Exporting Hercules: How A Greek God Influenced Western Superpowers

The Greek god Hercules was adopted by Punic and Roman colonial powers to legitimize their expansion in the western Mediterranean. His mythology linked them to the inheritance of ancient Greece.

Nov 8, 2020By Michael Arnold, BA Art History, MA Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology
roman bust hercules
Roman Bust of Hercules, 2nd Century AD, via The British Museum, London; Hercules and the Centaur Nessus by Giambologna, 1599, in Piazza della Signoria, Florence


In antiquity, the domain of Greek gods extended far beyond Mount Olympus. But Hercules, in particular, is noted for having done more than his fair share of traveling.


Legend tells us that he was one of Jason’s 50 Argonauts on that epic journey to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis, an ancient city over 1,200 miles east of Greece. Afterward, he turned west and forged the “Heraclean Way” on his return trip from the southernmost tip of Iberia. For this reason, the monolithic rocks on each side of Gibraltar, the origin of his trek, are still called the Pillars of Hercules.


Of course, these travels never actually happened because Hercules never actually existed. But the Greeks used his mythos to justify their interests in the western Mediterranean. Wherever Greeks colonized, Hercules had conveniently voyaged first to clear the land of wild beasts and savages. And when ancient Greece’s hegemony in the Mediterranean began to dwindle, her successors adopted the same tactic.


Phoenicians In The Central Mediterranean: Melqart’s Conversion To Hercules

phoenician shekel tyre melqart
Phoenician shekel from Tyre with Melqart riding hippocamp, 350 – 310 BC, Tyre, via Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Enter the Phoenicians, an ancient Levantine civilization consisting of independent city-kingdoms. Wedged precariously between a hostile Assyrian Empire and the sea, the Phoenicians set sail in search of precious metal resources to secure their enduring sovereignty by means of wealth.


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They proved to be adept seafarers: Phoenician mariners explored as far as the Atlantic Coast of Morocco and established a network of colonies along the way. Leveraging relationships with resource-flush natives, they transported metal ore from its oversupply in the west to a high-demand market in the Near East. This practice enriched them enormously and aided in their meteoric ascent as a Mediterranean power.


It also engendered the rise of a later infamous North African city halfway between Iberia and the Levant — Carthage. By the 8th century BC, this well-established port had become a launchpad from which the Phoenicians entered into an existing central Mediterranean trade circuit between Sardinia, Italy, and Sicily. 


Along with mercantile savvy, they exported Canaanite religion to the shores of North Africa. Cults for worshipping Phoenician gods, most notably Tanit and Melqart, took root in Carthage and its ancillary colonies. 



punic stele goddess tanit
Punic stele depicting the goddess Tanit, 4th – 2nd Century, Carthage, via The British Museum London


Melqart, Guardian of the Universe and chief deity of the preeminent Phoenician city of Tyre, came to be associated with Hercules. Greek gods had long been worshipped in the region thanks to the strong Hellenic presence in Sicily. And as Carthage carved out a slice of the island for itself, it began to syncretize its old Levantine culture with that of the Greeks.


This distinctly Punic identity taking root in western Sicily saw Melqart transform into Hercules-Melqart. His effigies started to follow Greek artistic standards as early as the late 6th century. And his profile, minted on Punic coinage in Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily, took on a very Herculean character.


It’s worth mentioning that the Phoenicians initially used Melqart as the Greeks did Hercules. In the early Phoenician colony of Gades in Iberia, the cult of Melqart was established as a cultural link to its distant colonizer. So it’s reasonable that Punic Sicilians would look to both as having some claim as the mythological father of the west, and ultimately conflate them. In any case, Melqart’s story became interchangeable with that of Hercules, even in such ventures as the forging of the Heraclean Way.


alexander attacking tyre sea antonio tempesta
Alexander Attacking Tyre from the Sea by Antonio Tempesta, 1608, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


This mythical opportunism proved important as Carthage’s ties to her mother kingdom weakened. In 332, after Alexander the Great steamrolled through the Levant and dealt Tyre its deathblow, all remaining Mediterranean colonies fell under the purview of Carthage. The traditional Canaanite gods died with ancient Phoenicia, and the cults of their modified Punic forms flourished in the west.


As a newly-sovereign state, Carthage presided over decades of war between its Punic-Sicilian colonies and Greek Sicily. Ironically, during this time Greek culture continued to influence Punic identity, particularly through Hercules-Melqart but also by the introduction of the cults of Demeter and Persephone both in Africa and Punic Sicily. By the end of the 4th century, however, Greek Sicily had been thoroughly subdued. And for a moment, Carthage relished as Mediterranean superpower and heir of the Herculean tradition.


The Rise Of Rome And Its Association With Hercules

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Hercules and the Erymanthian Boar after a model by Giambologna, mid-17th Century, Florence, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Rumblings from a fledgling city on the Tiber River began to reverberate around Italy as early as the 6th century BC. Rome was quietly moving its chess pieces in preparation for a calculated ascent to world domination.


One hundred years later, now a dynamic republic with international clout, it began to conquer the Italian Peninsula. And its intensified identification with Hercules at this time was no coincidence. New myths tying him integrally to the Roman foundation story were born. Such tales as Hercules being the father of Latinus, legendary progenitor of the Latin ethnic group, annexed Greek usage of him as a colonial legitimator for Roman ambitions. 


