Hercules in Italy

It is not a very well-known story, but the famous demigod Hercules was believed to spend some time on the Italian peninsula.  I am sure you are quite familiar with the basic story about this hero’s life. His was a child born from the adulterous relationship between Zeus/Jupiter, the king of gods and a mortal woman. Zeus’ wife Hera/Juno, for obvious reasons, didn’t really like him. Hercules possessed a supernatural strength but had to use it the service of less than heroic king Eurystheus. This guy ordered him to accomplish a series of 12 extremely difficult labours. Those labours involved killing giant beasts or stealing staff from creatures with a rather unfriendly reputation. 

One of those labours required him to steal cattle from a horrifying giant called Geryon who lived somewhere on the Iberian peninsula (today’s Spain and Portugal). Hercules, being the overachiever, he always was, not only stole the cattle but killed the giant (and his dog) just to make sure he wouldn’t bother anyone. The hero now needed to go back to the opposite part of the Mediterranean to prove his success. Just in the middle of that return journey lies the Italian peninsula. While staying in the central part of Italy, Hercules took a nap to gather some energy for his journey. Unluckily, he chose a location right before the eyes of an experienced thief called Cacus, who lived in a cave on the Aventine hill.

Cacus was an interesting character. Dionysius described him as a “local thief”, but in Virgil’s Aeneid he is a fire-breathing giant enjoying the taste of human flesh. I guess you will have to pick whichever version you like best.

Anyway, Cacus had a hardly-understandable and almost suicidal idea to steal some cows and bulls from the greatest and strongest hero who ever lived. He waited until Hercules fell asleep and committed his crime. Even he was bright enough to realize that some level of cautiousness must be in place and decided to cover the evidence. He grabbed the cattle by their tails and dragged the animals back to his cave backward. Cacus relied on the cleverness of this plan which was supposed to confuse the Greek hero, as Hercules would only see the trail in the opposite direction.  (Needless to say, Hercules was not legendary for his sky-high intelligence.)

Indeed, Hercules woke up, noticed the animals were missing and couldn’t track them down. Nevertheless, he found his way to Cacus’ cave with the intention to investigate. Cacus refused to let him in and probably would have gotten out of the situation with grace, had he not been betrayed by one of the animals. The remaining Hercules’ herd mooed and one of the stolen animals, hidden in the cave, mooed back at them.

Cacus failed to provide a believable explanation and very soon realised that his life was in danger. He barricaded himself in the cave, but as you can imagine, that’s not even remotely helpful when facing the son of Zeus. In Dionysius’s version of the story, Hercules killed him. In Virgil’s version, he killed him too… but after a much more dramatic fight!

Having the cave’s entrance blocked, Hercules was forced to find another way in. Three times he circled the Aventine hill, but without any success. “If you cannot find a way, make one”, he thought and used his club to tear the top of the hill. This finally allowed him to attack the thief and even to do so from above. He threw rocks and branches down, but Cacus just dodged everything. He used his fiery breath to create a fog of thick smoke that made it very difficult for Hercules to hit him.

Did the Greek hero quit and let the thief get away with the crime? Of course, he didn’t! After realizing that throwing staff was pointless, he jumped down himself. Even in the smoke he found Cacus, grabbed him and choked him until “the eyes squeezed, and the throat drained of blood”.

The local people, led by Evander of Pallene, just couldn’t thank him enough. Cacus posed a threat to all of them and getting rid of him was a reason to celebrate for everyone. The gratitude didn’t stop at the celebration. They erected an altar, sacrificed a calf to honour Hercules a god and performed the necessary rites. The altar (“The Great Altar of Hercules”) stood for many centuries in a location in Forum Boarium in Rome. The rites were performed every year and initially only members of two families were allowed to perform them – the Potitii and the Pinarii.

According to Dionysius, Hercules enjoyed the thankfulness of the local people so much, that he fathered two sons by two different women. With Lavinia, who is here a daughter of Evander, he had Pallas, who died young. With another woman, he had a son called Latinus who later became king of the tribe of Aborigines (later called Latins). The names may ring a bell because they appear in Virgil and other sources too, but their family background is different there.

Before Hercules left Italy, he still managed to do one more thing – found a town in the Bay of Naples. The town got the name Herculaneum and Dionysius claims it has “safe harbour at all times”. Well apparently, those time had an end after all. In 79 CE the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city under ashes alongside Pompeii.

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