Tatham Abstract Hercules in the hypogeum

Gail Tatham

Hercules in the hypogeum of Via Dino Compagni, Rome

Symptomatic of a time of transition, the fourth-century mortuary hypogeum under Via Latina and Via Dino Compagni in Rome is decorated with a mixture of pagan and Christian imagery. In particular, cubiculum N (c.360-70 CE), although sandwiched between cubicula with biblical scenes, evinces pagan iconography referencing the mythological hero Hercules. Recent academic perspectives suggest that mythological imagery in mixed burial contexts like this can simply be taken as pagan (that is, non-Christian), although some scholars still maintain that cubiculum N reflects a Christianised Hercules. This essay offers an art historical perspective on the debate, to see what may be learned from applying the Roman design principle of decorum (appropriateness). The analysis shows that the Hercules scenes in cubiculum N are based on well-established stock types with conventional pagan associations. Moreover, the placement of these panels relative to one another in the chamber permits a coherent programmatic interpretation, appropriate in a mortuary setting and entirely traditional in content. Accordingly, the Hercules scenes in cubiculum N can be understood in terms of a conservative or at least a religiously neutral Romanitas, potentially congenial to both pagans and Christians.

Supplementary images, referred to in the chapter, can be found linked from this page.