During the third century AD, Plotinus, who was a Neo-Platonist, changed the traditional view of Beauty accepted earlier in antiquity. Beauty had been considered to be the symmetry of parts, but Plotinus defined Beauty differently—a Principle created and emanated an Idea, which could also be called Beauty. Additionally, he argues that each part of a whole does not specifically have Beauty; instead, the individual parts combine, contributing to make the final product beautiful. However, he continues, if the whole is considered Beautiful, the parts must also be beautiful because the whole could not be made of ugly parts. Plotinus wrote his views concerning his contemporaries, and there is a connection between his aesthetic theories and Roman art of the time.
The aesthetic theoretical implications of Roman art, specifically of the kind outlined by Plotinus, have not been explored thoroughly, according to Thea Ravasi. In Roman art, there are a few portrayals of Omphale, the queen of Lydia, and Hercules, the demigod, which are seen in sculpture, fresco, and mosaic. Although a variety of mediums are used, analyzing the various representations of Omphale and Hercules presents what Romans prized aesthetically—or the combination and juxtaposition of the ideal and the real, the feminine versus masculine—revealing the play between male and female gender roles during the Roman era.
To begin, understanding the depictions of representations of Hercules and Omphale depends on knowing the myth. While there are numerous versions, in the telling used for the purpose of this paper, Hercules desired to atone for murdering one of his friends, Iphitus. After consulting the oracle Apollo, the god advised Hercules to serve Omphale, Queen of Lydia, even though Hercules, a son of Zeus, was famous because of his exceptional strength. Despite the change in status from a son of a god to a slave, Hercules still completed the tasks Omphale gave him, which she, as the queen, tailored for him specifically. There were numerous tasks, such Hercules being forced to do women’s work and wear women’s clothing. For example, he had to hold a basket of wool, while Omphale and her maidens worked on the spinning. Moreover, while Hercules wore women’s clothing, Omphale wore the Nemean Lion skin.
In Greek mythology, the Nemean lion was a vicious monster. Because of its golden fur, it could not be killed by humans’ weapons and its claws were extremely sharp. Hercules killed the Nemean lion as the first of the twelve labors that King Eurystheus required. Omphale not only wore the lion skin but also carried the club of Hercules’. Tertullian (c. 155–240), an early Christian author who lived in a Roman province in Africa, writes about the pagan myth, which is surprising given his Christian background. He reasons that the skin must have been “softened, smoothened, and freed from stench for a long time, as had been done, so I presume, in Omphale’s house, by means of balsam and fenugreek oil” because Tertullian believed that not even the strongest of women could have held up, let alone wear, the mighty lion skin. Nevertheless, over time, Omphale fell in love with Hercules because of his strength and handsome features, and the couple married. This myth was used in Roman political maneuvering. Yet artists throughout time have explored the gender roles of the myth in art. The following sections will explore various Roman artistic representations of the myth through the mediums of sculpture, fresco, and mosaic.
A unique sculpture is Portrait Statue of Woman in form of Omphale, which is located currently in the Vatican Museum (Fig. 1). In funerary Roman art, the deceased individual’s portrait sometimes included a mature face juxtaposed with an ideal body comparable to the gods, which was popular among the Roman nobility and the wealthy. This sculpture shows a middle-aged woman with an elaborate hairstyle, indicating the Severan period, which occurred from AD 193 to AD 235. The hairstyle is parted in the middle, with two braids in the front, framing her face; there appears to be slight waves in her hair that cover her ears. There is the Nemean lion head covering, although no Hercules is included. The figure is almost completely nude; the claws of the lion reach towards her nipples, and a cloth, coming from behind, rests by her side, and her right hand holds it closely to her body in front of her genitalia. Quite a bit of skin, which appears smooth and tangible, is showing, and her left arm cradles the club.
With this sculpture of Portrait Statue of Woman in form of Omphale, the ideal and the realistic are portrayed. There is a great contrast between ideal body type, such as one of a goddess like Venus, and realistic facial portrait of this middle-aged woman. She stands serene and divine looking with elegant contrapposto, while her face is clearly aged older than the rest of the body. The nudity of statues becomes a type of costume, which gives resemblances of divinity to the portrait of the deceased. Visually, these juxtaposed styles of the old and the new look strange and even incoherent for modern viewers; however, Plotinus and other Romans of this time would have found these portrayals to be aesthetically pleasing. Beauty, during this time, was the unity of the composed individual parts. Therefore, because the parts are beautiful, here the idealized body as well as the aged face, the whole is considered beautiful. Additionally, the parts considered masculine (e.g., the lion skin and club) juxtaposed with the parts considered feminine (e.g., the long hairstyle, the goddess-like body, the smooth skin, and graceful elegance) combine to create an object of Beauty.
