Cameo with Heracles Fighting a Centaur
Period: 2nd century A.D.
Dimensions: 1.3 x 1.23 cm
Ex-collection J.L.C., France.
This cameo is hewn from a stone (probably agate) with two layers: translucent and white. Almost perfectly circular, this gem was probably inset in a ring or a gold pendant.
The white part of the stone is carved with a figural scene, rendered in high relief: the mythological scene depicted has a long iconographic tradition, and was widespread during the Archaic period in Greece. Heracles, the most famous of the Greek heroes, has struck down a centaur and is about to hit it with his club. The animal, a half man, half horse hybrid, has been crushed by the force and weight of the hero, who holds the centaur either by his right arm or his hair. The stony ground is indicated by a horizontal band marked by irregular incisions.
Despite the small size of the scene and some stylization of the faces, poses of the characters are naturalistic, their movements graceful. There is great precision in the rendering of their bodies, tensed in ruthless struggle (especially in the musculature of the hero’s torso, his legs, as well as the limbs and the flexibility of the animal’s body).
It is not possible to identify exactly which centaur appears in this scene. According to tradition, the hero battled these beasts more than once (these battles are not part of the hero’s 12 labors): among the centaurs who battled the hero, most notable are Nessos, who carried off Deianeira, Heracles’ first wife (Nessos was subsequently killed by one of Heracles’ arrows); Eurytion, killed by the hero’s club because he wished to forcibly take Dexamenos’ (Heracles’ comrade and an Achaean king) daughter for his wife; the drunken followers of Pholos (a centaur and friend of Heracles), who are not ordinarily identified in ancient iconography.
The artistic quality of this gem is excellent, the details of which are not visible except upon examination with a loupe, a device unknown in antiquity, only invented during the Middle Ages!
On Heracles and centaurs:
DE CARO S., Ercole, L’eroe e il mito, Milan, 2001, pp. 66-69.
Lexicon iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), vol. VIII suppl., Zurich – Düsseldorf, 1997, p. 695, pl. 450.