Who were the Classical heroes?

Hercules in the gardens at Powis Castle, Wales

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 and potential of such mythological figures, and this movement widely influenced British art and architecture from the sixteenth century onwards.

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 twelve 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.

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 men 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 our places

The golden statue of Hercules and Antaeus stands 9 feet tall on a plinth, depicting two men in combat. In the background is a valley and Grecian style building called The Temple of Concord and Victory

Stowe 

In 1738 the prominent Whig politician, 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 our five year project, 'Restoring Stowe – The Landscape Programme', we are returning these lost heroes. The first, a statue of Hercules and Antaeus, returned in April 2016.

The Theseus Sarcophagus at Cliveden

Cliveden 

Cliveden’s Theseus Sarcophagus is a remaining relic of the ancient world, carved in the second century AD while the Roman Empire was flourishing. The sarcophagus portrays the many tales of Theseus and his wife Ariadne, whom he rescued from a sea monster during one of his heroic feats. It was found in 1833 at Castel Giubileo, the site of the ancient Fidenae, and was purchased by William Waldorf Astor for Cliveden.

The Hercules Bedroom at Hanbury Hall

Hanbury Hall and Gardens 

This William and Mary-style house, begun in 1701, contains a guest bedchamber known as the ‘Hercules bedroom’. The room contains a bust of the hero in one corner, a popular reference to one of the greatest heroes of Classical mythology.

Hercules by John Van Nost at Chirk Castle, Wrexham

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.

The Hercules statue in the gardens at Powis Castle

Powis Castle and Garden 

The gardens at Powis Castle contain many statues depicting figures from Classical mythology, including the impressive carving of Hercules slaying the Hydra. Amongst the Welsh countryside, the hero stands triumphantly over the monster beneath his feet, raising his club to slay the fantastical beast.

The house and great plane tree in autumn sunshine at Mottisfont, Hampshire

Mottisfont 

This romantic eighteenth-century house became a popular source of artistic inspiration when it was bought by Maud and Gilbert Russell in the 1930s, the former being a wealthy patron of the arts. In the picturesque, riverside grounds a statue of Perseus can be found, slaying the sea-monster which the beautiful Andromeda (Perseus’ future wife) was chained to a rock and sacrificed to.