Ancient Authors
Who Wrote about Herakles

Ancient Authors

Selected Works





Ancient Authors

Apollodorus (Mythographer, 180-120 BCE?)
The Library is a collection of stories from mythology, and the most complete primary source for any research.  Little is known about the author, but Apollodorus’ name continues to be matched with the work.  Apollodorus has a good account of each of Herakles labors performed for King Eurystheus and each of his other feats.  Apollodorus also covers the basic and some more complex versions of the immortals in Greek mythology as they interact with each other and with our hero.  From the beginning of the world and the first beings to the death of Ulysses, this book gives a very detailed description.  I highly recommend the book to anyone who is researching mythology and would like a good start to any topic of choice.  (AH)

Apollonius Rhodius (Epic Poet, 3rd century BCE)
Apollonius spent the earlier part of his life in Alexandria working as a librarian. He was the pupil and friend of Callimachus, a popular Greek poet. Eventually, Apollonius moved to Rhodes at which time he wrote a second version to his epic ‘Argonautica.’ Little else is known about the personal life of Apollonius except for the fact that his friendship with Callimachus ended after a bitter dispute. ‘Argonautica’ is the only major work of Apollonius that has survived. The ‘Argonautica’ is unique work in that it was an epic written at a time in which the epic had lost much of its appeal with Greek society. However, the ‘Argonautica’ is different from most epics in that it contains fewer lines and presents a different type of hero (Jason) from that of other epics. The ‘Argonautica’ is made up of four books.  However, Herakles only appears in the first book. Herakles and Orpheus are put in charge of two groups making up the crew of the ‘Argonautica.’ However, Herakles was left behind at the island of the Mysians.  It was necessary for Apollonius to leave Herakles out of the remainder of the story because it would have defeated the purpose of making the voyage of Jason a test of his courage had Herakles remained.  (CMD)

Aristophanes (Comic Playwright, 450-385 BCE).
Aristophanes wrote the play, The Frogs, during the last year of the war between Sparta and Athens.  There are political insights hidden within the play and Aristophanes uses comedy to express them.  He expresses freedom of speech and dares to say things that a few years earlier the same people that were listening had killed Socrates for the same thing.  But, Aristophanes takes two very similar characters that were well known to the ancient world, Dionysus and Herakles, and made people laugh at them but also made them think.  Such as, why does Dionysus borrow Herakles’ clothes on his journey?  Is he saying that other people use the strength of others to hide behind?  Or is he trying to say that people are ignorant and that they probably would not notice the difference?  (AH)

Diodorus Siculus  (Historian, c. 90 BCE)
Diodorus lived in Agyrium, Sicily. He spent a good part of his life writing a collection of history books entitled Bibliotheke (“The Library”). Bibliotheke was made up of forty books that covered the history of the world from the time of creation up until the present. The first part of this anthology dealt with mythology. In addition to Greek myths, Diodorus also included the myths of other civilizations as well. Diodorus attempted to explain the myths of Herakles as events that actually occurred in the past. Diodorus presents rational accounts of the events that occurred in Herakles’ life.  (CMD)

Euripides (Playwright, fifth century BCE)
Euripides was born on Salamis Island in 480 BCE.  He is known as a "philosopher of the stage."  Euripides was a prolific writer.  He started writing at age eighteen and composed anywhere between eighty and ninety plays, but unfortunately only nineteen have survived.  He is often described as gloomy, thoughtful, and a hater of both laughter and women.  Scholars gather these characteristics by examining his plays.  His fame was acquired toward the end of his life when he won a small number of tragic awards.  Among his surviving plays are Herakles (portraying Herakles’ madness and murder of his family, and his internal battle afterwards); Alcestis (in which Herakles rescues Alcestis from death), and The Children of Herakles (only Herakles’ children appear, not Herakles himself).  (HC)

Lucretius (Philosopher, c. 99 - 55 BCE)  
Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. Not much is known about him. It is believed that he lived the life of a recluse. It is also believed that he committed suicide. During his life Lucretius wrote several books the best known of which is ‘De rerum natura’ (On the Nature of Things).  The book is divided into six parts. The book was intended to present the beliefs and views of Democritus and Epicurus to those who were unfamiliar with the two philosophers. It is worth noting that Lucretius believed that religion was a source of evil and misery. Lucretius writes very little about Herakles but what he does write is interesting. Lucretius believed that Herakles was not worthy of the praise and admiration he received from the Romans. The deeds of Herakles did little in making the world a better place for people. Lucretius believed that it was the great thinkers who deserved praise rather than Herakles. Philosophers were primarily responsible for improving the human condition. (CMD)

Ovid (Poet, 43BCE-14CE)
Publius Ovidius Naso was born on March 20, 43 BC, in Sulmo, just 90 miles from Rome, to a well-off family.  He was educated in Rome in public speaking and trained to become a government official.  Ovid was never very enthusiastic about this career and when his older brother died, Ovid quit his position and began reciting poetry in the streets of Rome.  He became immensely popular in his own time and many of his subjects relate to today’s reader.  Some of the issues he discussed included love, sex, friendship, relationships between man and gods, the individual and state, art and life, words and things.  Ovid had a fascination with the human condition and psyche and many of his words dealt with these themes. 

