Somewhat late to the Steven Saylor Roma (2007) bandwagon, I now can’t get the story of Cacus and Hercules out of my mind. The Augustan writers had two traditions about Cacus, one that he was human (Livy and Dionysus) and the other that he was superhuman (Vergil, Ovid, Propertius).
- Vergil Aeneid 8.185-275
- Livy 1.7.3
- Ovid Fasti 1.543-86
- Propertius 4.9.1-20
- Dionysus of Halicarnassus Roman Antiquities 1.39
Saylor’s story shows how Cacus could easily have slipped from one to the other as the story passed down, and from an innocent child to a cannibalistic ogre. Sent away as part of a group of children in “the rite of sacred spring,” which was used as repayment for a community’s surviving a famine, Cacus was the biggest and strongest. Ultimately, he was the only one to survive, but by the time he settled down in the cave on the Aventine, he’d developed a taste for human flesh. Thus he was a human, but horrible monster, who could only be taken out by someone of Hercules’ abilities.
[See Irene Hahn’s Review of Saylor’s Roma]
Dionysus and Livy’s version is based on the story of Hercules passing through Rome with the cattle he had taken from Geryon. Cacus, a thief who lived in a cave on the Aventine, stole some of them while Hercules was napping, using Hermes‘ ruse of leading them backwards (4th Homeric Hymn). Hercules located the missing cows through their lowing. He then attacked and killed Cacus.
Here is Livy’s version:
The city, when built, was called after the name of its founder [Rome after Romulus]. He first proceeded to fortify the Palatine Hill, on which he himself had been brought up. He offered sacrifices to Hercules, according to the Grecian rite, as they had been instituted by Evander; to the other gods, according to the Alban rite. There is a tradition that Hercules, having slain Geryon, drove off his oxen, which were of surpassing beauty, to that spot: and that he lay down in a grassy spot on the banks of the river Tiber, where he had swam across, driving the cattle before him, to refresh them with rest and luxuriant pasture, being also himself fatigued with journeying. There, when sleep had overpowered him, heavy as he was with food and wine, a shepherd who dwelt in the neighbourhood, by name Cacus, priding himself on his strength, and charmed with the beauty of the cattle, desired to carry them off as booty; but because, if he had driven the herd in front of him to the cave, their tracks must have conducted their owner thither in his search, he dragged the most beautiful of them by their tails backward into a cave. Hercules, aroused from sleep at dawn, having looked over his herd and observed that some of their number were missing, went straight to the nearest cave, to see whether perchance their tracks led thither. When he saw that they were all turned away from it and led in no other direction, troubled and not knowing what to make up his mind to do, he commenced to drive off his herd from so dangerous a spot. Thereupon some of the cows that were driven away, lowed, as they usually do, when they missed those that were left; and the lowings of those that were shut in being heard in answer from the cave, caused Hercules to turn round. And when Cacus attempted to prevent him by force as he was advancing toward the cave, he was struck with a club and slain, while vainly calling upon the shepherds to assist him.
From Livy Book 1
Vergil, who may be responsible for the superhuman version of Cacus, makes him the fire-breathing son of the god Vulcan who lives in a cave littered with the remains of humans.
In “The Greek Origins of the Cacus Myth,” The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 27, No. 2, (1977), pp. 391-393, Dana Sutton says the story by Vergil is like a myth about Sisyphus stealing the horses of Diomedes that Hercules was bringing to Eurystheus as his 8th labor. In “Cacus and the Cyclops,” Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 42, No. 1/2, (1989), pp. 101-102, Howard Jacobson says that Vergil modeled his Cacus partly on the Homeric story of Odysseus in Polyphemus’ cave [Odyssey 9].
Here is Vergil’s version:
Thus spoke Evander to his royal guest:
“These rites, these altars, and this feast, O king,
From no vain fears or superstition spring,
Or blind devotion, or from blinder chance,
Or heady zeal, or brutal ignorance;
But, sav’d from danger, with a grateful sense,
The labors of a god we recompense.
See, from afar, yon rock that mates the sky,
About whose feet such heaps of rubbish lie;
Such indigested ruin; bleak and bare,
How desart now it stands, expos’d in air!
‘T was once a robber’s den, inclos’d around
With living stone, and deep beneath the ground.
The monster Cacus, more than half a beast,
This hold, impervious to the sun, possess’d.
