The Romans held him in such esteem they worked this Greek strongman into the foundation tales of their empire: the greatest hero of them all, Hercules, or, to the Greeks, Heracles (Herakles). If there is one word to describe him, it is shaggy. Thick, curly hair was considered an attribute of the truly virile man, so Hercules is conventionally depicted not just as muscular, but as hirsute as well.
To add to the effect, in place of the ordinary hero's armor, Hercules wears the pelt of a lion, its head serving him just as a helmet with a frightening face on the visor would serve another, lesser, man. No weapon of sharpened metal for him either. With his enormous strength, a simple club was adequate, or, occasionally, when the foe was at a distance, a bow. Most of the time he used his bare hands. The carver of the last cameo in the gallery below included the club so there would be no doubt about the identity of the subject.
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While the pelt is usually assumed to be that of the Nemean Lion, from the Twelve Labors of Hercules, he had already begun to wear one before making his appearance on a wider stage. He was not an apt nor a docile student. Today he would be diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, not to mention anger management issues, and prescribed something to calm him down. It was finally decided that it was safer for all if he finished his adolescence alone in the outdoors, herding sheep. He was a good shepherd. When a lion menaced his flock, he strangled it and took its head and hide for his own. The lion's skin (and in some cases the beard) is especially striking in cameos using three layers of color.
Even without his leonine headdress, Hercules is recognizable by the closely cropped, tightly curled hair of his head and beard. The example to the left does have a paw showing on the right shoulder; however, were this not present, there would still be few other figures he might be. In many cameos it is difficult to distinguish between the lion's mane and the hair of the wearer, giving the appearance of tresses trailing down the neck. This can cause confusion, as two other figures turn up regularly so garbed; they will be taken up in the Subscription Edition. But neither of the others is shown bearded, so the conjunction of lion skin and beard singles out Hercules.
When the head is bare and held level, as in the pearl studded cameo by Gaspare Capparoni to the right, or the one in the British Museum by Girometti, we are looking at the young Hercules, after an ancient work by famed carver Gnaios. The club over the shoulder in the cameo by Santarelli, also in the British Museum, leaves no doubt.
Also the young Hercules is the figure wearing the pelt as a shawl rather than as a hood/helmet; the lion's head is discernible behind the hero's back.
It is possible the cameo figure to the left was modeled on cameos of the hero Theseus, as the animal skin tied about his neck appears to have hooves, not paws, and it is a convention to show Theseus as wearing the hide of a bull. However, this didrachm of the Roman Republic clearly depicts a young Hercules shouldering his club. In this context, what might otherwise seem to be three little legs ending in hooves becomes a single paw with three digits. The cutter of the cameo made the paw into legs, the knobby club into a ragged collar. (Special thanks to Rosie Castle for making this keen-eyed observation.)
The pelt-draped but beardless figure on the right is frequently identified as a young Hercules. We contend that most of these cameos in fact depict Alexander the Great, taking on the guise of the Greek Herakles, whom he claimed as a distant forebear.
The jugate composition may be the mature hero and his youthful self, or it may be Hercules and Alexander.
His brawny physique makes it possible to recognize the hero even from the back. The engraving of the Farnese Hercules is by Goltzius; the cameo is contemporary:
Much of this hero's tale involves his moments of hot temper and his years of expiation for the resulting blood guilt. Toward the end of his life, in a relatively rational act, he kills Nessus, when the centaur tries to make off with Deianeira, the lovely young second wife of Hercules. (Subscribers can read a more complete account of this episode by clicking here.) The wily Nessus persuades the naïve girl to present her husband with a cloak steeped in the dying centaur's blood. When Hercules dons the cloak, it sticks fast to his skin like a garment of flame. Unable to end or endure the torment, Hercules orders a pyre to be built for his self-immolation. Upon his death he is transported to Olympus—the only mortal to get there by merit rather than by marriage—where he is given the ever youthful Hebe, daughter of Jupiter and Juno, for his wife. Here she serves him, presumably nectar, as he takes his ease on a rock draped with his lion's skin. Cupid is in the scene in his symbolic role: an indicator that a couple are in love and/or are married.