Ovid’s first writings were entitled, Amores.  This was a collection of love poetry and was followed by Heroides, which was written form the perspective of women writing to their lovers.  Ovid followed this work with Ars Amatoria, a collection of advice for young men on where to meet women, how to capture them, and how to keep them.  Other works included Medicamina Faciei, which instructs women on how to maintain beauty.  The Remedia was a collection of stories telling how victims of love were able to escape their predicaments. 

Perhaps Ovid’s most popular work is The Metamorphoses.  This was a collection of over 250 stories based on Greek mythology, Roman legend and Roman history.  For the first time in Roman literature, Ovid applied the technique of telling stories within stories allowing for a complex narrative. 

In 8 AD, Ovid was banished from Rome by Augustus.  He was sent to Tomis, modern Romania.  Many of Ovid’s books were removed form the libraries.  The possible reason for this banishment is due to Ovid’s continual writing about love and sexuality.  Augustus wished to return Rome to a state of chastity, fidelity, sobriety and piety.  Ovid’s books interfered with this and thus the author and his books were banished.  Ovid continued to write during this time and died in 14 AD.

A few of Ovid’s writings dealt with the Hercules myth in some form or another.  Within The Metamorphoses, Ovid “presents a number of events from Hercules’ life-among them his birth, his famous ‘labors,’ and his death and apotheosis” (Mack).  Ovid continually uses Hercules’ labors to create intricate stories, explaining certain events in other stories through allusions to Hercules’ labors.  One of the other connections Ovid makes to Hercules is by having one of the letters in the Heroides be from Deianeira, Hercules’ second wife.  This gives insight to the way Deianeira felt while Hercules was gone for so long.  (RLC) 

Mack, Sara (1988). Ovid. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Pindar (ca. 518-438 BC) wrote poems dedicated to victors in athletic games.  Greek Mythology Link Works by Pindar include: Isthmian Odes, Nemean Odes, Olympian Odes, and Pythian Odes.  All are provided by the Perseus Project.  Some sources, such as The Columbia Encyclopedia, say that Pindar’s odes were to be sung to the victors on their return home.  Pindar frequently mentions Herakles in his victory odes as a model for human behavior and experience.  For further information, see the Pindar web page dedicated to Pindar. (MB)


Vergil (Epic poet, 70-19 BCE) 
Vergil was born near Mantua in 70 BCE. His full name is Publius Vergilius Maro. His early life on his father’s farm was central to his educational development. Vergil spent several of his works describing rural farm life both in an idealized sense and in a realistic sense.

He took up residence in Rome around 41 BCE. The remainder of his life was devoted to his most popular work, the Aeneid. Aeneas embodied all the qualities that the Romans held dear. Aeneas was devoted to his family, loyal to the state government, and pious. Vergil likens Aeneas to Herakles in the labors he has to endure and in his physical characteristics, showing Aeneas to be “the true spiritual and heroic heir of Herakles” (Galinsky 1972 151). The Aeneid chronicled the fall of Troy on to Aeneas’ affair with Dido, a Carthaginian queen, and then to the founding of Rome itself. Vergil died in 19 BCE.  The style of his Aeneid, in dactylic hexameters, became very important in Roman literature. Vergil’s works influence writers to this day.  (MAC)

Various Works by Ancient Authors

Euripides, The Madness of Herakles.  In David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie (1999). Euripides, 4.  University of Pennsylvania Press.
This tragedy portrays the killings of Megara and her children by Herakles.  Euripides gives us  great insight on the trials and hardships of the hero as he goes insane and kills his own children, only to come back to his senses and not know who had performed the horrible deed.  The main theme, good vs. evil, is portrayed in this literature.  Euripides shows it as a never-ending battle, for when Herakles finally seems to win, the evil forces strike back.  This play also has good  material if one is studying the relationship between Herakles and Hera, for she sends Madness to consume his mind and forces him to kill his children.  (AH)

Euripides, The Children of Herakles.  In David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie (1999). Euripides, 4.  University of Pennsylvania Press.
This play tells about the journey of Alcmene, Iolaus, and the children of Herakles as they flee to Athens in hopes of finding sanctuary from the king of Argos.  Eurystheus, king of Argos fears that the children of Herakles will avenge their father and kill him.  Upon learning that the only way to secure the Athenian army’s success was the offering of a virgin girl nobly-born, Makaria, daughter of Herakles volunteered to sacrifice herself to Demeter to save her brothers. The play tells of the courage of Hyllus, oldest son of Herakles, who comes to protect Athens as the army of King Eurystheus approaches, and describes  Iolaus’ rejuvenation on the battlefield which enabled him to capture King Eurystheus. It was said that two stars came down to Iolaus’ chariot, and materialized in each star were Herakles and Hebe. The captured Eurystheus is presented to Alcmene who sends him off to his death. Athens' devotion to Herakles is seen throughout the play, starting with the Athenians' willingness to protect his children. Many lines are dedicated to describing the courageous acts of Herakles’ children. Euripides also displays the importance of the two main women in the play. Makaria and Alcmene come up with the solutions to both of the play's dilemmas. First dilemma: Athens wouldn’t be victorious unless there was a sacrifice, so Makaria sacrifices herself. Second dilemma: when Eurystheus was captured, Athens didn’t know what to do with him, so Alcmene suggests a ruthless solution which pleases Athens. (CW)

