The sanctuary of Hercules Victor in Tivoli

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Since antiquity, Hercules has represented the archetype of strength and invincibility. Nevertheless, the Roman deity is associated with cultic phenomena of different manifestations, also related to agro-pastoral activities and trade. The figure of Hercules derives from a syncretism between the warrior attributes of the Greek Heracles and the sylvan attributes of the Etruscan god Hercules. These are the origins of the characteristic interweaving of myth, cult and symbols that is transmitted to us by historiography and archaeological evidence. Among the tangible and material attestations of deity worship, the sanctuary of Hercules Victor at Tivoli assumes a fundamental importance.

Of a differente kind, men say, was the might of Heracles, my father, bravely steadfast, lion-hearted.

Iliad, Book V
Sanctuary of Hercules Victor
The Sanctuary of Hercules Victor at Tivoli

The myth

Greek mythology narrates that Heracles was born out of a love relationship between Zeus and Alcmene, a beautiful maiden with whom the lord of Olympus had fallen in love. Alcmene, however, was no an ordinary woman; she was the daughter of the Mycenaean king Electryon and was married to the king of Tiryns Amphitryon [1]. Alcmene was also known to be a faithful wife, and Zeus, in order to possess her, had assumed her husband’s likeness. Thus Heracles, the fruit of this amorous trickery, was born as a demigod; destined, unfortunately, to caducity, since he was indeed begotten by Zeus, but son of a mortal woman.

Soon Hera, wife of Zeus, discovered her husband’s illegitimate affair. The furious goddess promised herself to wipe the inconceivable fruit of that adultery. First, Hera delayed the birth of Heracles, thus impeding him from becoming the successor to Tiryns’ king. Another child, named Eurystheus, was declared at the place of Heracles. However, he could not know that a fate of toil and suffering awaited him.

Zeus, taking pity on that helpless infant, to whom he himself had impudently given life, tried to protect him lovingly. The god ordered Hermes, while Hera slept, to cunningly bring the infant close to her breast: the goddess’ milk gave Heracles invincibility. Moreover, when she awoke, a drop of the liquid fell, giving rise to the Milky Way. Hence the name Heracles, “glory of Hera,” and why one of his attributes among the Italic peoples was Invictus.

Farnese Hercules, marble statue made by Glycon of Athens in the 3rd century AD, National Archaeological Museum, Naples [fig. 1]

The twelve labours of Hercules

Heracles’ invincibility is told in numerous tales from ancient Greece. These contain the famous twelve labours (dodekáthlos) that the hero had to perform to atone for a terrible fault. Hera had ordered Lissa, goddess of anger, to disturb his mind and he, in a fury, killed his wife Megara and their eight children. Having gone to Delphi on the advice of his friend Theseus, Heracles was recommended by the Pythia to serve the king of Tiryns for twelve years in order to accomplish the labours required of him. Since the ruler of the city was the hated Eurystheus, the one who had usurped his legitimate throne, was finally rewarded with immortality.

The twelve labours of Hercules do not originate from a single text, but are a collection of different oral sources and stories. The number twelve perhaps has a correlation with the carved metopes of the Doric temple of Zeus at Olympia (472 B.C-456 B.C.). Indeed, the twelve metopes constituted an iconic and celebratory representation of the hero and his labours throughout Greece.

One of the metopes from the Temple of Zeus in Olympia: “Athena, Heracles and Atlas,” Archaeological Museum of Olympia

The traditional order of the labours

However, the labors of Heracles-Hercules were transcribed in the mythographic collection Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st-2nd century), where they assumed the traditional order in which they are still narrated today:

  • slay the Nemean lion;
  • slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra and a huge crab sent by Hera that, after being killed, turned into the constellations of Hydra and Cancer in the sky;
  • capture the Ceryneian Hind.;
  • capture the Erymanthian Boar;
  • clean the Augean stables in a single day;
  • slay the Stymphalian birds;
  • capture the Cretan Bull, that Poseidon had given to King Minos;
  • steal the Mares of Diomedes.;
  • obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazon;
  • obtain the cattle of the three-bodied giant Geryon. Its during this venture that the hero set up two mighty pillars, called the Pillars of Hercules, to indicate the limit beyond which any human could go no further. Geryon’s possessions were, in fact, at the edge of the Earth;
  • steal three of the golden apples of the Hesperides, of which no one knew the location, with the help of Atlas;
  • capture and bring back Cerberus.
Heracles fighting the Nemean lion, 6th century B.C. Greek vase preserved at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University

Labours as an allegory of the human condition

The tales of Heracles’ labours, handed down from generation to generation, are an allegory of the human condition in dealing with the precariousness of existence. They have a deep spiritual meaning and symbolize the inner path that every ancient Greek ideally had to undertake during his lifetime.

