Art of the Ancient World, C. 5000 B.c.e.–400 C.E.

Roman Art

Why is Emperor Commodus dressed as Hercules?

There are many stories about the unusual behavior of the Emperor Commodus, who reigned over the Roman Empire from 180–192 C.E. Called insane by historians, Commodus was known for claiming to be a reincarnation of Hercules and for dressing as a gladiator during official engagements. He even wanted to Roman months to be renamed after him. Commodus as Hercules is a marble sculpture depicting the eccentric ruler dressed as the mythological hero, Hercules. He wears a lion-skin headdress, complete with paws, and carries a club and apples from the garden the Hesperides, all of which are associated with the mythological labors of Hercules. Commodus likely intended this idealized portrait to show him as noble and brave; however, he ends up looking fairly ridiculous with vacant eyes and raised eyebrows. Commodus attracted some of the best artists of his time and this piece demonstrates the high level of skill of the sculptor who captures Commodus’ idealized human form, and complex character, so effectively.


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