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REUTERS RECENTLY REPORTED “Roman Sewer Works Reveal Statue of Emperor Posing as Hercules.” Not long ago, Daughter Suz and I watched Pacific Opera Project’s U.S. premiere of Ercole su’l Termodonte, an 18th-century depiction of the ninth of Heracles’ legendary twelve labors. Here are tidbits about Heracles/Hercules/Ercole gleaned from a variety of sources.

Heracles, a Greek Divine Hero. Ancient lyric poet Pindar described Heracles as a heros theos, both hero and god. Heracles’ father was Zeus, king of the gods but known to fool around with mortals as well. His mother was Alcmene, wife of Amphitryon, both of them mortals. 

Having the king of the gods as dad clearly set Heracles a high bar; what’s more, Zeus’s wife Hera caused him no end of trouble. She was the god of marriage and, as Wikipedia notes, “One of her defining characteristics in myth is her jealous and vengeful nature in dealing with any who offend her, especially Zeus’ numerous adulterous lovers and illegitimate offspring.” 

You’re telling me. 

Labors of Heracles. Hera began by driving Heracles mad, to the point of his killing his wife and children. As penance (though perhaps this Christian term shouldn’t be usurped), the Oracle of Delphi told him to serve King Eurystheus of Mycenae for ten years, performing whatever labors to which the king set him. 

Heracles besting the Nemean lion. Detail of a Roman mosiac from Llíria, Spain. Image by Luis Garcia from Wikipedia.

These twelve labors were doozies: slay the Nemean lion, slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra (a serpentine monster), capture the Cerynneian Hind (an enormous female deer), capture the Erymanthian boar, clean the Augeau stables in a single day (done adroitly by diverting two rivers), slay the Stymphalian birds (man eaters with sharp metallic feathers), capture the Cretan bull (easy-peasy: Minos wanted rid of it anyway), steal the Mares of Diomedes (a different story entirely: they were man-eaters), obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (see below for Vivaldi’s PG version sans girdle), obtain the cattle of the giant Geryon (he, variously described as three-headed, three-bodied, or variants thereof), steal the three golden apples of Hesperides [Ed: Why only three?], capture and bring back Cerberus (a multi-headed dog; my guess is three-headed).

Hercules Beneath Rome’s Appian Way. According to Reuters, February 2, 2023, “A life-sized statue of a Roman emperor posing as the classic hero Hercules has been discovered during sewer repair works near the Appia Antica (Appian Way), ancient Rome’s first highway. It emerged, face first, as a bulldozer was tearing through old pipelines that needed replacing. An archeologist overseeing the work immediately intervened.”

Photo from the Parco Archeologico dell’Appia Antica. Image from The Collector.

“This face appeared, and it was then immediately identified as a character dressed as Hercules,” Francesca Romana Paolillo, archaeologist at the Appia Antica park, told Reuters. “The sculpture bears a ‘fair resemblance’ to Emperor Decius, who ruled Rome from 249 to 251 AD, Paolillo said, adding it was ‘quite rare’ to find Herculean depictions of Roman leaders.”

Sara Iovine, restorer from the Appia Antica site, works on the statue. Image from Reuters, February 2, 2023.

Ercole, Only Now a G-rated Sword. Antonio Vivaldi is perhaps best known for his orchestral works and concerti  (The Four Seasons, a classic standard). However, operas were popular in early 18th-century Venice, and Ercole su’l Termodonte was his sixteenth of some 50 operas (of which only 16 survive). 

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi, 1678–1741, Venetian composer, virtuoso violinist, and impresario of Baroque music.

Ercole su’l Termodonte recounts the tale of Heracles’ ninth labor, visiting Termodonte, home of the Amazons, to steal its queen’s sword. (Did Pope Innocent XIII object to the girdle? He certainly objected to women on stage and, hence, female opera roles were performed by castrati. Go figure.)

Wikipedia summarizes the opera: “Hercules, accompanied by the heroes Theseus, Telamon and Alceste, attacks the Amazons and captures Martesia, daughter of the queen. The Amazons then capture Theseus and, as soon as Queen Antiope swears to sacrifice him, Hippolyte falls in love with him. In the end, the goddess Diana decrees the marriage of Hippolyte with Theseus, prince of Athens, and of Martesia with Alceste, king of Sparta.”

Pacific Opera Project’s Ercole. The U.S. premiere of this Vivaldi opera was complicated by POP’s “Covid season that went away,” as described by Jennifer Miller Hammel interviewing the company’s Josh Shaw.

Ercole su’l Termodonte can be streamed at POP’s YouTube site.

The Ercole hiatus lasted until January 2023, when POP performed it in an 18th-century-stylized Ebell Theater, Highland Park, California, one of POP’s SoCal venues.

Image from the POP YouTube streaming.

What? A happy ending? Yes, and Ercole is quite the charming opera, in the same Baroque vein as my favorite Handel opera, Agrippina. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 

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