Larger-than-life, 2,000-year-old Hercules statue discovered in Greece

  • A 2,000-year-old statue of Hercules was found in an ancient Greek city.
  • Experts say the finding is exciting and shows how these statues had lives beyond their initial purpose, centuries after their creation.
  • The piece was used to decorate a building in the 8th or 9th centuries, researchers estimated.

Archeologists found a 2,000-year-old statue of mythical hero Hercules during a dig in Greece last month, according to the country’s Ministry of Culture and Sports.

Known for his superhuman strength, the hero is a famous figure in Roman and Greek mythology for embarking on a series of adventures such as strangling a lion to death, beheading an snake-like creature underwater, and capturing a man-eating, wild boar, according to History.com.

The piece, which the ministry calls supernatural and larger-than-life, depicts a young, nude Hercules, and accentuates the adventurer’s chiseled abs and wavy hair. The research team from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki found the statue Sept. 16 and identified it as Hercules when they found fragments of his club and a lion hanging from his left hand, the ministry said.

The researchers said it was excavated in the city of Philippi, and the piece was used to decorate a building in the 8th or 9th century AD.

People often used statues from the classical and Roman periods to decorate buildings and public spaces. This most recent find illustrates how public spaces were decorated in important cities during the Byzantine Empire, the ministry said.

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Elizabeth Thill, program director and associate professor in classical studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, wasn’t involved in the excavation but said the piece was likely serving some sort of decorative role.

She said Hercules statues are known for their huge size (usually around eight feet tall); that’s partially because he was believed to be very big himself. They also weigh quite a bit. They’re usually made out of marble, but they’ve also been made out of metal and limestone.

The statue was preserved well into the 9th century, likely a sign of power for those that possessed the piece.

“Hercules was associated with the ruling class and with emperors because he’s the big guy that smashes things,” she said. “This statue probably had a sense of cultural appropriation, saying ‘Well, now we’re the ones that control the narrative about who’s strong. We’re the ones that control the narrative about how these things are going to be used.'”

Thill said statues of this sort were usually created to commemorate overcoming the limits of the human ability.

“When you see statues of Hercules, it’s not in the sense of seeing a statue of Superman or Batman, or some sort of protective force,” she said. “It’s more of an idea of barely controlled power … the ability through strength and bravery of overcoming the limits of the human condition. He becomes a god, and he was worshipped very commonly as a god in Italy and Greece.”

Experts say the find is ‘exciting’

Thill said the discovery is exciting because so often, these sculptures end up in palaces or churches, robbing the public of real context about their use.

In the past, people who found statues of this sort would give them to local bishops or princes and they’d decorate palaces in Rome, or they’d end up in museums. The problem with that is record-keeping was less than stellar back in the 18th and 19th centuries, she said.

“If they had found this Hercules statue 200 years ago, they would’ve probably just ripped it out of the ground and sent it to the Vatican, at which point, we would’ve lost the context that this statue had been reused into the ninth century … We would’ve lost this whole history of this broader intercultural, multicultural history of the statue.”

The excavation will continue next year, the Ministry of Culture and Sports said.

Saleen Martin is a reporter on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She is from Norfolk, Virginia – the 757 – and loves all things horror, witches, Christmas, and food. Follow her on Twitter at @Saleen_Martin or email her at sdmartin@usatoday.com.