The pavement ever foul with human gore;
Heads, and their mangled members, hung the door.
Vulcan this plague begot; and, like his sire,
Black clouds he belch’d, and flakes of livid fire.
Time, long expected, eas’d us of our load,
And brought the needful presence of a god.
Th’ avenging force of Hercules, from Spain,
Arriv’d in triumph, from Geryon slain:
Thrice liv’d the giant, and thrice liv’d in vain.
His prize, the lowing herds, Alcides drove
Near Tiber’s bank, to graze the shady grove.
Allur’d with hope of plunder, and intent
By force to rob, by fraud to circumvent,
The brutal Cacus, as by chance they stray’d,
Four oxen thence, and four fair kine convey’d;
And, lest the printed footsteps might be seen,
He dragg’d ’em backwards to his rocky den.
The tracks averse a lying notice gave,
And led the searcher backward from the cave.
“Meantime the herdsman hero shifts his place,
To find fresh pasture and untrodden grass.
The beasts, who miss’d their mates, fill’d all around
With bellowings, and the rocks restor’d the sound.
One heifer, who had heard her love complain,
Roar’d from the cave, and made the project vain.
Alcides found the fraud; with rage he shook,
And toss’d about his head his knotted oak.
Swift as the winds, or Scythian arrows’ flight,
He clomb, with eager haste, th’ aerial height.
Then first we saw the monster mend his pace;
Fear his eyes, and paleness in his face,
Confess’d the god’s approach. Trembling he springs,
As terror had increas’d his feet with wings;
Nor stay’d for stairs; but down the depth he threw
His body, on his back the door he drew
(The door, a rib of living rock; with pains
His father hew’d it out, and bound with iron chains):
He broke the heavy links, the mountain clos’d,
And bars and levers to his foe oppos’d.
The wretch had hardly made his dungeon fast;
The fierce avenger came with bounding haste;
Survey’d the mouth of the forbidden hold,
And here and there his raging eyes he roll’d.
He gnash’d his teeth; and thrice he compass’d round
With winged speed the circuit of the ground.
Thrice at the cavern’s mouth he pull’d in vain,
And, panting, thrice desisted from his pain.
A pointed flinty rock, all bare and black,
Grew gibbous from behind the mountain’s back;
Owls, ravens, all ill omens of the night,
Here built their nests, and hither wing’d their flight.
The leaning head hung threat’ning o’er the flood,
And nodded to the left. The hero stood
Adverse, with planted feet, and, from the right,
Tugg’d at the solid stone with all his might.
Thus heav’d, the fix’d foundations of the rock
Gave way; heav’n echo’d at the rattling shock.
Tumbling, it chok’d the flood: on either side
The banks leap backward, and the streams divide;
The sky shrunk upward with unusual dread,
And trembling Tiber div’d beneath his bed.
The court of Cacus stands reveal’d to sight;
The cavern glares with new-admitted light.
So the pent vapors, with a rumbling sound,
Heave from below, and rend the hollow ground;
A sounding flaw succeeds; and, from on high,
The gods with hate beheld the nether sky:
The ghosts repine at violated night,
And curse th’ invading sun, and sicken at the sight.
The graceless monster, caught in open day,
Inclos’d, and in despair to fly away,
Howls horrible from underneath, and fills
His hollow palace with unmanly yells.
The hero stands above, and from afar
Plies him with darts, and stones, and distant war.
He, from his nostrils huge mouth, expires
Black clouds of smoke, amidst his father’s fires,
Gath’ring, with each repeated blast, the night,
To make uncertain aim, and erring sight.
The wrathful god then plunges from above,
And, where in thickest waves the sparkles drove,
There lights; and wades thro’ fumes, and gropes his way,
Half sing’d, half stifled, till he grasps his prey.
The monster, spewing fruitless flames, he found;
He squeez’d his throat; he writh’d his neck around,
And in a knot his crippled members bound;
Then from their sockets tore his burning eyes:
Roll’d on a heap, the breathless robber lies.
The doors, unbarr’d, receive the rushing day,
And thoro’ lights disclose the ravish’d prey.
The bulls, redeem’d, breathe open air again.
Next, by the feet, they drag him from his den.
The wond’ring neighborhood, with glad surprise,
Behold his shagged breast, his giant size,
His mouth that flames no more, and his extinguish’d eyes.
From Aeneid Book VIII