Ancient Authors on Herakles (2023)

Ancient Authors
Who Wrote about Herakles

Ancient Authors on Herakles (1)

Ancient Authors

Selected Works



Apollodorus(Mythographer, 180-120 BCE?)
The Library is a collection of stories from mythology, and the mostcomplete primary source for any research.Little is known about the author, but Apollodorus’ name continues to bematched with the work.Apollodorus has a good account of each of Herakles labors performed forKing Eurystheus and each of his other feats.Apollodorus also covers the basic and some more complex versions of theimmortals in Greek mythology as they interact with each other and with our hero.From the beginning of the world and the first beings to the death ofUlysses, this book gives a very detailed description.I highly recommend the book to anyone who is researching mythology andwould like a good start to any topic of choice. (AH)

ApolloniusRhodius (Epic Poet, 3rd century BCE)
Apollonius spent the earlier part of his life in Alexandria working as alibrarian. He was the pupil and friend of Callimachus, a popular Greek poet.Eventually, Apollonius moved to Rhodes at which time he wrote a second versionto his epic ‘Argonautica.’ Little else is known about the personal life ofApollonius except for the fact that his friendship with Callimachus ended aftera bitter dispute. ‘Argonautica’ is the only major work of Apollonius thathas survived. The ‘Argonautica’ is unique work in that it was an epicwritten at a time in which the epic had lost much of its appeal with Greeksociety. However, the ‘Argonautica’ is different from most epics in that itcontains fewer lines and presents a different type of hero (Jason) from that ofother epics. The ‘Argonautica’ is made up of four books. However, Heraklesonly appears in the first book. Herakles and Orpheus are put in charge of twogroups making up the crew of the ‘Argonautica.’ However, Herakles was leftbehind at the island of the Mysians. Itwas necessary for Apollonius to leave Herakles out of the remainder of the storybecause it would have defeated the purpose of making the voyage of Jason a testof his courage had Herakles remained. (CMD)

Aristophanes(Comic Playwright, 450-385 BCE).
Aristophanes wrote the play, The Frogs, during the last year of the warbetween Sparta and Athens.There are political insights hidden within the play and Aristophanes usescomedy to express them.He expresses freedom of speech and dares to say things that a few yearsearlier the same people that were listening had killed Socrates for the samething.But, Aristophanes takes two very similar characters that were well knownto the ancient world, Dionysus and Herakles, and made people laugh at them butalso made them think.Such as, why does Dionysus borrow Herakles’ clothes on his journey?Is he saying that other people use the strength of others to hide behind?Or is he trying to say that people are ignorant and that they probablywould not notice the difference? (AH)

Diodorus Siculus (Historian,c. 90 BCE)
Diodorus lived in Agyrium, Sicily. He spent a good part of his life writing acollection of history books entitled Bibliotheke (“The Library”).Bibliotheke was made up of forty books that covered the history of the worldfrom the time of creation up until the present. The first part of this anthologydealt with mythology. In addition to Greek myths, Diodorus also included themyths of other civilizations as well. Diodorus attempted to explain the myths ofHerakles as events that actually occurred in the past. Diodorus presentsrational accounts of the events that occurred in Herakles’ life. (CMD)

Euripides(Playwright, fifth century BCE)
Euripides was born on Salamis Island in 480 BCE. Heis known as a "philosopher of the stage." Euripideswas a prolific writer. He startedwriting at age eighteen and composed anywhere between eighty and ninety plays,but unfortunately only nineteen have survived.He is often described as gloomy, thoughtful, and a hater of both laughterand women. Scholars gather thesecharacteristics by examining his plays. Hisfame was acquired toward the end of his life when he won a small number oftragic awards. Among his survivingplays are Herakles (portraying Herakles’ madness and murder of hisfamily, and his internal battle afterwards); Alcestis (in which Heraklesrescues Alcestis from death), and The Children of Herakles (onlyHerakles’ children appear, not Herakles himself).(HC)

