Lysippos, Farnese Hercules

Weary from his labors, Hercules leans on his club, with hints of his heroic trials hidden in plain sight.


Lysippos, Farnese Hercules, 4th century B.C.E. (later Roman copy by Glycon) (Archaeological Museum, Naples)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in Naples at the Archaeological Museum, looking at one of the most famous sculptures from all of antiquity.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] It was discovered in the Renaissance during archaeological excavations in Rome of the Baths of Caracalla.

Dr. Zucker: [0:17] This is the so-called “Farnese Hercules.” It gets that name because it was excavated by the Farnese family. They had been looking for building materials to take from ancient sites to build a new palace, but what they found in the Baths were an extraordinary array of ancient sculptures.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] We can reconstruct the original site for this colossal sculpture. There were mosaic floors, walls made of different colored marble. It was an incredibly luxurious bathing complex used by thousands of Romans every day, and it was decorated with hundreds of sculptures, many of them colossal, like this one.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] These were really complex structures, these bathing facilities. There were the baths themselves—some were cold, some were hot. There were rooms for transition from one temperature to another. There were places where one could exercise.

[1:07] And this sculpture makes perfect sense in this environment. This is a place where you would go to work out, where you would go to exercise. And you could look at this wildly muscular figure and have a bit of a goal.

Dr. Harris: [1:19] Many of the sculptures that were found in the Baths of Caracalla were not the typical, ideal, athletic copies of Greek sculptures that we think of. They were especially bulky, like the Hercules that we see here.

Dr. Zucker: [1:32] We know that some successful Greek athletes would sometimes dedicate sculptures to Hercules, in a way thanking him for their successes.

Dr. Harris: [1:41] He was a symbol of strength and heroism.

Dr. Zucker: [1:44] You can see that here. But there’s also irony in Lysippos’ treatment. Even as we see this wildly powerful figure, this incredible musculature, we also see a figure that is exhausted.

Dr. Harris: [1:56] He really is. He leans almost his full weight on a club that’s propped up under his arm. And so you’re right, there is an irony between the brute strength of his articulated muscles and the languorousness of his pose.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] Look at the way in which that abdomen is articulated. Look at the strength of his right shoulder, of his right upper arm. It’s really massive.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] He thrusts his right hip out, so that he can fully lean his weight on his left side.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] There is this marvelous contrapposto, although the legs seem to be somewhat reversed. I love the way his torso slouches over as he leans. There’s this over-emphasized turn of that torso.

Dr. Harris: [2:39] That club doesn’t look like a very secure support.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] No, the whole thing is slightly precarious.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] It seems as if Lysippos and Glycon, who copied Lysippos’ sculpture—and there are more than 80 copies of sculptures of the weary Hercules that have survived—but it does seem as though he’s calling our attention to Hercules’ hands.

[3:00] Hercules is famous as a hero who became a god and who [did] these amazing exploits, the 12 labors of Hercules. I’m noticing the open left hand and the way that the right hand is brought behind his back, so we really want to move around the sculpture to see what’s in his right hand.

Dr. Zucker: [3:18] That’s right. The artist has set us up so that we absolutely want to walk around. The left hand is not original. That’s been lost, and so what we’re seeing is a plaster reconstruction, but the right hand is original. If you walk around the sculpture, you actually see that he’s holding the apples that he would have gotten from one of those labors, the labor of the apples of the Hesperides.

[3:38] This is all part of the legend of Heracles. Heracles was the original Greek figure, and the Romans would call him Hercules. What happened was this brute of a man, in a fit, killed his children. The gods of Mount Olympus punished him by putting this man, Heracles, who was the son of a god and of a human, and therefore a hero, they made him subservient to a king.

[4:02] He had to perform whatever deeds this king asked of him for 12 years. This was his punishment. The king asked of him tremendously difficult tasks, the first of which was the killing of the Nemean lion, and if you look carefully, just draped over the club, you can see the pelt of that lion that he had slayed. This sculpture is actually referring to 2of those labors.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] One of the things that seems a little strange as we look up at him is how small his head is, and this is something that Lysippos, the Greek sculptor…

Dr. Zucker: [4:36] The original sculptor…

Dr. Harris: [4:37] …that this was based on, was known for, was changing the canon of proportions that had existed during the Classical period in Greece in the 5th century, where there was more of a sense of harmony and balance between the parts of the body. Lysippos created a new set of proportions where the figure was taller, the head was smaller, and it gave the figure a new sense of elegance.

Dr. Zucker: [5:02] Elegance and also of height. Here it’s married, of course, with this increased bulk. The other thing that Lysippos is so well known for, which you mentioned earlier, is the way in which he begins to break out of the more restricted space that classical figures had generally occupied.

[5:20] By extending, for instance, that left hand, by moving that right hand behind his back, he really does invite us to understand this sculpture in the round, as opposed to seeing it as a frontal object.

[5:32] The thing that strikes me most, though, about the sculpture is the way in which we can understand his feeling of exhaustion and the way that’s contrast against the potential energy and power of that body.

Dr. Harris: [5:46] The things that we’re talking about, the new canon of proportions, the way that we’re asked to move around the sculpture—not only do I want to walk behind it to see what’s in his right hand, but I also want to walk to the place where he is looking down to, so we can look up at his face and see the expression, the sense of empathy we have for him.

[6:07] These are all things that are typical of the Hellenistic period of ancient Greek art that this copy was based on.

Dr. Zucker: [6:13] And clearly, something that the Romans really appreciated.

[6:17] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Lysippos, Farnese Hercules," in Smarthistory, December 9, 2015, accessed May 20, 2024,