Title and Date of Work: Bust of Commodus as Hercules, AD 190
Name of Artist(s): Unknown
Location: Capitoline Museum
Dimensions: 3 ft 10 ½in
The myth goes that, unlike Disney would have us believe, Hercules wasn’t always a great guy. He kills his wife and kids in a fit of rage. He realizes what he has done was wrong and goes to Apollo (who apparently gave good advice) to help him pay for his sins, so to speak. Apollo commanded the hero to do certain tasks as a punishment for his wrongs, so that the evil might be cleansed from his spirit.Hercules was required to complete ten labors and was sent to King Eurystheus, who decided Hercules’ first task would be to bring him the skin of an invulnerable lion which terrorized the hills around Nemea.
When Hercules got to Nemea and began tracking the terrible lion, he soon discovered his arrows were useless against the beast. Hercules picked up his club and went after the lion. The myth goes on to say that Hercules does in fact kill the lion and comes back triumphant, wearing its skin.In one of his other labors, Hercules was ordered to retrieve the golden apples of Hesperids. In doing these labors Hercules also achieved the status of a god.
This bust is one of the most famous pieces of Roman portraits and depicts the Emperor Commodus with characteristics of Hercules. The lion’s skin, the club, and the golden apples are all representative of the Greek hero.
With the death of Marcus Aurelius, a long period of stability in the Roman Empire came to an end. At the age of 16, Commodus had been named co-ruler with his father (unlike his portrayal in The Gladiator), and had been sitting on the throne for three years with his father. Nevertheless, when he took over sole command, he initiated an era of decay. He was clearly deranged and often referred himself as the incarnation of Hercules. In this bust we can see the similarity of features to those of Marcus Aurelius, such as the heavy eyelids.
Commodus led a life of greed and selfishness. He only cared about the satisfaction of his own pleasures and building himself up. Propaganda was rampant, as is clear in this bust. He took no interest in foreign affairs or the protection of his borders. The military gains made by Marcus Aurelius were wiped out, more or less, and the state left in disarray. Commodus was one of the excessive emperors who ate, drank, and spent too much. His sexual proclivities offended the Romans. He had many people killed and tortured. He was in many gladiatorial contests, in which his opponents had blunted weapons. Towards the end of his reign he even renamed the months after himself. He thought himself to be a god. This mentality caused him to be murdered in AD 192 in revolt against him. His body was hooked and dragged into the Tiber, but his successor had him buried properly. The people hated him so much that they tried to erase every public inscription of him and destroy any portraiture of him. Given these details, this particular bust is preserved excellently.
On the base of the bust we can see what is an Amazon woman. This represents the killing of the amazon women and Commodus’ defeat of the enemy who lived there. There should be two women but one is broken off. In the middle of the amazon women is an amazon shield being wrapped by a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. It is full of fruit and it is to represent prosperity, fertility, and abundance!