Sarah Nash (Neda and Franz Leipen Fellow, The Canadian Institute in Greece; Ph.D. candidate, Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta), “Portraits of Romans as Hercules and Omphale”
It was not uncommon in antiquity to depict men and women in the guise of mythical figures. The choice of Hercules and Queen Omphale of Lydia, however, cannot be explained in such a straightforward manner. The ancient texts tend to characterize Omphale as a dominant and even “emasculating” woman, whose contravention of patriarchal values is epitomized by cross-dressing and exchanging gender roles with her slave – or ‘captivated’ lover – Hercules. Moreover, the comparison of historical figures to Hercules and Omphale is in every instance defamatory. Given the prevalence of this negative portrayal of Omphale in the textual sources, it is quite striking to find portraiture depicting Roman matrons as the nude queen with Hercules’ lion skin and club. The primary research objective then is to assess how Omphale becomes reconciled with the model of the chaste and obedient Roman matron in commemorative contexts.
In assessing what images of Hercules and Omphale evoke for Roman viewers, scholars traditionally defer to the literary sources, which has only cast the images in a negative light, or even as Augustan counter-propaganda against Marcus Antonius and Kleopatra. We must, rather, evaluate these images in their own terms and social context. Semiotic analysis allows us to situate images of Hercules and Omphale within the Hellenistic iconographic tradition of “disarming love”, as yet another expression of the power of Eros. Moreover, I find theories of identification valuable in exploring how Hercules and Omphale become for the Roman viewers an exemplum felicitatis, or model of happiness in their private lives. By readdressing three main categories of evidence – namely, domestic frescoes, tableware and objects of personal adornment – I intend to offer concrete instances in which the Romans evidently wished to relate to Hercules and Omphale, a trend which culminates in the mythological portraiture of the late-first to third centuries CE. In terms of the portraiture itself, I argue overall that Hercules and Omphale – as a symbol for 'the power of eros’ – were suitable models for spouses in an era which witnessed first of all a positive re-evaluation of eros in marriage, and secondly of andreia (i.e. ‘manliness’) in women, both of which contributed to harmonia between husband and wife.