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The cult of Hercules was one of the oldest and most popular in Italy. Believed to have been introduced from the Greek colonies of Croton and Tarentum in Magna Graecia, statues have also been found as early as 500 B.C.E in Eturia, which bordered Greek Campania. Hercules was regarded as a protector of travellers due to his myth and he was also worshipped by philosophers; Pythagoreans, Cynics, and Stoics viewing him as the ideal man.

The cult of Hercules at the Ara Maxima in the Forum Boiarum in Rome was one of the earliest and most important, mentioned in Livy and others[1] . A common view that a peculiarity of the cult was that women were excluded is questioned by C. Schultz [2]


This dedication was discovered at the Ara Maxima in Rome. The dedicant, L. Fabius Cilon, urban praetor, was consul suffect in 193 BCE. Each year on August 12 the urban praetor, crowned with laurel sacrificed to Hercules in ritus graecus at the Ara Maxima.

Te precor, Alcide, sacris, invicte, peractis
rite tuis laetus dona ferens meritis.
Haec tibie nostra postes tenuis perferre camena,
nam grates dignas tu potes efficere.
Sume libens simulacra, tuis queae munera Cilo
aris urbanus dedicat ipse sacris. [3] [4]

Livy tells how Hercules came to Italy

There is a tradition that Hercules, after slaying Geryon, drove off his oxen, which were very beautiful. He swam across the Tiber, driving the cattle before him, to give them rest and to let them enjoy the luxuriant pasture, also to rest himself after his long journey. He lay down in a grassy spot on the banks of the river.
There was a shepherd in this neighborhood, Cacus, who was proud of his own strength. Taken with the beauty of the cattle, he decided to carry them off while Hercules slept. Cacus realized that if he drove the herd in front of him to the cave, their tracks would show their owner what had happened, so he dragged the most beautiful of them by their tails backward into a cave.
Hercules woke at dawn and he looked over his herd. He noticed that some of them were missing, so he went straight to the nearest cave, to see whether their tracks led there. When he saw that they were all turned away from it and led in no other direction he was troubled. Not knowing what to make up his mind to do, he started to drive off his herd from so dangerous a spot.
Then some of the cows that were driven away lowed, as they usually do, when they missed those that were left. Hercules turned around when he heard the answering calls of those that were in the cave and he began advancing toward the sound. Cacus called upon the other shepherds for assistance and tried to stop him, but Hercules struck him with a club and killed him.
Evander, who was an exile from the Peloponnesus, at that time governed the country more by his personal influence than by absolute power. He was held in reverence both because he could write, an impressive ability to the untutored locals, and even more on account of his mother Carmenta, whom those peoples had marvelled at as a prophetess before the arrival of the Sybil in Italy.
The assembling shepherds quickly crowded around the stranger, whom they accused of open murder. This attracted the attention of Evander, who listened to an account of the deed and the cause of it. Then gazing upon the personal appearance and mien of the hero, who was considerably more dignified and majestic than an ordinary man, asked who he was.
As soon as he heard the name of the hero, and that of his father and native country, "Hail!" said he, "Hercules, son of Iuppiter! my mother, truthful interpreter of the will of the gods, has declared to me that you are destined to increase the number of the heavenly beings, and that on this spot an altar shall be dedicated to you, which in future ages a people most mighty on earth shall call Greatest, and honour in accordance with rites instituted by you." Hercules, having given him his right hand, declared that he accepted the prophetic intimation, and would fulfil the predictions of the fates, by building and dedicating an altar.
On this altar then for the first time sacrifice was offered to Hercules with a choice heifer taken from the herd. These were the only religious rites that Romulus at that time adopted from those of foreign countries, being even then an advocate of immortality won by merit, to which the destiny marked out for him was conducting him.

-adapted from Livy as translated by John Henry Freese, Alfred John Church, and William Jackson Brodribb


  1. See e.g. Platner's "A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome", London: Oxford University Press, (1929) under Ara Maxima Herculis for an ample list of citations.
  2. Celia E. Schultz, Modern Prejudice and Ancient Praxis: Female Worship of Hercules at Rome. Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 133, (2000), pp. 291-297.(Retrieve from JSTOR)
  3. {{{2}}}: VI 312 (EN DE)
  4. Platner's "A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome", London: Oxford University Press, (1929) under Ara Maxima Herculis also cites {{{2}}}: VI 312 (EN DE), {{{2}}}: VI 313 (EN DE), {{{2}}}: VI 314 (EN DE), {{{2}}}: VI 315 (EN DE), {{{2}}}: VI 317 (EN DE), {{{2}}}: VI 318 (EN DE), {{{2}}}: VI 316 (EN DE), {{{2}}}: VI 319 (EN DE) and {{{2}}}: VI 1604 (EN DE) as dating "to the second, third, and fourth centuries".

Corpus des Prières Greques et Romaines

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