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Who were the Classical heroes?

Written by
Helena NicolsonClassics Masters student, University of Oxford
The lead statue of Hercules made by Andries Carpentiere in the workshop of John van Nost, in the garden in July at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales.
The lead statue of Hercules made by Andries Carpentiere in the workshop of John van Nost, in the garden in July at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales. | © National Trust Images/Mark Bolton

In Classical mythology, heroes were often – though not exclusively – the descendants of gods. These heroic men usually fulfilled a great task, elevating them from the realm of mere mortals. The Italian Classical Renaissance rediscovered the artistic appeal of such mythological figures, and this movement widely influenced British art and architecture from the sixteenth century onwards. Read more about the history of Classical heroes and how they feature at National Trust places.

Heroic men

The archaic Greek poet Hesiod described five ages of men: Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic and, finally, Iron – the poet’s own age, in which men have been forsaken by the gods.

According to Hesiod, the Classical heroes were therefore separated from contemporary man by an age of experience, in which glorious achievements brought these heroes closer to the divine. One of the most famous examples of a Classical hero to this day is Hercules.

The labours of Hercules

Hercules was the son of Zeus, king of the gods, and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Because of Zeus’ infidelity, his wife Hera despised the boy and often tried to kill him, though Hercules’ divine parentage had gifted him with exceptional strength.

When he was an adult, Hera drove Hercules mad, causing him to slaughter his wife and children. Consumed with grief and seeking atonement, Hercules performed 12 gruelling labours for the king of Tiryns, Eurystheus.

These labours included killing the hydra (a many-headed serpent, which grew two new heads for every one cut off), and another during which he held the weight of the skies on his shoulders. After he had completed these labours, Hercules was freed from his atonement, and carried out many more amazing feats of strength and bravery. He lived on in the ancient world as a symbol of heroic achievement.

Hercules at our places

The east front and the statue of Hercules by John Van Nost at Chirk Castle, Wrexham, Wales.
The east front and the statue of Hercules by John Van Nost at Chirk Castle, Wrexham | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

Hercules at Chirk Castle

The grounds at Chirk Castle are home to John Van Nost’s statue of Hercules, depicted leaning on his club in a moment of contemplation. The highly-regarded Flemish born sculptor carved several garden figures for the grounds of the castle in the eighteenth century.

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Classical heroes in the everyday Classical world

Many more heroes existed in the Classical world, such as Perseus, who slayed the gorgon Medusa (a snake-haired monster who turned people to stone with a single glance), and Theseus, who slayed the Minotaur (a carnivorous half-man, half-bull trapped inside a labyrinth).

The feats of heroes featured prominently in ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture, particularly in religious temples. These heroes were well known to their ancient audience, and the presence of popular mythological heroes made ancient art impressive and exciting. The feats of heroes were closer to the abilities of the gods than mortals, but the knowledge of their achievements was common to all.

Classical heroes at home

The Italian Renaissance made Classical art and literature popular in Britain throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The study of the ancient world became a symbol of education and intelligence – even Shakespeare was criticised for not knowing enough Latin and Greek. Classical references began to be incorporated into architectural, landscape and decorative schemes, a trend which continues to this day.

Classical heroes at National Trust places

C. Nattes delt 1805, Stow the Group of Hercules and Anteus etc. Grecian Valley.
Image of Stowe landscape gardens | © National Trust

Stowe

In 1738 Lord Cobham purchased a group of heroic statues for the grounds of his home at Stowe. The statues formed part of an iconographic strategy to demonstrate the Progress of Liberty from the Ancients to the foundation of the British Empire. Many of these were sold in the great auction of Stowe House in 1922, when the decline and fall of the family had led to bankruptcy. As part of an ongoing project, 'Restoring Stowe – The Landscape Programme', we are returning these lost heroes. The first, a statue of Hercules and Antaeus, returned in April 2016.

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Trusted source

This article contains contributions from Helena Nicholson, a Classics Masters student at the University of Oxford. Helena is a contributor to the Trusted Source project.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire

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