Herakles' virtus Between Etruscans and Romans

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Rivka Gersht


The legend of Herakles’ arrival at the Tiber, his cult and his deeds on Italian soil preceded even the legend of Rome’ foundation. He was recognized as a god in Italy, and the Palatine dwellers were the first to dedicate a tithe of their goods to him to ensure a happy and prosperous life. In the late sixth century, the Greek myth of Herakles’ apotheosis was adopted for Etruscan temple ornamentation; but the theme extended beyond the public realm into the private, where it acquired a different significance. The first part of my study investigates the contribution of Herakles’ apotheosis in the private domain through an analysis of several Etruscan mirrors. The reexamination of the mirrors raises various theoretical issues such as how far did Etruscan artists go in depicting and reworking specific Greek myths of Herakles the hero, and in personifying abstract qualities associated with his virtus. The second part of the study traces the growth of the Roman Herakles, from a newcomer informal guest to an emblem of the emperor’s virtus and divine power. Finally, I juxtapose the Etruscan and Roman interpretations of Herakles’ virtus by presenting the question about the ways Rome accepted or rejected Etruscan methods of visualizing myths and ideologies.

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