Skip to main content

CA-SCS Panel: Re-Evaluating Herakles-Hercules in the Twenty-First Century 

Herakles Musical Drama

We look forward to reporting in the New Year on the Joint Classical Association (UK) and Society for Classical Studies (USA) Panel at the SCS Annual meeting in SAn Diego in January 2019. This panel has been organised by Emma Stafford in order to provide a re-evaluation of the hero’s broad appeal via four case-studies, each of which explores a very different incarnation, across chronological and geographical/cultural borders, and across a variety of media.

Abstracts appear below the panel details.

Session 21: Re-Evaluating Herakles-Hercules in the Twenty-First Century (Organized by Emma Stafford, University of Leeds)
Alastair Blanshard

(University of Queensland, Brisbane)

Karl Galinsky

(University of Texas at Austin)

"Herakles/Vajrapani, the companion of Buddha"
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones

(Cardiff University)

"Hercules' Birthday Suit: Performing Heroic Nudity between Athens and Amsterdam"
Emma Stafford

(University of Leeds)

"'I Shall Sing of Herakles': Writing a Hercules Oratorio for the Twenty-First Century"
Monica Cyrino

(University of New Mexico, Albuquerque)

"How the Rock became Rockules: Dwayne Johnson's Star Text in Hercules (2014)"


Karl Galinsky: Herakles/Vajrapani, the companion of Buddha

His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono (Aeneid 1.278) – Jupiter’s prediction about the Romans applies even more aptly to his son Herakles. As other papers in this panel make clear, his temporal range by now is extending to the twenty-first century. I want to complement that aspect with a spatial and geographic one, that is by looking at Herakles’ furthest extension to the east: his role in Gandhara Buddhist art primarily in the second and third centuries of our era. His appearance there as companion of Buddha is well attested by a remarkable number of reliefs and while the name of the companion is Vajrapani rather than Herakles, the iconography is clearly that of the Greek hero, with varying degrees of hybridization. The basic premise, shared by all scholars on this subject, is that more is involved than a purely formal transfer of Herakles’ iconography. There must be some meaning, but given the multiplicity of Herakles’ meanings, what is it and how does it relate to Vajrapani and the Buddhist context in the empire of the Kushans, who succeeded the Greco-Bactrian kings?

In terms of the chronology of Buddha’s life, Herakles/Vajrapani is not on Buddha’s side from birth but reliably appears as his quasi bodyguard from the time of the Great Departure of the young prince Siddharta. Vajrapani essentially means “holder of the vajra” i.e. the thunderbolt; in the reliefs, Vajrapani as Herakles sometimes keeps the vajra and other times exchanges it for the club; in at least one scene he wields both. He is never shown, however, as using it for an attack, let alone a killing; this accords with the relevant texts that mention him as a protector who can threaten and intimidate, but who rarely kills. He does save Buddha from attacks by rival teachers. In the process, the vajra becomes less of an emblem of physical power than the instrument of the victorious power of knowledge; coincidentally – and I am not positing any connection – the same happens to Herakles’ club in Lucian’s description of the Gallic Hercules (that was revived in the Renaissance).

In Alexander’s wake, Herakles had an extensive presence in the east in cult and iconography, from Dura, Palmyra, and Hatra to Ai Khanoum and the coins of the Bactrian kings. There is sufficient evidence, much of it artistic, to indicate that he and many of his qualities (including his penchant for drinking) were well known in Gandhara and that artists approached him with insight and understanding. As for his connection with Buddha, Heracles’ renown for strength and endurance can reasonably be surmised to be a major factor along with his record of victory and travel to foreign lands. Some scholars have advanced more specific agendas, such as an appeal to the Kushan kings that Buddhism was a religion of royalty, given Herakles’ association with the Bactrian and other kings. A variant is that this appeal may have risen to a higher dimension: not only is Herakles the model and prototype of the ideal sovereign, but the connotations go beyond earthly kingship and there is an assertion of the cosmic and spiritual kingship of Buddha.

