For this Behind the Book post, things are a bit different, mainly because this Behind the Book feature is a misnomer since it has very little to do with The Trials of Hercules: Book One of The Osteria Chronicles. In my novel, the story ends soon after Hercules completes his twelfth labor, but there’s a reason the legends of Hercules have endured for so long and that’s what we’re going to explore a bit this week.
Hercules and the Romans
I don’t want to go into a long history lesson regarding the adoption of Greek culture by the Romans, so let’s just sum up and say that Greek myths and gods were so fascinating (and still are from what my reviewers have told me) that the Romans took many of the stories, gave them a little revision, and claimed them as their own.
And, as he still does today, Hercules clenched onto Roman interest with all his legendary strength. Think about it, our familiar hero’s original name in Greek was Heracles, but which name won out? That’s right, the Romanized version of Hercules.
Hercules’s legends were woven into a major part of the Roman identity and he was even claimed to be the ancestor of many powerful Romans. And, although the Romans are known more for their military prowess than their story-telling skills, they did throw their hat into the ring of Hercules’s myths by sticking a side trip to Rome into one of the twelve labors.
Hercules’s Roman Holiday
Remember back in Labor Ten when Hercules had to rustle up some cattle from Geryon? (If not, that link will take you right to it.) If so, you’ll remember that on his way home, Hercules stopped off in Italy. When the Romans got a hold of this story, they decided Hercules ought to stop off in Rome, because let’s be honest, it’s not an Italian vacation without a visit to Rome!
Now, at the time Hercules stopped by, the Romans were having a bit of trouble with the fire-breathing giant Cacus. Cacus was the child of Hephaestus who was the god of smiths and volcanoes (smiths the metal workers, not The Smiths the band). The Romans, as they did, morphed Hephaestus into their own god of fire and volcanoes, Vulcan, and Cacus may also have originally been a fire god in Roman mythology.
Anyway, back to our story. The giant Cacus hung out in a cave in the Aventine Hill and liked to torment the residents of the Palatine Hill. And by torment, I mean he liked to eat them then nail the heads up by his cave. And you thought your neighbors were bad!
Along comes Hercules with his herd of stolen cattle. He decides his moo cows are hungry so he lets them stop and munch on some grass in a field near the Aventine. During the night, Cacus, perhaps tired of human flesh, steals eight of the cattle by dragging them back to his cave by their tails. Do not try that at home!
Hercules wakes up, takes roll call, and can’t figure out where the other eight cattle have gone. Hercules’s cows, missing their stolen friends, start mooing. From the direction of the cave, Hercules hears one cow reply with her own sad little moo.
As we all know, Hercules isn’t so good at controlling his temper. In a rage, he runs to the cave that Cacus has blocked with a giant boulder. This doesn’t stop Hercules. He climbs to the top of the hill and digs his way Bugs Bunny fashion to Cacus. The two have a pretty harrowing battle that ends in Hercules strangling Cacus so violently that Cacus’s eyes pop out. Cool!
The battle complete, Hercules erects an altar near the sight where he fought Cacus and gives it the very humble name of the Great Altar of the Unconquered Hercules, or Ara Maxima. When Rome grew up into a bigger city, this same sight became the Forum Boarium–aka, the cattle market. The original temple burned down, but you can still visit the forum today where there now stands the Temple of Hercules Victor.