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Round Altar with Scene of a Sacrifice to Hercules Invictus

Roman art

In 1832, Antonio Nibby mentioned this altar in its current location in Room 1 and recognised in the relief a depiction of the suovetaurilia, the sacrifice, for the purpose of purification, of a bull, a pig and a sheep.

A figurative frieze enclosed within two cornices decorates the main body. At the centre of the scene is a sizeable altar behind which are a cithara player, a flautist and two figures in charge of the sacrifice. The figure offering the sacrifice is veiled and carrying a platter, or patera, followed by two lictors bearing sheaves and rods and two victimarii in charge of conducting the animals to the sacrifice. To the left of the sacred structure are three divinities: two female figures, one of which is winged, and Hercules.

The scene likely represents a ceremony in honour of Hercules Victor or Invictus, accompanied by a winged Victory, protector of youthful vigour, and for this reason associated with Iuventas, youth, identifiable with the second female figure.

This sculpture is plausibly ascribable to the mid first century BCE, mainly based on the stylistic analysis of the garments, which are togas in the late-republican fashion. 

Object details

mid 1st century B.C.
white marble
height 53 cm

Borghese Collection, mentioned for the first time by Nibby in 1832 (pp. 62–63). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 44, no. 43. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996-97 Consorzio Capitolino di Elisabetta Zatti ed Elisabetta Caracciolo


This circular-bodied altar is slightly tapered at the top. Two bands define the decorated area: the upper is marked by a thin fillet; the bottom band is projecting and functions as a support for the standing figures. The scene revolves around a large altar which a male figure is approaching from the right, wearing a toga, his head covered, in the act of holding out an offering with his right hand, his arm extended and slightly bent; in front of him are two figures, one of whom is partially concealed behind the altar. The main figure is followed by two lictors bearing sheaves and rods, as well as two vittimarii leading the animals – a heifer and a pig – to the sacrifice. A female figure wearing a chiton fastened under her breast acts as a liaison with the divinities who are in attendance and observe the sacrifice from the other side of the altar. In her left hand she is holding a sceptre that is difficult to interpret because of its poor state of conservation and on her head she is wearing a diadem. To her left is a winged female figure who is also wearing a tunic fastened under her breast. In her left hand the winged figure is holding a long palm leaf and in her right a crown. To the left of the altar is a depiction of Hercules standing naked with his head turned to the right. Over his left arm is a lion’s hide that reaches down to the ground and on it is resting a club that reaches up to his left shoulder. In his right hand he is holding a very worn object which is difficult to identify. He is preceded by a male figure in a toga holding a cithara and flanked by a flautist partially concealed by the altar. The vertical attributes – the sceptre, the sheaves, the palm and the club – extend beyond the boundaries of the scene in an attempt to render it more three-dimensional.

In 1832, Nibby noted it in its present location in Room 1 and identified the scene as a suovetaurilia sacrifice, an apotropaic purification ritual in which a bull, a pig and a sheep were sacrificed (1832, pp. 62–63).

In 1863, Reifferscheid confirmed the hypothesis that this was a sacrifice performed by a Roman magistrate, his head veiled, in the presence of Apollo Citharoedus, Hercules, Victory and Venus. Based on a comparison with a relief preserved at Villa Medici, the scholar identified the last goddess as Venus Genetrix or the Victory of Caesar, who was similarly represented and to whom the agons held in the Circus Flaminius were dedicated (Reifferscheid 1863, pp. 361–372).

In 1925, Weickert advanced the hypothesis that these could be identified with the agons offered by Caesar in 46 BCE to celebrate the dedication of his Forum and of the Temple of Venus Genitrix. This author expressed some doubts concerning the liturgical function of the sculpture, suggesting that it might be the tapered, decorated tambour of a small column (Weickert 1925, pp. 48–61, figs. 1–7).

In 1931, Goethert identified the female figure next to Victory as Iuventas, a minor divinity associated with Hercules, and postulated that the winged Victory was an allusion to the attribute of the divine hero to whom the sacrifice was offered – Hercules Victor or Invictus (Goethert 1931, pp. 18–21).

In 1955, Ryberg devoted a lengthy study to this sculpture and was the first to advance the hypothesis of a ritual in Hercules’s honour after a military victory. This scholar, who carried out a careful analysis of each character, identified the figure with the cithara as a lyre player in charge of the altar as opposed to Apollo, based on his clothing (a common toga). As for the female figure, she did not agree with the identification with Venus Genetrix, observing that the known iconography connected with the goddess differed from that which may be observed on the Borghese altar. Conversely, she secconded Goethert’s identification of the personification of Iuventas. Ryberg agreed with this observation because of a double characterisation of Hercules: as god of fertility he went hand in hand with Iuventas, worshiped by young Romans when they took on the toga virilis; as Victor or Invictus, an attribute developed in the late Republican era, he was honoured at the Ara Maxima in the Forum Boarium. In conclusion, according to Ryberg the Borghese relief depicts a sacrifice held in one of the temples of Hercules Invictus for a particularly important occurrence, probably the dedication of the temple of Pompey, the date of which is unknown.

As for the chronological setting, Ryberg suggested that, despite the soft drapery typical of late-Republican era togas, or exiqua, the style of the depicted garments is in fact referrable to the longer and more ample models worn after 70 BCE, the period to which the Borghese altar would thus be ascribable. The setting of this sculpture in the mid-first century BCE, upon which most authors agree, is the most plausible.  

Giulia Ciccarello

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  • J. Boardman, s. v. Herakles, in “Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae”, IV, Zürich-München 1988, p. 804, n. 1395.
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  • P. Moreno, L’antico nella stanza, in Venere Vincitrice, La sala di Paolina Bonaparte alla Galleria Borghese, a cura di C. Strinati, Roma 1997, pp. 73-117, in part. pp. 110-111.
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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/00147865, P. Moreno 1975; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.