The hero’s labours are a mythical expression of the perilous wilderness, and in this sense the numerous animalistic figures he faces must be examined. The exploits also become increasingly difficult and reach to the ends of the earth, where the Pillars of Hercules stand, a metaphor of the limit of life itself. Beyond this boundary is death, the last of the labours, and the afterlife. An unknown place, like the Garden of the Hesperides, the realm of Hades is permeated with mystery and fear, guarded by the fierce guardian Cerberus, who forbids anyone who enters it to turn back.

The Tomb of the Diver in Paestum: a man throws himself into the sea, a figuration of the afterlife, from the Pillars of Hercules.

Heracles and immortality

Although the son of Zeus, Heracles was mortal, and the oracle at Delphi had prophesied to him that no living person could cause his death. However, he could not foresee that he would be killed by a dead man. In fact, when Heracles and his wife Deianira were crossing a raging river, the centaur Nessus fell in love with the woman and tried to kidnap her. The hero struck the centaur with a poisoned arrow but the centaur soaked a tunic with his own blood before expiring. Nessus gave the dress to Deianira, telling her that if Heracles wore it, he would fall in love with her again.

Nevertheless, the woman could not guess that the centaur’s blood had absorbed the deadly substance. Thus, some time later, when Heracles put on the tunic, he was struck by a terrible burning that soon turned into agony. Having prepared a pyre to induce death through fire, Zeus took pity for the last time on his suffering son. Before he could expire, Heracles’ body was carried to Olympus with a roar. On the sacred mountain of the gods the hero reached immortality and was finally reconciled with Hera.

Hercules and Lica by Antonio Canova (1795-1815) preserved at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. Lica, Hercules’ servant, is hurled by his master, guilty of handing him the tunic containing the poisoned blood of the centaur Nessus.

The worship

The cult of Heracles spread among the Italic populations since the foundation of the Greek colonies of Pithecusa, on the island of Ischia, and Cumae (8th century B.C.). From there, through trade with neighboring populations, it extended among the Samnites, the Etruscans (Hercle) and finally the Latins, where the hero became Hercules. While the myth was preserved almost intact, during this diffusion Hercules assumed new attributes. Among the Etruscans he was associated with water sources and often depicted on vases, jewelry, and sarcophagi in the act of mirroring himself on the spring surface while wearing a leonine cloak.

Through new sensibilities and changing contexts, the hero thus got linked to agropastoral activity and loyalty in trade. Moreover, myth attributes to Hercules the expulsion of fraudulent brigands from the Forum Boarium in Rome, including the giant Cacus, during his tenth labour. All these attributes, as well as those characteristic of the Greek age, were the subject of ceremonial in Rome. An early cult of Hercules originated perhaps in Tivoli, where a great sanctuary was built to worship the god as a warrior, protector of commerce and pastoralism.

Hercules Victor
Temple of Hercules Victor at the Forum Boarium, Rome

The cult of Hercules Victor in Tivoli

The existence in Tivoli of a cult dedicated to Hercules is attested by numerous literary and historiographical sources of the time. Strabo [2] and Suetonius [3] report a dedication to the god near Tibur Herculeum. Here Hercules was celebrated as Victor, in the sense of winner, since a victory against the Equi, or perhaps the Volscians, was dedicated to him.

“First, Tibur: it possesses the temple of Heracles, and also the waterfall formed by the Anio, […]”

Strabo, Geography, Book V, translation by Horace Leonard Jones, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1923

The veneration of the Tiburtine Hercules had a characteristic cultic organization. Indeed, the body of priests was supported by collegiate orders and administrative figures such as the magister Herculis Victoris and the curator fani Herculis Victoris. These were religious and political offices that were not only responsible for the management and promotion of the cult, but also for trade, which is why the sanctuary acquired such a large wealth. Moreover, since the Augustan Empire, the cult of Hercules was closely linked to that of the princeps. The collegial institution of the herculanei et augustales, the attendants of Hercules and the emperor Augustus’ cult, is a clear testimony to this.

Therefore, the cult of Hercules acquired religious as well as socio-economic and political importance. On August 12 and 13, a ceremony was held in honour of the deity, presided over by the college of Salii. They, wearing animal skins and slinging weapons, sang praises to the deity. The ceremonies were officiated at the imposing complex of the Sanctuary of Hercules Victor, of which important archaeological evidence remains today.

Sanctuary of Hercules Victor
Temple facade as seen from the theater, Sanctuary of Hercules Victor

The Sanctuary of Hercules Victor in Tivoli

In the Memorabilia, the Roman jurist Masurius Sabinus relates how the construction of a temple at Tivoli, in honour of Hercules Victor, was commissioned by the merchant Octavius Herennius as thanks for having escaped a pirate attack. This is a legendary tale that had an important historiographical fortune, so much that it was later echoed by Macrobius in the 5th century. Nevertheless, despite the absence of documentary sources attesting to the real existence of the merchant Octavius Herennius, the narrative has the merit of highlighting the importance that the cult of Hercules had for the Tiburtines.