Lucretius(Philosopher, c. 99 - 55 BCE)
Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. Not much is known about him. It isbelieved that he lived the life of a recluse. It is also believed that hecommitted suicide. During his life Lucretius wrote several books the best knownof which is ‘De rerum natura’ (On the Nature of Things).The book is dividedinto six parts. The book was intended to present the beliefs and views ofDemocritus and Epicurus to those who were unfamiliar with the two philosophers.It is worth noting that Lucretius believed that religion was a source of eviland misery. Lucretius writes very little about Herakles but what he does writeis interesting. Lucretius believed that Herakles was not worthy of the praiseand admiration he received from the Romans. The deeds of Herakles did little inmaking the world a better place for people. Lucretius believed that it was thegreat thinkers who deserved praise rather than Herakles. Philosophers wereprimarily responsible for improving the human condition. (CMD)

Ovid(Poet, 43BCE-14CE)
Publius Ovidius Naso was born on March 20, 43 BC, in Sulmo, just 90 miles fromRome, to a well-off family.He was educated in Rome in public speaking and trained to become agovernment official.Ovid was never very enthusiastic about this career and when his olderbrother died, Ovid quit his position and began reciting poetry in the streets ofRome. Hebecame immensely popular in his own time and many of his subjects relate totoday’s reader.Some of the issues he discussed included love, sex, friendship,relationships between man and gods, the individual and state, art and life,words and things.Ovid had a fascination with the human condition and psyche and many ofhis words dealt with these themes.

Ovid’sfirst writings were entitled, Amores.This was a collection of love poetry and was followed by Heroides, whichwas written form the perspective of women writing to their lovers.Ovid followed this work with Ars Amatoria, a collection of advice foryoung men on where to meet women, how to capture them, and how to keep them.Other works included Medicamina Faciei, which instructs women on how tomaintain beauty.The Remedia was a collection of stories telling how victims of love wereable to escape their predicaments.

PerhapsOvid’s most popular work is The Metamorphoses.This was a collection of over 250 stories based on Greek mythology, Romanlegend and Roman history.For the first time in Roman literature, Ovid applied the technique oftelling stories within stories allowing for a complex narrative.

In8 AD, Ovid was banished from Rome by Augustus.He was sent to Tomis, modern Romania.Many of Ovid’s books were removed form the libraries.The possible reason for this banishment is due to Ovid’s continualwriting about love and sexuality.Augustus wished to return Rome to a state of chastity, fidelity, sobrietyand piety. Ovid’sbooks interfered with this and thus the author and his books were banished.Ovid continued to write during this time and died in 14 AD.

Afew of Ovid’s writings dealt with the Hercules myth in some form or another.Within The Metamorphoses, Ovid “presents a number of events fromHercules’ life-among them his birth, his famous ‘labors,’ and his deathand apotheosis” (Mack).Ovid continually uses Hercules’ labors to create intricate stories,explaining certain events in other stories through allusions to Hercules’labors. Oneof the other connections Ovid makes to Hercules is by having one of the lettersin the Heroides be from Deianeira, Hercules’ second wife.This gives insight to the way Deianeira felt while Hercules was gone forso long. (RLC)

Mack,Sara (1988). Ovid. New Haven & London: Yale University Press


Pindar(ca. 518-438 BC) wrote poems dedicated to victors in athletic games.Greek Mythology Link Works by Pindar include: Isthmian Odes, NemeanOdes, Olympian Odes, and Pythian Odes. Allare provided by the Perseus Project. Somesources, such as TheColumbia Encyclopedia, say that Pindar’s odes were to be sung to thevictors on their return home. Pindarfrequently mentions Herakles in his victory odes as a model for human behaviorand experience. For furtherinformation, see the Pindar webpage dedicated to Pindar. (MB)

Vergil(Epic poet, 70-19 BCE)
Vergil was bornnear Mantua in 70 BCE. His full name is Publius Vergilius Maro. His early life onhis father’s farm was central to his educational development. Vergil spentseveral of his works describing rural farm life both in an idealized sense andin a realistic sense.