Such associations may certainly have been operative, but they should not be considered exclusive. I argue that the principal reason for Vajrapani’s assimilation with Herakles lies in the wide range of dimensions of both characters. They both played many roles and both were highly adaptable. It was left to the viewers to decide what aspect they would privilege and that is one reason for the choice of the figure of Herakles/Vajrapani by Gandhara artists.


Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones: Hercules' birthday suit: performing heroic nudity between Athens and Amsterdam

The Pronomos Vase (c. 400 BCE) is the single most important piece of pictorial evidence for theatre to have survived from ancient Greece. It depicts an entire theatrical chorus and cast along with the celebrated musician Pronomos, in the presence of their patron god, Dionysos. One actor is costumed as Hercules, replete with club and lion skin; he wears high boots and the elaborate long sleeved patterned tunic typical of stage costume. On his torso he wears what has been identified as an armoured cuirass.

The presence of costume is, however, problematic for a character so notorious for his rejection of the hallmarks of 'civilisation’, such as clothing. This raises a question: how was the naked Hercules performed on the Athenian stage? If, as has been argued, nudity was a form of costume in Athens, then how did costume reflect nudity?

The answer might be hinted at in Constance Hoffman's imaginative costumes for De Nederlandse Opera’s 2009 production of Ercole Amante by Cavalli. Composed to celebrate the marriage of Louis XIV of France to the Spanish Infanta in 1662, this surreal production by David Alden, is a triumph of commedia buffa, resplendent with decorative and symbolic elements, and complemented especially by Hoffman's exceptional designs. Her treatment of the nakedness of Hercules is skilfully and ingeniously reimagined. Her postmodern design mixes extravagant period dress with equally extravagant modern costume, Baroque machinery with modern effects. Hercules totes giant six-packs of plastic muscle, looking a child’s action hero toy but with an overt – adult – sexuality. Hoffman’s design affords us clues into how the Athenian theatre might have created a naked hero too.

The paper is made possible to the generous support of Constance Hoffman herself, who provided access to designs, notes, and photographs.


Emma Stafford: “I shall sing of Herakles”: writing a Hercules oratorio for the twenty-first century

This paper will document the process of composing and producing a new dramatic musical work based on Herakles and reflect upon the reception of the work to date. Tim Benjamin’s Herakles was composed in consultation with a classical advisor and premiered by Todmorden Choral Society and Orchestra, with a number of professional soloists, in April 2017. The setting for this premiere was the magnificent Neoclassical town hall of Todmorden, a small Pennine mill town on the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire in the north of England. The performance was filmed, an edited version receiving its first public screening at the University of Leeds in July 2017, and being subsequently made available on DVD (see

Of particular interest from an academic point of view is the composer’s decision to set the Prodikean “Choice of Herakles” story, rather than any of the other Heraklean themes available, and then to follow the relatively unfamiliar version by Dio Chrysostom, in his Discourse on Kingship, which makes Virtue and Vice into the specifically political “virtue” of Royalty and “vice” of Tyranny. The paper will consider this decision, and the ways in which Benjamin went on to adapt the story for a twenty-first century audience, and to incorporate other ancient texts – including quotations for the Odyssey and the Homeric Hymn to Herakles – in the light of the history of dramatic musical treatments of Heraklean stories. While various episodes of the classical hero’s life can be found – in works such as Francesco Cavalli’s opera Ercole amante (Paris 1662; cf. Paper #2), Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Alceste ou le Triomphe d’Alcide (Paris 1674) and Handel’s oratorio Hercules (London 1745) – there are a number of treatments particularly of the “Choice” – notably Bach’s cantata Hercules auf dem Scheidewege (Leipzig 1733), Handel’s oratorio The Choice of Hercules (London 1751) and Schweitzer’s opera Die Wahl des Herkules (Weimar 1773). Such historical comparanda, alongside consideration of Benjamin’s own earlier works, will also be brought to bear on the issue of musical genre – is Herakles an oratorio, a dramma per musica, or what? – and on such artistic decisions as the use of a Narrator and the casting of Herakles himself as a treble.

Finally, we will consider the work’s reception. Feedback was sought from the performers as well as from the audiences of the premiere and from the film’s release. What was the response of these different constituencies to this new work? And what are the prospects for future performances?


