Hercules Pulcher?

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) Herakles bei Omphale; Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The idea of Hercules looking like anything but a brawny, calloused, hirsute, well-tanned (at least on his rear end) and presumably heavily scarred male amuses me. It’s what makes artistic depictions of Hercules’ time as a slave to Omphale so comic. Following Cicero’s description of Clodius Pulcher or Clodius the Beautiful’s desecration of the 62 B.C. Bona Dea celebration (Ad Att., I, 13, 3): “credo enim te audisse, cum apud Caesarem pro populo fieret, venisse eo muliebri vestitu virum idque sacrificium cum virgines instaurassent.”) — the same event that led Julius Caesar to divorce his wife for not being above suspicion — mental images of both the Goddess and Clodius include the handsome transvestite’s presence inside the women-only event. In 1964 William S. Anderson wrote about this and Hercules’ related behavior in an article about a poet I really need to review, Propertius. The article is “Hercules Exclusus: Propertius, IV, 9,” The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), pp. 1-12.*

Even if you sacrifice to Juno, bitter against me, she herself would not shut her waters from me. But if any of you are afraid of my face or the lion’s pelt, or my hair bleached by the Libyan sun, I am the same who has carried out slave’s tasks in a cloak of Sidon, and spun the day’s tally on a Lydian distaff. My shaggy chest was caught in a soft breast-band, and I was fit to be a hard-handed girl.’
A.S. Kline translation

quodsi Iunoni sacrum faceretis amarae, non clausisset aquas ipsa nouerca suas.
sin aliquem uultusque meus saetaeque leonis
terrent et Libyco sole perusta coma,
idem ego Sidonia feci seruilia palla
officia et Lydo pensa diurna colo,
mollis et hirsutum cepit mihi fascia pectus,
et manibus duris apta puella fui.

Propertius IV.9

Anderson’s article suggests Propertius was deliberately playing on (what could have been a familiar fantasy) the idea that a man could get through the door even at the sacred events if his qualifications were properly like Pulcher’s. Hercules had spent his year’s atonement for murdering Iphitus in a violation of the rules of guest-host relationships [see Hercules Kills Iphitus and Abducts Iole ] by serving the Lydian queen Omphale. She took his symbols, while he dressed in female garb, instead of what was, for him, normal, masculine garb — a lionskin. But back to Hercules’ time in Rome following his destruction of the monster Cacus and his attempt to gain entry to the party…. The ladies within the house had good reason to let him in — at least in the sometimes mad mind of the greatest Greek mythological hero. Of course the celebrants, less deluded than he about his physical attributes, don’t. Had Hercules truly been pulcher would the Goddess have wanted him? Would the participants? What about the repeatedly transgendering Tiresias? Would he have been denied because he had at one time been a male or because he was blind and so, imperfect? While for males, being able to be a father, through adoption, if necessary, was what mattered legally [see Ulpian on Roman Eunuchs], so eunuchs were not automatically eliminated, what was the qualification for clandestine admission to a women-only event? Feminine beauty?

*A more recent, related article: “Hercules Cross-Dressed, Hercules Undressed: Unmasking the Construction of the Propertian “Amator” in Elegy 4.9,” by Sara H. Lindheim; The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 119, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), pp. 43-66.


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