Cosplay may seem like a recent invention, but the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t above dressing up like their favorite heroes. The Greek hero Heracles (better known to us by his Roman name “Hercules”) was easily recognizable with his lion-skin cloak and rough wooden club. While we don’t know that anyone actually did walk around dressed up like Heracles, a few works of art show that Greeks and Romans certainly imagined doing so.
One example is theatrical, from Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs. The play is about Dionysus getting fed up with the contemporary theatre and deciding to go down to Hades to bring back one of the great tragic playwrights from the past. Being a bit of a coward, Dionysus dresses up like the brave Heracles by putting a lion skin over his luxurious yellow robe and carrying a club while wearing an actor’s high boots, just to keep his spirits up. For extra comedy, Dionysus, dressed as Heracles, goes to visit the actual Heracles at the start of the play for advice on his adventure. Here’s what happens when Dionysus, accompanied by his smart-ass slave Xanthias, knocks on the hero’s door:
Heracles: Who banged the door? Someone pounded it like a centaur. Tell me who it is. (He opens the door and falls over laughing.)
Dionysus: I say, Xanthias!
Xanthais: What is it?
Dionysus: Didn’t you notice?
Xanthias: Huh? What?
Dionysus: How afraid I made him!
Xanthias: Afraid you’ve gone mad, more like!
Heracles: Oh, by Demeter, I can’t stop laughing! I’ll bite my tongue, but still I can’t help it!
Dionysus: Oh, pull yourself together. I’ve got something to ask you.
Heracles: I can’t stifle this laughter, though, at the sight of that lion skin over your saffron gown. Whose idea was this, the club and the high heels at once?
Aristophanes, The Frogs 38-46
(My own translation)
Over in the Roman world, the emperor Commodus decided he was not content with traditional portrait sculptures and had himself portrayed dressed up as Hercules. Here he is wearing the lion skin, carrying the club in one hand and the apples of the Hesperides (from one of the hero’s twelve labors) in the other. For an emperor who was obsessed with his public image, adopting the guise of a popular hero like Hercules made sense.
Just like we can recognize our modern heroes by their symbols and distinguishing attributes—an S on the chest and a curl of hair for Superman, a bow and a mockingjay pin for Katniss Everdeen—people of the past knew their heroes in the same way.
In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.