Bronze Herakles, Etruria, 500 BC

Bronze Herakles, Etruria, 500 BC
Dating:500 BC–480 BC
Origin:Mediterranean Basin, Etruria
Physical:13.5cm. (5.3 in.) -

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  This Etruscan bronze statuette, crafted around 500 BC, depicts the god Herakles (perhaps better known under his Latin name of Hercules), nude with the pelt of the Nemean lion draped over its left forearm.

Herakles (Hercules in Latin) is perhaps the most colorful of Greek heroes. It is not hard to imagine how his stories must have been the often requested standards of ancient storytellers, igniting the imagination of fireside listeners. Although twelve of his exploits at the core of his legend were eventually codified to the point of being inscribed on the temple of Zeus at Olympia, variations on his biography are almost infinite.

Zeus, king of gods, had intended for Herakles to become king of the Greek land of Argos. He announced this decision by a vague statement that "the next descendant of Perseus to be born would rule Argos." Zeus, who feared his formidable wife Hera, had good reasons to speak in riddles. He had conceived Herakles by taking on the appearance of Amphitrion and seducing his wife, the beautiful Alcmene. Hera found out, and promptly moved to cause another child, Eurystheus, to be born early to take the crown away from Herakles, and become his master. It is therefore Eurystheus who, twenty years later, assigned Herakles the famous twelve labors.

His first assignment was to hunt the lion who terrorized the people of Nemea and Cleonae, and bring its skin back to Eurythenus. But this lion, brother to the Sphynx of Thebes, was no ordinary lion. And his skin, so tough that no arrow could pierce it, was no ordinary skin. Herakles would have to engage in close combat. He crafted a club out of a wild olive tree, and made for the lion’s double-mouthed den. After blocking one exit, he entered the den. Roaring, the lion swung its paw with all claws drawn; Grunting, Herakles swung his club with all his might. With a single hit, he knocked the lion unconscious, then chocked him with his bare hands. The lion dead, Herakles skinned it with the only thing in the world sharp enough to cut through its hide: one of its own claws. Herakles kept the pelt, wearing it as an armor, with the lion’s head as his helmet.

Although this is not the most clever of the twelve labor stories, it had a considerable impact on the iconography of Herakles who is almost always shown wearing or carrying the Nemean lion’s pelt. (Cavendish 1987, Grimal 1981)

“In the Italic region, he [Herakles] became the most popular divinity, to whom many sanctuaries were dedicated.” (Bianchi Bandinelli 1973:428,109-112, pl.122,123,125,126)

The Etruscan (or Tusci) civilization was a short-lived but original, sophisticated and influential civilization that developed in the region of northern Italy still known today as Tuscany. Following the Villanovian culture of the ninth century BC, the Etruscan culture emerged around 800 BC among the indigenous population, with perhaps some influence from the East. The Etruscan language is still poorly understood. Although the writing symbols are similar to the Greek alphabet, the words of the language are like no other.

Although we speak of Etruria as if it were a nation, it was really no more than a set of cities and city-states with a common culture. Although Roman historians describe a “council” of twelve Etruscan cities, we have no idea what was the purview of the council, and there is little evidence left of any concrete political entity.

With a long coastline rife with natural harbors, and a back country rich with copper and iron ore, Tuscany was well suited to the development of both technology and commerce. The Etruscans excelled in both. Etruscan art and techniques were greatly influenced by the Greek World, yet preserved their own distinctive character. At their heyday, Etruscan metal craftsmen had no equal anywhere in the ancient world, and their wares were highly prized all over the Mediterranean. Etruscans also excelled in public works. Despite their lack of a central government, they built a spectacular network of roads, bridges, and viaducts. They developed a clever system for improving the drainage of their lands and controlling the levels of their lakes. They also built remarkable cities, temples and tombs. Etruscans had a complex religion and a deep concern for the afterlife that led them to build chamber tombs, replicating underground the dwellings of the living. It is from those tombs, their decorated walls, and the vast amounts of material cultural goods (much of them imported) the tombs contain that we have learned most of what we know about Etruscans.

Etruscan prosperity declined sharply during the fourth century, as other powers blocked their trade routes: southward with their complete naval defeat against the Greeks at Cumae in 474 BC on the Mediterranean side; northward with the progressive takeover of their outposts in northeastern Italy on the Adriatic. But in the long run it is Rome, a city-state of Latin people deeply influenced and infiltrated by Etruscan families at the highest levels of power, that would gradually absorb the cities of the Etruscan culture. By 100 BC, Etruria had become completely assimilated into the Roman world it had helped educate.

Bibliography (for this item)

Bianchi Bandinelli, Ranuccio, and Antonio Guiliano
1973 Les étrusques et l’Italie avant Rome. Gallimard, Paris, France.

Bianchi Bandinelli, Ranuccio, and Antonio Guiliano
1973 Les étrusques et l’Italie avant Rome. Gallimard, Paris, France. (109, 110, 111, 112
pl.122, 123, 125, 126

Hus, Alain
1977 Dix siècles de bronze: l’âme étrusque et les séductions de l’Orient. Dossiers de l’Archéologie, 24:28-35.

Bibliography (on Herakles)

Bianchi Bandinelli, Ranuccio, and Antonio Guiliano
1973 Les étrusques et l’Italie avant Rome. Gallimard, Paris, France.

Cavendish, Richard
1987 Mythology: an illustrated encyclopedia. Crescent, New York, NY.

Grimal, Pierre
1981 World Mythology (translation of the 1965 edition by Larousse). Excalibur Books, New York, NY.

Bibliography (on Etruscans)

Tait, Hugh
1991 Jewelry: 7000 Years: An international History and Illustrated Survey from the Collections of the British Museum (republication of the 1987 edtion by H. N. Abrams). Abradale Press, New York, NY.

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