It is unclear why this woman would have chosen to be shown in the form of Omphale. Of course, Omphale is a woman of great authority, as her country’s sole leader. Therefore, the woman whose portrait was being made may have desired to be associated with that strength and resilience. Another juxtaposition is the sophisticated, detailed hairstyle, indicated earlier as a style from the Severan era, versus the lion skin. The hairstyle is meant to be seen because the lion skin is placed quite a bit back on her head. If this occurred in real life, the skin would probably fall over from the weight of the head; therefore, this woman obviously wanted her hairstyle to be visible. During the Roman period, beauty was connected with physical features as well as feminine virtue. If a women had an elegant hairstyle, she was seen as being both beautiful and virtuous. Therefore, unique and elaborate hairstyles showed women, especially of the upper classes, as having traits of the ideal Roman woman while also being stylish and affluent.
Hairstyles were used by the upper-class women to push political or social agendas, depending on who was ruling at the time. Perhaps the woman depicted as Omphale desired to present herself as an ideal Roman woman and citizen by following the hairstyle trends of the time. At the same time, this sculpture emphasizes her strength or even maybe her position of power if she belonged to the upper classes, which would make sense given the quality of this statue.
Another reason this woman may present herself as Omphale could be to associate herself with the goddess Venus. When creating portraits and life-size statues, the body type and overall portrayal reflected trends in politics, religious affiliations, and personal taste. For Roman women, the selection of the body type portrayed reflected a particular role. It was important as well as difficult for Roman women “to fashion themselves as fit but amply endowed, wealthy but modest, elaborately coiffured but capable of working with wool, and sensuous but models of correct behavior.” These roles were portrayed through the selection of body types; the body type became a type of façade that was connected with various Roman goddesses, who were recognizable by the general populace. By choosing a particular body type, the bearer also took on the characteristics of that goddess.
For example, the goddess Venus was associated with not only attractiveness but also fertility. Here this woman has the body type of Venus, with a flawless figure, perhaps to present herself as desirable and fertile. Her aged face, in contrast, emphasizes her wisdom and experience, which could be associated with Omphale, a wise and competent ruler. This contrast of hyper-feminine with the naturalistic features shows that wealthy, upper-class women of the time had a great say in how they wanted to be presented.
The decision to not include Hercules is an intriguing one. Of course, no Hercules could be shown because perhaps the woman shown here is unmarried or desired a representation of only herself. With the patriarchy of Roman society, women were expected to fulfill values—chastity, fertility, beauty—that men desired. This portrait of the woman as Omphale stands in contrast to patriarchal expectation of Roman women.
She seems to associate herself with Queen Omphale, who had political power typically associated outside a Roman woman’s world, and Venus, who was a goddess of great beauty and fertility, which are associated with the child-bearing and the home. Additionally, she maintains a realistic portrait for her face, therefore combining different worlds into one thoughtful presentation. This portrait is a deliberate decision in complex, multi-referential representation. This woman does not need a cross-dressing Hercules because these juxtapositions in style and references emphasize her own power and decisions in how she presents herself and how she wants others to see her.
Another example of a statue, quite different from the portrait statue discussed above, is included in a marble statue group of Hercules and Omphale, now located in Naples at the National Archaeological Museum (Fig. 2).
This Roman statue comes from first century AD. Omphale is shown wearing Hercules’ cloak and lion-skin headdress, which is further up on her head than the woman’s portrait as Omphale. The claws of the lion do not come down her chest here, and she does not attempt to make herself modest, as seen previously. Instead, the cloak wraps around her left thigh, and her genitalia is completely exposed. Additionally, she leans on the club of Hercules, which is in her left hand this time. In contrast, Hercules, who is dressed in a woman’s tunic that slips off his shoulder in a Venus-like manner, wears wears a woman’s snood and holds skeins of wool in his hands with wool basket at his feet. Hercules’ cork-screw curls create a prominent beard, and both of them stand in contrapposto that are a reflection of the other—Omphale’s left leg bends, and Hercules’ right leg bends. While classical in style in many ways, Hercules’ legs look stubby and shorter than expected. However, these shorter legs make the couple close to the same height and, consequently, the same level.
