Add.9455vol1_p84 /2 Hercules

A bronze statuette of Hercules from Pitt-Rivers’ ‘Second Collection’

Elin Bornemann, Pitt Rivers Museum

This bronze statuette of Hercules is one of a group of objects listed thus: ‘The objects below were obtained by Genl. Pitt Rivers during the months of July, Aug and Sept. in Austria 1882.’

Pitt-Rivers was on holiday in Germany and Austria and evidently took the opportunity to shop for his collection.

The description of this particular object reads: ‘Bronze statuette of Hercules found at Marienburg near Cologne Hgt 3 ¼’. It is not known when or under what circumstances the statuette was found. The fact that it was found near Cologne but obtained by Pitt-Rivers in Austria points to its having been passed through several hands, including dealers in antiques and curiosities. It was presumably from such a dealer that Pitt-Rivers bought the object. Other objects from Cologne acquired by Pitt-Rivers in Austria include a bronze horse and a wooden comb with a carved case.

The catalogue does not put an age onto the statuette of Hercules, but it will become clear from the following investigation into its subject and its place of origin that it is most probably Roman.

The first point to investigate is this:

Who is Hercules?

Hercules is the Roman name for the Greek demigod Heracles, the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmena. Zeus gave the baby Hercules to his wife Hera to breastfeed, and this made him not quite but almost immortal. The adult Hercules was renowned for his size and strength, which was said to surpass that of all mortal men.

He is usually depicted wearing a lion skin and carrying a knobbly club.

Hercules is most famously associated with the ‘Labours of Hercules’, a series of tasks he carried out for King Eurystheus of Mycenae. One of these was to kill the Nemean lion, an invulnerable lion which terrorized the countryside around Nemea. Other famous ‘labours’ include killing the Hydra, a venomous monster with nine heads, fetching the belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, cleaning the Augean stables in a single day, and stealing the cattle of Geryon, a monster with three heads and three pairs of legs who also had a two-headed dog.

The tales of these labours were well-known in antiquity and recounted by several ancient writers. As a demi-god, Hercules was worshipped in the Greek and Roman worlds.

But what was he doing in Germany?

Hercules on the Rhine

With the expansion of the Roman Empire, the Roman soldiers and settlers brought their gods with them, and they were often incorporated into a local pantheon. Hercules became one of the most important gods in the Rhine area, only Mercury and Mars were more important. He was seen as the guardian of trade, patron of roads and harbours, and protector of labourers, particularly those in quarries. He also had special significance for the legions stationed on the Rhine.

Germanic peoples worshipped him as well and possibly equated him with their god Donar. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions the special affinity of Germanic peoples for Hercules in chapter 3 of his ‘Germania’, written around 98 A.D.: ‘They (i.e. the Germans) have a tradition that Hercules also had been in their country, and him above all other heroes they extol in their songs when they advance into battle.’

Hercules also appears in the 3rd century A.D. as Hercules Magusanus, whose cult was so widespread that Postumus, emperor of the so-called ‘Gallic Empire’ (260-269), had his picture put on his coins.

Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that statuettes of Hercules should have been found in the Rhine area. What makes Pitt-Rivers’ statuette even more interesting is that we have a very specific place of origin: Marienburg near Cologne. From the middle of the first century Marienburg was the headquarters of the Classis Germanica, the Roman Rhine Fleet.

The Roman Rhine Fleet

The Roman fleet never existed as an autonomous service, more as sea- or river-goingarm of the Roman army. Roman warships were mainly propelled by rowers, but they also had a sail. The Romans built a variety of heavier and lighter types to serve different purposes. A provincial fleet like the one on the Rhine was equipped with light vessels. Their purpose was mainly to patrol the river and to provide escorts for transports.

One type of ship used on the Rhine was called ‘liburna’. The name derives from the ancient district of Liburnia, in modern-day Croatia, whose inhabitants were renowned seafarers. The ‘liburna’ had two banks of rowers with 18 oars per side, making it a fairly fast and agile craft.

Another type of vessel used on rivers was the ‘navis actuaria’, which was smaller, with only 15 rowers per side and a shallow draught. This type was eventually superceded by the ‘navis lusoria’, with the same number of oars but a narrower build. The name translates as ‘playful ship’, referring to its maneuverability and quickness. This type of ship was used particularly along the Germanic border.

The military history of Marienburg, where Pitt-Rivers’ Hercules was found, starts in the early 1st century when units from two legions were stationed there. In the middle of the century it became the headquarters of the Roman Rhine Fleet and the only quarters of the Roman Fleet in Germany. Archaeologists have estimated that it had room for over 1000 men.

From the 1st century onwards the situation along the Rhine was fairly peaceful, so the Fleet was not engaged in military operations, but patrolled the river and guarded the border. Two hundred years later the situation had changed. There were conflicts with the Franks who repeatedly invaded Roman territory, and in 276 they destroyed the Fleet headquarters. This was not the end of Roman ships on the Rhine, but from then on the legions organised their own auxiliary fleets, without a single central station for them.

Metalwork from the Rhine

One aspect of Pitt-Rivers’ statuette of Hercules which has not been considered yet is its manufacture. It is not known where the statuette was made, but it is possible that it was made close to where it was found.

In the early days of Roman settlement on the Rhine people only had whatever metalwork they had brought with them or imported later. Subsequently the provinces developed their own arts and crafts. In those provinces on the frontier of the Roman Empire, these crafts were influenced by the peoples on the other side of the borders.

In the 2nd century a bronze industry developed in Gressenich, near Aachen, in Northrhine-Westphalia. This was made possible by the discovery of calamine, a zinc mineral which can be used to make bronze. Gressenich is about 60 km west of Cologne, and it would not be surprising to find bronze objects from Gressenich in the Cologne area. However, while it is known that bronze objects were made at Gressenich, this was not the only place of production, and it is difficult to determine where a particular item has come from. Objects were often recycled and repeatedly melted down, for example to make coins.

While objects from Gressenich could easily have made their way to Cologne, bronze objects were also made in Cologne itself. It is known that in the 1st century there was a workshop for gladius sheaths. There is also evidence for a Roman craftsman called Saciro in the Cologne area, who worked in bronze and silver.

However, while it is tempting to think that Pitt-Rivers’ Hercules statuette was made at Gressenich or Cologne, especially since it was found in the same region, this is by no means certain. It is likely that the statuette was owned by a soldier or a sailor, and the owner could have brought it with him from elsewhere in the empire when he was posted to the Rhine.


At first glance it seems that the statuette of Hercules cannot tell us very much. We know the character it depicts, what it is made of, where it was found and where and when Pitt-Rivers bought it, but there are no confirmed facts beyond that. However, these few pointers give the object its historical context. If you look beyond it, it opens a window on a particular period of history in a particular region. It can be the starting point for an exploration of life on the edge of the Roman Empire, its soldiers and sailors and its craftsmen, its military and religious life.


Roemer am Rhein. Ausstellung des Roemisch-Germanischen Museums Koeln, 16. April bis 30. Juni 1967 (Exhibition Catalogue)

Norbert Haniel, ‘Zur Rekonstruktion der Mannschaftsbaracken der Ausgrabung 1998 (Phase 5) im Flottenlager Alteburg bei Koeln-Marienburg. Gladius, Anejos 13, 2009: Limes XX. Germania, Gallia & Raetia, p. 1291-1297

Graves, Robert. 1965 Greek Gods and Heroes, New York: Dell Publishing


Translation of Tacitus taken from this website:

[Note: Unfortunately this object is not illustrated in the catalogue, probably because it is one of the first objects that Pitt-Rivers purchased for his new 'second' collection]

January 2012.

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