Hesiod, The Shield of Herakles
Synopsis: The Shield of Heracles is a 480 line epic poem attributed to Hesiod, though most scholars believe it was composed later than Hesiod’s other works.  It tells the story of Heracles’ battle with Cycnus, who challenged Heracles to combat as Heracles was passing near Itonus.  Cycnus was assisted in battle by his father Ares, the god of war.  Central to the narrative is the description of Heracles’ armor and weapons, notably the remarkable shield which was made for him by Hephaestus.
Putting on the armor: After this talk, Heracles puts on his armor.  He puts on bronze leg greaves made by Hephaestus, a golden breastplate given to him by Pallas Athena when he was first sent out on his labors.  He also put on his shoulders the steel that “saves men from doom”.  He slung a quiver across his back.  He had a sharp spear and a bronze helmet.
The Shield: He also picked up a bronze shield which shimmered with enamel and ivory and electrum and glowed with shining gold.  There were bands of deep blue.  Fear was portrayed in the middle of the shield with glowing eyes, and Strife hovering on his brow.  Pursuit, Flight, Tumult, Panic, Slaughter, Uproar and Fate were also depicted in various poses.  The twelve headed snake was also on the shield (This may be a representation of the hydra though it is unclear whether this description is before or after the labors took place.)  Boars and lions were in a faceoff on the shield, but between the two sides were two boars that had been slain by a lion, possibly representative o the Nemean Lion of the first labor.
View of Heracles in Hesiod’s work

Heracles’ birth:
  (First reference to Amphitryon/Alcmene story)Alkmene, Heacles mother is portrayed as a women who rivals Aphrodite in beauty and womanly charms.  She is also portrayed as beng neat-ankles or fair-ankled.  It is also known that Zeus and Amphitryon slept with Alkmene on the same night, each conceiving a son. Heracles was born of Zeus and Iphicles was born of Amphitryon. 

Heracles and Iolaus:
  This is where Iolaus first enters the scene.  He is Heracles’ right-hand man and his charioteer.  When Heracles speaks to Iolaus, it becomes even more clear that Amphitryon killed Electryon, Almene’s father, before they were wed.  Heracles also mentions that fate laid heavy tasks upon him.  Iolaus is the son of Iphicles and therefore Heracles’ nephew.  Iphicles went into service with Eurystheus after leaving his home and his parents (maybe Iphicles had something to do with the horrible labors that Heracles was forced to do later.)
Battle with Cycnus: 
Heracles killed Cycnus, the son of Ares.  Later it is pointed out that Cycnus desires to kill the warlike son of Zeus.  Phoebus Apollo would hear none of this because he was the one who put Heracles up to the task of going against Ares and his son.  (HC, RLC, RC)

Sophocles, Women of Trachis. 
Sophocles’ play is about the accidental murder of Herakles by his wife Deianira. The play starts in front of the house of Heracles and Deianira. Deianira, the wife of Herakles, is very distraught over her husband’s absence. She worries that Herakles is in great danger or is already dead, so with the suggestion from her nurse, she sends her son Hyllus out to find him. Finally news is sent to her that Herakles is alive and on his way home. Before his return Lichas, his herald, brought before Deianira the captive women of Oechalia, which included the young Iole for whom Herakles felt great desire. Lichas tells Deianira of Herakles’ servitude to Queen Omphale and how he sacked the city of Eurytus because Eurytus was the reason why Herakles was sold to Omphale. So Deianira welcomes the captive women into her home; however, before she enters her house the messenger pulls her aside and tells her the truth. He tells her that it was out of love for Iole that Herakles destroyed the city. Upon hearing this she remembers the blood of Nessus, a centaur. He gave this blood to her after Herakles had shot him in the chest with an arrow and told Deianira that his blood would place a charm over Herakles’ heart so that he would never look at another women again. So, believing this,  she dipped a robe into the blood and sent it with Lichas as a gift to Herakles. However, after his departure she realizes that the blood was evil and worries that she did the wrong thing in sending the robe. Shortly afterward,  Hyllus returns to tell her what she feared, she had killed her husband. With great despair Deianira takes her own life. When Herales returns to the house being carried in a litter he cries out in pain and anger to see his treacherous wife who has brought such torture on him. After he hears the truth from Hyllus about the blood of Nessus he asks Hyllus to set his body on fire on Mount Oeta and tells him that he must take Iole to be his wife. Throughout the play you see the devotion Deianira had for her husband. Proof is given of Herakles’ lust for women. Many lines are devoted to describing the many emotions of Deianira, Hyllus and of Herakles himself. Good source for character descriptions for those three main characters. (CW)

Some Helpful Links for Ancient Authors: (JR)

For a more complete list of ancient authors who wrote about mythology (though without specific reference to Herakles) see the Greek Mythology Link