Hercules Rises from the Bathhouse in Sussita
Hippos (Sussita): The Twelfth Season - Summer 2011
By Arthur Segal and Michael Eisenberg
Zinman Institute of Archaeology
University of Haifa
Mt. Carmel, Haifa, Israel 31905
The torrential rains of November 2010 caused the exposure of one of the walls of the Roman bathhouse that was partially excavated during the latest season in Sussita. Mr. Nissim Mazig, the Director of the Sussita National Park, who was surveying the excavation site with us after the rains, suddenly noticed the head of a statue protruding from among the debris.
The surprised surveyors gazed at the new find – the head of a man with flowing hair and a straggly beard. The face bore an expression of power, rage and resolution. We immediately asked ourselves which figure this represented. The location of the find is of great importance in the attempt to determine its identity. As said before, the head of the statue was found in one of halls of the bathhouse. The fact that only the head of the statue was discovered at first without any additional parts made it difficult to decide which mythological figure it personified. Bathhouses during the Roman period, besides being installations for bathing, also served as centers for sport activities and bodily improvement and it was even customary to hold various kinds of athletic exercises in them. This means that one of the figures most frequently used to decorate the bathhouse halls was that of Hercules (Greek: Heracles).
The figure of Hercules in Greek mythology is that of a hero born through the coupling of a god with a mortal woman, in this case of Zeus with Alcmene who had fallen victim to the courtship of the lusty Father of the Gods. In the Graeco-Roman world, Hercules serves as a symbol for power, heroism and especially superhuman strength. He is also characterized for his unruly temper and often acted upon sudden and even cruel impulse. Because of this fault, the gods punished him and commanded him to perform 12 tasks, which are known as the “Labors of Hercules”. The description of these tasks are one of the most popular and widespread themes in ancient art.
Let us return now to the story of our find. Within half an hour after the discovery of the statue head, further examination produced a few fragments of the statue that definitely confirmed this to be a figure of Hercules. Near the place where the head was discovered, a section of the bust was located in which appeared the remains of a cape fastened in a particular manner (the “Hercules knot”). This was no ordinary cape since it was made of the skin of a Nemean lion. Killing this fearsome lion was the first task imposed on Hercules and from then onwards the cape became an inseparable part of his figure together with the club, his most favored weapon.
A more careful examination of this special find soon showed that it was not a statue but a relief. The figure of Hercules was not shaped in three-dimensional form but as a relief decorating one of the walls of the bathhouse. The relief rose to a height of about 1.80m. Since it was made of stucco (a sort of molded plaster, resembling in its qualities modern gypsum which is still widely in use today), a material sensitive to dampness, it most probably did not decorate a wall in one of the bathhouse halls that contained water but was placed in the entrance hall (vestibulum) or dressing room (apodyterium).
We know from historical sources as well as from archaeological finds that the halls of large bathhouses throughout the Roman Empire were decorated with statues and reliefs that gave added magnificence and beauty to these impressive buildings. A significant number of statues displayed today in the museums of Rome, Paris or London, originated from bathhouses excavated in all parts of the Roman Empire.
If we carefully scrutinize the face of our Hercules we will see that it is the work of a talented and inspired artist who rendered it full of expression, working on the stucco with his fingers only. He would have had to shape the face very rapidly while the stucco was still soft.
The face of Hercules, as we found it, is white-colored, but there are noticeable traces of color in some of the remains. In ancient times it was the practice to color statues and reliefs, even those made of marble. The mouth of Hercules is slightly agape, his nose is straight, his eyes protrude and a headband circles his forehead. In the creative process, so it seems, it is the head that was fashioned first, with the later addition of flowing hair along the sides of the head and the long, scraggly beard. It may be that this figure of Hercules was not represented alone but was part of a tableau of a Greek mythological story, such as the drinking contest between him and Dionysus, the god of wine. It is not unlikely that one of the stories from the twelve labors of Hercules was portrayed here.
The Hercules relief presented here is unique not only for the high artistic level of the work, but in view of the fact that the size of the stucco relief is of natural dimensions. Stucco reliefs are extremely rare finds and to the best of our knowledge no reliefs of such size and artistic quality have so far been found in Israel such as the one we have been fortunate to find in Sussita.