Hetook up residence in Rome around 41 BCE. The remainder of his life was devoted tohis most popular work, the Aeneid.Aeneas embodied all the qualities that the Romans held dear. Aeneas was devotedto his family, loyal to the state government, and pious. Vergil likens Aeneas toHerakles in the labors he has to endure and in his physical characteristics,showing Aeneas to be “the true spiritual and heroic heir of Herakles”(Galinsky 1972 151). The Aeneid chronicledthe fall of Troy on to Aeneas’ affair with Dido, a Carthaginian queen, andthen to the founding of Rome itself. Vergil died in 19 BCE. The style of his Aeneid,in dactylic hexameters, became very important in Roman literature. Vergil’sworks influence writers to this day. (MAC)

VariousWorks by Ancient Authors

Euripides,The Madness of Herakles.In David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie (1999). Euripides, 4.University of Pennsylvania Press.
This tragedy portrays the killings of Megara and her children by Herakles.Euripides gives usgreat insight on the trials and hardships of the hero as he goes insaneand kills his own children, only to come back to his senses and not know who hadperformed the horrible deed.The main theme, good vs. evil, is portrayed in this literature.Euripides shows it as a never-ending battle, for when Herakles finallyseems to win, the evil forces strike back.This play also has goodmaterial if one is studying the relationship between Herakles and Hera,for she sends Madness to consume his mind and forces him to kill his children.(AH)

Euripides,TheChildren of Herakles.In David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie (1999). Euripides, 4.University of Pennsylvania Press.
This play tells about the journey of Alcmene, Iolaus, and the children ofHerakles as they flee to Athens in hopes of finding sanctuary from the king of Argos.Eurystheus, king of Argos fears that the children of Herakles will avenge their fatherand kill him. Upon learning that the only way to secure the Athenian army’s success was the offering of a virgin girlnobly-born, Makaria, daughter of Herakles volunteered to sacrifice herself toDemeter to save her brothers. The play tells of the courage of Hyllus, oldest son ofHerakles, who comes to protect Athens as the army of King Eurystheus approaches,and describes Iolaus’ rejuvenation on the battlefield which enabled him to capture King Eurystheus. It wassaid that two stars came down to Iolaus’ chariot, and materialized in each starwere Herakles and Hebe. The captured Eurystheus is presented to Alcmene whosends him off to his death. Athens' devotion to Herakles is seen throughout the play, starting withthe Athenians' willingness to protect his children. Many lines are dedicated to describing the courageous acts ofHerakles’ children. Euripides also displays the importance of the two main women in the play. Makaria and Alcmene come up with the solutions to both of theplay's dilemmas. First dilemma: Athens wouldn’t be victorious unless there was a sacrifice, so Makaria sacrifices herself. Seconddilemma: when Eurystheus was captured, Athens didn’t know what to do with him,so Alcmene suggests a ruthless solution which pleases Athens. (CW)

Hesiod,The Shield of Herakles
Synopsis: TheShield of Heracles is a 480 line epic poem attributed to Hesiod, thoughmost scholars believe it was composed later than Hesiod’s other works.It tells the story of Heracles’ battle with Cycnus, who challengedHeracles to combat as Heracles was passing near Itonus.Cycnus was assisted in battle by his father Ares, the god of war.Central to the narrative is the description of Heracles’ armor andweapons, notably the remarkable shield which was made for him by Hephaestus.
Putting on the armor: Afterthis talk, Heracles puts on his armor. Heputs on bronze leg greaves made by Hephaestus, a golden breastplate given to himby Pallas Athena when he was first sent out on his labors.He also put on his shoulders the steel that “saves men from doom”.He slung a quiver across his back. Hehad a sharp spear and a bronze helmet.
The Shield: He also picked up abronze shield which shimmered with enamel and ivory and electrum and glowed withshining gold. There were bands ofdeep blue. Fear was portrayed inthe middle of the shield with glowing eyes, and Strife hovering on his brow.Pursuit, Flight, Tumult, Panic, Slaughter, Uproar and Fate were alsodepicted in various poses. The twelve headed snake was also on the shield (This may be arepresentation of the hydra though it is unclear whether this description isbefore or after the labors took place.) Boarsand lions were in a faceoff on the shield, but between the two sides were twoboars that had been slain by a lion, possibly representative o the Nemean Lionof the first labor.
View of Heracles in Hesiod’s work