In this sculpture, Hercules does not appear to be ashamed of being dressed in women’s clothing, which could be because there are other Greek and Roman stories with cross-dressing men. For example, Achilles’ mother hides her son from the Greeks, who are preparing for war and want Achilles, the great warrior, to join them. Because his mother is concerned that he might die, she hides him in a palace of young women, and he is dressed as a woman to fit in with his surroundings. However, when Odysseus pretends to be a peddler and goes to the palace to catch Achilles, Odysseus places swords underneath the other trinkets in order to catch Achilles, who is interested in weapons. As depicted in the Sarcophagus of Alexander Severus and Mammaea, the scene in the sarcophagus shows Achilles reaching out to grab and examine the weapons with his female clothing falling off, revealing who he is (Fig. 3).
One reason that Roman artists may not show Hercules and Achilles as being ashamed of dressing in women’s clothing is because it is only momentary, since the viewers know that men will go back to their traditional clothing. Another reason could be that both of these men are renowned for their fighting and masculinity; even though they dress in women’s clothing, it is easy to see that Achilles and Hercules are actually men—not women—with ripped muscles and hyper-masculine, idealized forms.
Both the man and woman are portrayed positively in the marble statue group. Silberberg-Pierce discusses that Roman art conveys a positive portrayal of women in paintings, writing that “[t]his model can profitably be applied to all Roman art production: it represents a woman’s view, one which, until recently, has been effectively suppressed.” This work is a sculpture and not a painting but still depicts women, specifically Omphale, positively. Hercules and Omphale are quite close to being the same height, which suggests a type of equality, since one is neither higher nor superior over the other. Standing quite close together, Omphale’s arm wraps around Hercules with her left hand on his shoulder in a posture of consultation and mutual admiration.
Additionally, she is confident in her sexuality and in her strength. The viewer sees Omphale looks towards Hercules, who gazes off into the distance, as their bodies appear to be melding into one. Because of the mirroring poses and touch between each other, they are shown as a unified couple, and no hierarchy of one being greater than the other is suggested. Rather that suggesting a power play dynamic here, the couple looks supportive and united because despite their separate parts, their concord and union exhibits Beauty.
This section addresses another medium—frescos—depicting Hercules and Omphale. During the Imperial Roman period from 27 BC to AD 284, a portrayal of Hercules and Omphale was painted in a basilica in Pompeii, which is now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli in Naples, Italy (Fig. 4).
The viewers see Hercules standing before Omphale, shown as an enthroned, regal queen with a laurel-wreath crown. Nike, the winged goddess representing victory, is shown floating above him. Additionally, a small boy, which could represent the god Pan, holds pipes and stands behind Omphale. There are an eagle and a lion on either side of Hercules. In the left-hand corner, the viewers see Hercules’ son, Telephos, who is sucking on a doe. This depiction contrasts greatly with the previous two examples examined in the sculpture section.
This portrayal presents a power dynamic between Hercules and Omphale. Omphale sits above him powerfully and looks off into the distance while placing her hands on her face with a contemplative look, as if considering the tasks that she will require of him. Therefore, this scene foreshadows the task of cross-dressing that will later take place because of the lion in the bottom right-hand corner (e.g., since Omphale will wear the lion skin that Hercules had killed) and the imbalanced power of master versus slave.
His shame is evident and reflects the fact that he will soon have to wear women’s clothing as part of his atonement for killing his friend, since he must obey whatever she orders. There is no freedom or liberation for Hercules, and Omphale’s gaze suggests one of independence and supremacy. In contrast to Omphale’s dominance, Hercules looks down in shame rather than looking Omphale in the eyes, which contrasts to the statue of the couple. His backside is exposed, revealing round buttocks and muscular back, arms, and legs.
Eve D’Ambra argues that male full-frontal nudity “appears active and aggressive” when compared to the modest nude of Venus; however, male nudity here does not exude confidence or “personal agency” for Hercules, perhaps because it does not depict full-frontal nudity. Therefore, if male nudity suggests aggression, then female nudity would be considered passive or less active because the Venus figure is not always completely nude but tries to cover herself partly in order to be considered beautiful.
By being clothed, Omphale could be seen as taking on a more active role. Another reason could be reflective of female responses to prostitution in Pompeii because immodesty was associated with prostitution. Women, who were wealthy and belonged to the upper classes, actively exhorted for a return to propriety and written engravings even appeared on the walls of the Triclinia in Pompeii. While impositions of enforced morality may seem strange to modern viewers, it still presents active and involved women in Pompeii, which is reflective of the active, strong depiction of Omphale.
