughly forty years prior to that.
The ancient historians believed that Hercules was born around 1280 BC. Remarkably, modern archaeology and science have managed to corroborate some parts of their chronology.
Archaeologists have long been fascinated with the precision of Greek historians. While many of the events of mythology can be assumed to be invented, the wars and kings of the Age of Heroes are sometimes believed to have been based in some measure of fact.
Some of these theories seemed to be confirmed when the ruins of an ancient city were found in Asia Minor. The location of the city, its dating, and many of its features appear to correspond to ancient descriptions of Troy.
Even more remarkable than the discovery of Troy was the fact that the city showed evidence of major conflict that corresponded to the years the Greek historians had placed the Trojan War.
The walls of ancient Troy show significant damage, indicating a loss in war, dating to roughly 1200 and 1250 BC. These dates align with early writer’s timelines for the Trojan War and the sack of Troy by Hercules.
Troy is not the only site at which the Greek legends appear to be supported by archaeological evidence. The timing of the Seven Against Thebes, for example, corresponds to evidence of war from that site.
Of course, evidence of battle is hardly a direct link to mythology. The Greek city-states were almost constantly at war and a city being under siege twice in a span of fifty years would hardly be unusual.
Astronomy can also help date the events surrounding the life of Hercules. Most importantly, this science can pinpoint a date for his conception.
According to the timeline given by ancient scholars, Hercules was born roughly eighty years before the destruction of Troy. Astronomers have been able to narrow down this timeline by looking at descriptions of Zeus’s seduction of Alcmene.
Alcmene was engaged, so Zeus disguised himself as her soon-to-be husband and went to her room pretending to have just returned from a military expedition. He had only one night before the real Amphitryon returned, but he was so enamored with Alcmene that he turned one night into three.
In ancient mythologies, descriptions of a magically lengthened night often correspond to real solar eclipses. Such events are also thought to be omens of doom.
The cycles of the sun and moon are predictable enough that astronomers can pinpoint the date on which a total eclipse has occurred anywhere on earth. An eclipse occurred over the Aegean Sea roughly eighty years before the archaeological record shows damage to the walls of Troy.
Combining the historical and archaeological records with astronomy, Hercules was conceived on February 10, 1286 BC and born nine months later.
Of course, historians believe that this date may have influenced the story but was not the real origin of the hero. The story of Hercules likely originated with far more ancient myths and was fit into a known timeline by writers like Homer.
Providing an exact date of birth for a character from ancient mythology may seem like a foolish proposition, but the detailed legends of the Greeks are supported by modern research enough to make it possible to say when Hercules was born.
The legends of the Age of Heroes took place during what archaeologists called the Bronze Age, ending a mere four hundred years or so before Homer’s time. The detailed family trees of ruling households in the Greek world allowed writers to narrow down the timeline of events surrounding their most well-known stories.
Homer placed Hercules in Troy only a few decades before the great war of the Iliad, allowing ancient Greek historians to assign a time period to him based on his association with other characters.
Herodotus placed the Trojan War at about 1250 BC, and the sack of that city by Hercules about forty years before that. By his estimation, the hero had been about forty years old when he installed Priam as king.
Later historians made minor adjustments to his timeline, but their dates fell within about fifty years of what Herodotus had claimed. Amazingly, archaeology has confirmed many of their assumptions.
The walls of Troy show evidence of destruction in about 1250 and 1200 BC, dates that roughly correspond to the sacking of the city by Hercules and the end of the Trojan War. Other sites show similar evidence of sieges, battles, and construction that match dates given for mythological events.
Even more incredibly, astronomy can help confirm the timeline for the birth of Hercules. Descriptions of the magically lengthened night of his conception point to a solar eclipse, which occurred in the region on February 10, 1286 BC.
Of course, it’s doubtful that a historical figure matching Hercules was born nine months after this eclipse. The science and archaeology does not support the historical existence of any particular character, but provides evidence about how the Greeks developed their legends to fit actual events.