However, the sanctuary is supposed to be built only after the Roman conquest of Greece (146 BC), embracing the tradition of the Herculean cult already present in Tivoli. This insight is evident from the building typology, with its sloping terraced façade, which is found in contemporary temple complexes such as at Terracina and Palestrina. Today only a few remains of the sacred area can be admired, but they are sufficient to catch a glimpse of the majesty that the temple of Tibur had.

Sanctuary of Hercules Victor
A reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Hercules Victor

The archaeological area

The temple area was on a monumental esplanade of about 188 x 144 metres, raised above the valley below and the Aniene River on a cliff a hundred metres high. Hence, the hill was shaped in such a way as to set the sanctuary on several sloping levels [4] by means of superimposed arched substructures on two orders. In this way the architectural work thinned out posteriorly, while towards the Aniene it overlooked the cliff, showing all the building levels. The temenos was thus created through an artificial platform, on which the sacred buildings rested.

Moreover, the sanctuary was also crossed by the via tecta, which intersected it inferiorly to the temenos and thus formed a covered, tunnel-like route. The street was about eight metres wide and had numerous shops and trading establishments along the way.

A view of the Via Tecta

A stylistic description

The square of the sanctuary was surrounded by porticoes on three sides and enclosed the temple of Hercules with its podium as well as, in front of it, a theater. The temple, visible even from Rome [4], was octastyle and peripteral sine postico. It was accessed by a wide flight of steps, on either side of which were two fountains used as nymphaeums for officiating purification practices. The temple cell housed the statue of the deity Hercules Victor or Invictus, possessed double colonnades and was paved with splendid polychrome marble.

Sanctuary of Hercules Victor
The remains of the temple and its podium

Some underground rooms possibly housed the ex-votos and offerings of the faithful. In front of the porticoes of the temenos, placed next to the pillars and along the forecourt, were several statues of honorary personages. Among them was the famous Tivoli General, now preserved at the National Roman Museum in Rome.

Tivoli General, at the National Roman Museum, Palazzo Massimo at the Baths [fig. 2].

The Sanctuary of Hercules Victor until today

The few archaeological remains found in Tivoli can be related to an unfortunate set of historical and interpretive circumstances. After the sanctuary reached the peak of its wealth during Hadrian’s rule – the emperor had even moved his residence to Tivoli, to the Villa Adriana- it went into decline in the years following the Edict of Milan. With the onset of the Greek-Gothic wars (6th century) the area became a military fortress and was plundered for the following centuries. During the Middle Ages even its original function was forgotten and, almost until the 19th century, it was believed that the area had housed the Villa of Maecenas [5]. Only in 1819 the archaeologist Antonio Nibby recognized the ancient Sanctuary of Hercules Victor in the Tiburtine remains [6].

At the end of the nineteenth century, however, the area was subjected to industrial interventions. The Società per le Forze Idrauliche per l’Industria e l’Agricoltura set up a hydroelectric power plant there (1884), and Giuseppe Segrè obtained permission to establish a paper mill.

An ideal reconstruction

Fortunately, the discovery of the Sanctuary, as it appeared before its transformation into an industrial centre, was portrayed in a series of perspective paintings by the architect Charles-Alphonse Thierry (1862). His panels represent an important testimony, allowing for an ideal reconstruction of the lost architecture of the temple. Moreover, they have enabled the spread of an awareness for rediscovering the ancient, which led to the restorations carried out in 2008 and 2009. The most significant interventions of valorization concern the reconstruction of the of the temple’s iron facade and the installation of an antiquarium, which hosts the sculptural remains found in the area.

Half-bust of Hercules at the Antiquarium

These include some depictions of Hercules: a half-bust of the hero and a small white marble statuette found in one of the temple’s fountains.

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus


[1] Heracles, encyclopedia britannica, 2002

[2] Strabo, Geography, Book V.

[3] In the Twelve Caesars Suetonius reports that Emperor Augustus used to administer justice under the porticoes of the temple of Hercules

[4] C.F.Giuliani, Tivoli Il Santuario

[5] Fulvio Cairoli Giuliani, Alessandra Ten, Santuario di Ercole Vincitore a Tivoli, III. L’architettura, Bollettino d’arte, Estratto dal Fascicolo N. 30 – aprile-giugno 2016 (Serie VII).

[6] Viaggio antiquario ne’ contorni di Roma by Antonio Nibby Ordinary member of the Roman Academy of Archaeology, Rome, 1819. Link online.

[fig. 1] Di Doruk Bacca – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 4.0, link

[fig. 2] Di Amphipolis – So-called Tivoli General, CC BY-SA 2.0, link


Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and old-fashioned things, such as uncertain symbolism or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues mystery through adventure but that, inexplicably, is always one step further.

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