This portrayal shows an exception to Roman Beauty because of how this strong, powerful-looking woman still follows a very classical style, such as how the drapery rests against Omphale’s body. The viewer sees the suggestion of her body underneath, the shading on the arms and her face, and the perspective of the three-quarter view of her serene, goddess-like face. The individual parts independently all have Beauty with the idealized parts contributing to Beautiful, idealized figures of the whole, even though the scene or event may seem somewhat mismatched, such as the male being naked and exposed before the woman.
Another fresco in Pompeii depicting Hercules and Omphale dates from the first century BCE, now located in Naples at the National Archaeological Museum (Fig. 5). In this depiction, Omphale holds a leaf-fan and looks down at Hercules with a mystified expression on her face. Hercules is already wearing the woman’s dress with a wreath on his head, reclining drunkenly with one of his arms in the air. Hercules’ strange depiction could explain the puzzled expressions on the women’s faces.
Surprisingly, while Hercules already wears the women’s clothing, Omphale is still wearing her own feminine clothing and not Hercules’. Perhaps one reason this portrayal is shown this way could emphasize the humor of the event. Hercules is not ashamed but rather inebriated and acting and looking ridiculous, while Omphale maintains her dignity. Omphale is placed at a higher level, emphasizing her position of power and her sober status, rather than having them on the same plane. Another reason for this portrayal could be showing why Omphale decided to dress in male clothing. The viewers see the putti figures attempting to lift the heavy club of Hercules up to the level where Omphale is sitting. Hercules is reduced to a comical, lower level by dressing in women’s clothing, but Omphale will be empowered even more by dressing in his clothing because it shows her strength and grandeur. Although the four putti figures can barely lift the club, but she will not only carry the club but also wear the heavy lion skin.
In this fresco, Omphale is not alone or only with Hercules but has female companions. The tunic slips off her Omphale’s shoulder, similar to Venus, as seen with the marble statue group of Hercules and Omphale; however, with that statue, it was Hercules’ shoulder that was exposed from the women’s clothing slipping off on that side. Yellow and greyish-purple tones mark Omphale’s clothing. On her sides, Omphale not alone here but surrounded by two young girls. The one maiden on Omphale’s left also mimics her queen, since her shoulder is also bare, and she wears white. This girl is much smaller than Omphale, although it is unclear whether or not she is supposed to be younger or the same age.
On the other side, the maiden on Omphale’s right holds her hand up to her face and looks with a quizzical expression on her face. Her clothing is in nude and green colors, and her navel is visible through the transparent clothing. This maiden is taller than the other one, but her proportions are strange and curved, making her appear serpentine instead of human. In contrast, Omphale appears to have the best proportions and follows the classical style the most with natural drapery and goddess-like elegance and beauty.
The women’s appearances emphasize Pompeii standards of beauty. Their hair is piled up on top of their heads. Roman women used hairpins, typically made out of bone, ivory, glass, gold, or silver, to style their hair, which were described as being tapered at the end (Fig. 6 and Fig. 7).
For hairdressing, hairpins were also used to separate locks and to pin up and hold the hair in place once the style was completed, and these devices could range from simple to elaborate. Because hairpins are not often shown in depictions, it is believed that Roman women typically preferred the pins to be unseen and hid them in their hair. In this fresco, little white, shiny dots are seen in the women’s hair, which would suggest a decorated end of the pin. These hairpins were the most common way of adorning hair in Pompeii.
All three women wear gold necklaces and bracelets and earrings that appear to have pearls, which was considered precious in Pompeii. Ancient sources called the S-shaped hook with the pearl pendants as stalagmium, which had precedents from the Hellenistic Grecian period (Fig. 8).
This style continued until the third century AD—well after Pompeii was destroyed. In Western society, we often associate jewelry with femininity, so it is interesting that Omphale wears not only her feminine clothing but also jewelry, which emphasizes her femininity instead of when she cross dresses and takes on the masculine role. In the previous section with the sculptures, no jewelry or hair accessories were shown, which presents something unique here that reflects Pompeii beauty practices and emphasis on the feminine beauty in contrast to other Roman women.
The labors of Hercules are frequently depicted in Greek and Roman art, but this section on mosaic will examine a depiction of Hercules with Omphale in the center of a floor mosaic found in Llíria (i.e., Valencia), which is now in the National Archeological Museum of Spain in Madrid (Fig. 9).
