Archaeologists exploring an ancient Greek city have uncovered a large, 2,000-year-old statue depicting Hercules, a well-known figure from Greco-Roman mythology, the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports revealed last month.
Researchers with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki discovered the statue while sifting through the remnants of the ancient city of Philippi in northern Greece. Though they found the “larger-than-life” artwork in pieces, archaeologists believe the figure—depicted with a “youthful body”—originally held a club, a wreath and a lion skin, all of which have historically been associated with Hercules, per a statement.
The team unearthed the statue while exploring the intersection of two streets, which may have been widened into a square that contained a highly decorative building and, likely, a fountain.
Archaeologists say the building dates back to the late Byzantine period of the eighth or ninth century C.E., while the statue itself likely dates to the second century C.E.
Hercules’s head was discovered first, then an arm and leg. The marble bits of his body were scattered in the ruins of a Greek building and pieced together, limb by limb, by a team of archeologist until they were certain: this was a 2,000-year-old sculpture of classical mythology’s most famous demigod.
Hercules was the Roman interpretation of Heracles from Greek mythology. Born to Zeus and Alcmene, the demigod was bold, strong and courageous from the very beginning of his life. According to myth, when Hercules was still an infant, his mischievous stepmother, Hera, sent two snakes into his crib to kill him, but baby Hercules handily defeated them.
Later, after Hera sent him into a temporary fit of madness, Hercules killed his wife, Megara, and their children. To make amends for his actions, Hercules carried out a series of difficult tasks known as the 12 labors of Hercules. His final feat involved making the journey to Hades to kidnap Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog who guarded its gates. As Amah-Rose Abrams writes for Artnet, Hercules is often used to signify “the overcoming of one’s demons”; he’s also seen as a “champion of the weak.”
Per Encyclopedia Britannica, “In art and literature, Heracles was represented as an enormously strong man of moderate height, a huge eater and drinker, very amorous and generally kindly but with occasional outbursts of brutal rage. His characteristic weapon was the bow but frequently also the club.”
Artists have long paid homage to the demigod by creating statues and other works of art in his likeness. In June, divers exploring the 2,000-year-old Antikythera shipwreck recovered what they believd to be the missing head of a marble Hercules statue housed in Athens’ National Archaeological Museum. Late last year, archaeologists also located what appear to be the ruins of the fabled Temple of Hercules Gaditanus, a religious pilgrimage site for ancient Greeks and Romans that featured large bronze carvings depicting Hercules’ 12 labors.
Archaeologists consider Philippi, the site of the find, to be one of the most promising archaeological regions in all of Greece, notes Artnet. Thasian colonists initially settled the area around 360 B.C.E., calling it Crenides. Several years later, in a bid to take over nearby gold mines, Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, renamed the city Philippi after himself. Philippi is located along the Via Egnatia, an important Roman road that helped link Europe with Asia but was abandoned after the Ottoman conquest of the region in the 14th century.
Researchers continue to excavate the remnants of the city, which became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2016.