Herakles/Hercules: exemplum virtutis for Christian emperors
Since the extant sources clearly indicate that the image of Herakles remained a favourite with panegyricists well into the early Byzantine era and beyond, this paper traces the appearances of Herakles in his political role as exemplum virtutis for rulers of a Chritianised empire from the late fourth to the ninth century CE.
The hero played a prominent role in the Theodosian era, with the princeps christianus Theodosius I being eulogized as [Herakles] Kallinikos and the arch leading to the Forum of Theodosius in Constantinople being dominated by columns shaped like the club of Herakles, thereby mirroring the victorious Theodosius’ role as Alexikakos and pacifer after the defeat of the usurper Magnus Maximus, with Herakles protecting the dynastic monument and thus the emperor and his sons.
Herakles continued to be utilised as a flattering comparison in Claudian’s praise of Honorius and Stilicho, before Sidonius compared the heroic deeds of the young Avitus to those of Herakles and addressed the emperor Majorian as Tirynthius alter. This shows beyond a doubt that, regardless of his origins in pagan myth and the vilifications of the apologists, Herakles was deemed a fitting exemplum for a Christian emperor, and that eulogists could count on their audiences (including the addressees) being familiar with and favourably disposed towards him, in accordance with the traditional use of Herakles as a topos of encomiastic literature.
This use of the hero continued after the end of antiquity, with the emperor Herakleios (Heraclius) surpassing the deeds of Herakles in the works of George of Psidia, and the Carolingian Charles the Baled reportedly being crowned on a throne decorated with scenes of the dodekathlos (twelve labours), which ought to be understood as presenting him with an example to be emulated and perhaps exceeded.