But the extent of his adoption into Roman culture far surpassed simple storytelling. Toward the end of the 4th century, the cult of Hercules at the Forum Boarium was enshrined as national religion. Roman representations of the Greek god made every effort to distance him from associations with Melqart.


photograph temple hercules victor forum boarium
Photograph of Temple of Hercules Victor at the Forum Boarium by James Anderson, 1853, Rome, via The Paul J. Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Instead, they sought to depict Hercules in traditional form. The Romans fancied themselves descendants of the Trojan diaspora and successors of classical antiquity, taking the baton from the crumbling Greek world. So in Herculean spirit, they smashed their Samnite neighbors to the south followed by the Etruscans to the north. And once Italy had been subdued, they set their sights on Punic Sicily.


Carthage could no longer ignore the mounting Roman threat. The young civilization had proven its capabilities as a military aggressor and was poised for a quick climb to superpower status. The dusty Punic World, on the other hand, was long past its zenith of greatness. It knew there could only be one heir to the Herculean tradition in the western Mediterranean: the oncoming clash was inevitable.


The Carthaginians still had one competitive advantage harkening back to early Phoenician times — naval dominance. In this regard, the Romans certainly lacked. But it didn’t stop them from provoking the old Punic beast, and they’d soon face off with the might of Hercules-Melqart.


A Herculean Clash: Rome And Carthage Struggle For Dominance

scipio africanus freeing massiva
Scipio Africanus Freeing Massiva by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1719-1721, via The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


In the 3rd century BC, Rome was secure enough to influence events outside of Italy. Its increased engagement with Sicilian-Greek cities, like Syracuse, was a red line for Carthage. As Sicily was critical for its abundant food supply and key position on trade routes, any Roman interference on the island was viewed as a declaration of war. And in 264, what became the first of three bloody conflicts between Rome and Carthage erupted.


The battles began in Eastern Sicily, where Punic forces took the offensive in true Punic fashion; they bombarded Greek-Sicilian cities pledging allegiance to Rome with hordes of infantry, cavalry, and African war elephants. The fighting went on like this for years until it had become clear the Roman military would never be able to capture Sicily while the Punic navy went unchallenged. And knowing they were soundly outmatched at sea, the ingenious Romans engineered a naval vessel designed with a spiked ramp, “corvus” in Latin, to create a bridge connection with Carthaginian ships.


They approached a huge Punic fleet just offshore northern Sicily with the intent of testing their new invention. To say it was successful would be an understatement. The bewildered Carthaginians went into a tailspin as corvi smashed onto the decks of their ships and Roman infantry charged onboard. The end of the battle resulted in a largely decimated Punic fleet with surviving ships fleeing in a humiliating retreat.


This embarrassment portended badly for Carthage’s performance in the First Punic War. In 241, after almost two decades of bloody battle, the Carthaginians had been defeated in Sicily and were forced to sign an embarrassing treaty with Rome. The terms meant they had to relinquish Sicily, and shortly thereafter Sardinia, too — an enormous blow to Carthaginian wealth and prestige.


Legacy Of A Greek God: Rome Claims The Birthright Of Hercules

battle scipio hannibal zama
The Battle Between Scipio and Hannibal at Zama by Cornelis Cort, 1550-78, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Perhaps in an attempt to push back after losing the Sicilian birthplace of Hercules-Melqart, the Carthaginians doubled-down on their worship of him. The war had produced crippling debt which brought the Punic empire to its knees. In an attempt to salvage itself, Carthage significantly expanded operations in southern Spain.


New Punic cities, most notably Cartagena and Alicante, were established. The abundance of Spanish silver to reap from untapped mines would keep the empire afloat and fill the void of its territorial losses.


Whereas Melqart had been traditionally worshipped in Iberia since ancient Phoenician times, Hercules-Melqart took root within the new Carthaginian protectorate. Spanish mints flaunted an indisputably Hellenistic style Hercules-Melqart whose countenance was almost a carbon copy of the figure on Greek Syracusan coins. Attempts to revive broad identification with the  Greek God were evident, as Spain was the empire’s last hope of reclamation of power from Rome.


carthaginian coin spain
Carthaginian coin minted in Spain, 237 BC – 209 BC, Valencia, via The British Museum, London


According to the Romans, the Carthaginians had gotten too comfortable in their new territory. After crossing an imaginary line that marked the beginning of Rome’s interests in Iberia, the Romans declared a new war.


The First Punic War was rife with Hannibals and Hannos, and a myriad other generals whose names began with “H-a-n.” But the Second Punic War starred The Hannibal — the one who famously marched an army of war elephants across the Alps and subsequently descended on Rome.


Despite the notoriety, his efforts were futile. Rome crushed Carthage a second, and then a third, time rendering her totally defunct in 146 BC. It had finally earned Hercules’s mythical inheritance of Mediterranean domination.


The Romans would remain the world power for the next 500 plus years — eventually trading in Hercules themselves, and the rest of the pantheon for that matter, in exchange for Christianity — until they were vandalized by the Vandals.


And it certainly wouldn’t be the last time a civilization used myth to justify its colonial interests.


As Shakespeare put it best, “let Hercules himself do what he may, the cat will mew, and the dog will have his day.”


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By Michael ArnoldBA Art History, MA Ancient Mediterranean ArchaeologyMichael is a contributing writer and former world traveler whose hometown is New York City. He spent the majority of 2019 exploring Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And currently, he’s studying for a masters degree in Ancient Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Pavia in Italy. In his spare time, Michael enjoys researching and writing about art, history, and archaeology with a focus on the ancient world.