- Museum number
Lidded sarcophagus: the birth and twelve labours of the hero Hercules. The front of the sarcophagus shows Hercules performing five of his twelve tasks. From left to right he is seen leading Cerberus from the gates of underworld, taking Hippolyta's girdle, plucking the golden apples of the garden of the Hesperides, taming the ferocious horses of Diomedes and finally overcoming the Nemaean lion. The side panels show Hercules struggling with the Kerynian stag and the Lernian hydra. On the front of the lid Hercules performs the other labours: (from left to right) capturing the Erymanthian boar, cleansing the Augean stables, shooting the Stymphalian birds, capturing the Cretan bull and defeating Geryon. Framing these scenes are (left) Hercules as a child strangling the serpents sent by Hera to kill him, and (right) Hercules as an old man receiving immortality.
The lid is made of Carrara marble, the chest of Proconnesian marble. Within the chest at the left end is a shelf for the head, 41 cm long and 5 cm high. The interior is carefully finished with a point.
- Production date
- 150-180 (circa)
Height: 57 centimetres (Chest, internal)
Height: 70.30 centimetres (Chest)
Height: 7 centimetres (Lid, internal)
Height: 26.20 centimetres (Lid)
Length: 207 centimetres (Internal)
Length: 225 millimetres
Width: 62 centimetres (Internal)
Width: 80 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- Walker, Susan, 1990, Catalogue of Roman Sarcophagi in the British Museum:.
Robert, ASR, III. 1, 141-2, no. 120; Smith, III, 305-9 no. 2300; E. Loeffler, Marsyas VI (1954), 12; T. Brennecke, Kopf und Maske (Diss. F. U. Berlin 1970), no. 127, pl. 89; I. Jacopi, ArchClass 24 (1972), 292, 296 n. 27, 300, 305; Koch-Sichtermann, 67 n. 11 (lid); 148, 261.
On the left and right sides of the chest, the young beardless Hercules is shown attacking the Kerynian stag and the Lernian Hydra. The labours shown on the front are (left to right) the removal of Cerberus from the entrance to Hades, the removal of Hippolyta's girdle, obtaining the apples from the garden of the Hesperides, the subjugation of the horses of Diomedes, and the fight with the Nemean lion. In all but the last scene Hercules is mature and bearded.
On the lid-panel are the remaining five deeds in the dodekathlon: the slaying of the Erymanthian boar, the cleansing of the Augean stables, the shooting of the Stymphalian birds, and the fight with Geryon. Here the deeds are flanked by scenes of the infant Hercules strangling the snakes and of the mature Hercules winning immortality. The ends of the lid-panel are flanked by acroteria in the form of heads of Hercules wearing the lion's skin.(1) The sides are decorated with pairs of sphinxes flanking a vase. The rear corners are also decorated with small acroteria; only the one on the left side is finished, also as a bearded head of Hercules. The left side of the lid is more crudely worked than the right. The back of the lid and the chest are undecorated, but are carefully finished with a point.
Though some attempt has been made to link the vignettes on the front of the chest by overlapping them, they are not shown in cyclical order. The figures were drawn from varied sources; some have a Lysippan quality. The scenes on the sides and at the ends of the front of the chest, with the vignettes of the Erymanthian boar and the Stymphalian birds on the lid, may be derived from a cycle of statues representing at least some of the deeds of Hercules, made by Lysippus for a sanctuary at Alezia, in Acarnania, and later transported to Rome.(2) Other representations were adapted, with the use of attributes and the additional figures, from types with no known connection with Greek portrayals of Hercules. Some figures may have been derived from paintings.
The chest of the sarcophagus was probably sent to Rome undecorated: compare the forms of the roughed-out sarcophagi without lids found in the wreck near San Pietro.(3) The lid was no doubt supplied in Rome from Carrara marble stocks. The sculptor of the figures on the lid-panel has tried to reproduce the form of the figures on the chest, but the infant Hercules is clumsy and unconvincing. The left side of the lid, possibly entrusted to an apprentice, is very crude work.
This is one of a group of frieze sarcophagi decorated with the labours of Hercules which were made in Rome during the Antonine and early Severan periods. The London sarcophagus is dated by Koch and Sichtermann to AD 150-170/80.(4) Given the lack of close parallels for the work, it is difficult to offer a more precise range than this. As Koch and Sichtermann note,
the confused order of the scenes is typical of the earlier metropolitan Hercules sarcophagi.(5)
1. Brennecke, loc. cit. (above).
2. Loeffler, loc. cit. (above).
3. See Introduction.
4. Koch-Sichtermann, 261.
5. Idem, 148.
- Not on display
- Unrestored. The breaks are listed by Smith, 307-8.
- Associated events
- Associated Event: Twelve Labours of Herakles
- Acquisition date
- Greek and Roman
- Registration number