Heracles’ birth:
(Firstreference to Amphitryon/Alcmene story)Alkmene, Heacles mother is portrayed as awomen who rivals Aphrodite in beauty and womanly charms.She is also portrayed as beng neat-ankles or fair-ankled.It is also known that Zeus and Amphitryon slept with Alkmene on the samenight, each conceiving a son.Heracleswas born of Zeus and Iphicles was born of Amphitryon.

Heracles and Iolaus:
This is where Iolaus firstenters the scene. He is Heracles’right-hand man and his charioteer. WhenHeracles speaks to Iolaus, it becomes even more clear that Amphitryon killedElectryon, Almene’s father, before they were wed.Heracles also mentions that fate laid heavy tasks upon him. Iolaus is the son of Iphicles and therefore Heracles’nephew. Iphicles went into servicewith Eurystheus after leaving his home and his parents (maybe Iphicles hadsomething to do with the horrible labors that Heracles was forced to do later.)
Battle with Cycnus:
Heracleskilled Cycnus, the son of Ares. Laterit is pointed out that Cycnus desires to kill the warlike son of Zeus.Phoebus Apollo would hear none of this because he was the one who putHeracles up to the task of going against Ares and his son. (HC, RLC, RC)

Sophocles,Women of Trachis.
Sophocles’ play is about the accidental murder of Herakles by his wifeDeianira. The play starts in front of the house of Heracles and Deianira.Deianira, the wife of Herakles, is very distraught over her husband’s absence.She worries that Herakles is in great danger or is already dead, so with thesuggestion from her nurse, she sends her son Hyllus out to find him. Finallynews is sent to her that Herakles is alive and on his way home. Before hisreturn Lichas, his herald, brought before Deianira the captive women ofOechalia, which included the young Iole for whom Herakles felt great desire.Lichas tells Deianira of Herakles’ servitude to Queen Omphale and how hesacked the city of Eurytus because Eurytus was the reason why Herakles was soldto Omphale. So Deianira welcomes the captive women into her home; however,before she enters her house the messenger pulls her aside and tells her thetruth. He tells her that it was out of love for Iole that Herakles destroyed thecity. Upon hearing this she remembers the blood of Nessus, a centaur. He gavethis blood to her after Herakles had shot him in the chest with an arrow andtold Deianira that his blood would place a charm over Herakles’ heart so thathe would never look at another women again. So, believing this, shedipped a robe into the blood and sent it with Lichas as a gift to Herakles.However, after his departure she realizes that the blood was evil and worriesthat she did the wrong thing in sending the robe. Shortly afterward, Hyllusreturns to tell her what she feared, she had killed her husband. With greatdespair Deianira takes her own life. When Herales returns to the house beingcarried in a litter he cries out in pain and anger to see his treacherous wifewho has brought such torture on him. After he hears the truth from Hyllus aboutthe blood of Nessus he asks Hyllus to set his body on fire on Mount Oeta andtells him that he must take Iole to be his wife. Throughout the play you see thedevotion Deianira had for her husband. Proof is given of Herakles’ lust forwomen. Many lines are devoted to describing the many emotions of Deianira,Hyllus and of Herakles himself. Good source for character descriptions for thosethree main characters. (CW)

Some Helpful Linksfor Ancient Authors: (JR)

Fora more complete list of ancient authors who wrote about mythology (thoughwithout specific reference to Herakles) see the Greek Mythology Link

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