A life-sized marble statue of a Hercules figure has been discovered on the Appia Antica, the ancient road leading south out of Rome. He wears the skin of the Nemean lion, its open mouth on his head like a hat, its front paws tied at the clavicle like a scarf, its hind legs draped over his left arm. His facial features, however, do not match the iconography of Hercules. This is the portrait of a man wearing a Hercules suit.
The statue was not found in an archaeological excavation, but during construction of a new sewer line. The failure of a 19th century pipeline was causing sinkholes to appear in the Archaeological Park of Appia Antica, requiring drastic action over a wide area to repair. Archaeologists have been working with the utilities crews throughout the complex project. Weeks of earth moving had returned no archaeological materials when suddenly Hercules emerged 20 meters (65 feet) below street level.
The statue was unearthed on the second mile of the Appia Antica next to the Tomb of Priscilla (second half of the 1st century A.D.). It was found under the collapsed 19th century pipe that was being demolished by the earthmover. This was not its original location, but a secondary deposit. It was likely discovered during construction of the old sewer line and then just tossed into the soil layer underneath it. (There was zero archaeological oversight back then and people could well have chosen to simply bury the statue instead of going through the trouble of salvaging it.)
Without stratigraphic information, determining the age of the statue is difficult. Comparison to other artifacts is pretty much all archaeologists have to go on, and they’ve begun to research comparable works. They already have a hypothesis for the identity for the man behind the lionskin: the 3rd century emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, aka Trajan Decius.
During these very first analyses we found a decent resemblance between the portrait of our character in the costume of Hercules and Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, better known as Trajan Decius, who reigned from 249 to 251, when he was killed, along with his son Herennius Etruscus, in the Battle of Abrittus between Goths and Romans.
The face of “our Hercules”, although corroded, seems to share with the official portraits of Decius the “wrinkles of anxiety”, which recall Republican Roman portraiture and were aimed at representing the concern for the fate of the State, a virtue evaluated very positively in the high ranks of the empire. Other characteristic features are the treatment of the beard razor and the morphology of the eyes, nose and lips.
Decius was a senator and statesman before his soldiers acclaimed him imperator on the field, and during his brief reign, he made a priority of reviving traditional Roman virtues, religion and governance. He made himself consul every year, attempted to reinstitute the senatorial position of Censor (the magistrate who maintained the citizenship rolls) and promulgated the first official law persecuting Christians by demanding all Roman citizens sacrifice to Rome’s traditional gods for the safety and health of the emperor and empire.
During his brief reign, he made his mark on Rome with public works, building a luxurious new bath complex on the Aventine frequented by the wealthy residents of the neighborhood. Little of it remains today, but two statues were recovered from the site and are now in the collection of the Capitoline Museums. One of them is an unusual monumental basalt statue of Hercules as a boy. He wears the skin of the Nemean Lion draped over his head, paws tied around his chest. He holds his iconic club in his right hand (only the handle of it remains) and the apples of the Hesperides and in his left. Presenting himself clothed in Hercules’ attributes would certainly be in keeping with Decius’ emphasis on promoting traditional Roman virtues.
5 thoughts on “Man in Hercules suit found on Appia Antica”
The “Battle of Abritus” –were the emperor with the lion skin was finished off– was fought in 251 AD between the Romans and Gothic and Scythian tribesmen further down the Danube in Rasgrad, Bulgaria.
Indeed, it may be not so sure, who actually was skinned by whom: Back in December, I had the opportunity to have a look at the remains –along the Danube– of the Roman ‘Castra Regina’, in the city of Regensburg in Bavaria.
In 5000m distance from the city walls, at the premises of BMW, there had been a ‘Villa Rustica’ , and still –likewise in the 3rd century– someone cut those folks’s heads off, took at least one scalp, and dumped their heads down the well.
A skull with the scalping cutmarks is exhibited at the ‘Historisches Museum’ in Regensburg. Moreover, there seems to have been a tradition of scalping slewn enemies of at least 600 years, as already Herodotus had noted on the Scythians:
“…and he takes off the skin of the head by cutting it round about the ears and then taking hold of the scalp and shaking it off; afterwards he scrapes off the flesh with the rib of an ox, and works the skin about with his hands; and when he has thus tempered it, he keeps it as a napkin to wipe the hands upon, and hangs it from the bridle of the horse on which he himself rides, and takes pride in it; for whosoever has the greatest number of skins to wipe the hands upon, he is judged to be the bravest man. Many also make cloaks to wear of the skins stripped off, sewing them together like shepherds’ cloaks of skins; and many take the skin together with the finger-nails off the right hands of their enemies when they are dead, and make them into covers for their quivers: now human skin it seems is both thick and glossy in appearance, more brilliantly white than any other skin…”
Galba is another candidate for this. I thought this looked a lot like the Wikipedia photo of Galba. That’s particularly true of the lips.
Chin certainly doesn’t look the same at all…nose seems a different shape…just sayin’
Decius’ defeat was not only a military body-blow to the Empire, but also had an apparently severe economic impact as there is strong evidence the Goths captured a substantial portion of the Imperial treasury which was traveling with the Emperor’s army. The article is a long, detailed read but quite interesting for those who like to delve into the details of history and archaeology.
Hello thehistoryblog.com owner, Thanks for the well-researched and well-written post!