Heracles, Sesostris, and Historiographic Competition

Abram C. Ring

University of Virginia

Heracles makes a number of appearances in the fragments of Hecataeus of Miletus, the logopoios, who in many ways blazed the trail for Herodotus, the canonical first historian.  Hecataeus hyperbolically calls Heracles "the army of Eurystheus" (fr. 23) and discusses Heracles' slaying of the Lernaean Hydra (fr. 24) and his defeat of Augeas and sack of Elis (fr. 25).  He rationalizes his cattle raid against Geryon(fr. 26) and his quest for the dog of Hades (fr. 27a), discusses his child by Auge (fr. 29a&b), and finally treats the affairs of his descendants the Heracleidae (fr. 30).  Furthermore, we know from Herodotus (2.143) that Hecataeus specifically traced his own lineage back to Heracles. 

Now many scholars accept that Herodotus engages in a sort of literary competition with Hecataeus, especially in the second book of his Histories, but I am considering one specific aspect of that competition.  Herodotus' treatment of Heracles shows some interesting tendencies.  While he does not discuss the exploits of Heracles for their own sake, he sprinkles his narrative digressions with references to the Heracleidae, as if to pick up where Hecataeus left off, and rationalizes about the discrepancies between the Greek stories of Heracles and the Egyptian "Heracles", and his extended exposition about Sesostris in the Egyptian logos describes a pseudo-historical figure which rivals Hecataeus' Heracles.  The Sesostris' figure appealed to Herodotus because he seemed more historical than Heracles, owing to the Egyptians' allegedly superior and older records, and because his conquests provided a neat comparison with both Heracles and the Persian rulers of the Histories, who all fell short of Sesostris' achievements--perhaps because the Egyptians had specifically shaped the tale as a sort of nationalistic propaganda.

Later historians of Alexander the Great, who had iconograpically compared himself with the great pseudo-historical warrior Heracles, would take the cue from Herodotus and compare Alexander not only with Heracles but also with Sesostris.  In doing this, they would continue in Herodotus' footsteps by matching Alexander against these pseudo-historical heroes in a great historiographic contest.



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