Spain was part of the Roman empire at this time of the third century AD. Figure 10 shows a close up of the mosaic, and Hercules is shown holding a ball of wool and dressed in women’s clothing; although most of the dress is damaged, the bottom reveals different colors of blue limestone that represent the dress. Omphale wears the lion skin, which is difficult to tell, except for the two pointy ears sticking out. She holds the olive-wood club of Hercules, as well, while reclining on a throne, which had been damaged with several tiles missing.
The figures are not proportionate because if Omphale stood up, she would be considerably taller than Hercules. Additionally, there appears to be drapery of sorts covering the bottom half of her body, but her breasts and navel are uncovered. The bubble-looking object in Omphale’s right hand is unknown. In this mosaic, no setting is shown with white and cream-colored tiles being the only background. The piece is more abstract than the sculptures and frescos; for example, Omphale’s fingers as rows of brown and white tiles.
Facial expressions are difficult to determine, given the nature of mosaic tiles and the relative level of abstraction here, making it impossible to determine whether, for instance, Hercules is embarrassed or Omphale is empowered. Their direct gaze towards each other is at the same level, suggesting a type of equality. This mosaic shows the cross-dressing of both Hercules and Omphale together at the same time, which marks ambiguities concerning gender roles in Roman society. Because of the abstraction, the psychological and emotional impact on both of this change in roles and clothing is indeterminable, making this mosaic unique when compared to the sculpture and fresco examples.
This paper has considered various representations of Hercules and Omphale in mediums, such as sculpture, fresco, and mosaic. Sometimes only Omphale or Hercules is portrayed or only one cross dresses. A strength of sculpture is that the viewers are able to walk around and examine the work from multiple angles, while mosaic and fresco present only one perspective. However, for fresco, it is easier to present more of the narrative, multiple figures, and setting, which is how the viewers understand more of what is happening in the story. In contrast, the mosaic appears to be the most limited, given the damages and abstraction. These mediums reveal what is emphasized in Roman aesthetics, not only the ideal versus the real, but also the representation of interactions between men and women. Sculpture presents strong, powerful women as having Beauty, while the mosaics focus on feminine beauty for Omphale. However, Omphale is depicted as serious when wearing Hercules’ clothing, while Hercules is humorous to look at or looks preposterous when wearing women’s clothing.
Plotinus believed that if the whole is considered Beautiful, the parts must also be beautiful because the whole could not be made of ugly parts; hence, the masculine parts of women and feminine parts of men—often shown by clothing—are not actually ugly but have Beauty because the whole is beautiful. These depictions justify representing women in masculine clothing, which presents a less rigid view of gender and gender relationships recognized in contemporary Roman society.
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 Diana E. E. Kleiner and Susan B. Matheson, “‘Her Parents Gave Her the Name Claudia,’” I Claudia II: Women in Roman Art and Society, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 11.
 For example, Augustus’s wife, Livia, wore her way in order to contrast to their Egyptian enemy Cleopatra and her intricate hairstyle because Livia sought to promote simple Roman values and morality and Roman-ness. See ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 13.
 Barbara F. McManus, “Index of Images, Part XIV,” Vroma, accessed February 15, 2016, http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/index14.html.
 Like Achilles, Hercules is often shown on Roman sarcophagi. One of the most renowned myths, of Hercules retrieving Alcestis, is commonly depicted. See Michael Koortbojian, Myth, Meaning, and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 112. Another example of Hercules depicted on Roman sarcophagi includes the Velletri sarcophagus. See Steven L. Tuck, A History of Roman Art, (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015) 264.
 Susan Silberberg-Pierce, “The Muse Restored: Images of Women in Roman Painting,” Woman’s Art Journal 14 (1993), 35.
 Eve D’Ambra, Roman Art, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 109.
 Michele D’Avino, The Women of Pompeii, translated by Monica Hope Jones and Luigi Nusco, (Napoli: NA, NA) 72.
 Barbara F. McManus, “Index of Images, Part XIV,” Vroma, accessed February 15, 2016, http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/index14.html.
 Antonio D’Ambrosio, Women and Beauty in Pompeii, translated by Gram Sells, (Naples: <<L’erma>> di Bretschneider, 2001) 16.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 40.
 The Twelve Labors of Hercules is shown on the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. See Richard Brilliant, Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art, (London: Cornell University Press, 1984) 37. On the Roman Velletri sarcophagus, Hercules is shown performing the twelve labors. See Steven L. Tuck, A History of Roman Art, (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015) 264.