Monica Cyrino: How The Rock became Rockules: Dwayne Johnson’s star text in HERCULES (2014)

Audiences and critics agreed that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s robustly charismatic performance as the titular ancient hero in Brett Ratner’s revisionist adventure epic HERCULES (2014) was by far the best part of an otherwise average movie. Scott Foundas of Variety declared the movie’s “strongest asset is surely Johnson, who continues to foster one of the most affable, guileless screen personas in movies today” (, 7.23.14). Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News stated about the movie that “the effects are impressive, but there are none bigger than the star Dwayne Johnson’s massive powerful physique, which perfectly suited the character and the large-scale movie” (, 7.25.14). Industry analysts credited the movie’s opening-weekend financial success directly to Johnson’s brawny appeal: “The fact that Hercules got close to $30 million is a testament to The Rock’s ability to mobilize his massive fanbase” (Ray Subers,, 7.28.14). Johnson’s colossal popularity and genial charisma drove the movie to a total of $250 million in worldwide box-office grosses.

This presentation explores the dynamic lead performance of Johnson as the mythological strongman Hercules in terms of his celebrity ‘star text’ that is interpreted or read by the audience watching him on screen. As originally framed by Richard Dyer in his influential book Stars (BFI: 1979), an actor’s distinct star image can both affect the production of meaning in a film and also manipulate the arousal of emotions and expectations in viewers. That is, when a well-known actor or celebrity takes on a role, they bring one or more previous roles or identities to the new performance; thus their star text powerfully influences how an audience engages with their previous roles within the new performance. First, this presentation considers Johnson’s popular status as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time (1996-2004), who has won multiple WWF champion titles, and how this mainstream fame as an athlete-entertainer informs his success in playing the cinematic hero Hercules. Next, Johnson’s first lead film role as the ancient warrior Mathayus in THE SCORPION KING (2002) gave him the opportunity to embody an epic-style character in protodynastic Egypt, a role that later influences his performance as the ancient hero Hercules. Then, Johnson invigorated THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS action-movie franchise by appearing in the last four installments (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017) as formidable government agent Luke Hobbs: since these movies straddle his Hercules appearance, they both support his heroic persona and tireless work ethic in the eyes of audiences while informing his star text moving forward into other parts. Finally, this presentation asks whether Johnson’s performance as Hercules affects his subsequent roles: as the dedicated but flawed sports agent Spencer Strasmore in the television series BALLERS (2015-current); as the shape-shifting Polynesian demigod Maui in the Disney animated hit MOANA (2016); as the videogame avatar/archaeologist Dr. Smolder Bravestone in JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (2017); or even as the object of an attempt to draft him to run for political office (“Run the Rock 2020,”, 7.10.17). Just as Johnson’s compelling star text as a hard-working and heroic competitor shaped his portrayal of Hercules in the blockbuster movie, his now established Herculean identity may lead to Olympian aspirations as an elected official and, in turn, influence how the Hercules figure is imagined in the future.

Related News

DVDs of Tim Benjamin's Herakles available to purchase online

We are delighted to announce that the DVD film of the world première performance of Tim Benjamin's modern oratorio Herakles, featuring Todmorden Choral Society and Todmorden Orchestra along with professional soloists in Todmorden Town Hall is now available to purchase online through the University Store. The DVD includes a booklet with some background to the story...

DVDs of Tim Benjamin's Herakles on sale 8th July 2017

DVDs of the world premiere performance in Todmorden will be available for purchase, cost £10, at the film premiere on Saturday 8th July. For more information and to buy tickets for the event, please see our Film page.   After the event DVDs will be available through the University Store at £10 + post and...

Tickets for the film of the world premiere of Tim Benjamin's Herakles on sale

Saturday 8th July, Clothworkers' Concert Hall, Leeds 19:00 arrival and wine 19:15 introductory talk by Tim Benjamin 19:45 film Ticket prices: £8, unwaged concession £5, student £3 For further information and online (credit or debit card) booking link, see the Film page. To reserve a ticket to pay for in cash on the day, email...